Should we stop funding all education in Afghanistan because the Taliban prohibited girls from school? To seek an answer was why I was in Afghanistan in 1997. This was during the first coming of the Taliban and I was leading an EU team as head of the pre-Brexit UK government’s humanitarian department.
A crystal-clear answer came from Afghan mothers: “Don’t stop educating our boys; otherwise, they only have religious schools. We don’t want them to grow up like the Taliban." What followed was re-doubled educational effort – if mostly with boys’ schools. But boys shared learning materials with sisters and mothers who showed immense bravery in setting up networks of hidden home schools.
It was these girls who became literate enough to enter secondary schools, colleges and universities after the Taliban were removed in 2001. In fact, female education enrollment shot up from 5,000 shortly after the Taliban’s removal to nearly 4 million before the group's second coming in 2021, according to data made available by Afghanistan's education ministry. Many women went on to become doctors, nurses, teachers, parliamentarians and civil servants. Afghanistan remained unstable and aid-dependent but progressed.
That has shuddered to a stop. This time around, Taliban gender policies are even more restrictive. In past weeks, they have banned all higher female education, most employment, access to parks and gyms, and leaving home without a male chaperone.
The Taliban justify this by their interpretation of Sharia concerning female dress and public mixing of genders. Islamic theologians overwhelmingly disagree with them but this carries no weight with the group. Their latest blow prohibits employing women in NGOs ostensibly because they do not wear the hijab correctly. This appears to be an excuse for continuing a wider ideological drive to squeeze women out of public life. The potential impact is huge because NGOs are at the frontline of humanitarian delivery. As their most needy and vulnerable clients are women and children, NGOs are hugely dependent on female staff. They are also often sole breadwinners for their impoverished families.
Taliban edicts have been universally condemned and major powers such as the US are considering tighter sanctions. But it will be the Afghan population that will suffer most. With 97 per cent of Afghans living below the poverty line, according to UN estimates, the morality of punitive measures is questionable. The proponents of sanctions should recall Iraq’s experience where aggressive sanctions caused extraordinary hardship while doing nothing to remove Saddam Hussein's regime.
The uncomfortable reality is that we have little leverage against a Taliban theocracy that considers itself divinely inspired and has demonstrated that it is impervious to external pressure. Alternative military solutions have already been tried and repeatedly failed.
It is inescapable that change in Afghanistan must come from within – whenever Afghans feel capable of doing that. Considering the country’s repeated cycles of violence from internal divisions and external interventions, gradual evolution is best. The international community needs strategic patience while investing in building resilient Afghan communities, and keeping them hopeful and connected to the outside world.
The corollary is that current policies on isolating Afghanistan are counter-productive and bring greater pain to its people while making its rulers more recalcitrant. Of course, western powers that fled Afghanistan precipitously feel humiliated. But pragmatic realpolitik, not bruised ego, is the better basis for relations with the Taliban.
Currently, there are 15 embassies open in Kabul. Twenty-five others, including the US and Europeans, closed in 2021. Fitful liaison from distant Islamabad or Doha is a poor substitute for diplomatic presence in the Afghan capital. This does not mean recognising the Taliban’s governance approach or accepting its policies. It is, instead, a form of signalling peaceful disapproval of Taliban hegemony while encouraging more progressive opinions within its divided ranks.
Neither can engagement with the Taliban be sub-contracted to the UN, which is ineffective in its endeavours without strong states holding its hand. We know this from countless peace negotiations or humanitarian programming such as the recent food-shipping deal with Ukraine and Russia.
Regular in-country contact with senior Taliban echelons should be accompanied by lifting blanket bans on trade, unfreezing $9 billion central Afghan assets to benefit people, and re-establishing banking links for individuals and private businesses. This could strengthen the taxation base and, therefore, the Taliban administration. But this is trifling compared to the wider gains of relieving the suffering of ordinary Afghans.
By resuming and increasing selective development aid, donors would signal moral ascendancy over bizarre Taliban policies and show that our quarrel is not with the Afghan people. That would bring practical value to the rare show of unanimity at the recent UN Security Council calling for full female participation in Afghanistan.
Humanitarians are justifiably outraged by the Taliban prohibition on women staffing, with about 150 agencies having suspended their work. But is it right for humanitarians – who are guided by fundamental principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality – to stop work like this?
It is a complex moral dilemma. On one hand, without female staffing, agencies are less effective in reaching vulnerable female clients. But stopping all work penalises all beneficiaries. That is neither a proportionate nor an ethically defensible response. It contravenes the principle of humanity, if withdrawing life-saving aid hurts the very families and communities from which female employees come.
Expressing solidarity with women is commendable, as protesting Afghan men did in Herat and Kandahar, echoing comparable sentiments in neighbouring Iran. At least they demonstrated the courage of their convictions by risking getting beaten up by Taliban police. But when humanitarian agencies go down the solidarity protest route by withdrawing their services, that is an explicitly political stance contrary to the principle of neutrality.
Besides, have aid agencies asked their female staff and beneficiaries how they wish to receive solidarity? Almost certainly they would say no to aid stoppage because they would not wish greater pain inflicted on their own people.
It is true that compliance with the humanitarian principle of impartiality is difficult if the exclusion of women workers reduces outreach to female beneficiaries. But impartiality also requires humanitarians to never turn away from people they can help – regardless of gender – on the grounds of inability to reach others on gender grounds.
Back to the EU humanitarian mission I led in 1997. Mullah Omar’s Taliban leadership refused to meet us at their Kandahar headquarters because I had women on my team.
My Dutch and Swedish female colleagues offered to stand aside. Of course, I could not accept that but neither was I going to abort our precious mission to negotiate UN humanitarian access and, especially, women's healthcare provision by the World Health Organisation. The solution came in getting the Taliban to meet our gender-balanced team in UN diplomatic premises where their rule-bound logic acknowledged that “international rules” prevailed.
Today’s Taliban might be more difficult than the ones I dealt with. If so, humanitarians must find stronger creative approaches to help as many as possible of Afghanistan’s 28 million people in need of aid. These include workarounds and indirect local channelling. Although the Taliban’s gender obstacles are unique, access problems occur in all humanitarian contexts such as Syria, Tigray, Myanmar and Ukraine. By now, we have learnt many tricks of the trade.
Humanitarians are also well-practised in working with all types of regimes while crossing many red lines along the way, including previously in Afghanistan. While it is high time to take a principled stand and tackle the inconsistencies of modern humanitarianism, fighting on the Taliban-selected battleground of its women and girls will not lead to victory – even a pyrrhic one – by any side.
Neither is the vital global cause of gender equality served by symbolic gestures such as withdrawing aid and further isolating Afghanistan. If we do that, increased suffering for the people we seek to help is certain.