How to Stop Afghans from Starving
More than half of Afghanistan’s population is currently facing starvation, with 1,000,000 children at risk of dying of hunger. A combination of the Western military withdrawal, the collapse of the republic of Afghanistan, and the return of the Taliban to power has spawned interlocking economic, humanitarian, migration, and political crises. The Afghan people are paying the price.
To alleviate their suffering, the Taliban, the West, and the National Resistance Front should all be prepared to make the necessary political compromises. The Taliban should create a government for all Afghans, including their former enemies, by establishing a more inclusive and consultative political process. The National Resistance Front should stop their calls for continuing a war that only benefits those in positions of power. And the West, for its part, should lift sanctions on the Afghan banking system and unfreeze assets so that Afghans can have access to their own money.
Stalemate and Starvation
The Taliban seem to have underestimated the challenges of securing international recognition after their military victory. They perhaps believed that a coalition of Islamic countries would help pave the way. But so far, they have not received formal recognition from any country, Islamic or otherwise, including their most important ally, Pakistan.
Western states have laid out a number of conditions for recognition reflecting both their values and interests. For the West, the values-based conditions include forming an inclusive government, upholding women’s and human rights, ensuring equality and protecting all Afghans, all while living up to promises to provide amnesty for individuals who worked with the previous Afghan government. As a matter of national interest, Western countries have also demanded that the Taliban prevent transnational terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base to plan attacks.
The Taliban, in turn, are eager to secure international recognition but are not willing to compromise on their own values. For many Taliban fighters, imposing these values was the objective of the war they waged for the past 20 years. To abandon them in the group’s moment of triumph would undermine cohesion and create dissent within the rank and file.
The result of these conflicting agendas is that Afghan civilians continue to suffer. So long as U.S. sanctions on the Taliban remain in force, Afghans are unable to access their own hard-earned income and savings to sustain themselves and their families during a man-made humanitarian crisis.
A Call for Compromise
The challenge is to find a way forward that overcomes this stalemate without completely giving in to the Taliban’s vision for the country. The recent Oslo conference between Afghan civil society groups and the Taliban was an important step forward. And if there was indeed a parallel meeting in Moscow between the National Resistance Front and the Taliban (which was reported in international and local news outlets but denied by the Taliban and Russia) that is even better news. But further progress will require more substantive steps from the Taliban, from the National Resistance Front, and, ultimately, from the United States and Europe as well.
If the Taliban are indeed concerned about the plight of the Afghan people, they should follow up on these meetings with gestures aimed at building trust within the country, especially among Afghan women.
To begin, the Taliban can become more inclusive about what voices they allow to participate in civil society. Before seeking international recognition, the Taliban should first focus on seeking internal and domestic legitimacy. This means building an inclusive government that represents and listens to all Afghans. When Afghans and the West call for an inclusive government, it does not mean that the Taliban should empower the “Old Guard” of ethnic groups and former warlords that represent the corruption of the last 40 years. Rather, they must work for the inclusion of the youth that are not corrupt, that were not a party to the previous conflict, and that have the technical experience to begin reversing the country’s brain drain. The Taliban should also allow skilled and highly educated Afghans to come back to the country and work in technical positions. Utilizing the considerable human potential that was developed over the past two decades can improve governance and strengthen the social contract between the state and its citizens.
Intra-Afghan dialogue with all factions of society is also key to bringing durable peace to Afghanistan. The Taliban’s recent discussions with the National Resistance Front are a welcome development. Tajikistan, which hosts the group’s leadership, has continued to supply electricity to the Taliban government, signing a new agreement last month. The Taliban should make the most of this goodwill by continuing their commitment to dialogue. The recent unrest in Kazakhstan, particularly the involvement of Afghan nationals in that country’s protests, indicates that if the situation in Afghanistan remains unstable, regional concerns will grow.
The Taliban leadership should also show greater political maturity and statesmanship. One key step would be allowing international organizations, such as the United Nations, to assist Afghans. As a post-war governance strategy, this would provide a significant opportunity for the Taliban to engage with diverse communities across the country. The previous government established 35,000 community development councils, which were effective in implementing small projects, helped to expand government legitimacy, and made a significant contribution to the welfare and representation of community members. This created a strong working relationship between the community and the state that the Taliban could leverage to listen, serve, and work with the local population. The restoration of trust between Afghans can reduce the impact of sanctions while creating domestic strength to manage the humanitarian crises in a coordinated way.
