The world’s dilemma: Helping Afghans helps the Taliban
The “war on terror” ended with that hasty, unceremonious US withdrawal capped by a troubled evacuation of vulnerable Afghans, and Afghanistan is on the brink of socioeconomic collapse.
The international community is trying to galvanize aid without engaging directly with the Taliban, lifting sanctions, or unfreezing assets. Unfortunately, channeling aid to Afghanistan risks underwriting the Taliban’s legitimacy, which will threaten progress on human rights and the creation of the inclusive government in Kabul that the world wants to see. On the other hand, failure to deliver assistance to millions of Afghans risks a mass exodus of refugees, creating fertile ground for violent extremism and dooming Afghanistan to more decades of instability.
More than 90 percent of Afghan households are food insecure, and aid agencies project that most children under the age of 5 are at risk of acute malnourishment. Additionally, while levels of violence have dramatically decreased since the Taliban seized the capital in mid-August, nearly 4 million Afghans remain internally displaced. Most have little prospect of returning to try to scrape a living among the debris of their destroyed homes and failed crops, against the backdrop of fresh waves of violence as ethnic groups and tribes carve new niches in the shifted balance of power.
The sheer scale of Afghanistan’s humanitarian needs cannot be overstated, especially as the approaching winter will shrink the window for international. Before the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, three quarters of Afghan public finances came from foreign donors, a lifeline that has now been cut. The lack of civil sector pay compounds the crises caused by the abrupt collapse of Afghanistan’s defense and security forces, who were major employers and vital sources of income for many rural households.
The US Federal Reserve is unlikely to release about $9.4 billion in Afghan foreign reserves, which it manages. Washington has gone farther, demanding that the International Monetary Fund retract a long-planned release of funds when the Taliban began their takeover of Afghan provinces. Any decision to inject liquidity into Afghanistan would have grave ramifications for US national security, politics in Washington, and geopolitics in Central Asia. Releasing frozen assets and making generous financial assistance available without strict conditions risks giving tacit recognition to the Taliban as a diplomatic “equal.” That would be difficult to reconcile with the sanctions on the Taliban to prevent its recognition as a legitimate, political entity entrusted with governing and representing the interests of Afghans on the international stage.
There is also uncertainty about who has rightful access to those funds — the Taliban-led government in Kabul, or former Vice President Amrullah Saleh’s government in exile. Nonetheless, given the ubiquity of the US dollar in international finance, US sanctions on the Taliban extend in practice to all of Afghanistan, and the Biden administration has not indicated what it plans to do to resolve this issue. As a result, while the international community can and must fully address Afghanistan’s humanitarian needs, the lack of liquidity means economic collapse is inevitable.
Time has now run out for the international community to revise its conditions or for the Taliban to meet them, leaving a dangerous stalemate.
Keen to prevent this in case rising poverty and unemployment imperil their control of Afghanistan, the Taliban have tried to implement changes demanded by the international community. In return, they seek sanctions removal, formal recognition, normalized relations, and unconditional aid. These are non-starters for an international community still waiting for credible progress on human rights, particularly for women and minorities.
The Taliban is also required to establish an inclusive government, cut off ties to terrorist groups, and enable free access for humanitarian operations. They have balked at some of these demands, partly because they are infeasible, but also because they could affect the group’s cohesion or other domestic considerations that take precedence over the concerns of far-off powers. To them, some demands are impossible to meet as they would weaken the group’s control over the government and empower the anti-Taliban opposition. Time has now run out for the international community to revise its conditions or for the Taliban to meet them, leaving a dangerous stalemate.
The Taliban know that Afghanistan’s neighbors, the wider region, and the EU all want to avoid a flood of refugees, given the experiences of the migrant crisis six years ago. Pakistan in particular is dealing with its own domestic woes, not helped by COVID-19, fiscal deficits and the need to abide by the strict IMF demands for the resumption of a $6 billion line of credit.
This is partly why the EU has pledged a revamped humanitarian aid package worth about €1 billion targeting COVID-19 vaccinations, protection of human rights, and direct support for civilians. But aid can be effective only if the global community prevents the collapse of Afghanistan’s payments system, critical to the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Any other solutions are only piecemeal, offering temporary relief while other risks grow, complicating the prospect of enduring stability in Afghanistan.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of AdvancedInternational Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell