The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The West has a hand in Afghanistan’s bleak state

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The West’s fixation on the war in Ukraine stands in contrast with its tacit disregard for the situation in Afghanistan. The world watched with horror as the Taliban swept to power in Kabul at the end of last summer, marking a brutal coda to two decades and trillions of dollars worth of American-led state-building and counterinsurgency. In Washington and various European capitals, there was fury at the Biden administration for its chaotic withdrawal and lamentations for the plight of Afghan women and girls, once more in the draconian grip of a fundamentalist militia bent on curtailing their freedoms.

But that was about it, and in recent months, the wealthy nations of North America and Europe have instead focused their energies and a considerable amount of financial muscle on reinforcing the government in Kyiv. All the while, though, conditions in Afghanistan have gone from bad to worse over the past eight months.

The Taliban takeover came with a shuddering collapse of the Afghan economy. The international funding that had long propped up the country’s frail government was cut off, while the United States and its allies froze Afghanistan’s more than $7 billion of foreign reserves. Millions of Afghans are now unemployed, including a vast swath of public sector workers. The banking system is no longer functional and cash is in short supply.

A United Nations report last month calculated that nearly half the country’s population is facing acute hunger, a problem exacerbated by an ongoing drought and the supply disruptions linked to the war in Ukraine. The U.N.'s World Food Program now estimates that some 18 million people will be in need of urgent food assistance in June. That number likely includes almost 10 million Afghan children, according to a report last month from Save the Children. Mounting hunger and spiraling poverty have forced desperate families into unthinkable scenarios, including forcing families to put their young children to work and to seek dowries for girls as child brides. According to one estimate by several aid agencies, more than 120,000 children have been bartered for some sort of financial incentive in the eight months since the Taliban captured Kabul.

Aid agencies are clamoring for more funding to boost their faltering efforts in Afghanistan. But there are limitations to what they can do in a country whose de facto government is both unrecognized by the international community and seemingly intent on furthering its extremist agenda. The Taliban reimposed strict rules on women, include mandating garb from head to toe, while preventing girls from attending school after the sixth grade.

“We are essentially engaged in a form of cooperation without recognition and trying to make the best possible for an increasingly desperate Afghan population,” Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) told me at a panel on the situation in Afghanistan that I moderated at the World Economic Forum last week.

Steiner said the United Nations is “unequivocal about the fundamental human rights that we expect a country like Afghanistan to uphold,” including the rights of girls to attend educational institutions. But, at the same time, international organizations are trying to help ordinary Afghans navigate “a highly informal survival economy” that has plunged the bulk of the country into destitution.

“We cannot abandon 40 million Afghans simply on the principle of moral outrage,” he said. “We are there because we see the desperation of the Afghan people. And while the international community finds a way with the Taliban to conclude a process of political rapprochement, we are trying to essentially intervene in an economy that has to keep people alive.”

Yet for many Western governments, pouring further funding into Afghanistan is a non-starter. “Some Taliban officials have called for international investment to ease unemployment and inflation,” reported my colleague Susannah George. “But for most companies and banks, economic sanctions on Taliban leaders are the most significant barrier to investment.”

In February, President Biden signed an executive order formally setting aside some $3.5 billion of Afghan foreign reserves frozen by the U.S. Treasury to help “the welfare of the people of Afghanistan,” while leaving the rest available to the families of 9/11 victims. But it is unclear exactly how that funding will be transferred to Afghanistan, with the Biden administration keen on it not reaching the Taliban. Afghans have expressed outrage at the administration for exploiting Afghan reserves for its domestic political purposes.

Steiner believes that sort of cash injection into the Afghan banking system would “without doubt … have a major impact” on the Afghan economy and go toward stabilizing a perilous situation. That view was echoed by Hina Rabbani Khar, minister of state for foreign affairs in Pakistan’s new government. “You want to ensure that the implosion doesn’t happen in a way that makes things worse,” she said during the same panel, criticizing the Biden administration’s move. “Spending $1 trillion on a 20-year adventure and then freezing [$7 billion] in reserves doesn’t sound very smart to me.”

In a separate interview with the Financial Times, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani bemoaned the West’s “boycotting” of Afghanistan and suggested that early dialogue with the Taliban government may have dissuaded its leaders from pursuing their current approach, including the restrictions on women’s rights. “We believe if we had engaged earlier, we wouldn’t have allowed such things to happen,” Mohammed said. “Right now it’s very important not to let the situation get worse and maybe we end up with a very chaotic situation in Afghanistan.”

Absent a change in the wider world’s engagement with the Taliban, he warned, things will get far worse. “We will see maybe a rise of extremism. We will start to see an economic crisis, which has already started, and this will just drive the people to more radicalization and conflict,” Mohammed said. “This is what we are trying to avoid.”

Khar brushed off criticism of Pakistan’s historic role in giving sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban and insisted that her country cannot escape “its geography.” She said the prevailing situation could be another redux of Afghanistan’s earlier traumas, as it endured decades of conflict and humanitarian disasters. “We have all shown that none of us have been able to learn any lessons from history,” Khar told me.

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