Instead of calling suffering, jobless Afghans the “orphans of America,” the Taliban should engage, respect, and include them in the country’s governance. This will help change international perceptions and create a pathway towards recognition and legitimacy.
The National Resistance Front
The National Resistance Front, for its part, should accept that the time has come to make peace. If the previous government, with the full support of the United States and NATO, could not defeat the Taliban militarily, how does the National Resistance Front intend to? And even if it could, would toppling the Taliban bring durable peace to Afghanistan or simply more conflict?
Moreover, National Resistance Front leaders currently enjoy popular support across anti- Taliban constituencies, but if they insist on continuing a war that has no end or positive outcome in sight, they may lose it. Except for Ahmad Masood, the group’s current leaders were part of the Afghan government over the past 20 years. Most were involved in corruption and failed to serve their constituents when in power, which has already created a trust deficit among their own supporters. The National Resistance Front has also repeatedly failed to form an inclusive movement that can appeal to all of the ethnicities across Afghanistan. In this regard, they fall short of the vision set out by the late Ahmad Shah Masood.
The National Resistance Front can fight against the Taliban for as long as they like. But the Afghan people cannot afford another war. The National Resistance Front’s leaders should respect this and pursue dialogue.
Finally, the West should realize that waiting for a drastic policy shift from the Taliban will prove counterproductive. Indeed, even if Taliban leadership proved willing to offer the concessions the West expects of them, it might well undermine the group’s cohesion and lead disgruntled fighters to join the ranks of the Islamic State-Khorasan. Instead, the West should seek out a middle ground. This means unfreezing the country’s financial assets and allowing its banking system to function while using smart sanctions to target the Taliban.
As the scale of the humanitarian tragedy continues to increase in Afghanistan, the West and other donor countries are now treating the symptoms of the crises rather than addressing the root causes. The recent United Nations appeal for almost $5 billion in assistance, alongside calls from former United Kingdom diplomats, signify the severity of the unfolding human catastrophe. Humanitarian aid alone cannot stave off the looming crises. The country needs a functioning economy and a strong banking sector to sustain itself. Injecting aid to prevent the Afghan currency from depreciating further is not a durable solution.
The financial assets that are currently frozen by U.S. sanctions belong to the people of Afghanistan, not to any specific group or political party. If the United States government continues to freeze assets, it continues to starve Afghans who should not pay the price for the decisions of their unelected political leaders.
In the meantime, the West has other ways to deny the Taliban legitimacy. Western states should maintain the current travel ban on Taliban leaders and keep their names on the United Nations blacklist. And, of course, formal international recognition should remain dependent on real reform.
When There’s a Will, There’s a Way
So far, the Taliban appear committed to repeating the mistakes of the government they just toppled. The previous government failed in part because it was out of touch with the realities of the Afghan people. In some cases, the government quite literally could not speak their language. Having lived outside of Afghanistan, some government officials and decision-makers did not understand the needs of the people in rural areas of the country, which led to ill-informed and misguided decision-making.
In a similar fashion, the Taliban are now appointing loyal military commanders to technical positions for which they are not qualified. This undermines trust and compromises service delivery. The Taliban are also alienating the Afghan population through harsh reprisals, including the arbitrary killings of former members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. If the Taliban want to govern effectively and secure international recognition, they should transition away from their insurgent mentality and make peace with women, minorities, and the country’s youth.
At the same time, the world must continue engaging with Afghanistan and not allow the country to be isolated. An isolated Afghanistan could potentially become home to transnational terrorists. Isolation would also lead Afghanistan to become a rentier state of neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan. This, of course, is what Pakistan wants. And Islamabad knows that without strong governance and functioning infrastructure, Afghanistan can be easily exploited.
Afghans have fought each other for the past 40 years. Seizing Kabul is easy, but governing the country is difficult. People are tired of war, and it is up to the current leadership of the Taliban and the National Resistance Front to put an end to it.
As principal secretary to former president Ashraf Ghani, one of my jobs was to share daily security reports with him. Many of them contained casualty figures as high as 300 deaths a day. I would also receive calls from the mothers of soldiers begging me to speak to commanders who could save their sons’ lives or simply find out if they were still alive. War is ugly, and Afghanistan needs a political settlement as much today as it did on Aug. 14, 2021.
Aziz Amin is a writer and analyst. He served as principal secretary and special assistant to former president Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan from December 2020 until the fall of Kabul to Taliban forces. Prior to that, he worked for Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission as senior operations and policy advisor and later deputy CEO, the director-general of public communication and donor relations at the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, and director of policy research analysis and development for the Office of the President. He tweets: @iamazizamin.