Charles A. Kupchan & Douglas Lute
The US may have lost the war in Afghanistan, but it can still salvage the peace. To prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed state, the US must end its economic isolation of the country and, instead, jumpstart international efforts to resuscitate its collapsing economy. The US also needs to develop a roadmap that could open the door to recognizing and working with the Taliban-led government, which, like it or not, is set to remain in control of Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
The chaos produced by the US-led military withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer made daily headlines. Yet global attention has faded, even though the suffering that accompanied the fall of Kabul pales in comparison to the effects of cutting off external economic support after the Taliban takeover. Under Afghanistan’s previous Western-backed regime, international development aid financed 75 percent of the government’s budget, and foreign assistance accounted for more than 40 percent of GDP. Withdrawing this support has triggered a dire humanitarian crisis, with disease spreading and half of the country’s population of roughly 40 million facing life-threatening food shortages. The UN estimates that 97 percent of Afghans will soon be living below the international poverty line ($1.90 a day).
The international community is well aware of Afghanistan’s plight, and is seeking to increase funding for the many organizations delivering humanitarian assistance on the ground. The UN aims to raise $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid, the largest single-country package in its history. But even this sum will fall well short of what is needed to rescue Afghanistan. The unraveling of the country’s economy and state institutions means that humanitarian assistance is a bandage, not a remedy. While the US and its international partners are right (for now) to sanction the Taliban and deny them recognition and funding, they can and should work around Afghanistan’s nominal leaders to revive the economy. The only solution on the scale needed is to free up the country’s roughly $10 billion in frozen reserves and task the UN with establishing a supervisory council in Kabul to disburse these funds to restore liquidity, keep ministries functioning and pay public-sector salaries. (President Joe Biden signed an order on Friday to free $7 billion in Afghan assets now frozen in the US.)
The unfrozen funds would go to technocrats in the central bank, other nonpolitical civil servants, and the doctors, teachers and other essential workers needed to keep Afghanistan afloat. The UN body would allocate funding in accountable segments to ensure that the money does not fall into the hands of the Taliban leadership. Such arrangements are a tall order, but they have worked elsewhere. In parts of Yemen controlled by the Iran-backed Houthis, the international community has successfully routed funds to the public sector, circumventing the rebels who ostensibly control the ministries. In the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas, an Islamist group designated by the US and the EU as a terrorist organization, the UN has worked around the Hamas leadership to provide Gazans with direct food support, invest in schools and medical facilities, and help improve infrastructure.
Funding and cooperating with Afghan technocrats and other nonpolitical workers represents the international community’s only viable option for staving off state collapse while keeping the Taliban at arm’s length. And although the Taliban may bristle at this foreign intrusion, they would likely prefer it to the failure of the country they seek to govern. The prospect of international recognition would further encourage Taliban acquiescence to this plan. Establishing a UN body to disburse the currently frozen funds is only a stopgap measure to keep Afghanistan on its feet. Over the longer term, the US and its partners also need to set clear criteria that the Taliban must meet to gain international recognition and sanctions relief.
To move from international isolation to diplomatic normalization, the Taliban must meet three benchmarks. First, they must deny safe haven to transnational terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda and Daesh. Although the Taliban are taking on Daesh, they maintain deep ties to Al-Qaeda. They must break these links and demonstrate a willingness to share with international authorities information on terrorist networks operating in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders currently sanctioned as terrorists also need to step down. Second, the Taliban must adhere to basic international norms regarding human rights. This requirement includes permitting the departure of Afghans who wish to emigrate, reopening schools for girls, and ending the abuse of Afghans associated with the former regime, the media, and civil-society organizations.
Third, the Taliban must build a government that reflects Afghanistan’s diversity, in which women and ethnic and religious minorities all become stakeholders. Afghanistan has changed over the past two decades, and the Taliban must adapt to new social realities to succeed politically. Only inclusive governance can bring sustained stability to a country that has been at war for more than 40 years. The Taliban may of course prove unwilling or unable to meet these standards for recognition. That possibility only reinforces the need to establish a UN body tasked with disbursing the funds required to keep the country’s economy functioning and its people alive.
The international community must confront the harsh reality that Afghanistan is descending toward catastrophic human suffering and state failure. For both geopolitical and moral reasons, the US must lead the effort to move quickly beyond the provision of humanitarian assistance. That means getting essential funding into Afghanistan’s economic bloodstream while laying out clear standards for normalizing its relations with the international community.