Addressing Kabul’s crisis will require dealing with Taliban

Addressing Kabul’s crisis will require dealing with Taliban

Erica Gaston
After the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan in August, the world watched in horror as Afghans tried to escape the new regime by boarding evacuation flights at the Kabul airport—crossing gunfire, braving suicide bombs and slogging through sewage ditches to do so, and even clinging to airplane landing gear when they failed to board the flights themselves. The horror was compounded by a widely felt sense that international policymakers were unprepared, and that the nightmare scenario unfolding could have been prevented, or at least mitigated.
This winter, however, an even worse catastrophe could unfold: Afghanistan’s economy is in ruins, and millions of Afghans are suffering from a lack of food and other basic needs, even as parts of the country remain wracked by violence. The current distaste in many foreign capitals for granting legitimacy to the Taliban, along with a lack of long-term strategic thinking among outside powers, are poised to make the international community as unprepared as ever.
“Afghanistan is now among the world’s worst humanitarian crises—if not the worst,” David Beasely, the head of the World Food Program, said in a recent statement. “We are on a countdown to catastrophe.”
Already, half the population—some 23 million people—are in need of acute food assistance. These dire estimates are likely to increase as winter approaches, even more so given the severe drought that has hit the country, which some experts say is the worst in 35 years.
Facing dire conditions, millions of Afghans will seek help elsewhere, flooding neighboring countries with refugees and creating a migration crisis that will extend to Europe. As the Taliban government struggles to contain the crisis with minimal resources, it will likely fail to maintain control over all of its territory. The Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, known as ISIS-Khorasan, is stepping up its attacks in the country and could establish a firm territorial base there.
Major donors like the United States and the European Union have pledged substantial humanitarian aid and emergency relief, a sign of their desire to help the Afghan people and stem migration without supporting or recognizing the Taliban government. But Afghans will need more than blankets and tents to get through this winter. With the Afghan government’s international assets frozen, most financial assistance on ice and many border crossings still closed, the economy is in freefall.
In any country, humanitarian relief, particularly when it comes to public health, tends to depend on a much larger architecture of public services and goods. Shoring up this system after decades of war will inevitably require international support to the Taliban government and wider inputs into the Afghan economy, including some relaxation of sanctions and unfreezing of funds.
So far, that larger assistance has not been forthcoming. Major donors in the West and elsewhere have held the line on refusing to recognize the Taliban, keeping sanctions and financial freezes in place until the new regime takes steps toward a more inclusive government and demonstrates better protection of and respect for human rights, especially for women and girls.
The Taliban’s human rights transgressions and governance shortfalls are certainly serious and merit continued attention, but hardline donor-imposed conditions on these matters are unlikely to effect changes in Taliban behavior in the short term. Instead, continued international attention to these issues may yield results if it is part of a long-term political conversation and takes place in concert with the right pressures on the ground.
Yet the sorts of political conversations that might lead to those long-term changes are not yet happening. International diplomats and aid agencies remain focused on immediate issues like evacuation, staffing and access for humanitarian aid, partly out of reluctance to signal recognition to the Taliban. When foreign officials have engaged with the Taliban, the agenda has been tightly constrained to short-term “operational engagement” that is designed to “not bestow any legitimacy” on the Taliban government, as a September statement from the EU put it.
The distaste in many foreign capitals for granting legitimacy to the Taliban is poised to make the international community unprepared for a looming catastrophe in Afghanistan.
But focusing only on humanitarian and operational issues now narrows the conversation and misses a strategic opportunity to structure dialogue with the Taliban in a way that could keep the larger political issues alive for future discussion. At the moment, while international donors emphasize human rights and inclusive governance rhetorically, their main “a-sks” are simply about ac-cess—for their staff and citizens, or for provision of aid. This sets a dangerous precedent for the future, with no space for donors to condition aid on better rights protection or other political issues. All the Taliban would have to do to receive aid is to wait for the situation to become dire enough, effectively holding their own constituents hostage. Donors would face the choice of watching millions starve and a renewed migration crisis unfold, or providing humanitarian aid regardless of whether the Taliban has met key benchmarks.
The clock is ticking on averting disaster in Afghanistan, but there are still measures that could be taken. In particularly, there are five steps policymakers can take to avert the coming humanitarian and political calamity.
Take action to get Afghans through the winter. Doing so effectively will require more than humanitarian aid and emergency relief. It will require some relaxation of asset freezes and economic sanctions—even if only temporarily—and greater assistance to the Taliban regime. Even Human Rights Watch—not an organization to give the Taliban a pass—argued that in light of the coming humanitarian crisis, the shortfalls in food, education and health cannot be met without creating “a plan to address assistance directly involving the Taliban.”
Shift the emphasis from evacuations and resettlement to developing a long-term strategic position vis-à-vis the Taliban. Each of the major international donors involved, particularly the U.S., needs to shift gears from crisis response mode and start taking steps to craft policy positions that allow for long-term engagement with an Afghanistan that is governed by the Taliban. Evacuations of citizens and eligible Afghans, resettlement of Afghans abroad and coordination of immediate emergency relief are all important issues, but they do not comprise a co-mprehensive Afghanistan policy on their own.
Create a testing period for the Taliban by sunsetting the relaxation of sanctions and financial freezes. Major donors will be understandably reluctant to relax sanctions and financial freezes, much less to resume full financial support. As a compromise, they could do so to help avert the immediate crisis, but set a time limit on these measures—six months might be a good starting point. This would allow some chance for economic activity to resume and basic services to be provided. In addition, rather than diluting conditionality, it would reinforce it, by creating a testing period for the Taliban government to demonstrate that it can care for its citizens while taking steps toward better human rights protection, as well as stable and inclusive governance.
International entities could offer a limited degree of recognition for the Taliban. A greater degree of government assistance as well as relaxation of sanctions or asset freezes are contingent on a degree of recognition. However, international diplomats are right to be concerned about rewarding Taliban aggression with full recognition too soon. Instead, a middle course could be struck. International entities like the United Nations Cred-entials Committee (which certifies representatives to speak before or participate in the General Assembly), the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have their own credentialing and recognition processes.
It may be easier for these multilateral institutions to move first, with a degree of tacit recognition that the Taliban is currently in control of and acting as the government of Afghan-istan. Powerful member st-ates should not block them from doing so, but might st-ill decide to withhold their own bilateral recognition and take steps to limit full participation by the Taliban in multilateral forums.
For example, even if the Credentials Committee recognizes the Taliban representatives, other member states may raise objections in the General Assembly. Depending on the vote count in response to those objections, this might prevent full Afghan participation in the body. This sort of imperfect recognition status might be the best of both worlds: enough to free up some of the financial bl-ockages and enable greater political dialogue, while still withholding the carrot of full recognition until broader conditions are met.
Support the renewal and development of a robust U.N. political mandate. Shifting the behavior of the Taliban will require long-term pressure, built on continued, day-to-day documentation and engagement on issues of concern.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, known as UNAMA, has a long record in the country and an established relationship with the Taliban when it comes to discussing human rights concerns. While not a solution in itself, renewing UNAMA’s mandate when it comes up for review next March, while endowing it with a robust political and human rights mandate, is a way to have a continuing mechanism of international engagement on key issues of concern, without any single regional or international actor bearing the brunt of these difficult conversations.
The coming Afghanistan crisis can and should be managed better than the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces this summer, but it will require more concerted political thinking and dialogue. None of these immediate steps are sufficient to cure all the challenges of engaging with the Taliban, but they do have the potential to stave off immediate suffering, limit the economic fallout, and most importantly, steer international policy on a more constructive course in Afghanistan.

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