Humanitarian Missions in Afghanistan: Between a Rock and a Hard Place Commentary
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Humanitarian Missions in Afghanistan: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Under the current conditions in Afghanistan, delivering humanitarian aid seems not only a noble endeavor but also an imperative. However, there are challenges for humanitarian actors. Most of the challenges stem from restrictions created by the Taliban, the disastrous situation of the country, the difficulty of reaching out to a large population, and dangers and threats that humanitarians are exposed to. But perhaps one of the most difficult challenges is observing humanitarian principles in Afghanistan.

Humanitarian principles have their roots in the fundamental principles of the Red Cross Movement and have been formally acknowledged in the General Assembly resolutions. There are four humanitarian principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. These principles set the core standards for all humanitarian operations, govern all humanitarian actors’ conduct and facilitate the provision of an effective humanitarian response. They are essential elements that distinguish humanitarian action from other activities with other objectives and ensure that the humanitarian response is solely guided by the necessities of the affected people.

The humanity principle establishes that “human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found” and that “the purpose of humanitarian action is to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings.” Humanitarian action has to focus on preserving the life and dignity of the population, even at the exclusion of other priorities, if needed.

The neutrality principle indicates that “humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.”

The impartiality principle requires that “humanitarian action must be carried out on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress and making no distinctions on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinions.”

The independence principle states that “humanitarian action must be autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may hold with regard to areas where humanitarian action is being implemented.” The principle of independence serves to maintain the autonomy of humanitarian actors from third parties.

While these principles are apparently simple and straightforward, implementing them in the context of Afghanistan poses several challenges.

The Aftermath of the US Withdrawal and Collapse of the Government

The Taliban fought against the established governments of Afghanistan for decades to take control of the whole country. Eventually, the US forces withdrew, the government dissolved, and the country was left in the hands of the Taliban. One of the worst humanitarian situations in the world resulted. According to the representative of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in the country, almost 90% of Afghanistan’s population is in danger of poverty. Roughly 1.6 million children have to work for a living, while more than 2 million children and 800,000 pregnant or breastfeeding women are in danger of acute malnutrition. The government and legal institutions have been dismantled by the Taliban, and the financial and banking sector has almost collapsed. Afghanistan is now struggling with a humanitarian catastrophe, climate disasters, and gross and severe human rights abuses aggravating the situation even further.

The Taliban has also launched what seems to be a campaign of aggression against girls and women, or as Amnesty International’s recent report says, “a war on women,” imposing severe restrictions on women’s rights and freedoms across the country that can amount to gender apartheid or crime against humanity. This includes their right to freedom of movement, education, employment, and other human rights. In the whole or parts of Afghanistan, girls and women are banned from attending schools and universities, performing almost all jobs with few exceptions, stepping into streets without a mahram (a close male relative), going to public baths (while many households don’t have baths at home), and going to restaurants, parks, gyms, and other public places. Peaceful protests by women are suppressed brutally, freedom of speech is severely deteriorated, and the people of Afghanistan, specifically women, are being arrested, tortured, punished, or killed arbitrarily for protesting or disobeying the rules of the Taliban.

Other ethnicities of Afghanistan, specifically Tajiks and Hazaras, and religious minorities also suffer from widespread and systematic discrimination. They face forceful and arbitrary arrest, murder, torture, mass displacement, and other discriminatory measures. There are reports of war crimes and genocide. Civil society activists are under attack, and reports indicate that individuals affiliated with the former government are subjected to extrajudicial killings and forced disappearance. At the same time, evidence shows that Afghanistan has turned into a platform for terrorism again.

In a particularly extreme measure, the Taliban has banned women from working in NGOs and international organizations, including the UN. This ban has had far-reaching consequences across diverse humanitarian sectors, and many areas of humanitarian work have been partially or fully ceased due to the absence of female workers. These restrictions are a flagrant violation of humanitarian principles and put millions of lives at risk.

Humanitarian Principles under the Rule of the Taliban

As explained above, humanitarian principles are central to all humanitarian actions, including the operations being carried out subsequent to the assumption of power by the Taliban. However, the current state of affairs and some idiosyncrasies of the Taliban make adhering to these principles a challenge and can produce conflicting results.

In the first place, there are reports that at least some portions of aid have ended up in the hands of the Taliban, not the people who need it most. Some sources report that the Taliban steal and divert aid to its own causes in a way that best serves its interests. For example, it distributes aid among its supporters, and Pashtuns receive more aid. It also extorts portions of aid from the intended recipients. This is a clear breach of the humanity principle because large amounts of the money never reach the intended target to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable people.

Furthermore, the situation in Afghanistan demonstrates the complexity of retaining neutrality and impartiality in humanitarian situations. The Taliban, an entity that was considered a terrorist group, has taken over a country through military campaign. The civilian population is highly distressed and in need of urgent humanitarian assistance due to several factors, including the environmental crisis, the weak economic basis of Afghanistan, and most importantly, the actions of the Taliban in the past two decades. The Taliban has restricted humanitarian access to some northern and central regions in Afghanistan and to specific ethnic groups.

If humanitarian help is provided, it will consolidate the Taliban’s control over the country without any meaningful change in its behavior and undermine efforts to make the Taliban establish an inclusive government through an election and observe human rights. It may also amount to an infringement of the principle of humanity for women, ethnic and religious minorities, and dissidents of the Taliban. In such case, humanitarian operations will eventually be in favor of the Taliban and might perpetuate the system that places people in such vulnerable states; on the other hand, if humanitarian aid is not provided, many people will die and suffer, which contradicts the primary purpose of humanitarian action to save lives and alleviate human suffering.

This puts humanitarians in a difficult position and makes a holistic and inclusive humanitarian response a challenge. At some point, humanitarians will have to prioritize humanitarian principles and objectives and determine which shall prevail.


The Taliban is not the legitimate government of Afghanistan. It has seized control in a military campaign without seeking the consent of its people, and no state has yet recognized it. The international community is pressuring the Taliban to meet the demands of the international community. However, the Taliban appears to be using the international community’s concern for human suffering in Afghanistan to compel the world to recognize it without making any concessions. It doesn’t seem to accept its responsibility to tackle the humanitarian crisis. In effect, the Taliban has taken the population of Afghanistan, particularly its women, as hostages. Even if it eases restrictions on women and accedes to the demands of the international community at some point, there is no guarantee that once it is recognized, it will not reverse these changes.

Ultimately, the solution to this complex situation is not in the hands of humanitarians alone. The international community and the United Nations must adopt a more active and coordinated approach in dealing with the Taliban. This entails developing political solutions that will ensure the Taliban abides by human rights and meets the demands of the international community.


Azadeh Mizani is an LLM graduate from Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran, Iran.


Suggested citation: Azadeh Mizani, Humanitarian Mission in Afghanistan: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, JURIST – Student Commentary, June 11, 2023,

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