After the Fall of Kabul, the United States (US) President Biden and the United Kingdom’s (UK) then-foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, claimed that the collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban takeover had occurred quicker than they had anticipated. But the veracity of these claims has been questioned, with a leaked report written by the UK’s Foreign Office warning that Kabul would fall hastily. While a Foreign Office spokesperson argued that this leaked report did “not contain intelligence assessments” and that it is “misleading to suggest this document” contradicted their “detailed assessments of the situation in Afghanistan or our public position throughout the crisis,” its warnings are disturbing in light of how events in Kabul unfolded.
Regardless of whether the speed of the Taliban takeover was predicted or not, the world was aware of an impending humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had warned on 13 July 2021 that this crisis was “imminent”, raising concerns over the “uprooted population” numbering “over 3.5 million” as well as an increase in civilian casualties by “29 per cent during the first quarter of this year compared to 2020…” Despite this warning, the UNHCR also reported that their financial appeal was “acutely underfunded, at only 43 per cent of a total US$ 337 million required.” On the very same day, UK MPs voted to approve an aid cut worth £4 billion, which would inevitably reduce aid to Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban takeover, the humanitarian crisis has only worsened. According to an overview by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OHCA) issued in January 2022, it is projected that 24.4 million in Afghanistan are in need, and those in “severe” need number 15.1 million, with children most heavily affected. This is a significant increase from the previously recorded number of 18.4 million people in need, as per an OHCA report in July 2021. A greater variety of people are also being affected, with projections for humanitarian needs in 2022 suggesting that more Afghan sub-groups have had vulnerabilities aggravated by conflict, drought and economic problems.
In the meantime, there are strategies that the international community are beginning to utilise to ensure that aid gets to the Afghan people while avoiding the legitimisation of the Taliban.
Afghan assets overseas have been made unavailable to the Taliban government in Kabul to complicate matters further. It was confirmed by an official on 17 August 2021 that the US had frozen almost $9.5 billion in assets that belonged to the Afghan central bank because the Taliban are on the Treasury Department’s sanctions designation list. This move was followed by a denial of access to resources held by the IMF due to uncertainty about whether the international community would recognise the Taliban government. Then the World Bank, whose funding has helped to support development projects in Afghanistan, “paused disbursements.” Unsurprisingly, these moves topped the Taliban agenda, with its delegates urging the US to unfreeze assets and lift sanctions in November 2021.
Representatives of aid organisations, including Eileen McCarthy of the Norwegian Refugee Council, have suggested that the denial of assets to and sanctions against the Taliban should not harm “impartial humanitarian activities…” A Taliban spokesman has similarly requested unfreezing assets so as not to “punish ordinary Afghans,” as these measures have directly exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, causing prices to rise and banks to collapse. Therefore, the dilemma for the international community is how to meet the humanitarian needs of the ordinary Afghan people whilst not legitimising the Taliban government. No governments have recognised the Taliban to date, and conditions for recognition are relatively complex, but the UN has encouraged all parties “to seek an inclusive, negotiated political settlement, with the full, equal and meaningful participation of women, that responds to the desire of Afghans to sustain and build on Afghanistan’s gains over the last twenty years…”
In the meantime, there are strategies that the international community are beginning to utilise to ensure that aid gets to the Afghan people while avoiding the legitimisation of the Taliban. The first strategy is to create authorisations and exemptions to the sanctions on the Taliban to assist humanitarian activities. This is exemplified by the three general licences issued by the US Treasury in December 2021, which authorised “transactions and activities involving the Taliban or the Haqqani Network” under certain conditions for the conduct of the US government, international organisations and NGOs. These licences help to implement UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2615, adopted on the same day, which provides humanitarian exemptions to the sanction regime established under UNSCR 1988.
A second strategy is to transfer funds directly to the Afghan workers and international organisations themselves rather than through the Taliban. The UN adopted this strategy for Afghanistan in January 2022 by launching the “largest single country aid appeal ever.” The appeal is for over $5 billion to support the collapsed basic services and for the “22 million in need of assistance inside the country, and 5.7 million people requiring help beyond its borders.” This money, according to the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths, would be paid directly to health workers and others and not to the de facto authorities to support state structures. In the same month, it was also announced that the UN was hoping to “inject cash into the economy” through creative solutions and also that the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund had successfully transferred $280 million to fund operations of the UN Children’s Fund and World Food Programme.
However, not all strategies exclude the Taliban. There is a growing emphasis on inclusion and dialogue with the Taliban. On 23 – 25 January, Norway hosted talks between the Taliban and Western officials. While the Norwegian Foreign Minister affirmed that the meetings did “not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban”, they felt that dialogue must occur with Afghanistan’s de facto authorities. The proceedings have not been made public, but it has been confirmed that on the first day, the Taliban met with human rights activists and showed “goodwill.” The Norwegian Prime Minister considered these talks a “first step” in preventing the humanitarian crisis. The day after the talks, UN representatives at a UNSC session on Afghanistan found “that engagement with the Taliban can lead to negotiated progress,” which they will test in the coming months. Russian and Chinese representatives even called on the West to unfreeze Afghan assets for the benefit of the Afghan people amid the disastrous conditions.
All of these strategies are operating in their early stages, so whether they prove to be successful in alleviating the humanitarian crisis is yet to be seen. But, just as UN officials said that a failure to meet the financial appeal would mean twice as much money would be required in 2023, securing humanitarian aid is necessary, but it is only a temporary solution. If there are no longer-term strategies to create a sustainable Afghanistan, there will be a never-ending chain of financial appeals for aid.