A new report by Crisis Group warns against international donors cutting aid to Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s curbs on women’s education and ability to work at NGOs, instead arguing for Western countries to find a “liminal space between pariah and legitimate status” to respond to the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
The report, released on Thursday, focused primarily on two Taliban edicts announced in December – the first suspending female education at private and public universities, and the second banning Afghan women from working at local and international NGOs. The moves led to protests and global condemnation, while sounding a possible death knell for the Taliban’s initial openness to engage with the international community following its takeover of the country in August 2021.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
Accompanying the Taliban’s clampdown has been a reassessment of international aid from key international government donors, according to the report’s authors. That aid, despite being immediately paused in the wake of the group’s rise to power, had resumed amid concerns over widespread hunger and poverty in the country of about 40 million.
“Donors are turning away from Afghanistan, disgusted by the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s basic freedoms,” Graeme Smith, Crisis Group’s Senior Consultant on Afghanistan, said in a statement accompanying the report.
“However, cutting aid to send a message about women’s rights will only make the situation worse for all Afghans,” he added. “The most principled response to the Taliban’s misogyny would be finding ways to mitigate the harms inflicted on women and other vulnerable groups.”
The report – which drew on dozens of interviews with “Afghan and international women activists, current and former Afghan officials, teachers, students, aid workers, human rights defenders, development officials, diplomats, business leaders and other interlocutors” – noted Western governments in the second half of 2022 warned aid agencies of a growing sense of donor fatigue towards Afghanistan. It did not name the governments to which it referred.
The authors further warned that following the most recent rights rollbacks, “many Western politicians fear voters will not accept the idea of their taxes helping a country ruled by an odious regime,” while adding that “consultations in January 2023 among major donors produced initial thinking that aid should be trimmed back to send a message to the Taliban, although the governments involved did not agree on which budgets to cut”.
Again, the report did not name the countries in question.
The United Nations, which has already had to roll back some aid operations in the wake of the ban on NGO workers, has appealed for $4.6bn to aid Afghanistan. The sum is the largest request for a single country ever. The UN has warned that 28 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, accounting for two-thirds of the country’s population.
But Crisis Group warned that “Western governments seemed poised to fall significantly short” of that appeal.
The report authors added that options discussed in the wake of the December edict have included “deepening sanctions, cutting aid or levying other forms of punishment in response”.
They noted that the G7 grouping of the world’s most wealthy countries had said there would be “consequences for how our countries engage with the Taliban” in the wake of the December edicts. The grouping had provided $3bn in humanitarian funding for Afghanistan in 2022, the report noted.
In the United States, which imposed a raft of new sanctions on the Taliban in October over their treatment of women, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “There are going to be costs if this is not reversed”.
The report’s authors argued any approach that included short-term cuts to aid in the hopes of undermining the Taliban’s authority would further harm those targeted by the Taliban’s recent moves.
“Testing such assumptions would involve a high-stakes gamble with potentially millions of human lives. Win or lose, the costs of taking the gamble would be paid in large part by Afghan women, as the burdens of the crisis fall disproportionately on them,” the report said.
It noted that “women and girls often get the smallest share of food in Afghan families, which means that in times of scarcity they are most vulnerable to malnutrition and disease”, while child marriages tend to increase during times of increased hardship.
Change of approach
Instead, Crisis Group argued that continuing to offer humanitarian aid, while supporting longer-term development aid, would address the population’s immediate needs, while undermining the “Taliban’s overheated rhetoric about a titanic clash between Islam and the West”.
The authors further cautioned against expecting outside pressure to change the Taliban’s approach, highlighting the opaque nature of the group’s decision-making. They noted its reclusive leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, has appeared to insist on the strict measures out of “personal conviction and to assert his authority over the movement and the country”.
“As the world considers its options, the idea of coaxing the Taliban into behaving like an internationally acceptable government should be set aside for the moment,” the report said.
There is little room for opposing views within the Taliban leadership, it added, and influence from outside Muslim figures has proven ineffective as “the Taliban’s policies are drawn not only from their atypical interpretation of Islam, but also from aspects of local culture”.
Meanwhile, political talks with the Taliban aimed at creating a “roadmap” to normalisation have all but stalled. It also remains unclear how much money the group may be earning from narcotics and other forms of smuggling, bringing into question how much sanctions will actually affect the upper echelons of leadership.
“Western policymakers must stand up for Afghan women and girls. At the same time, they should be careful to avoid self-defeating policies,” the report concluded.
“Practical steps that materially benefit Afghan women, improving their lives in tangible ways, would be superior to angry denunciations of the Taliban’s wrongheadedness.”
The authors added: “The Taliban should find a better way of making decisions, instead of following the whims of a leader who has proven his determination to oppress women and block the rebuilding of his country. Until that happens, the future of Afghanistan looks bleak.”