The case for funding the Taliban

It's not about whether they deserve it

Afghanistan's transition to Taliban rule has shrunk the economy by 40 per cent, pushing more children into menial work. EPA
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The Taliban doesn’t deserve money. The militant group took power in Afghanistan after a 20-year campaign of brutality and war crimes. And after it took power, it revealed itself to be both unwilling and entirely incapable of governing a state that can function in the modern world. The only benefit it has brought is a spurious reduction in levels of petty crime, though its heavy-handedness and the culture of ethnic chauvinism in its ranks have only polarised the country further, presaging more insecurity and violence to come.

The Taliban certainly doesn’t deserve money from people abroad, given through their taxes or charity. Consequently, hundreds of millions of dollars of aid previously allocated for Afghanistan by the World Bank and the IMF is now being withheld. But the humanitarian argument for releasing it is clear.

The world’s largest aid agencies have given a barrage of warnings about this over the past month. The data is so stark and so plentiful that it is easy to become desensitised to it, but it is worth hearing anyway. The Afghan economy has shrunk by 40 per cent since the Taliban takeover in August. Banks are almost completely out of cash. There is only $4 billion left in the Afghan economy – about $100 per person – and only $500,000 of it (about $0.01 on the dollar) is in circulation. The rest is tucked under mattresses in homes, because people know how bad things are about to get.

Ninety per cent of the population is expected to be in poverty by next spring. And, as the executive director of the World Food Programme pointed out this week, 23 million people – more than half the country – face acute food insecurity. In other words, they are on the brink of starvation. WFP needs $2.4 billion to keep them alive.

The Taliban does not even deserve Afghanistan’s money. More than $9bn of Afghan government foreign exchange reserves are currently frozen, locked up in US and European banks. The argument for continuing to withhold those funds, and to deny any further income or savings by way of sanctions, is straightforward, using the logic of carrots and sticks to negotiate with the Taliban to change.

Perhaps the international community wants to see a different Afghanistan – one with a more inclusive government that has more respect for women – and don’t want to release a penny until they see it. Many US lawmakers certainly want to see it. “The only leverage we have left on the Taliban are these assets that we have frozen,” said Republican lawmaker Michael McCaul last week.

The Afghan economy relies primarily on international aid. EPA
Afghans know how bad things are about to get

Nine billion dollars is a good carrot. But as the past 20 years of Afghan history, in which ethnic politics has operated like a cancer in Kabul, and the past three years of talks with the Taliban, which manifestly has delivered no concessions on social issues, have shown, vague demands for inclusivity and women’s rights do not make for a good short- or medium-term bargaining position. At most, they are guiding principles against which to measure long-term progress. Unless those who are withholding Afghan state funds can set out measurable definitions for inclusivity and women’s rights, the Taliban will continue to insist that its system is, at least as far as its ideology goes, both inclusive and respectful of women.

But even if a common understanding of the demands could be reached, the Taliban, as things stand, is a government in too much disarray to meet them. That may seem like a good time to negotiate with it, to exploit its desperation, but it is not. The group is so incompetent, so inexperienced and so divided that it lacks the coherence to negotiate back.

One has only to look at the Taliban’s increasingly broken relationship with Turkey and Qatar, two countries that had treated it with the highest degree of good faith, to see that the group is incapable of appeasing even its friends. How can it be expected to appease its enemies?

Even the “stick” element to sanctions is ineffective in Afghanistan right now. It is difficult to sanction a group that, by and large, never had much in the first place. Taliban-run Afghanistan is not Iran, where many leaders live in mansions, have children in foreign schools and squander public funds on foreign misadventures. The Taliban government can be accused of many things, but extreme profligacy is not one of them. Its fighters and even most of its leaders have spent the past 20 years in meagre circumstances. They have little to lose. Without power over a state that functions at at least a basic level, they may never have much to lose.

After a visit to Afghanistan this week, Dominik Stillhart, the ICRC’s operations director, called for “creative ways” to prevent Afghanistan’s total collapse. While he didn’t say what they might be, this is an allusion to a scenario in which money can be funnelled directly to the Afghan people in a way that circumvents Taliban control.

At the smallest scale, this is possible. Cash is already being smuggled into the country and used to feed hundreds of families through community-based initiatives. But at the scale needed to revive and sustain a national economy, to bolster the institutions of state and safeguard them for the future, this strategy is impossible. Only the reignition of the Afghan economy can do the trick.

The country's institutions must be allowed to survive – not for the benefit of the Taliban, but for ordinary Afghans. Most of them are under the age of 30 and have never picked up a gun or made a political speech. They deserve more – after two decades of promises from the international community – than to be stuck in a country left far, far worse off than the one they were born into.

Nine billion dollars or even $19bn will not be enough to give the Taliban the resources it needs to create the extremist dystopia the world wants to prevent. But it will be enough to keep the millions of Afghans who want something better out of life than what the Taliban offers alive for another year. And we cannot forget that, one day, if the Taliban government falls as a result of its continued cruelty and ineptitude, those Afghans will be the ones picking up the pieces.

They need to inherit a country with real institutions, and where half of the people they know are not starving to death. The Taliban doesn’t deserve anyone’s money, but they do.

Published: November 23, 2021, 2:35 PM