The West and the Taliban can find common ground on aid

Humanitarian assistance can provide an opportunity for engagement between Kabul and the West and save Afghan lives.

A child suffering from malnutrition receives treatment at the Mirwais hospital in Kandahar on September 27, 2021 [AFP/Bulent Kilic]

While Afghans have finally seen a glimpse of stability for the first time in decades, they now face a major humanitarian and developmental catastrophe. In order to prevent this outcome, it is essential that all stakeholders in Afghanistan and within the international community open a dialogue on how to get aid to the struggling Afghan population.

Though the country made significant strides in development over the last 20 years, its humanitarian situation was dire even before the Taliban takeover in August. In its aftermath, the majority of humanitarian activities ceased, which brought Afghanistan closer to the edge.

In recent weeks, the Afghan healthcare system has been described as “on the brink of collapse”. The World Food Programme has warned that only 5 percent of households in Afghanistan have enough to eat. The UN forecasts that, during the next fiscal year, its GDP will shrink by somewhere in the range of 3.6 percent to 13.2 percent. If no action is taken, the country will face near-“universal poverty”, with poverty rates rising to 97-98 percent.

In response to these multi-dimensional challenges, at the September 13 Geneva conference, donors pledged more than $1bn to help Afghanistan. Although this is 30-percent higher than what the UN requested for emergency assistance, it pales in comparison to US military expenditure of $300m per day over the past two decades. In spite of the pledges, much of what has been committed cannot be utilised because of the gridlock between the Taliban and the international community.

Since mid-August, Afghanistan has been cut off from critically needed resources that would enable it to deal with pressing humanitarian and development challenges. Presently, Afghan state institutions are facing a financial crisis due to the US government’s decision to freeze nearly $9.5bn of central bank assets in US-based financial institutions.

Due to the destabilising effect this move has had on the banking system and the lack of funds, the country may be forced to rely on money transfers via the Hawala system and traditional forms of money lending and bartering in order to survive. These forms of informal transactions have often been associated with criminal activities, money laundering, and terrorism financing.

Back in August, just as Kabul fell, I argued that a disaster in Afghanistan can be averted. This required both the Taliban and the West to convey their expectations and set clear, measurable targets moving forward – and this remains true today. In charting a way forward towards international cooperation to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, all concerned stakeholders should heed the following important messages.

First, the Taliban must overcome its instinctive rejection of the West. Despite the tremendous temptation and desire for vengeance, its leadership must also ensure that humanitarian aid is not siphoned off to its fighters and is not used to exert pressure on the international community at any time.

In extensive consultation with Western diplomats that I have had over the past month, it has been made clear to me that the vast majority of Western governments do not want the Taliban to fail. Rather than seeking to undermine the Afghan state, Western powers perceive a strategic self-interest in a stable Afghanistan, given the risk of mass migration, terror threats, and a resurgent narcotics trade. While no governments have rushed to recognise the Taliban, the necessity of some form of cooperation with the group is widely acknowledged.

The Taliban may perceive non-recognition as a snub, but it should be aware that Western governments are constrained by their own electorates appalled by media reporting on human rights abuses and mistreatment of women and minorities.

Second, leading Western donors should recognise that a business-as-usual approach will not work in Afghanistan today. The country under a Taliban government is very different from post-disaster or state collapse zones in which the UN and others can step in to provide aid outside of the framework of the state.

Whether or not it is recognised internationally, the Afghan government is functioning within the Afghan state and its national institutions, which have been built up at a great cost in resources and effort over the past 20 years. They may have some deficiencies and suffer from corruption, but they work.

Yet large-scale development without engaging state institutions is unlikely to go ahead. There is an urgent need to explore potential means of coordination that would allow some form of development assistance to proceed short of full recognition of the de facto Taliban government.

Education and health are two sectors in which Western aid can open channels of communication and coordination with the Taliban without the need for formal recognition. National institutions with a demonstrated record of effective collaboration are already in place with a wide network of community-based governance structures, non-governmental organisations, and private firms able to lead a whole-of-society approach to development. One example is the Citizen’s Charter, which replaced the National Solidarity Programme, one of the largest and most successful community-based reconstruction schemes globally.

It is crucial that international aid builds up rather than replaces local capacities. The Taliban lacks the resources, knowledge, and skills to effectively govern Afghanistan on its own. Financing local priorities, utilising untapped resources, and investing in developing local capacity and public administration would build confidence and make the Taliban more cooperative.

Despite the fact that 120,000 people have fled Afghanistan, including many highly skilled and educated individuals, there is still a large pool of specialists and workers there that can be mobilised for development projects. The recent post-evacuation “brain drain” should not be used as an excuse by internationals for continuing longstanding and harmful practices of importing human resources.

Third, life-saving humanitarian aid should not be used as a bargaining chip to win political concessions. The West has often tried to utilise humanitarian aid as leverage against the Taliban. This counterproductive approach must be avoided at all costs, to prevent the Taliban from taking desperate measures to pursue close relations with non-traditional donors not equipped to effectively support development in Afghanistan.

Western donors should recognise that there are important political dynamics within the Taliban that affect its decision-making. In particular, there is a split between military leaders and the political or peace wing that negotiated with the US in Doha. Over time, lack of engagement with the Taliban will only reinforce the position of the hardline military elements. If the West does not revise its approaches, Afghanistan could easily become a breeding ground for insecurity and a thriving narcotics trade, regionally and globally.

In conclusion, humanitarian assistance is one of the only common languages shared by Kabul and the West today. On all sides there is a strong will to communicate yet what is missing is an effective medium for dialogue. One immediate step in the right direction would be to establish an independent council of nationally-respected Afghans who could act as an intermediary and facilitate communication between the Taliban and outside parties. At first, this would enable a shared understanding on lifesaving aid delivery and over time, it could open up the potential for the West to constructively engage the Taliban on a range of other issues.

Direct or indirect dialogue is vital to not just preventing a humanitarian crisis but also enhancing opportunities for more effective ways of working across the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.