Six months on from the Taliban’s return to power, Afghanistan presents one of the most complex moral, humanitarian and political challenges the world is currently facing.
To put it bluntly, it is the problem of how to remove sanctions that are already inflicting a humanitarian disaster on the Afghan people, without being seen to be rewarding or even strengthening the Taliban regime.
Admittedly, it is impossible — at least in the short term — to resolve this dilemma, and although benefiting an oppressive regime might be an undesirable outcome, it reflects the new reality in Afghanistan, which is one for which the West is responsible to a large extent.
This new reality is that the US and its allies lost the war with the Taliban and the quicker they internalize it, overcome their wounded pride and design a long-term strategy that will prevent a humanitarian disaster in the country without empowering the Taliban, the better. This requires that the West, even if grudgingly, maintain channels of communication with a sworn enemy.
David Miliband, the former UK foreign secretary and current president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, has become one of the most vocal and eloquent critics of the West’s current policies toward Afghanistan. During a recent meeting at Chatham House, he did not mince his words, calling what is happening in Afghanistan “not just a catastrophe of choice but a catastrophe of reputation.”
Afghanistan has endured 40 years of a protracted crisis — first the Soviet occupation, then the first round of the brutal fundamentalist rule of the Taliban, followed by an unnecessary war and 20 years of conflict mixed with development — to the point where hopes have been finally dashed by a rushed and cowardly withdrawal by the West. Each phase has piled more misery onto the Afghan people.
The country was poor enough before the events of last summer but it is now on the verge of starvation. According to the International Rescue Committee, nearly 22 million Afghans, nearly half the population, are currently facing hunger and a million children are at risk of dying unless the world wakes up and provides them with immediate treatment for malnutrition.
The extent of the poverty has led to girls as young as eight years old being sold into marriage. Other people sell body parts or their babies to get money to feed themselves and their families. Without exonerating the Taliban for the current situation, and while questioning their suitability to run a modern state, the West needs to take stock of its role in bringing Afghanistan to this low point, and to acknowledge that its sanctions regime is contributing to deepening the suffering of the Afghan people.
Without access to food, drinkable water or medical help, without warm clothes during the harsh winter, and with an education system that is once again excluding girls as it teeters on the brink of collapse, what hope is left to a people who have already suffered so much?
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has frankly admitted that the international community is still wrestling with the question of how to work with a Taliban-led government, a movement with a history of brutally suppressing human rights, especially those of women. However, as difficult as this dilemma might be, time is of the essence in rising to the challenge; otherwise the humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan will only worsen.
There is a wish, better described as wishful thinking, to see the current government in Kabul fail and be blamed for that failure by the people, who consequently might even topple it. This scenario is not only unrealistic but is bound to inflict enormous suffering on the Afghan people, who did not want to see the Taliban return to power.
In recent history, imposing blanket sanctions as a tool of regime change has repeatedly failed and in all cases, without exception, it has been ordinary citizens and not the ruling elite who have paid the price for them. At this point in Afghanistan, the result of economic sanctions and frozen assets will most probably be more people forced into lives of abject poverty and deprived of basic public services such as health and education, rather than the end of the Taliban regime.
Most Afghans by now have come to resent both the Taliban that is oppressing them, and the Western allies that have abandoned them and left them with very few options beyond the daily struggle to survive.
Meanwhile, as thousands of International Rescue Committee employees continue to work tirelessly and in dire conditions to alleviate the hardships people are facing, there is much logic to Miliband’s view that the issue is not about recognizing the Taliban, but recognizing the reality that they won the war and we in the West lost it.
Accepting this reality does not mean formally recognizing the Taliban and their legitimacy or tolerating its disturbing ideology, but accepting that saving lives and easing the suffering of the Afghan people requires engagement with the country’s leadership and the creation of a mechanism whereby aid ends up in the right hands.
There could even be something of a win-win situation here, since the foreign aid that Afghanistan is so dependent on will not only, at least in the short term, prevent a humanitarian disaster; it might also give the West some leverage over the government in Kabul and mitigate some of its policies, with the aim of preventing a return to the levels of brutality that characterized its previous rule.
There is no textbook on how to deal with regimes that behave outside the norms of international discourse, with little regard for human rights. Aid on its own will not provide the necessary answer but it must be accompanied by a change of policy to one that engages with the Taliban and creates just enough space for pragmatism.
It means first ascertaining whether its current leadership is willing to constructively engage with the outside world. If so, an agreed mechanism that ensures that humanitarian aid reaches those who need it, but that does not tighten the Taliban’s hold on power, is imperative.
At the heart of this policy should be efforts to ensure that the people of Afghanistan are not caught between oppression at home and a punitive international community still reeling from defeat and humiliation, leaving them once again to pay the price for the failures and shortcomings of others.