How to help Afghans without legitimizing the Taliban

By: Ishtiaq Ahmad      Published: 05:48 PM, 31 Dec, 2021
How to help Afghans without legitimizing the Taliban

This month’s meeting in Islamabad of foreign ministers from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation created a viable mechanism to ameliorate the worsening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

A humanitarian trust fund will start channelling financial support through the Islamic Development Bank from March, an emergency food program comes into action instantly, and a special envoy is appointed to coordinate humanitarian and political affairs with the Taliban regime.

These tangible steps were urgently needed, as the Afghan humanitarian situation has consistently deteriorated since the Taliban takeover in August and the onset of winter. The UN Food Program estimates that nearly half the population faces acute food insecurity, and the UN Development Program forecasts that 97 percent of Afghans could plunge into poverty by the middle of next year.

But UN relief agencies and other international humanitarian organizations were in a quandary, as the freezing of $9.5 billion in Afghan funds by Washington and Western governments has crippled the Afghan banking system. International financial institutions could not support humanitarian operations because the Taliban regime remained under UN sanctions. This limitation is mostly over now, as the UN Security Council has allowed assistance that supports “basic human needs in Afghanistan” and is “not a violation” of sanctions imposed on entities linked to the Taliban.

Despite this, international financial support is likely to lag behind the galloping humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders are also responsible for this tragic situation, as they have not fulfilled promises to meet the global expectations on women’s rights and inclusive governance. There is no evidence that Taliban leaders are willing to change, which means the US and EU will closely monitor to ensure that the regime has no role in international humanitarian activities, especially in the disbursement of financial assistance.

Against this backdrop, the OIC has done the right thing to intervene and tackle this dilemma, after heeding the Saudi call. The Kingdom has also taken the initiative of donating $265 million to the trust fund, besides establishing a humanitarian bridge to provide emergency food supplies by air and through Pakistan, which has also committed $30 million. The UAE had already pledged $50 million. Qatar, Turkey and other members may soon offer additional pledges, besides delivering humanitarian relief under the OIC emergency food program.

Outside the Muslim bloc, there has been no shortage of financial pledges in the past four months to deal with the postwar humanitarian disaster. In September, the UN donors’ conference in Geneva pledged $1.2 billion. Subsequently, the EU committed almost the same amount, the US $144 million, Canada $50 million, and China $31 million. But such pledges are seldom fully honored. For example, though the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund donors recently decided to transfer $280 million in previously frozen funds to UNICEF and WFP, the bulk of the $1.2 billion committed at the UN conference remains undelivered.

The US and EU special envoys on Afghanistan attended the OIC meeting, and met the Taliban delegation. Delegates urged them to unfreeze Afghan funds. However, having suffered a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan and been unable to squeeze the Taliban regime on women’s rights and inclusive governance, the US and EU won’t engage in any activity that provides political legitimacy to the Taliban regime. Nor will they allow the Taliban regime any access to the frozen Afghan funds, because doing so would cause a public backlash at home.  

This is where the OIC trust fund can make a difference. Even without recognition, the Taliban regime would see no harm in settling for the IDB-led financial solution to the humanitarian challenge. This offers it domestic face-saving and political mileage abroad. Moreover, it will be able to liaison with the OIC special envoy on humanitarian and political matters. Back in the 1990s, at least three leading Muslim nations — Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan — recognized the Taliban regime. This time, none have. Instead, the OIC wants Muslim scholars to persuade the Taliban of the value of moderation, equal access to education and women’s rights in Islam.

Over time, engagement within the Muslim world, the persistence of Western pressure and the erosion of military clout could weaken the Taliban movement from within, both ideologically and politically. This is the best we can hope for, as the new rulers of Kabul have thus far been unwilling to compromise on their fundamentalist beliefs and practices — so much so that even Pakistan, which has a soft spot for them, has become frustrated. But recognizing the Taliban is not the issue here — saving Afghan lives is.

The OIC is also wise enough to undertake all activities of the trust fund and emergency food program in collaboration with the UN and other international partners, including the efforts to unlock the Afghan financial and banking channels — the principal reason the Afghan humanitarian crisis worsened in the first place. Now there are warnings about its horrendous implications if the international community does not act in time. Mass migration of refugees is one that must scare Europe.  

Since what is happening in Afghanistan today is a result of the 20-year war, the US and other Western nations who fought it cannot run away from the responsibility for managing its consequences. This is not to say the Taliban are innocent bystanders in this tragic situation. Ordinary people have borne its burnt, just as they did during the war. We must not let them die in vain. 

Taliban or no Taliban, it is people’s lives that ultimately matter. What will happen to them in the absence of global financial support and humanitarian relief is writ large on the wall, especially as the OIC fund will become available only after the winter recedes. This means that if a humanitarian crisis is to be averted, the US and EU will need to step up and save Afghanistan from impending catastrophe.

• Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist who has been Vice-Chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.

Ishtiaq Ahmad

Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist, who subsequently served as the vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and as the Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.