Why the World Should Help Afghanistan
Taliban leaders have condemned Afghanistan to a perpetual humanitarian crisis with global consequences. Here’s what must be done.
Afghanistan is facing one of the most complex humanitarian crises of its recent history. It is a convergence of the past 40 years of imposed conflicts of geopolitics, endemic poverty, climate change, the global economic recession due to COVID-19, and chronic foreign aid dependency, now at 40 percent. Consequently, 14 million Afghans face severe hunger, 3.4 million children suffer from acute malnutrition, 22.8 million need immediate relief aid, and 97 percent of all Afghans live below the poverty line.
Since Aug. 15, when the Taliban illegally and forcefully took over the government in Kabul, the humanitarian crisis has deteriorated further. Competent government employees have abandoned their jobs, leaving Afghanistan with an irreparable brain-drain. As a result, key service-delivery institutions no longer function and lack the resources to address the basic needs of an impoverishing population. The banking sector has ground to a halt and people are unable to withdraw their savings. Most international aid organizations and diplomatic missions have closed their development programs and evacuated their staff.
Moreover, since Sept. 7 when the Taliban—following much factional infighting—announced their Pakistan-installed interim government, three key developments have proven most harmful to the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. Credible and abundant evidence shows that the Taliban and Pakistan are directly responsible for these harmful developments, daily claiming Afghan lives.
First, the Taliban’s formation of an all-male exclusionary interim cabinet, with half of its members sanctioned by the United Nations and one blacklisted by the FBI, led the United States to freeze $9.5 billion in the Afghan Central Bank’s reserves. Moreover, the International Monetary Fund has withheld $370 million in economic aid that was supposed to reach Afghanistan in August.
Second, the Taliban’s enforcement of a gender apartheid—banning women from work and girls from education—has ensured an indefinite lack of international recognition, even from their own state sponsor. Afghanistan is the only one of the 190-plus member-states of the United Nations where women are banned from participation in polity, society, and economy—a situation where none of the globally adopted 2030 sustainable development goals could ever be achieved without women’s full inclusion and participation. Women’s education and health, of course, shape the overall health and economic productivity of any nation. Taliban leaders have effectively condemned Afghanistan to a perpetual humanitarian crisis.
Third, the Taliban have already proven to be incapable of governing well, which is far more complex and difficult than carrying out suicide terrorist attacks, targeting innocent civilians, and destroying such soft targets as telephone towers, pylons, roads, and bridges. Over the past two months, they have learned that—unlike destroying—building, operating, and maintaining anything that is helpful takes the kind of technical competence and resources of which they have remorselessly deprived Afghanistan.
The Taliban also has dismantled the country’s free press, which exacerbates the humanitarian situation. A country ravaged by conflict, climate, COVID, and poverty can hardly afford a lack of information that can help impoverished households decide on the right coping mechanisms and survival strategies to make it to the next day.
Is this all part of Pakistan’s plan? Some observers of the region argue that the Taliban’s indifference to the dire humanitarian situation is by strategic design; that it is meant to serve a military objective of Pakistan by keeping Afghanistan aid-dependent and on the brink, thereby securing Pakistan deep influence over the Afghan politics. In other words, critics theorize, Pakistan is manufacturing and managing a perpetual humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, milking the international donor community for enough hand-out resources to prevent mass starvation in the country. Pakistan could prove these credible assumptions wrong by getting the Taliban leadership to form an inclusive and broad-based government that is acceptable to all Afghans, including women. But the world should not wait for Pakistani leaders to do the right thing. Neither should Afghans.
To start, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres convened a high-level ministerial conference on Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation in Geneva last month. Afghans were heartened that over 100 countries and 30 international and regional organizations generously pledged $1.2 billion in emergency funds, including $606 million for this year. But this is a Band-Aid approach. Considering the enormity of the challenges confronting Afghanistan—among them internal displacement, climate-induced floods and droughts, and the still unresolved pandemic—the pledge is hardly enough.
That is why the leaders of UN Security Council member states must do all they can to move the ruling Taliban minority to reconcile with the rest of Afghanistan’s majority—including all ethnic groups, women, and youth—and allow them adequate and fair representation in a permanent government to be established soon. This could be achieved under the incomplete Doha peace process, which could resume under a robust UN mission with an operational and coercive mandate to enforce peace, if necessary.
Unless this fundamental root cause of the widening humanitarian crisis is resolved, Afghanistan’s crises would only multiply, undermining regional stability and international peace and security.
Fortunately, the international community vividly recalls the consequences of neglecting Afghanistan’s challenges in the 1990s and the lessons of the past 20 years. The tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and decades of related bombings and murders across the U.S. and Europe, must never be overlooked. Neither should the past six months of external aggression by proxies in Afghanistan. We must learn from the past 40 years of foreign involvement and interventions in Afghanistan and do what is right for the Afghan people.
Neither keeping Afghanistan on a humanitarian life-support nor abandoning it altogether is hardly the right solution. But working together under the UN auspices to help form an inclusive government that can look after the long-term protective and human security needs of the Afghan people constitutes a durable solution to the international problem in Afghanistan. And it is what the vast majority of the Afghan people need, demand, and deserve, following four decades of deadly and destructive imposed conflicts.
Only the international community can help deliver on these basic Afghan expectations, and help us all toward regional stability and international peace and security.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the ambassador of Afghanistan to Sri Lanka.