The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Afghanistan desperately needs aid. One technocrat from the former government is key to the Taliban’s efforts.

Nazir Kabiri, center, a career technocrat and Finance Ministry official, prays with Taliban officials at an aid conference in Kabul on Jan. 12, 2022. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)
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KABUL — Twenty years ago, Nazir Kabiri earned a master’s degree in economics on a Fulbright scholarship in Kentucky. Later, he founded an Afghan think tank that promoted critical thinking and public participation in national issues. For much of the past decade, he was a senior finance official in the civilian-led government of President Ashraf Ghani.

As Taliban forces swept to power in August, Kabiri’s boss abruptly resigned as finance minister and fled the country. So did many of Kabiri’s friends in government and the educated urban elite. At the last moment, his own security guards begged him to leave.

But the 40-year-old technocrat decided to stay. Today, he remains deputy minister for policy at the Finance Ministry, reporting to its Taliban minister. He has also become a key figure — part numbers cruncher, part diplomat — in the isolated, cash-strapped Islamist regime’s efforts to seek relief aid from Western donors and restore trade with neighbors such as Iran.

“I am an economist. I knew that with 75 percent of the public budget coming from foreign aid, everything would collapse and there would be a human catastrophe,” Kabiri said last week. “I knew there was risk and uncertainty, but I felt obliged to stay. I thought I would be able to help.”

After lengthy legal and technical negotiations, the floodgates of foreign relief aid began to open last week. United Nations officials announced an extraordinary appeal for $4.5 billion in emergency aid to Afghanistan, where millions of destitute people face a harsh winter with insufficient food and shelter. The Biden administration said it would donate $300 million after exempting some aid from U.S. anti-terrorism sanctions, which have frozen more than $9 billion of Afghan assets in U.S. accounts.

As Afghanistan’s harsh winter sets in, many are forced to choose between food and warmth

On Wednesday, officials from a dozen international agencies sat at a large conference table in the Finance Ministry in Kabul, facing a row of Afghan officials. The occasion was the launch of a joint committee for humanitarian aid, and both groups delivered polite speeches. Afghans offered thanks and assurance that none of the funds would be misused; foreign aid officials promised to remain politically neutral but added for the record that ensuring rights and opportunities for women and girls, which the Taliban has restricted, is crucial for the nation’s future.

Kabiri was at the table, seated prominently amid a row of Taliban officials in robes and turbans. Bareheaded, dressed in a dark suit and just starting to grow a beard, he nodded occasionally but remained poker-faced. As soon as the meeting broke up, though, he offered impromptu remarks to local TV crews in the parking lot and began sending out a stream of tweets in English.

“My team and I … owe it to the people” of Afghanistan to see that adequate foreign funds are raised and “delivered directly to the people in a coordinated, effective & transparent manner,” he said in one tweet. “We will come out of this stronger.”

Despite the promising moment, though, even a massive influx of foreign aid this winter would fall far short of what the deeply impoverished country of nearly 38 million needs to begin rebuilding its shattered economy, let alone what its Taliban rulers need to win public trust and international credibility. Western governments and donors are still withholding development aid, demanding proof that the Taliban has changed from its repressive period in power in the late 1990s.

Even for a religious regime desperately thin on expertise, Kabiri’s central role is not due only to his policy chops. A member of the ethnic Tajik minority, he is among only a handful of current officials who are members of neither the Taliban’s religious movement nor its ethnic Pashtun group.

Foreign rights groups and donor governments have criticized Taliban rulers as being insufficiently inclusive; Kabiri’s presence at conferences and on official foreign trips signals that they are trying. Since September, he also has frequently acted as an interlocutor with officials of international aid organizations, whose technical language he speaks in fluent, self-confident English.

Earlier this month, he accompanied the acting Taliban foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, on an ice-breaking trip to Tehran, where they discussed border trade issues with Iranian officials and also met with top exiled leaders of a national anti-Taliban militia movement, all of them Tajiks.

Some Afghan observers suggest that officials like Kabiri are being used for public relations purposes without being allowed to wield real power.

“They all have Taliban ministers over them, so they have no authority to make decisions,” said one analyst, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation after another outspoken academic was arrested recently in Kabul. “The Taliban cannot solve the country’s problems; they have no internal legitimacy or foreign support. So they let other people participate, but it means very little.”

Taliban meets with opposition militia representatives in Iran

In an interview Jan. 6, Muttaqi denied that the regime is keeping out non-Pashtuns, and he quickly named a list of officials from other backgrounds to prove it. They included the agriculture minister, who is Uzbek; the deputy health minister, a minority Shiite Hazara; the mayor of Kabul, an ethnic Baloch; and the army chief of staff, another Tajik. The most senior minority official is Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, who is Uzbek.

“We have lots of technocrats in our government, and we don’t want to be isolated,” Muttaqi said. “We want the world to see us with new eyes. We are trying to send positive messages, to end corruption, to show we are moving forward. Our big problem is the American sanctions, but if they care about human rights, we are better on that score than many countries that are friends of America. We don’t expect them to recognize us, but we want them to engage with us.”

Kabiri, whose wife and family have remained in Afghanistan with him, said he faced criticism from friends and past associates that he is legitimizing a repressive regime, even if that was not his intent. Khalid Payenda, his former boss as finance minister in the Ghani government, told an audience at Georgetown University in September that he could never work with the Taliban unless they improved their record on women’s and other human rights. If anything, he said, the new Islamist rulers are “more brutal than they were 20 years ago.”

Taliban cracks down on more rights while demanding Western aid

But Kabiri insists that the urgent nature of the job — especially devising and implementing mechanisms that would allow foreign aid to reach needy Afghans — is what has motivated him. “I am not interested in politics,” he said. “I care about the national interest, and the real challenge for Afghanistan now is how to govern.”

He said he did not fault other educated, ambitious Afghans for escaping. “They saw no future here, but I saw this change as an opportunity.” Overnight, he said, development aid stopped pouring in and relief aid was cut off. “The dollarized economy was gone, and we had to start building a new one, to stop mismanagement, to ensure liquidity,” he said. “This did not happen by itself.”

Still, there are moments when the studied neutrality of a policy wonk, newly employed by a stern religious regime, gives way to the idealist who once founded an institute that taught Afghans to think for themselves and express their opinions.

“We do need a political process, a formula, that leads to stability,” Kabiri said carefully. “People need stability, institutions, a way to air their grievances.” Whether that might happen any time soon, in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, he didn’t venture to guess.

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