Harnessing the people’s strength key to Afghanistan’s future

Harnessing the people’s strength key to Afghanistan’s future

Harnessing the people’s strength key to Afghanistan’s future
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Lyse Doucett, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, last week joined the ranks of those lamenting recent events in Afghanistan with a poignant “Love Letter to Kabul.” The gesture echoed the mood among many that, with the return of the Taliban, the country’s diversity and rich heritage, which had only just been rediscovered, will now be lost once again. However, fading glimmers of a more pluralistic and inclusive Afghan society are not the real tragedy; Afghanistan today is heading toward an economic and humanitarian disaster. With Afghans facing starvation, the fate of Kabul’s movie theaters and rose gardens can wait while a solution to the country’s imminent peril is found. 

As the Taliban raised their standard over the presidential palace, Afghans panicked at the sight of fighters still dusty from their rural campaigns taking de facto control of the streets of the capital. Any hope of a rival power base taking hold was also lost as resistance in the Panjshir Valley was swiftly quashed. The Taliban, who went to great lengths to charm the public and reassure international partners that they wished to rule with the Afghan people and not over them, are now showing themselves to be unable to avert an all-out collapse of the country. Just as in the 1990s, the Taliban’s lack of human resources, coupled with the fragility of the Afghan state, are leading to what the UN described last month as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

Access to education and healthcare have never been high on the Taliban’s list of priorities. The Islamic emirate’s preoccupation with the private lives of Afghans has returned, as the group — which seems to have tempered its views — finds itself locked in a competition for the ownership of fundamentalist Islam with Daesh-Khorasan militants. In the three months since the Taliban regained control of the country, militants have tried the untested government with a spate of attacks aimed at state infrastructure and minorities. With scores of innocent Afghans killed, the Taliban are failing to deliver on the law and order mandate they promised the people.

The Taliban, media savvy through years of competing with successive Afghan governments for the country’s political stage, claim international recognition is critical if they are to secure aid to see off the resurgence of Daesh on their territory. Taliban leaders have warned their international counterparts that, unchecked, militants in the country could become internationally bothersome. However, with the US and others lukewarm about the Taliban and less motivated still toward military cooperation with them, it is more likely that, just as with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban will be unable to restrict the activity of militant groups on Afghan territory.

The Taliban are showing themselves to be unable to avert an all-out collapse of the country. 

Zaid M. Belbagi

Until the flight of President Ashraf Ghani, a staggering two-thirds of Afghan gross domestic product came from foreign aid. This valuable resource (much of which was misappropriated) provided the fledgling state with the wherewithal to face the country’s challenges. Since August, however, this has been withheld, with the country’s $9 billion in foreign reserves also frozen as the international community seeks to deprive the Taliban of significant capital (previously, grants from overseas financed three-quarters of Afghan public spending). This situation, coupled with a severe drought and the pandemic, have pushed the economy to the brink of collapse.

An over-reliance on foreign aid has led to the absence of a sustainable economy. And the informal businesses that lived off the black market were dealt a further blow last week, when the Taliban banned the use of foreign currencies. With the onset of the harsh Afghan winter, it is not just the state’s reserves that will freeze: The UN World Food Programme has warned that 22.8 million people — more than half of Afghanistan’s 39 million population — are facing acute food insecurity and are “marching to starvation,” compared to 14 million just two months ago. It estimates that $200 million per month is required to feed those in need — funds the international community is still reluctant to unfreeze as the Taliban have been unconvincing in illustrating their credentials for good governance. 

The question of the frozen aid comes amid an International Monetary Fund warning of a 30 percent contraction in the size of the economy by next year. With circumstances set to worsen, a longer-term solution to the country’s problems is required. The Taliban cannot hope to secure international assistance when they continue to fail to protect women and their right to education or to provide the stability required for aid to be distributed. Separately, their governing credentials should not be judged by their ability to unlock aid, but rather to improve the circumstances of Afghans, break the aid curse and build an alternative society to that which the country has known over the last five decades.

Ghani, like Hamid Karzai before him, governed with generous international assistance. However, this stunted the development of Afghanistan, encouraging a system prone to corruption and the misuse of funds. Afghanistan cannot seek to turn a corner until the strength of the people is harnessed to avoid successive humanitarian catastrophes.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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