What can the UN do for Afghanistan now?

Given the international reluctance to recognise the Taliban government, the UN can play a central role in mitigating the Afghan crisis.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during an aid conference for Afghanistan at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on September 13, 2021 [File: Reuters/Denis Balibouse]

As Afghanistan continues to slip into a devastating economic and humanitarian crisis, there is one global actor that can help the country pull through: the United Nations. While its member states continue to debate whether to recognise the Taliban’s government, the UN can still play a significant role in supporting the Afghan people. In fact, as an international institution, it often takes on the responsibilities that no single nation wants to bear.

Despite the fact that it was excluded from the US-Taliban talks and intra-Afghan peace process, the UN is now seen as the primary avenue for humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. If individual states overpower and undermine the UN by preventing the institution from engaging with the Taliban, glaring weaknesses in the UN system will inevitably come to the surface. As the world waits for the Taliban to prove that it has changed, the UN also needs to change its approach and would do well to consider the following messages.

First, it is important to recognise that there remains as much need for a political settlement in Afghanistan today as there was before the Taliban took over Kabul. Rather than write off the Afghan peace process as dead in the water, it is more constructive to view it as a multi-year, adaptive and ongoing process of bringing all sides together to build bridges and reach a common understanding of the future of Afghanistan.

Given this imperative to reach a durable peace in Afghanistan, the UN must ensure that humanitarian and development responses support rather than detract from the peace process. In so doing, the humanitarian-development-peace nexus offers a powerful framework for advancing more integrated approaches that break down the traditional siloes of the international aid system in responding to the Afghan crisis.

Second, the UN can lead the way in promoting a developmental approach to humanitarian aid. The issue of food security is critical as Afghanistan is already experiencing severe food shortages and could face widespread famine. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a severe drought this summer affected millions of farmers in Afghanistan.

To avert a further deterioration in the country’s food security crisis, there is a need for urgent action. Yet humanitarian business-as-usual models of importing prepackaged food are a lost opportunity to support agricultural livelihoods and early economic recovery. Alongside aid distribution points, there is a need for aid collection points across the country to gather food where it is available.

In the coming months, the UN can support smallholder farming through public food procurement, replenish food pipelines, and facilitate food transportation, thus contributing to agricultural resilience and transformation in Afghanistan.

Third, meeting humanitarian needs at scale will require bold and innovative forms of financing to address the multi-dimensional crisis and challenging operating environment in Afghanistan without establishing dependency. In October, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) announced the creation of a People’s Economy Fund that will provide access to cash to vulnerable Afghans and micro-businesses which can bridge livelihood support and macroeconomic stabilisation. While this is a welcome move, there is a need for resource mobilisation at a much greater scale.

The UN can also play a crucial role in convening regional states to resolve urgent issues obstructing more effective humanitarian response. As a landlocked country, Afghanistan must rely on neighbourly cooperation for aid supplies. Pakistan has long been a natural choice for relief organisations to procure aid items. While the route is vital, it is risky to be so heavily dependent on one border. The UN can help diversify aid channels, including through Uzbekistan and Iran.

Fourth, there is an urgent need to protect 20 years of investment in state and societal capacities in Afghanistan. This means that the country needs assistance beyond life-saving aid. In doing so, it is imperative that foreign aid should avoid bypassing existing structures, in particular in the education and health sectors, which are critical to socioeconomic stability and employ a large number of women.

In mid-October, Deputy US Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo reiterated that he envisaged no circumstances under which the Taliban could access its frozen assets. Unstable cash flows and low reserves, coupled with a restricted ability to receive aid and financing, will create an opportunity for “terrorist” groups to manipulate aggrieved or impoverished people. The UN can play a critical role in acting as a good-faith monitor in a phased approach to unfreezing the Afghan assets in order to help pay badly needed salaries in health and education and address the deteriorating socioeconomic situation of the majority of Afghans.

Fifth, given the lack of trust between the Taliban and the international community, the UN is best suited to mediate a step-by-step roadmap towards strengthening humanitarian and development cooperation. The UN has led by example with UNICEF coordinating access to education with the Taliban and has plans to directly finance Afghan teachers. Both UNICEF and the World Health Organization have also initiated polio immunisation campaigns with the Taliban’s support: in October, the Taliban allowed a national polio vaccination campaign led by the UN to proceed, and said it is committed to allowing women to participate as front-line workers.

In a promising step towards more full-blown development cooperation, deputy prime minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar recently met with Achim Steiner, the director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in Doha where they discussed Afghanistan’s current economic crisis.

In short, as UN agencies are already coordinating humanitarian projects with the Taliban, they are well-positioned to draft a mutual agreement over the steps needed to establish a functional partnership between the Afghan government and the international community. Considering the vital role that Qatar has played as a go-between for the Taliban and the international community, it is only logical that it too would have a key role to play in facilitating this process.

In so doing, there is a need for a clear framework with measurable expectations and milestones that will trigger reciprocal actions. On the Taliban side, this could include providing safe access, ensuring aid is not siphoned off, guaranteeing the rights of women, and the formation of a genuinely inclusive government representing all Afghans. On the international community side, reciprocal steps could start from resumption of development aid, or removal of sanctions, to the eventual full recognition of the Afghan government.

Finally, in order for this to transpire and a conducive operating relationship to emerge between the Taliban and the UN will require political will and the right leadership to represent the UN. While the Taliban’s perception of the UN is coloured by the sanctions it has imposed on the group, it was interesting in a recent meeting to note the Taliban leaders’ fond reference to the days of Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN Special Representative for Afghanistan. Despite their disagreement with UN policy then, they clearly identified better with him as a Muslim who understood their faith and culture and showed understanding towards their views without compromising on core humanitarian principles.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.