The US can help suffering Afghans without empowering the Taliban

As Afghanistan has plunged into what is being called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, one set of voices have called on the U.S. and its international allies to unfreeze various sources of funding they suspended when the Taliban seized power last August.

For example, one long-time U.S. analyst and policymaker on Afghanistan argued in a recent New York Times article, “The United States should swallow the bitter pill of working with the Taliban-led government in order to prevent a failed state in Afghanistan.” Some strenuous advocates for last year’s U.S. unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan, which helped accelerate the country’s predictable descent into crisis, are now, in the name of rescuing people we just abandoned, pleading for a release of the funding. And members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus signed a December letter to President Biden claiming that Afghan experts advise that the Taliban be granted access to Afghanistan’s reserves, ignoring the experts’ actual advice that such access should be “limited and monitored.”

It’s understandable that many would be grasping for solutions to ease the immense suffering of the Afghan people. But it would be reckless to hope that the Taliban will suddenly do the right thing if we were to give them access to billions of dollars of resources from abroad.  

They have given no indication they will cooperate with donors to speed and fairly administer the flow of humanitarian aid, stem mass displacement and reestablish a viable economy. Instead, they are creating official squads of suicide attackersjailing journalists and university professors, reportedly kidnapping and torturing women who protest their rule and cutting the heads off female mannequins as a top priority. Female activists at recent talks in Oslo stated that, while the Taliban has sought money, legitimacy and trust in its appeals to the international community, the regime has violently blocked all avenues of citizen protest and participation.

Some international ad hoc engagement may have to occur, but working with the Taliban regime as if it were a legitimate government breaks faith with Afghans suffering both starvation and a loss of freedom, Americans who sacrificed their lives and with anyone worldwide who faces emboldened terrorists watching the Taliban blueprint to seize and hold power.

The answer, in other words, is not to release money and walk away. It is, rather, for leaders in Washington, New York and Brussels to elevate and maintain attention on the continuing tragedy of Afghanistan even as they manage other pressing geopolitical problems. We can’t pretend this problem has a quick fix. As the U.S. does all over the world, we must engage by carefully balancing the urgency of humanitarian need and ongoing economic collapse with issues of financing human rights abusers, terrorists and violent insurgents.

We still have options.

First, the United Nations should continue to be the cornerstone of the international humanitarian and human rights response, but fixes are needed. U.N. agencies can go where governments cannot, without legitimizing the Taliban regime by their presence. The U.N. amplifies so-called “Western” messages by including key regional powers in the call for inclusive rule by the Taliban. U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is too weak for this monumental task. UNAMA’s mandate must be strengthened when it comes up for renewal in March, and U.N. humanitarian agencies need a special envoy in New York to streamline efforts. These are fixes that the U.S. and like-minded allies can push for now.

Secondly, we should help activate the Afghan private sector. As everyone seems to agree, liquidity must return to an economy that has seized up like an engine without oil. But that can’t happen without careful and targeted releases of frozen private accounts, which means that private businesses and commercial transactions need greater sanctions relief. The U.S. can lead the way in providing assurances to private banks or companies that they are not alone assuming risk; Treasury licenses should be backed up by wider use of “comfort letters.”

Third, donor nations should continue to expand mechanisms to pay health workers, teachers and other essential government workers without going through the Taliban authorities. There are good signs that the World Bank has gotten the needed signals from the U.S. to move this program to a higher gear.

Fourth, international financial institutions should be authorized to use Afghanistan’s frozen assets — including its sovereign reserves and drawing rights — to pay its external bills directly, such as foreign debt or electricity imports from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

And finally, in consultation with civil society in Afghanistan and in protective exile, the U.S. and other global partners must set a clear international political agenda for its relations with the Taliban — and then stick to it. Any further release of funds must come only after the Taliban have made irreversible steps to ease the suffering they have caused.

An approach that demands nothing of the Taliban and risks empowering them further fits perfectly in the regime’s triumphalist belief that it can wait out donor nations’ qualms while innocent Afghans suffer. If the Taliban want international legitimacy, they must end their violence against former government officials, the media, women activists and Hazaras, agree to international human rights monitoring and include all elements of Afghanistan’s polity in the government. 

Terrorism still threatens U.S. interests, so sanctions relief should derive from a demonstrated and irreversible change in Taliban behavior that warranted sanctions in the first place: committing terrorist acts and sheltering other terrorist groups.

Amid the immense breakdown of what has long been a fragile economic, social service and political landscape in Afghanistan, these are admittedly not easy steps. But that can’t be an excuse for not trying or for short-term solutions that spawn longer-term, intractable problems. 

The toll on the lives of Afghans is shocking and getting worse by the day. The U.S. and its allies may have withdrawn militarily and diplomatically from Afghanistan, but principled engagement, not abandonment or appeasement, remains our obligation.

Annie Pforzheimer is former acting deputy assistant secretary of State for Afghanistan, former deputy chief of mission in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and a member of the steering committee of Alliance for Support of the Afghan People.

Tags Afghanistan conflict Al-Qaeda In Afghanistan Joe Biden Reactions to the fall of Kabul Taliban War in Afghanistan

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