It's time to unfreeze Afghanistan's assets – the Taliban are here to stay

Aid can't reach people without a functioning government and economy. The international community must realise this

A man sells Taliban flags in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan, December 12. EPA
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The Afghan crisis is quickly becoming the worst humanitarian crisis in modern history. It is further exasperated by the international community expecting the country, more specifically its population, to survive without a functioning economy. While the Taliban’s disregard for upholding rights are not doing their cause for legitimacy any favours, it is as if the international community has forgotten the Taliban does not represent the population, this was a takeover, not a democratic change. In such, the international community has a moral obligation to reassess its approach towards the Taliban in order to not further punish the actual victims, the citizens of Afghanistan. The choice need not be between recognition and backbreaking sanctions either.

There is a large spectrum of approaches in between that should be entertained. While many argue to leave them to their own devices, opting out of engagement with the Taliban is a luxury the Afghan common people are not afforded. The argument isn’t and has never been about giving the Taliban foreign aid, but about releasing Afghan money back into the country to ensure its people have a fighting chance. Starving Afghans cannot, would not, prioritise their liberties over their survival. This is not to say that the Taliban should not be demanded to do better, it only means that there are no shortcuts to achieving change in Afghanistan.

American taxpayers' seem concerned that their money would be given to the Taliban. This is simply not true

Those of us advocating for the unfreezing of Afghanistan’s federal reserves often have to clear two misconceptions. First, one must understand that the funds in question are not future pledges or aid, but Afghanistan's central bank assets that were parked in international banks. The American taxpayers' seem to hold a concern that their money would be given to the Taliban. This is simply not true.

Secondly, there is a misconception that we are calling for a complete and unconditional release of these reserves to the Taliban. It is worth noting that these reserves include close to $1.5 billion that belong to the private banks of Afghanistan. The Afghan population has been locked out of its own savings at a devastatingly critical time. The release of the federal reserves could start with the private bank money. The delivery of these funds to the private banks can be verified with the private organisations directly, avoiding government influence.

Following that, a negotiation with the Taliban could later be held with regards to the step-wise release of reserves. This process cannot come without contractual assurances from the Taliban's side and monitoring from third parties. Of course, this will not guarantee that the money will not be misused or that the Taliban would stand by their commitments, though repercussions for doing so would be outlined. Still, the flow of these funds could be adjusted based on the Taliban’s compliance. The current World Bank cash assistance to Afghanistan being handed over to the private Afghanistan International Bank seems to be a viable model to follow. The international community must frame and present their demands in a way that minimises the reputational cost of compliance for the Taliban while maintaining its own norms and expectations.

The Taliban leadership despite being totalitarian do have a social contract with their own fighters, straying away from which would incur a reputational cost and eventual defection. When forced to choose between appeasing the west or appeasing their own ranks, the Taliban will always choose the latter. Of course, there are members of the hierarchy within the group that do comprehend the importance of a working relationship with the west. This was illustrated in their recent open letter, Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, to the US.

The large confidential appendages to the US-Taliban deal enabled the Taliban to agree to terms without appearing to compromise the positions their own fighters consider sacred. In the absence of such an approach, any pressure the international community applies to the Taliban would only inspire further rigidity in their behaviour.

The Taliban also have to be mindful of the ISIS-K fallback option that is available to those in their ranks that find the movement straying away from their ideological beliefs. Sanctions have historically had little effect on some countries wherein the ruling elite rarely ever feel the pain. The general population that primarily feels the hurt of sanctions, in the absence of a democratic process and social contract, rarely ever have enough leverage to demand change in policies from the regime.

Both the Taliban and the international community must realise the impossibility of delivering aid without a functioning government and economy. The soaring prices of commodities and the difficulty of procuring them from abroad seems to be an ever-tightening death trap. The large scale joblessness due to the economic collapse means that the humanitarian crisis is worsening faster than any aid efforts can address.

There seems to be a complete absence of cohesion or co-ordination between the different aid groups in the country, which makes aid distribution arbitrary and overlapping at times. Such information can only be accessed once a working relationship with the Taliban is established. The Taliban do not have to handle the funds nor the aid but can be involved in surveying and co-ordination, no other entity can fulfill that role. We have faced disparate levels of co-operation or lack thereof from Taliban governors in Afghanistan and involving the Taliban leadership in the aid efforts would encourage them to create bodies to address the concerns of aid agencies. It would also help us access information about efforts across different regions in order to avoid uneven distribution of help.

Choosing to not engage with the Taliban is the equivalent of doing nothing, closing ones eyes, and praying for a different outcome. Those advocating for sanctions and the freeze on the Afghan federal reserves present few solutions as to how to manage the nationwide starvation taking over Afghanistan. The international community, especially the US and its allies seem to have forgotten the legitimacy the US granted the Taliban movement by signing a peace deal with them. They transformed the Taliban from an insurgent group to an actual government in-waiting by bypassing the Afghan Republic and engaging with them directly.

There is a sense that the sanctions are less about the Taliban not aligning with international values and more about seeing the larger Afghan population as accomplices to the Taliban cause. It is unfortunate that the Taliban takeover forced moderates to flee the country. It will take time for Afghan civil society to establish itself back in the country and be acknowledged by the Taliban. The population with the support of civil society will eventually find its voice and demand better of the Taliban. But that is contingent on their basic needs being met.

Till then, the international community must start releasing Afghanistan’s reserves and find a meaningful way to engage with the Taliban. The Taliban are an unfortunate reality but a reality nonetheless and engagement is crucial if we are to have any chance of avoiding Afghanistan becoming hell on earth.

Published: December 17, 2021, 4:00 AM