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An Elusive Quest: Integration in the Response to the Afghan Crisis

  • Antonio Donini


The UN humanitarian response in Afghanistan spans fifteen years during which humanitarianism has waxed and waned. A retrospective look at this period provides insights on an interesting range of approaches and respect/disrespect for basic humanitarian principles. Afghanistan shows, for example, that definitions of what was “humanitarian” have expanded and contracted to suit particular political contexts. During the Taliban period the definition of humanitarian action was extremely wide and covered rehabilitation and even development activities; post-September 11 we see a dangerous level of contraction that compromises the application of its basic principles for the sake of pursuing nation-building activities in the service of political agendas.



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1 During the Najibullah period there were no international NGOs in government-held territory (except for IAM, a religious health organization). Oxfam was the first international NGO to open shop in Kabul, in late 1991. ICRC had a presence throughout the war years.

2 See Donini, Antonio, “Principles, Politics, and Pragmatism in the International Response to the Afghan Crisis,” in Donini, Antonio, Niland, Norah, and Wermester, Karin, eds., Nation-Building Unraveled? Aid, Peace and Justice in Afghanistan (Bloomfield, Conn.: Kumarian Press, 2004), pp. 120–24.

3 Duffield, Mark, Gossman, Patricia, and Leader, Nicholas , “ Review of the Strategic Framework for Afghanistan ,” Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, Islamabad, 2001; available at

4 For a more detailed analysis of the Strategic Framework, see Donini, , “Principles, Politics, and Pragmatism,” pp. 126–30, and the bibliographical references provided therein.

5 Maley, William, “The UN in Afghanistan: ‘Doing Its Best’ or ‘Failure of a Mission,”’ in Maley, William, ed., Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan Under the Taliban (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

6 Paradoxically, members of Karzai's interim administration were more open to addressing human rights issues but felt they could not do much without the support of the international community. On the human rights situation after the Bonn agreement, see Norah Niland, “Justice Postponed: The Marginalization of Human Rights in Afghanistan,” in Donini, Niland, and Wermester, eds.,Nation-Building Unraveled?, pp. 6183.

7 “The Future of Humanitarian Action: Implications of Iraq and Other Recent Crises,” Report of an International Mapping Exercise, Feinstein International Famine Center, Tufts University, January 2004; available at

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An Elusive Quest: Integration in the Response to the Afghan Crisis

  • Antonio Donini


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