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Anatomy of a Crisis 001: Why Humanitarian Disaster in Afghanistan Was Not Inevitable
Pragmatic thought leadership on disaster resilience and crisis management from a variety of experts.
Afghanistan’s collapse into humanitarian disaster was not inevitable after the Taliban takeover, despite the Taliban’s incompetence as rulers, the United States military withdrawal, and even the inexorable press of famine and winter. The ultimate culprit was the failure of the international system. Supposedly the safety net for humanitarian disasters, international institutions lacked a plan and floundered for months, paralyzed by shock and scrambling to develop a response that should have already existed.
Organizations and governments worked in silos, not coordinating with each other. No organization effectively took the lead in managing the crisis. While governments and institutions foundered, Afghans suffered. Food grew scarcer, temperatures grew harsher, and desperation deepened. A humanitarian crisis so devastating that its death toll could be higher than the past 20 years of war loomed.
Still, high-level meetings were held with no immediate actions to help at-risk Afghans. $5 billion funding appeals make for good headlines, but that money takes months to get to the ground. A country announcing a refugee quota has taken a great first step, but if acceptance takes months to years, the response is almost meaningless.
Only now, 7 months later, is a plan to alleviate Afghans’ suffering being pulled together and aid beginning to be distributed. Kabul’s rapid fall was a surprise around the world, but that is the entire point of contingency planning: being able to quickly and efficiently respond to and alleviate unexpected disasters.
This gap between planning and response is not the exception to the rule. Be it paralysis or reticence, internal gaps between analysts and executors, immobilizing classification of information, or simply a lack of communication between agencies and entities, the international community is frequently caught on their back foot when disaster strikes. A lack of standardization between the US military and the Red Cross is understandable given the worlds between them. However, these worlds need to be traversed because disaster response is inherently deeply intersectional. It requires everything from security analysis to food aid to healthcare support. After all of the subpar responses to disasters, it is unacceptable that interagency and inter-entity coordination is not more advanced.
Other times, plans are in place, but political considerations eclipse the reality on the ground and inhibit action. Prolonged debates that occur after disaster strikes instead of before waste valuable time. Involved states publicly pretend that vulnerable or weak governments are stronger and more stable than they are for the sake of optics, then the international community is unprepared for their collapse even though the signs were there all along.
The most important way to move toward a solution is to remember that the ultimate enemy is time. Systemic failures waste precious time which results in wasted resources and lives. From the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda to Hurricane Katrina, better planning and preparation could have saved untold lives. But what can ensure minimal time is wasted?
Coordination: The exchange of information between agencies and entities needs to be dramatically improved. This can be done through simply inventing better communication mechanisms. Clearly, dense public reports aren’t cutting it. Key information is buried or obscured by language barriers or cultural unfamiliarity. One effective way to bypass these issues would be to produce a knowledge commons with a shared map of information on resources, including everything from where medical facilities are located to local UNHCR guides to Civil Aviation Authorities contact information.
Contingency planning: The “what ifs” need to be better covered. Ultimately, we need to lean into the mindset that disasters are only able to be disasters because of the consequences of our actions or lack thereof. Risks remain rooted in development issues; resilience is dependent on policy choices. Politics cannot hamstring planning. For example, although the international community wanted to demonstrate a high degree of confidence in the Afghan government, the moment coalition forces decided to withdraw, thorough and coordinated plans for the international response to a potential Taliban takeover should have been developed. Although politics and optics may demand specific public conduct, contingencies need to be developed regardless. Furthermore, while the timing of a natural disaster like an earthquake cannot be predicted, it is often not a matter of if, but when they will strike vulnerable locations. Contingency plans can be developed well in advance, and information on resources in vulnerable countries can be compiled in a publicly available in a common operating map so official and unofficial entities can respond in times of need.
Marshaling resources: Evaluating, acquiring, and applying the resources needed to execute an effective response to disasters is time consuming. This process cannot be reactive; it needs to be a continuous reevaluation of resources and circumstances. We broadly know what to expect when disaster strikes: overwhelmed healthcare systems, collapsing infrastructure, famine, economic strife, and more. Aid moves too slowly when the process begins at the worst moment. International organizations need to have clearly defined early triggers to begin the mobilization of aid so it is released as a means of preventing damage or softening hurt, not putting bandages on wounds. In aid as healthcare, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Disaster management: It is too often unclear who is in charge of disasters. UNHCR, UNICEF, the Word Food Program, individual countries' governments, and more are often competing for recognition and resources. It cannot be expected that all these enormous organizations will be able to coordinate democratically and effectively. Certain organizations or agencies need to be given a higher authority in different situations and be charged with pushing the levers to most effectively make use of other organizations. Without officially defining a clear leadership framework or decision-making chain, mandates get muddled and resources wasted.
Gaps persist in the global disaster resilience framework, but good progress is being made as the international community slowly learns from previous mistakes. However, although charters like the Sendai Framework represent important shifts in disaster response, they are often not fully implemented because they are simultaneously too complicated and too empty. Researchers believe that disaster resilience has improved because of the Framework, but there are still huge gaps in data and information management that limit both top-down and community-centric responses.
If we are disturbed by what we saw in Afghanistan, we must proactively advocate for more emphasis on standardized responses and more proactive preparation. Otherwise, we are doomed to endlessly repeat our mistakes.
- by A.D. Hudson