How the world is failing the Afghan test
If 2021 was marked by the return of the US to global institutions and the restoration of confidence in international action, developments this year are shaping up to be the first real test for multilateralism.
Before tensions ratcheted up to their current levels in eastern Europe, delivering a much-needed justification for the continued existence of an aging NATO, Afghanistan was the major challenge for an international community trying to reset itself after four years of American absenteeism and outright antagonism to established global norms. It still is.
So far, collective failures on how to manage interests, and satisfy the growing humanitarian needs of millions of Afghans, have morphed into a puzzling deadlock.
Despite the quixotic mix of actors from the US, Europe, Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia and China, the Afghanistan issue has maintained unprecedented levels of cohesion and receptive diplomacy. All those involved have, in their own distinct ways, outlined specific requirements such as the establishment of an inclusive government, cutting ties with Al-Qaeda, and curbing illicit flows before the subject of the Taliban’s recognition can be broached.
So all core elements of managing the unfolding crises in Afghanistan are already present, but the global community’s responses have so far been costly and rudderless, which could be harmful over the long term.
The most prevalent driving factor for crisis responses in Afghanistan has not been to reduce human suffering, or build on a rare consensus between disparate actors or interests. What is driving inaction in Afghanistan is a reluctance to be seen as engaging with the Taliban and thus tacitly endorsing their state capture, escalating human rights abuses, and coddling of foreign fighters.
Besides, opening back channels and failing to pressure the isolated group has, in the past, encouraged the Taliban’s rejection of demands from the other side of the table in the Doha dialogues. As a result, a pervasive wariness now clouds any potential for sustained engagement, since no one wants to be saddled with the onerous task of managing a perennially fragile relationship with a temperamental Taliban.
If the Afghanistan situation is a test, then the world is seriously failing at rising to the challenge, despite the intersection of interests and readily available crisis response tools.
Failing to make inroads with the group is not without its costs. On paper, asset freezes, sanctions, and cutting off aid appear sufficient inducements to incentivize any rogue actor’s compliance in some core areas of interest. In reality, however, the burden of dried-up funding, isolation, and general intransigence among the most influential actors is borne by average Afghans, most of whom are not subscribers to the Taliban's worldview.
At present, more than 20 million Afghans need aid, and without substantial humanitarian interventions by summer this year it is estimated Afghanistan will reach universal poverty — when over 98 percent of households are at or below the poverty line. Rising poverty and worsening human security are already major drivers of forced migration across the planet, especially in Afghanistan, where critical safety nets and support systems are either non-existent or severely limited.
Factoring in the impact of COVID-19, a harsh winter, and the still unresolved fallout from the estimated 3 million displaced by conflict inside Afghanistan, a tragic paradox emerges. In the concerted efforts to shift the Taliban’s thinking on a number of areas, the international community is now fueling the very same woes it is seeking to prevent by withholding aid. In addition, the spillover effects are exponentially worsened the longer it takes to fashion some form of interim arrangement to at least get aid to where it is needed most, while still bypassing the politically radioactive notion of acknowledging the Taliban’s rule.
This is not unique to Afghanistan. Other trouble spots in the Middle East and North Africa have also devolved into similar stalemates. In Lebanon, for instance, a self-made crisis has resulted in political malaise, currency collapse, hyperinflation, record poverty levels, and a seemingly endless list of woes that the ruling elites have consistently failed to acknowledge, let alone attempted to resolve.
Nonetheless, in the wake of the Beirut port blast in August 2020, the international community stepped up, raising as much as $2.58 billion for recovery and reconstruction. To date, however, less than $35 million of those funds has been disbursed, falling far short of a $426 million spending goal on Lebanon’s recovery needs one year after the blast. The World Bank blames the delays on a beleaguered interim government that only just managed to hold its first budget meeting in several months. However, strict conditions designed to precipitate much-needed reforms mean that even if the economic situation in Lebanon remains perilous, most foreign aid and donations will not be released — ultimately worsening the plight of many Lebanese.
Libya and Syria also share aspects of this bizarre phenomenon, in which intervention has proved effective at producing desired outcomes, but aid comes with conditions and restrictions that unfairly burden average citizens or vulnerable migrants.
If the Afghanistan situation is a test, then the world is seriously failing at rising to the challenge, despite the intersection of interests and readily available crisis response tools. It does not bode well for the future if the international community cannot capitalize on rare alignments when all actors agree on a core set of outcomes to safeguard their interests. At such a critical juncture in global geopolitics, rudderless diplomacy disguised as “smart” engagement risks renewed conflict and prolonged instability, and only exacerbates humanitarian challenges.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell