The overthrow of the Afghan Republic on 15 August shook Afghans and allied nations. It took all by surprise, leaving essentially everyone unprepared towards the consequences. In the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, due to a breakdown of public services and a standstill of previous financial assistance, including the freezing of Afghanistan’s monetary reserves, a humanitarian catastrophe is mounting, with millions of Afghan civilians now on the brink of famine. Verified reports of human rights violations against civilians, journalists, rights activists, and gruesome executions of former members of the national defense forces, must have refuted even the last hopes of something like a moderated Taliban. Women and girls are largely banned from public life, the work force, and education. Indications of revised school syllabi under the Taliban are more reminiscent of ideological extremism than regular school education. Entire communities like particularly the Hazaras are being systematically expelled from their homes by the Taliban, adding to the currently more than 3 million people that are displaced across the country. And so while international recognition of the Taliban seems unlikely at this time, for a multitude of justified reasons, the halt of public service delivery is pushing Afghan civilians into further dismay. The United Nations (UN) estimates that, on the current trajectory, the people of Afghanistan will reach near universal (up to 98%) poverty by mid-2022. That many, if not most, of the 40 million Afghans will want to escape this desolate new reality, seems only logical from a human point of view. But what is also clear is that, still reeling from the 2015 refugee crisis, the European Union (EU) wants to avoid a large stream of Afghan asylum seekers onto its soil by all means. Strategic agreements with Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asian states shall help absorb the greatest share of an anticipated enormous wave of Afghan refugees, in exchange of direct international assistance to the respective nations, so that less Afghans will attempt to reach Europe on irregular routes. But, there is reason to doubt the sustainability and longevity of such an approach. Moreover, providing neighboring Pakistan, who is widely seen as the key perpetrator of the Taliban’s violent takeover of Afghanistan, with massive funding for alleged refugee support is –problematic– to say the least. It is also important to underscore that the EU and the United States (US) have clearly divergent policy interests now. Whereas the U.S. has decided to turn away from Afghanistan except for its potential role as a host for terrorist attacks, the EU, being geographically much closer, has a more acute, strategic interest over regional and country-level stability.
In whichever manner the world community will decide to handle the Taliban, and Pakistan’s sustenance of it, the realization of an effective mid-term humanitarian aid approach for the Afghan people should not be postponed. After an unprecedented 20 years of civil-military engagement in Afghanistan, with enormous sacrifices on all sides, and tangible achievements -and for merely ethical motives- the international community should help alleviate the humanitarian disaster. The EU and its Member States can play a key role in steering the design of effective assistance for the people during this period.
Is it possible to provide strategic assistance to the Afghan people without legitimizing or strengthening the Taliban?
The short answer is: yes. The longer answer: there needs to be clarity on which sectors to place assistance in, and sectors to purposely leave unfinanced. The Taliban have been generating immense revenues and cash reserves of their own. 20 years of warfare against the Afghan Republic, and the massive military offensive that led to its ultimate downfall in August, required a vast flow of capital that the Taliban now has even increased access to. These include revenues from opium, mining, overflight rights, and trade, the latter of which the former Afghan finance minister estimated would reach up to US$ 8 million per month. The overall earnings of the Taliban in the fiscal year 2019-2020 alone are assessed to be at US$ 1.6 billion, according to an analysis by the University of Nebraska. This revenue needs to be put into the donors’ assessment of needs and actions. The more strategic and thought-through donors will lay out their future support across different sectors, the more it will allow them to be effective in their humanitarian assistance to civilians, without legitimizing and strengthening the Taliban further. And without giving the Taliban even more leeway for unpredictable illicit activities.
Firstly, international donors should not let the Taliban off the hook in the delivery of core functions of governance. If donors simply place aid into these segments without requiring core contributions from the Taliban, it would not only boost the Taliban’s legitimacy, it would also leave them more room to use own revenues for illegal activities unwanted by the global community. These core functions of government include the payment of civil servants’ salaries, which is a large expenditure load that the Taliban can be actively demanded to take on and to accountably deliver to the nearly 1 million Afghan civil servants that rely on it. The Taliban will have a self-interest in not nurturing an inevitable uproar and protests of civil servants in the mid and long-term. But it will need to be actively requested from the Taliban, as the survival of these civil servants and their families should not be just left to chance. A potential non-compliance of the Taliban’s responsibility of this part would not be impossible to monitor by donors. At the same time, again, it takes away from the Taliban to exploit and divert their own revenues toward illicit activities.
Another area that would be advisable for donors to avoid in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover is the energy and communications sector. The Taliban will likely prioritize this sector. The Taliban should be asked to maintain these services with the domestic revenues they are generating.
A third area that international assistance should handle with much care at this present stage is agriculture. Reports confirm that, over the past 20 years, agricultural assistance never reached its enthusiastic goals, and was widely abused for the mere continuation of illicit poppy cultivation. This can be expected to now massively increase under the Taliban. Reminiscent of the 90s, when the Taliban made Afghanistan the largest global producer of illicit opium. Having said this, Afghanistan’s 7 million farmers and their families were already gravely affected by drought and conflict and are now among the most food-insecure. So there is a real necessity to give this area very close attention.
So which are the sectors that compel fast international assistance? Firstly, donors should leverage and sustain the established community-based mechanisms that have proven to be effective in the delivery of assistance in the past, even in already previously volatile areas. The Community Development Councils (CDCs) are elected non-governmental community bodies, which are critical also in ensuring that women and suppressed minorities maintain their access to resources, even if their mobility is compromised. The majority of local NGOs are dependent on CDCs for negotiating local access and identifying actual needs, and for the selection of program beneficiaries.
Regarding health, Afghanistan’s healthcare system, which used to be financed under the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), is on the brink of collapse due to the lack of clarity on funding modalities. The health system itself is not dysfunctional at all, but it is unjustifiably deprived from essential finances since the Taliban takeover. Donors should immediately restart financing by releasing funds directly to the implementing local NGOs of the ARTF.
When it comes to food and cash assistance, the current situation is draining a society that was already stricken by drought, long-term conflict, displacement, and COVID-19. Food and cash assistance will be critical and life-saving. Assistance can be channeled through the CDCs so that women, minorities, the disabled, and other vulnerable populations are not being systematically deprived simply because they are unable to go to distribution centers, with the UN’s World Food Programme (or the Food and Agriculture Organization) replacing the former government functions.
Water and sanitation are also core issues. Maintaining a basic infrastructure will be critical to contain diseases and new/old epidemics, and for the overall health and survival of entire Afghan families. Also here, the CDCs should be used to ensure assistance reaches all parts of the respective communities, demanding the Taliban that delivered aid won’t be taxed or confiscated.
At last, education. While this area compels urgent attention, too, it cannot not be handled lightly without a reliable assurance by the Taliban that regular school curricula will remain as they were and won’t be turned into ideological radicalization. It won’t stop at attaining the physical reopening of schools for all girls. Problematic is that, previously, teacher payrolls were covered by the government, which is directly affecting around 160,000 teachers and their families that are now deficient of the salary they need to survive as the Taliban are not paying them. These payments could come out of parts of currently frozen state assets and be made directly into teachers’ private bank accounts. It was just announced that UNICEF is starting to list all public school teachers in Afghanistan within a new registration system which would facilitate such direct salary payments. Again, continuous and close donor involvement in the field of education will remain incredibly important to try to evade a change of school curricula into ideological radicalization and terrorism infiltration by the Taliban.
The issue of Afghanistan’s frozen financial state assets
Soon after 15 August, the U.S. Treasury froze Afghanistan’s financial state assets that are held in foreign reserves in New York. These assets amount to approximately US$ 9.5 billion and their absence contribute significantly to the physical breakdown of the country’s public services. As the Taliban (and Pakistan) are asking for the unfreezing of these funds, the U.S., even if they wanted, cannot really deliver money to a now de facto government of Afghanistan whose highest ranking members are not only on the U.N. sanctions list, but also have FBI bounties on their heads. Also China seems to have a strong opinion on the topic, as the issue is becoming another play ball in the decades-long geopolitical game over Afghanistan. The U.S. position, however -at least here- is understandable. It is reasonable to not deliver billions that the Taliban would have direct and unaccounted access to. But it is not reasonable that such an amount of money is being held indefinitely while the people of Afghanistan are starving to death, with not even income taxes for food being covered, affecting civilians, not the Taliban.
The international community must find an urgent solution to it. Besides direct payments of all teachers, international donors could rally behind the idea of channeling shares of these state assets into a humanitarian fund that exclusively benefits the most impoverished Afghans. Payments would be made directly to the international UN agencies or to international suppliers of goods. The European Union and its Member States could, through diplomatic means, help the U.S. administration reach a solution on this matter that is acceptable for all parties involved but respects the urgency of the escalating humanitarian crisis.
How can the European Union ensure effective delivery of international aid despite the Taliban?
There is an acute risk of aid fragmentation that can and should be avoided. It would be advisable for donors to use the existing structure developed under the ARTF, insisting that execution will be through UN agencies. This separation of accountability from execution using the ARTF mechanism is to be preferred over the fragmentation of development aid management into two or more competing funds. A related draft proposal by UNDP, for instance, named ABADEI (Area-Based Approach to Development Emergency Initiatives) requires further scrutiny, as some features would effectively circumvent established project mechanisms and local expertise. It also partly gravely lacks consequential recognition of current ground realities. The proposal would produce enormous albeit avoidable overhead costs (over $100 mill. in 24 months) which would be consumed at UN HQs instead of reaching the Afghan people in need. What is important is that donors continue to engage in the prioritization of interventions, particularly in the absence of a trusted counterpart government. The question of financial assets frozen by the U.S. Treasury could be partly resolved here, too: shares of the assets could be diverted into that humanitarian fund so it benefits the Afghan people solely. As pointed out earlier, maintaining community-based institutions will be critical to ensure aid on the ground is not diverted and reaches the most vulnerable, particularly women, but also certain minorities, the disabled, the elderly.
The international community could seek a joint agreement with the Taliban that lays out concrete terms of aid delivery. This could come in the form of a pragmatic, very short framework, a humanitarian-development nexus. A key aspect of it would have to be universal access to program monitoring. Such a framework should, however, not lead to protracted discussions or negotiations. The Taliban should not be allowed to instrumentalize it as another bargaining chip on sanctions, as the severity of the rising humanitarian catastrophe in the country cannot be further omitted. A swift endorsement of such a framework could help donors move forward with targeted and effective humanitarian assistance.
The EU and its Member States can play a key role in steering all these processes. As a major donor and strategic partner, the U.S. has to be taken on board. But at a time of public dispute and intense partisan criticism in the U.S. around the withdrawal, and at a time of sharp deviation from its previous Afghanistan policies, the U.S. administration will surely welcome if Europe takes a lead now.
Les analyses et propos présentés dans cet article n'engagent que son auteur. Hila-Nawa Alam est Senior Fellow de l'Institut Open Diplomacy et est spécialiste des enjeux de sécurité, de développement durable, d'Afghanistan, et du Moyen-Orient.