Policy is at a crossroads in a troubled Afghanistan
Chicago Tribune May 17, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — Nearly 21 months after the U.S. withdrawal from a two-decadelong misadventure in Afghanistan, an increasingly polarized Washington continues to ask the same old questions. Who lost Afghanistan? Was Afghanistan ever America’s to win? Who is at fault for the collapse of the Afghan security forces, which U.S. taxpayers funded to the tune of $89 billion? And could the Biden administration have run a more organized evacuation operation?
To the United Nations and Afghanistan’s international donors, however, all of these questions do nothing to help manage the economic and humanitarian debacle Afghanistan has become. The more important query: Is it possible to help the Afghan population avert further misery without empowering or legitimizing the Taliban?
The Taliban’s radical agenda warrants the group little sympathy. To some former U.S. security officials, stronger economic sanctions against the Taliban are not only appropriate but also absolutely necessary if the international community has a chance of pressuring the group to respect human rights and begin a dialogue with their political opponents.
One can’t fault the sentiment underlying these recommendations. Any hope the Taliban would markedly change their stripes and govern in a more inclusive way turned out to be premature. Having shed so much blood trying to get back the power it lost, the group had no intention of sharing it with those they defeated. Sporadic discussions with anti-Taliban militia leaders have gone nowhere; whatever armed opposition to Taliban rule exists has limited domestic support.
The Taliban rule as they wish. In September 2021, one month after capturing Kabul, the Taliban government banned high school education for women and girls. Last December, women were no longer allowed to enroll in universities. In April, the U.N. advised its female staff to stay home after the Taliban prohibited women from working for nongovernmental organizations. This decision prompted the U.N. Security Council to unanimously approve a resolution on April 27 that condemned the Taliban declaration and urged a speedy reversal of the policy.
All of this is occurring as Afghanistan’s economic situation remains cataclysmic by any conceivable measure. During the war, the country was almost totally dependent on foreign donors for approximately 40% of its gross domestic product and around 75% of its operating budget. So when that foreign aid was suspended after the Taliban’s takeover, Afghanistan’s entire economy went down the tubes. Approximately one-third of Afghanistan’s GDP was wiped out during the Taliban’s first four months in power.
While revenue collection went up considerably last year due to stronger taxation by the Taliban, Afghanistan is highly unlikely to approach previous levels of economic activity as long as the country is cut off from the international banking system. The Afghanistan Central Bank’s assets remain frozen and under the control of the U.S. The Biden administration’s sanctions waiver for humanitarian activity was the right call but is having limited impact.
As the World Bank reported in October, “Formal payments flowing into and out of Afghanistan remain problematic for all actors — including the Interim Taliban Administration (ITA), humanitarian agencies, and the private sector — for critical imports such as electricity, food, and medicines.”
Socioeconomic indicators, meanwhile, are worsening. The U.N. Development Program has found that as many as 34 million Afghans are below the poverty line, a 78% increase from 2020 levels. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres understands that a punitive strategy toward Afghanistan is simply unsustainable, telling reporters after a U.N.-organized meeting in Doha, Qatar, early this month that “a strategy of engagement” is the better option. But such a strategy won’t be successful unless the U.S., Europe and other donor nations buy into the effort — not with another infusion of foreign troops but through some common-sense, low-cost proposals.
First, there needs to be a general acknowledgment that you can’t isolate the Taliban government without penalizing the very people you claim to support. Official diplomatic recognition of the Taliban would be a steep political sell and is therefore off the table. But the Taliban are nevertheless the ones calling the shots in Afghanistan: they have most of the guns, occupy government offices and control the levers of power. That means humanitarian assistance operations, as well as continued access for aid workers and U.N. staffers, can’t occur unless the Taliban acquiesces. Bluntly put: The Taliban run the show whether we like or not, and the world needs to devise a way to deal with that reality.
Second, the U.S. needs to do a better job clarifying sanctions carve-outs and exemptions to the current sanctions regime. Basic or obtuse guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department will do little to assuage the concerns of financial institutions responsible for processing payments for and on behalf of humanitarian organizations serving the Afghan people. Banks are conservative institutions and will take pains to ensure they don’t run afoul of U.S. law. This is why more detail, expressed in clear language, about what activity is and isn’t acceptable is vital if sanctions exemptions are to be more than public relations exercises.
Finally, the Afghan Fund, established to disburse $3.5 billion in Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, needs to meet more regularly. The fund’s four-person board has met only twice since its formation in September, and it has not made a single disbursement decision. The reasons for this are unclear, but it wouldn’t be surprising if a big part of the problem is the board’s requirement that decisions be approved unanimously. If so, the unanimity rule should be reassessed.
Afghanistan’s dire outlook can be managed only if an at-times uncomfortable pragmatism rules the day.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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