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28 September 2021

Why getting aid to Afghanistan has become a moral dilemma for the West

The international community is trying to find a way to pressure the Taliban whilst also helping desperate Afghans.

By Freddie Hayward

When the Taliban announced its finalised interim government on 7 September, they reiterated their demand for international recognition. Yet the all-male, mostly Pashtun cadre is not the varied, representative group some had hoped would provide the best chance of stability. Provocatively marked by the hoisting of the Taliban’s white flag over the presidential palace on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the new government includes several Taliban members on US or UN sanctions lists.  The interior minister has an FBI bounty on his head. Though international recognition was always an unlikely prospect, the hardliners in the government now make it even less probable.  

This is already having serious consequences for Afghanistan. In 2020, aid accounted for around 43 per cent of GDP, rendering the country severely vulnerable to even a slight drop in foreign funding. Since the Taliban took power, the IMF has withheld $460m of emergency currency reserves citing the absence of international recognition. Likewise, the US has frozen the majority of the country’s central bank reserves and the EU has suspended €1bn in funding for development projects.     

Without these funds, the Taliban will struggle to function as a normal government depriving the Afghan people of crucial services. The government is reportedly unable, for instance, to pay the import tax on vital containers of food from Pakistan. The World Food Programme has warned that one in three people in the country don’t know where their next meal will come from and Afghan aid organisations are struggling to replace the funding gap left by international donors. With inflation rising and people rushing to get money out of banks, an economic disaster is looming.  

In an effort to arrest the deteriorating humanitarian situation, the UN convened a conference last week where more than $1.1bn was pledged in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and the broader region. “This conference is not simply about what we will give to the people of Afghanistan,” UN secretary-general António Guterres said. “It is about what we owe.” Yet the money pledged at the UN will be largely directed at humanitarian causes and won’t address underlying problems such as the freezing of central bank reserves. Guterres suggested that the international community could gain some leverage over the Taliban through the aid programme. But this seems unlikely to materialise given the Taliban’s actions since gaining power. The government has, for instance, already restricted girls’ access to education and suggested that executions and amputations will resume.

When the Taliban was last in power from 1996 to 2001, only three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – recognised its government. The Pakistani government, which has close ties with the Taliban, is now also leading calls for, if not international recognition, then at least international engagement. In a recent event with Policy Exchange, for instance, Pakistan’s national security adviser Moeed W Yusuf urged nations to engage with the Taliban to prevent a humanitarian crisis, saying that the world must not isolate Afghanistan as it did in the 1990s. 

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More broadly, a pragmatic consensus seems to be growing between capitals in the region. “I think the base interest of all these countries is that the one thing that’s worse than a Taliban government is no government at all,” says Vali Nasr, professor at John Hopkins University and former senior adviser to the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. At a recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – a regional economic and security forum that includes Russia and China – Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping called for increased cooperation and Putin even floated the idea of sharing intelligence. Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan went so far as to suggest that the decision whether to recognise the Taliban government formally would be a “collective decision” among neighbouring states.   

For the US, offering funds to the Taliban – let alone international recognition – would have political implications as well as moral complications. After having fought the extremist group for 20 years, appearing now to be creating the financial conditions that would enable it to govern may be too much to stomach. But this will come at a cost for Afghan society, which the US has also supported over the course of 20 years. “If the banks empty, if the bazaars empty, then you’re going to have mayhem in the country,” Nasr warns. Ultimately, Biden’s decision to reorient the American war machine to the Indo-Pacific – to shift from counter-insurgency to countering China – would be undermined by a destabilised Afghanistan. 

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So far, the solution has been something of an aid workaround. On 13 September, the US pledged to send $64m in aid directly to NGO and local groups, rather than the Taliban. Yet few believe that a Taliban government deprived of funds will be able to ensure stability. The US’s forever war may have ended, but the question of how to help Afghanistan hasn’t gone away.