Things in Afghanistan Are About to Get Worse. Who Should Care, and What Can be Done?
Published: September 09, 2021
Afghanistan’s history is blighted by the actions of foreigners. The near-neighbours have plenty on their consciences; others further afield do too, including the British a century ago, the Russians in the 1980s, and the US-led NATO coalition over the last 20 years. So who wants what now?
Starting with those sharing their borders, there is plenty for Afghans to worry about. Pakistan’s powerful military have deep and long-lasting relations with the Taliban—who know they would not be back in power without their backing. But Pakistan’s situation is complicated; they don’t want another exodus of millions of refugees, nor a fragmented anarchy in which multiple extremist groups, some of which make the Taliban look attractive, vie for influence. As for China, Afghanistan’s natural resources and its geographical position as a key piece of the Belt and Road jigsaw have strategists in Beijing licking their lips. But that prize requires peace and stability. Iran has, despite the Sunni-Shia tensions, decided to try to rub along with its eastern neighbour, fearing both a flood of refugees and the social harm of a revitalised and criminalised opium economy next door. To the north, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have in recent years been enticed with the potential for regional economic collaboration on power and transport corridors. They know that’s now gone, at least for a while, and they too fear a refugee influx and the export of violent extremists.
Moscow always relishes Western reverses, but Russia has reason to fear anarchy in Afghanistan too. Turkey and the Gulf states, especially Qatar, see advantage in becoming a bridge and power broker in Western efforts to contain the fall-out of the events of the last month. Europeans feel chastened, and genuine regret at having let many Afghans down. Most of their governments would like out of common humanity to find ways to ease the suffering of the population. But they have more hard-headed concerns, too: they know many refugees would try to reach their shores, and they have not forgotten that failed states can breed terrorists with global ambitions. Sympathy for the population is genuine in the US as well. Decision-makers there are wrestling with what can be done about that without undesirably buttressing the Taliban. But above all, they want to contain the terrorist threat, and Islamic State and Al-Qaeda top their concerns.
And what about Afghans themselves? They want the same things as everyone everywhere: peace and stability, the chance to support their families, health care when they need it and an education for their children. Most fear the removal of hard-earned but basic human rights. Women and girls especially are afraid. COVID, conflict and drought has decimated the economy in the last two years. Most people need humanitarian assistance to survive. Half the country’s children are acutely malnourished. The banks are closed. Food is hard to find and harder to afford. International aid, which on some estimates has been accounting for 40 percent of national income, is evaporating. The national foreign exchange reserves, which are urgently needed to finance food and fuel imports, are blocked outside the country.
What all this adds up to is that everybody’s interests—except possibly those of terrorist groups lying in wait—are served by peace and stability, and no-one wants the chaos, collapse, exodus, and starvation that is on the way. Between 2013 and 2015, a quarter of the population of Syria, more than 6 million people, walked out of the country rather than stay and suffer through Assad, Islamic State, and economic collapse. It is not fanciful to fear millions shortly doing the same in Afghanistan.
What then, realistically, can and should be done? Individual countries will all struggle to get their acts together, and none individually can move the dial very far. But they could decide to get behind the shared institutions they all notionally support.
First, building on the visit the UN’s new head of humanitarian affairs, Martin Griffiths, made to Kabul in the last week, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is hosting a Ministerial conference Monday to address the immediate humanitarian crisis. UN agencies are among the very few organisations left in Afghanistan enjoying enough acceptance from the Taliban and support from donors to provide help on a meaningful scale. They have delivered planeloads of medical and other assistance in recent days despite the mess we have all seen on our screens. They hope to raise an immediate $600 million to reach 11 million people in the next four months. Watch out for announcements at the end of the day.
Second, it is incumbent on the shareholders of the IMF and World Bank by the time of their Annual Meetings in early October to make clear to the new authorities in Kabul what help they can offer and on what basis. But the discussions at the Annual Meetings need to go wider. Will Afghanistan’s own resources, currently blocked in international banks, be released to finance essential imports? Can a way be found to guarantee the money will be put to uses everyone will support? If not, who is going to step up? China? Pakistan? If the answer is no one, the consequences are not hard to imagine.
And third, the leaders of the G20 have an opportunity when they meet in Rome later next month. Can they find a way to overcome the differences that divide them on many issues to collaborate for their own collective benefit—as well as that of the Afghan population? This will test all their statecraft, but they could sensibly compare notes privately when many are in New York for the UN General Assembly in ten days’ time.
Many column inches have been devoted in recent days to the reasons for the Taliban’s recapture of power in Afghanistan. That is worthy of study. But what happens next is more pressing, because the short and long-term security of millions of innocent civilians is on the line.