Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The geopolitics of aiding the Taliban’s Afghanistan

Humanitarian assistance must be disentangled from concepts of political legitimacy in the country’s unfolding crisis.

Almost 97 per cent of Afghans will live below the poverty line by the end of 2022. Kabul, Afghanistan, 8 January 2022 (Bilal Guler/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Almost 97 per cent of Afghans will live below the poverty line by the end of 2022. Kabul, Afghanistan, 8 January 2022 (Bilal Guler/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Published 13 Jan 2022   Follow @mobilemigrant

The world has turned a blind eye to the sheer human misery surrounding Afghanistan ever since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. While several regional countries and institutions have held conferences to discuss ways to avert the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, these talks are yet to transform into pliable actions that can help Afghans deal with their deteriorating living conditions. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), there has been an increase of 73 per cent in internal displacement since June 2021. Currently, more than 3.5 million Afghans find themselves displaced from their home regions due to insecurity, war and conflict, while approximately 1.2 million have been pushed out of their locales owing to natural disasters including floods, earthquakes and droughts.

G20 leaders, who came to a consensus at the 2021 summit to involve the Taliban in distributing aid to avert a humanitarian crisis, are themselves reluctant to deal with the new regime that comprises proscribed entities and individuals. 

As the financial crisis deepens, more than 23 million people are facing severe hunger, with 8 in 10 eating less or borrowing food.

Compounding the challenge, the Afghan economy, which relies heavily on international aid, is in tatters due to sanctions and embargoes. The suspension of financial assistance by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, combined with an American freeze on the disbursal of US$9.5 billion of reserves to the Afghan Central Bank, is expected to take a massive toll on the financial health of Afghanistan. For a country that previously met 80 per cent of its budgetary requirements via international aid, the sudden and prolonged cessation of financial assistance will only make the economic situation, and with it the looming humanitarian crises, even worse.  

Afghanistan’s economy of US$20 billion is expected to shrink by US$4 billion or more if the international restrictions persist. This, combined with the limited availability of cash, has already compelled many Afghans to sell their household goods and engage in bartering to survive. As the financial crisis deepens, more than 23 million people are facing severe hunger, with 8 in 10 eating less or borrowing food. Apart from the social consequences of mass starvationhuman exploitation and drug abuse that are compounding because of economic desperation, almost 97 per cent of Afghanistan’s total population will be pushed below the poverty line – earning less than US$1.90 per day – by the end of 2022 if international relief does not pour in immediately.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. Medical facilities in Afghanistan are on the brink of collapse in the absence of international aid that had hitherto covered 90 per cent of their operational costs. With more than 10,000 Covid cases reported in the last five months (numbers that are likely vastly underestimated), the onset of the Omicron wave will put more pressure on a healthcare system that is currently functioning without adequate medical supplies, including oxygen, and staff that has not been paid for months. In fact, such is the state of the medical infrastructure in Afghanistan that roughly half of 38 Covid-dedicated hospitals have been forced to shut across the country. 

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid addresses the first press conference in Kabul on 17 August 2021 following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)

The Taliban is making concerted efforts to gain acceptance as a legitimate and responsible actor as the group transitions from an insurgency to de-facto government. Following the takeover of Kabul in a fast military campaign, the group worked with foreign governments on the safe evacuation of their citizens. The Taliban has been appealing to international airlines to resume flights to Kabul in efforts to bring commercial traffic and open up the country.  

The Taliban is also convening regular meetings with international organisations to provide official recognition and allow humanitarian aid to flow. The group requested that their desired envoy Suhail Shaheen be allowed to represent Afghanistan at the annual UN General Assembly meeting in September 2021. This request, however, was denied. 

Despite the Taliban’s history of disrupting polio vaccination efforts, the group gave permission to health officials to resume door-to-door polio vaccination in October 2021. The group also agreed to restart vaccination campaigns against Covid-19 and measles to demonstrate that it is taking the threat of infectious diseases seriously.

Despite its efforts to project a different image, the Taliban is unlikely to gain international recognition until the group can convince other nations it has truly changed character.

The Taliban is also playing the ISKP (Islamic State – Khorasan Province) card to exploit the security concerns of neighbouring countries. The Doha agreement was signed on the basis that the Taliban would not allow Afghan soil to be used as a launchpad for terrorist activities against the United States. Other countries may sign similar accords with the Taliban seeking similar security assurances – whether that be China or India, the latter having held its first formal diplomatic engagement with the group in August 2021, a departure from its previous approach when the Taliban was in power in the 1990s.

Despite its efforts to project a different image, the Taliban is unlikely to gain international recognition until the group can convince other nations it has truly changed character. The renewed exclusion of women from public life, including barring studying or teaching in secondary schools and banning women from taking solo and long-distance road trips without a male relative, has only reinforced the Taliban’s image as an anachronistic and boorish entity. Yet it is difficult to verify human rights abuses committed by the group, in part due to the suspension of mobile and internet services – and also as a consequence of the suspension of some international support.

Although no country has formally recognised the de-facto government run by the Taliban, it will be useful to use recognition as leverage to make the group more amenable to granting greater political, social and cultural freedom to the citizens of Afghanistan. In doing so, the regional and global powers might also be able to provide the desired humanitarian assistance to the country without running the risk of condoning Taliban’s puritanical ways.

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