When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan last summer, it was left with a critical choice: allow the collapse of a state that had mostly been kept afloat by foreign aid or work with the Taliban, its former foes who were in power, to prevent that outcome.
More than four months after the last U.S. military flight left Kabul, the Biden administration has yet to take a clear decision, opting to muddle along with half-measures amid an escalating humanitarian crisis. Time is running out.
The United States should swallow the bitter pill of working with the Taliban-led government in order to prevent a failed state in Afghanistan. Kneecapping the government through sanctions and frozen aid won’t change the fact that the Taliban are now in charge, but it will ensure that ordinary public services collapse, the economy decays and Afghans’ livelihoods shrink even further.
That’s not in the interest of anyone — including the United States, after 20 years of investment and engagement. A failed state would be fertile ground for extremist groups to thrive, with little room for the West to work with the government — no matter how imperfectly — to prevent further threats.
Afghans are already on a countdown to calamity. Their cash-based economy is starved of currency; hunger and malnutrition are growing; civil servants are largely unpaid; and essential services are in tatters.
It’s no surprise that the United States and its allies responded to the Taliban takeover with punitive measures: halting the flow of aid that had been paying for three-fourths of public spending, freezing Afghan state assets abroad, cutting the country off from the global financial system and maintaining sanctions on the Taliban — which now penalize the entire government they head. That playbook is how Washington typically tries to punish objectionable regimes. But the result has been catastrophic for civilians.
Devastating droughts, the pandemic, as well as the Taliban’s incompetence in governing have all played roles in creating what may be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But the West’s immediate steps to isolate the new regime triggered Afghanistan’s meltdown. This was especially the case because the countries that shut off the aid spigot had, over 20 years, enabled the Afghan state’s dependency on it.
Isolation was fast and easy to do: It cost no money or political capital and satisfied the imperative of expressing disapproval.
With aid organizations raising ever-more-desperate alarms, the United States and other Western nations have taken incremental steps to help Afghans by trying to work around the Taliban. Funding for emergency aid delivered by the United Nations and humanitarian organizations has grown, with Washington providing the largest share, nearly $474 million in 2021. The U.S. government also has gradually broadened humanitarian carve-outs from its sanctions and has taken the lead in getting the Security Council to issue exemptions from U.N. sanctions, making it easier for those delivering aid to carry out their work without legal risk.
But these steps are insufficient. The food, support for health care and limited other types of aid being provided will go only so far to alleviate the dire conditions Afghan civilians are experiencing. Restoring a minimally functioning public sector and stopping Afghanistan’s economic free-fall will require lifting restrictions on ordinary business and easing the prohibition on assistance to or through the government. Without that, there’s little hope that humanitarian aid can be more than a palliative. And if the prohibition stands, continued dependence on relief aid is virtually guaranteed because circumventing the state will ensure its institutions wither.
The United States should draw a distinction between the Taliban as former insurgents and the state they now control.
This starts by beginning to lift sanctions on the Taliban as a group (leaving sanctions on some individuals and an arms embargo in place); funding specific state functions in areas such as rural development, agriculture, electricity and local governance; and restoring central-bank operations to reconnect Afghanistan to the global financial system.
Support for public services is especially important because not only do Afghans need those services, but the government is also the country’s single-largest employer.
Taking these steps also will serve Western interests. It will help curb growing migration from the country and rising illicit narcotics production by Afghans desperate for income. It could also produce at least limited opportunity for getting the Taliban to cooperate with the United States to suppress terrorist threats from the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan and other groups.
Afghanistan will undoubtedly be more impoverished under the Taliban than it was in recent years, and no country will restore aid to the scale the last government enjoyed. But the population needs a glide path for a diminishing level of support, rather than the abrupt cutoff that hit the economy with a shock wave.
Western capitals’ concerns that such measures would bolster the Taliban’s stature or their ability to divert funds to nefarious purposes could be addressed by imposing restrictions and monitoring.
It’s not surprising that the United States and its allies are reluctant to do much beyond helping hungry Afghans survive this winter. They’re likely troubled by the precedent of legitimizing a militant Islamist group that took power through force. And appearing to turn a blind eye to the Taliban’s past and current human rights violations is deeply unappealing.
I can understand the reluctance, which may also be intended to maintain leverage over the Taliban. But I’ve seen over the last two decades how Western powers have consistently overestimated their ability to get Afghan authorities — whomever they are — to acquiesce to their demands. Governments that were utterly dependent on U.S. security and financial support brushed off pressure to adopt Washington’s preferred peacemaking, war-fighting and anti-corruption strategies.
That’s not to say that the West should abandon efforts to get the Taliban to respect human rights and cooperate on security priorities. But expectations should be modest.
The Taliban are never going to have a policy on women’s rights that accords with Western values. They show no signs of embracing even limited forms of democratic governance. Nor is it likely they will ever take active measures to destroy or hand over remnants of Al Qaeda, even though they might keep a lid on them.
No one in Washington or European capitals can be pleased to contemplate working with this kind of government.
But the alternative is worse, foremost for the Afghans who have no choice but to live under Taliban rule and who need livelihoods.
The tough choice must be made.
Laurel Miller (@LaurelMillerICG), director of the Asia program at the International Crisis Group, was the deputy and then acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. State Department from 2013 to 2017.
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