Middle East Institute

International Institutions Confront Taliban Troubles

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis
Afghan people stand with food aid being distributed by a non-governmental organisation at a gymnasium in Kabul on January 17, 2023. (Wakil Koshar/AFP via Getty Images)

International leaders are struggling to manage a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan; they are torn between their commitment to alleviate Afghans’ suffering and their reluctance to legitimize a Taliban government that violates its people’s basic rights. Helping Afghans but not their new “de facto authorities” is a difficult balance for a diverse group of international actors with often divergent long-term interests.

At the beginning of May, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called a two-day meeting in Doha of senior representatives from two dozen countries and international organizations. Guterres wanted to harmonize the attendants’ messaging, if not their approaches, regarding four critical issues: human rights (especially women’s rights), counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and inclusive governance. Ultimately, they decided to continue the current practice of denouncing the Taliban’s non-inclusive policies, demanding a cessation of narcotrafficking and terrorism, as well as refusing to recognize the Taliban regime, but maintaining humanitarian assistance and limited “principled and constructive engagement.” According to Guterres, “what was important is that we all understand each other’s concerns and limitations, but agreed that it was in everyone’s interest, foremost the Afghans, to work together.” The attending governments also decided to review these policies under U.N. auspices later this year, effectively deferring for months a decision regarding what criteria the Taliban must meet for recognition.

The Doha compromise

In the weeks before the Doha meeting, the U.N. and other international institutions were visibly torn over the issue of continuing humanitarian aid amidst the Taliban’s increasing restrictions on civil society. Since the Taliban re-seized control of Afghanistan in August 2021, foreign governments and organizations, though suspending the provision of long-term development assistance, have provided emergency humanitarian aid to help Afghans meet their basic food, education, and health care needs. But the Taliban’s increasing constraints on these relief activities and other repressive practices have led many Afghans and foreign groups to demand the suspension of such aid.

In an April 17 interview at Princeton University, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who visited Kabul in January, said her team of negotiators was searching for “baby steps” that could “put us back on the pathway” toward “principled recognition” of the Taliban regime. She argued that exploiting the Taliban’s desire for recognition offered leverage to improve the regime’s behavior, whereas disengagement would deprive the international community of influence in Afghanistan, leading to worse outcomes. Mohammed’s comments evoked outrage, including rare public protests by groups of women in Kabul and other Afghan cities, and multiple warnings from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) against accepting the Taliban regime, even conditionally.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Development Program administration threatened to cease all in-country programs after the Taliban extended their ban on female Afghan employment to U.N. agencies. Due to customary Afghan restrictions on interactions between the sexes, female workers are critical for accessing the many impoverished families in the country. On April 27, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2681, castigating the Taliban for their failure to allow for “full, equal, meaningful, and safe participation of women and girls in Afghanistan.” The Taliban leadership, increasingly under the sway of hardline religious elements led by their zealot leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, based in Kandahar, defended their policies as an “internal matter.” Despite international concerns, the authorities have increased their harassment of Afghan women working for U.N. agencies. Taliban representatives have insisted that foreigners could best aid Afghans by removing sanctions and recognizing their government.

The “common understanding” reached among the Doha attendees was meant to continue providing humanitarian assistance and conditional engagement while refusing to recognize the Taliban’s declared government or even invite its representatives to the talks. Taliban officials pointed out the basic logical problem of this approach, rightly questioning: “How will they implement decisions while we are not part of it?”

In addition to their commitment to helping a nation in distress, certain international and NGO groups remain engaged in Afghanistan because some local Taliban administrators have not enforced the most draconian Taliban policies regarding female employment, education, and dress. These exemptions, along with the end of the Taliban insurgency, have allowed aid workers to access previously excluded groups despite the general restrictions. But the durability of these exemptions is questionable. Though formally excluded from aid disbursements, the Taliban have exploited their power and creative instruments to divert assistance to sanctioned entities. To secure these exemptions, the authorities have required foreign providers to transfer substantial sums to Taliban entities in the forms of taxes, fees, customs duties, and preferred employment for Taliban followers — diversions that arouse opposition in the United States Congress. U.N. resolutions and U.S. Treasury decisions permit foreign assistance to Afghans only if it flows directly to recipients from international organizations and NGOs rather than through Taliban-controlled structures.

Given these difficulties — as well as the distractions of Ukraine, Yemen, Sudan, and other global emergencies — it is perhaps unsurprising that humanitarian aid to Afghans is “hugely underfunded." For this year, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that Afghanistan will require $4.62 billion for education, food, and health care. Thus far, pledges to the U.N. Humanitarian Response Plan amount to only $294 million, less than 7% of that total. Even if international NGOs are prepared to continue assistance despite the Taliban’s repressive policies, those practices are making it more difficult to raise the funds necessary to do so.

