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Foreign aid for Afghanistan in flux after Taliban takeover

There are more questions than answers around how the U.S. might continue to financially support the Afghan people

A military transport plane flies over as Afghans wait outside the airport in Kabul as the Taliban’s takeover scrambles the foreign aid picture there.
A military transport plane flies over as Afghans wait outside the airport in Kabul as the Taliban’s takeover scrambles the foreign aid picture there. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

U.S. government officials’ planning around foreign assistance to aid-dependent Afghanistan has been thrown into disarray by the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover of the embattled country.

Lawmakers will return next month to work on annual spending measures, with the heads of the foreign aid appropriations subcommittees making clear — at the very least — that they see it as critical to continue providing humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. Similarly, the State Department has said it will continue to provide such aid, though those details are still being worked out.

At this point, there are more questions than answers around how the United States might continue to financially support the Afghan people — roughly half, or 18.5 million, of whom already are reliant on foreign aid.

Those big policy questions include:

• The extent to which the Biden administration might try to use foreign aid as leverage to persuade the Taliban to uphold human rights, particularly with respect to allowing refugees to leave the country and allowing women and girls to continue to pursue education and work opportunities outside the home.

• If foreign aid is to be used as a carrot for the Taliban, how might its disbursement be structured? All at once or over a period of months and years, in an attempt to encourage the Taliban to stick to a certain baseline of behavior?

• Should some forms of foreign aid, particularly the most critical types of lifesaving medicines like COVID-19 vaccines, be delivered regardless of Taliban actions?

• Should plans to provide billions in annual security assistance to the now-evaporated Afghan army and security forces be redirected as humanitarian assistance for the country’s citizens, particularly to take care of the millions of internally displaced persons and refugees?

• Does additional emergency humanitarian aid need to be appropriated by Congress? Or is there enough flexibility available through previously provided funding to meet present needs while lawmakers finish writing their fiscal 2022 State-Foreign Operations spending measures, which may not be cleared for the president’s signature until the year is nearly over?

“Broadly speaking, a secure and stable political environment is important to deliver and administer the assistance needed by the people of Afghanistan. We are reviewing assistance for Afghanistan and the department and USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] are prepared to adjust non-humanitarian U.S. assistance programming as needed to ensure it continues to advance U.S. interests,” a State Department spokesperson, who was not authorized to be named, said in statement, noting that humanitarian assistance does not go directly to foreign governments.

“Our commitment to providing humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan will not change, albeit we will be facing a more difficult security environment,” the spokesperson added.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close ally of President Joe Biden and the chairman of the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, is “working closely with the administration” to write his subcommittee’s fiscal 2022 spending bill, a Coons spokesperson, who was also not authorized to be named, told CQ Roll Call.

“The situation in Afghanistan is fluid and unpredictable, and it is necessary to see how it evolves before we are able to determine whether the United States can continue to stay engaged beyond providing funding for evacuations and humanitarian aid, which is urgently needed for the foreseeable future,” the Coons spokesperson said.

Prior to this month’s collapse of the Ashraf Ghani-led government in Afghanistan, Coons had said he expects to hold a subcommittee markup of the foreign aid bill in September.

“The United States needs to keep engaging with Afghan people and support them to overcome their overwhelming humanitarian needs. That includes both funding and licenses for humanitarian assistance,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who leads the House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations panel, said in a statement.

“Now that we are leaving, we can’t just abandon the people of Afghanistan,” she said. “All previously appropriated funds made available for Afghanistan that remain unspent should be reviewed with an eye towards relieving the humanitarian crisis facing the Afghan people.”

Redirecting aid?

Earlier this summer, the House passed its version of the fiscal 2022 State-Foreign Operations bill. Several of the measure’s Afghanistan-related provisions at first glance appear outdated, or at least in need of significant changes, with the hardline Taliban now in control.

For example, the House bill would direct that no less than $60 million in funds appropriated for Afghanistan be used to “promote the empowerment of women” through grants made to Afghan organizations. The measure also would require that foreign aid be spent on “support for not-for-profit institutions of higher education in Kabul, Afghanistan that are accessible to both women and men in a coeducational environment, including for the costs for operations and security for such institutions.”

The Taliban this week announced that men would not be allowed to teach women and banned coeducational facilities, effectively narrowing the opportunities for women’s higher education in Afghanistan.

The House bill would provide a total of $8.5 billion to two humanitarian assistance accounts that provide services to refugees and internally displaced people and are managed by the State Department and USAID.

The foreign aid legislation largely fulfilled the Biden administration’s budget request to significantly increase funding for humanitarian accounts. USAID’s International Disaster Assistance account would see its funding set at $4.7 billion, an increase of over $2.2 billion compared to fiscal 2021 levels. Meanwhile, the State Department’s Migration and Refugee Assistance account would receive a modest funding boost for fiscal 2022 of $413,000 to bring its funding levels to over $3.8 billion.

The State Department this spring requested $250 million in Economic Support Funds — a broad economic and political assistance category — for Afghanistan. That State-Foreign Operations funding, as well as some $3 billion in House-passed funding in the fiscal 2022 Defense appropriations measure for the now seemingly defunct Afghanistan Security Forces Fund could possibly be redirected by Congress to meet Afghan-related humanitarian needs.

‘Pivot on the fly’

One budget area that might benefit from such redirected assistance is the Migration and Refugee Assistance account.

Increased funding could be used to help establish semipermanent refugee camps in third-party countries such as Pakistan, where hundreds of thousands more Afghans are likely to flee to in the coming weeks, months and years. Around 3.5 million Afghans are displaced within Afghanistan due to violence, a number that has increased by over 500,000 since the start of the year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Over 2.2 million more are already living as refugees in other countries, with the vast majority living in Iran and Pakistan.

The emergency security supplemental appropriations measure that Biden signed at the end of July included a total of $600 million in extra funding to respond to the mounting Afghan refugee crisis. Of that amount, $500 million was designated as Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance funds, which have more flexibility to be directed at fast-developing situations than the more traditional MRA account.

But foreign aid groups are warning that more money is needed as July’s emergency appropriations didn’t account for how quickly the government would collapse and cause a panic among Afghans seeking safety from the Taliban.

“We need Congress and the White House to be working with us right now on what happens Sept. 1 and forward,” said Rita Sharma, vice president of U.S. programs and policy advocacy at CARE, a major U.S. nongovernmental organization working in Afghanistan. “The truth is that the vast majority of people who are at risk in Afghanistan are not going to be able to leave the country given the current situation.”

A call by the U.N. refugee agency for $1.3 billion in donations to fill emergency humanitarian needs in Afghanistan has only been 37 percent filled, according to UNHCR.

“The community needs more humanitarian funding, and that needs to go directly to NGOs and it needs to be as flexible as possible to allow NGOs to really be able to pivot on the fly to meet the ever-changing types of need in this fluid environment,” Kathryn Striffolino, senior manager of humanitarian practice at InterAction, a U.S.-umbrella organization for foreign aid organizations, said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies online forum on Friday.

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