As the world’s attention shifted dramatically to the Ukraine crises unfolding rapidly, the challenges posed by the humanitarian catastrophe threatening Afghanistan have been overshadowed and moved to the backseat. However, Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate as the country’s economy is rolling in a deepening spiral of impoverishment and destitution. At least half of the country’s 39 million people need humanitarian assistance to survive. More than 20 million people are on the brink of famine, at least a million children among them.
US economic sanctions and suspension of bilateral aid by donors disabled the Taliban regime to ease the financial stress and address the economic problems. Its inability to bring relief to the Afghan people hinders its domestic legitimacy. The current de facto government of the Taliban – the Taliban Emirate- has thus set international recognition and reinstating aid as essential goals for itself. In recent discussions with western powers in Oslo, the Emirate drew the attention of the western countries to Afghanistan’s dire economic and humanitarian needs and the critical health and education conditions that need international support. They called for the lifting of the sanctions and promised to uphold people’s legitimate rights- human rights.
The Taliban’s quest for legitimacy provides the opportunity to the international community to negotiate with the Taliban the introduction of longer-term governance reforms and actions addressing the immediate humanitarian crisis.
Neglecting to negotiate with the Emirate now will isolate the Taliban and ordinary Afghans. With no oversight by the international community, the Taliban could quickly return to the mid-1990s reign of terror. So instead, the western powers should engage in diplomatic talks with the Taliban, using diplomatic leverages to promote Taliban cooperation for improving base conditions, including the human rights situation in the country.
Western powers have stressed that Talking to the Taliban does not imply immediate recognition or legitimization of the de facto government. The talks are to be interpreted as consultations with the current Taliban leadership to promote quick and direct access of the people to humanitarian assistance satisfying the need for food, clean water, clothing, shelter, and preventing abuse of fundamental human rights, inclusive of women’s rights.
The high priority measures and reforms list for the donors to negotiate with the Afghan Emirate include:
- Inclusive government, with the participation of women and religious and ethnic minorities, following a credible and legitimate political process;
- Support to the UN and other humanitarian organizations in immediate and direct aid distribution to Afghans in need of essential life-saving services;
- Reforms to protect and enhance fundamental human rights, prioritizing rights of children and women.
World powers instrumental in drawing up the list have critiqued the Taliban’s gender apartheid against women. They stated that future cooperation with the Emirate would largely depend on the latter’s position on “rights” issues. Conditioning lifting of economic sanctions and resumption of aid on how and to what extent the Emirate addresses human rights underlies a donor strategy of extracting concessions from the Taliban for the benefit of ordinary Afghans.
Some experts warn against unthinking and long-term use of such conditions. Historically, the application of economic sanctions has proved unsuccessful in many instances, resulting in total economic collapse and immersion of the sanctioned country in further misery, which the international community wants to avoid in Afghanistan.
However, the immediate humanitarian crisis and the looming longer-term economic collapse pushing the country into universal poverty (with 97% of the people under the poverty line and over a million starving children) raise ethical dilemmas in conditioning aid flow to improvements in human rights.
Some women’s groups have rebuked the international community for talking to the Taliban, which they consider equivalent to the recognition of the Taliban regime. But some Afghan women negotiators who participated in the Doha talks with the Taliban have advised against taking an uncompromising and stubborn stand in tying aid flow to women’s “rights” as a priority.
The reality is that Afghanistan needs both women’s rights and humanitarian, economic relief. Afghan women will not necessarily be liberated or empowered by denying aid to the country. A balanced approach demands humanitarian and financial relief to go hand in hand with women’s rights. A strategy balancing these needs will yield sustainable results. A prerequisite is a consultation with the Taliban.
Currently, the humanitarian needs are being addressed immediately without applying stiff conditions, whereas more extended-term aid is withheld until talks with the Taliban progress. The hope is that the deployment of dollars will save lives and exact improvements in human rights, especially of women, children, and ethnic minorities.
Taliban shows cooperation in picking up a reform plan, but they are not fully trusted to walk the talk. Women have been hit hardest in the economic decline, yet only some women can work, mainly in health and education but rarely in other sectors. Girls can study in primary grades with assurances of access over time to secondary education. In addition, a few universities are poised to admit girls.
The international community, including the regional countries, re-iterate full cooperation to support the Afghan people and promote security and resilience in the wider region. Further talks and negotiations with the Taliban are necessary to draw up a prioritized list of reforms with established benchmarks to observe. Aid flows and removal of sanctions could be conditioned with the Afghan Emirate reaching the agreed-upon benchmarks. Negotiations and discussions between the Taliban and the donors are continuing.
The reality is that the humanitarian response cannot sustainably fill the massive gaps left by the wider withdrawal of international support. Humanitarian aid alone, albeit essential, will not impact unless the economy functions. Charting out a strategy for longer-term economic development in concert with the Afghans is an absolute necessity.
I will conclude by leaving this question for the readers to answer: The last 20 years bear testimony of the international community’s failed military efforts to keep the Taliban out of power. Why should talking to the Taliban not be the preferred option now?