Maneuvering neighbors

Afghanistan’s neighbors have decided that humanitarian and security imperatives mean they must deal with the Taliban regime. Yet the latter’s atrocious policies have made it impossible for even the most cynical and opportunistic foreign governments to recognize its rule officially. Since North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) militaries withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, the countries surrounding Afghanistan have only gingerly engaged with the Taliban. Their wariness is understandable given the problems the movement caused them during the previous iteration of the Islamic Emirate. Additionally, though these neighbors agree on certain broad principles, they are hesitant in their approach because they disagree on several specific policies.

Areas of consensus among these regional governments were evident in last month’s Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan. On April 13, the foreign ministers of China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan met in Samarkand to harmonize their approaches toward Afghanistan. This conference built upon the first such ministerial, which met in Pakistan on Sept. 8, 2021. As with the previous session, the April 2023 meeting issued a communique adumbrating their broad economic, political, and security goals. Their Samarkand Declaration called for “a peaceful, united, sovereign and independent state, free from the threats of terrorism and drug trafficking.” It further “expressed confidence that the Afghan authorities will respect fundamental human rights,” while insisting on the necessity for the international community to maintain dialogue and communication with Afghanistan” as well as “continue providing humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people” — along with reconstruction aid, refugee support, and regional infrastructure development.

The divisions among the neighboring countries, though papered over in the Samarkand Declaration, manifested themselves in the more explicit criticisms and demands found in the concurrent “Joint Statement of the Second Informal Meeting on Afghanistan Between Foreign Ministers of China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran.” These four governments directly criticize the “Afghan authority’s” inability to rein in terrorist groups based in Afghanistan that threatened neighbors. At the same time, they insist that “NATO countries should bear primary responsibility for the predicament in Afghanistan, [and thus] should create opportunities for economic development and prosperity in Afghanistan […and] instantly lift unilateral sanctions against Afghanistan and return its overseas assets.” The Chinese, Russian, Pakistani, and Iranian foreign ministers also denounced the “geopolitical games” of NATO governments and resolutely “opposed the reestablishment of military bases in and around Afghanistan by these countries responsible for the current situation.”

Though both Samarkand statements called on the Taliban to remove restrictions on women and ethnic minorities and adopt a more inclusive government, the Chinese foreign minister made clear that these practices were not a show-stopper for Beijing. State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang told the media, “The issue of women’s rights and interests is very important, but it is not the whole of the Afghan issue, nor is it the core or root cause of the Afghan issue.”

On April 12, the Chinese Foreign Ministry published a paper defining Chinese policies toward Afghanistan as respecting Afghanistan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, religious beliefs, and national customs. According to the text, Beijing supports the country’s independent economic development, with multinational humanitarian and refugee assistance, while opposing external (i.e., Western) political and military interference in Afghanistan or its neighborhood. The document also calls for “greater bilateral and multilateral counter-terrorism cooperation” to “prevent the country from again becoming a safe haven, breeding ground and source of terrorism,” along with the related evils of religious extremism, ethnic separatism, and narcotics cultivation. The paper duly expresses “hope” that Afghanistan’s “interim” government “could build an open and inclusive political structure [and] adopt moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies.” China demands that the United States, “which created the Afghan issue in the first place,” immediately and unconditionally release the Afghan funds frozen in U.S. banks, remove its Afghan-related sanctions, and provide assistance to Afghanistan regardless of the regime’s restrictions on women, NGOs, and other civil society freedoms.

For now, China and Russia are operating within the framework of the Doha consensus. Beijing and Moscow presently act as if de facto acceptance may suffice for them to avoid the international opprobrium of recognizing the Taliban while still gaining access to Afghanistan’s mineral wealth and influence over its counter-terrorism policies. Ironically, regional and Western governments have employed a similar approach when it comes to security concerns: relying primarily on the Taliban to rein in the international terrorist groups and narcotics dealers in Afghanistan. Though understandable due to their shared reluctance to deploy troops in the country, this approach is risky given doubts over the Taliban’s capacity, cohesion, and motivation to combat these threats. Furthermore, all governments express concern about the increase in narcotics production in Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power, but the impoverishment of rural Afghanistan has made the lucre of illicit drug trafficking hard to resist for many Afghan farmers.

What consequences for Taliban obstinancy?

The Taliban have regularly dismissed international complaints about their behavior. Their representatives have demanded that the international community relieve Afghans’ suffering by removing and recognizing their government. The challenge facing the international community is that foreigners seem to care more about the Afghan people’s suffering than the self-proclaimed government — a fact that Taliban leaders exploit, expecting that, no matter how badly they behave, they will continue receiving emergency aid. As the Norwegian ambassador to the U.N. put it, “The Taliban themselves have given up on their own population and especially their own women. But we as an international community cannot do that.”

Read in Middle East Institute.