Can 'Softly-Softly' address the afghan crisis?

Making choices should be easy, when we compare the values of the Taliban to those espoused by the community of democratic nations. The differences are clear. But a giant and petrifying dilemma arises: if 40 million Afghans are not to blame for what is happening, should they be allowed to suffer because others disapprove of a leadership which those people have not explicitly chosen?


No one will deny that the departure of western agencies from Afghanistan, in August 2021, was little short of chaotic. What had been anticipated was an orderly, gradual handover of power to a country committed to democracy, but what happened was anything but that. The way many Afghan ‘friends of the west’, clamouring to follow their employers and allies out of the country, were abandoned to their fates at the hands of a vengeful Taliban was shameful. Abandoning 150 aircraft, 3,500 carbines, 16,000 night-vision goggles and 2,500 armoured vehicles – gifting them by default to the incoming, unelected, government – was reckless (1). Many of these weapons of war, it was claimed, had been rendered unusable; subsequent evidence suggests that either this was not the case, or they were only temporarily disabled. It is believed that many of these weapons have been repaired and made functional available by Pakistani ordnance experts and are available for use in Afghanistan.


Having donated such tools of internal oppression to the Taliban, attention was then turned to the principal non-military means of excluding transgressors from mainstream global society: the financial system. Prior to August, international aid accounted for three quarters of Afghan government spending but this was halted overnight, causing a severe liquidity crisis. Imports of food, electricity and medicine could no longer be funded. A growing domestic private sector was stopped in its tracks and half a million people were thrown out of work. Those that retained employment saw not just the value of their income fall, but the amount they were earning was cut, too (2).


Technically, humanitarian assistance is not covered by the embargo on Afghan financial institutions; such money should be allowed to cross borders even if the staff required to administer it on the ground are no longer present in the numbers they once were. The International Rescue Committee calculates that it alone needs up to $2Mn each week to continue to provide a basic level of service, but to stave off complete financial collapse Afghan banks have restricted withdrawals to $25,000 per month and denied credit. $1.8Bn for humanitarian aid pledged since August by the global community is simply not getting through efficiently, and more than half of all Afghans go hungry. The World Food Programme is struggling to find donors to fund its $4.4Bn plans.


Economic isolation has coincided with a severe drought, even by the standards of this arid country. Hunger, claims the IRC, is likely to kill more Afghans in the years to come than died in 20 years of war.


90 percent of the world’s illegal opium is grown in Afghan fields. The Taliban has enjoyed an ambiguous relationship with the opium poppy over the years: in power they tried, with some success, to ban it; out of power it earned them $40Mn each year. They have pledged to end it again but that could (literally) decimate the economy further (7). With no financial assistance coming in there is every possibility of the Taliban not restraining farmers from growing opium as this will be a source of survival for poorer Afghans.

A government that was seriously worried about its place in the international panoply of nations would be concerned about this situation, but there is little sign that Afghanistan will bend to the whim of the global community. Clearly, some factions within the Taliban leadership are more regressive and inward-looking than others; witness the key spokesman pledging, last summer, that the ‘new look’ Taliban would not ban girls from schools as they had before. The assurance sounded hollow as soon as it left the man’s lips. Sure enough, in March 2022, on the planned date for allowing secondary schools for girls to reopen, a ‘technicality’ caused its indefinite postponement: the girls’ uniforms were too ‘immodest’ (3).


No girls at all attended Afghan schools in 2001, under the previous Taliban rule, a red rag to international community bulls, offending as it does against Sustainable Development Goals 4 (Quality education for all) and 5 (Gender equality). By 2019, 85 percent of Afghan girls attended primary school and 40 percent secondary; whilst pre-pubescent girls are still allowed basic education today, the number in secondary schools is back to zero. Women may not work or even visit a doctor unless accompanied by a male. Such attitudes have caused the World Bank to suspend a planned $600Mn investment in Afghan schools.


This lack of inclusivity is not confined to gender: there are ongoing divisions within the Taliban between Pushtoons and non-Pushtoons, between Haqqanis and Nangarhar factions. This has led to a lack of decision making and prevented a cohesive approach to issues such as women’s education. Additionally, there have been several instances of Tajik and Uzbek Taliban leaders being detained by Pushtoon forces, creating internal tensions within the Afghan Taliban.


Meanwhile, $9Bn of Afghan assets remains frozen in the international banking system as a result of sanctions against the country. America, the nation where most of it is held, plans to spend half of it on humanitarian aid and the other half, potentially, on compensation for individuals who suffered losses as a result of 9/11 and other (allegedly) Taliban-endorsed attacks. The matter of the $9Bn was not on the agenda of an international conference on funding aid to Afghanistan in March, where a specific proposal that the country’s banks should be allowed to access $150Mn of it each month went undebated (4). Such is the fear that the Taliban government cares so little for its populace that increasing access to cash will not improve life for ordinary Afghans. On the other hand, say critics, even if the will to help the poorest improve their lives exists, the competence of past and present Taliban regimes – whose latest regulation concerns the length of men’s beards – is questionable.


The European Union’s web page entitled ‘International Partnerships: Afghanistan’ is overdue an update (5). It proudly describes the amount of EU aid delivered to the country since 2002 – more than to any other nation – and lists a great number of achievements in the fields of health, agriculture, the rule of law, climate change, the management of public finances and the reintegration of migrants. There is no mention of hunger, drought or any consequence of the 2021 change in regime, but it must be assumed that access to EU cash on the ground suffers the same indignities as agencies such as the IRC have experienced (above) (6). A new €1Bn EU package was announced in January of 2022 which has more of a crisis air to it: school meals, winter pressures and Covid-19 mitigation, for example. Also included is support for Afghan children who have been displaced, either internally or externally to Iran, Pakistan and central Asia.


Does the EU’s magnanimity or the US’ pledge to unfreeze some assets (at some unspecified time) buy influence in Kabul? There’s little evidence of this, and the decision on girls’ schooling is increasing international reticence to engage. Only 13 countries retain embassies in Afghanistan today, including both Russia and China, with the EU being the only non-Asian entity represented. Rationally, this should give the Europeans an opportunity to influence the Taliban – but does it?


The European Parliament is helping Afghan women to maintain a high media profile, hosting a series of topical events featuring women who have formerly held important positions in Afghan society.


Throughout the two decades between Taliban regimes Afghanistan’s most generous regional partner was India. Its $3Bn of funding over that period included a new road route to Iranian ports, to reduce landlocked Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan for sea-going trade. The relationship ended precipitously when New Delhi closed its Kabul embassy two days after the US withdrawal of August 2021. Today India, alongside Iran, Russia and other neighbours, is taking tentative steps towards a regional resolution to the humanitarian crisis. This is a process in which China and Pakistan have chosen not to co-operate; each preferring a bilateral approach to the new situation. The regional initiative, committed to the values of the 2020 Doha Agreement, is regarded by some as a positive response to the US’ apparent unwillingness to build alliances with Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours on the ground. Amongst these, India no doubt feels, their historic links should have earned them a higher profile (8, 9, 10).


The resources for protecting 40 million Afghans from humanitarian disaster do therefore exist. Although there is no doubt that the human rights environment makes delivery of solutions much more problematic, and that factionalism continues to be rife both inside the country and amongst its neighbours, it should not be impossible. Those resources are in funds available (or potentially available) to international institutions, NGOs and agencies, the largest resource being Afghanistan’s own, frozen, financial assets.


We have learned too often that ignoring those whose missions are not compatible with democratic norms rarely encourages them to go away. It should never be too late to formulate a positive regional strategy, involving both Afghanistan and its key neighbours, with global involvement, combining channels of support to deliver humanitarian results. Making sure that all regional partners are on board, with common goals, has not worked hitherto. Having Pakistan better deliver the values it espouses, such as gender equality, than it has previously is crucial to future success in Afghanistan. Europe and the west have thrown money at problems such as this in the past; we need to focus more on delivering agreed priorities and outcomes.


The alternative is an ongoing and possibly broader crisis, against which many iconic humanitarian disasters of the past may pale into insignificance.


April 2022