Will retribution against the Taliban for their defeat of the US Coalition take the form of further punishment for the poverty stricken masses of Afghanistan?
By Beverley Dight, Green Issue Co-editor
On October 25, 2021 the UN World Food Programme warned that millions of Afghans will face starvation this winter unless urgent action is taken. "We are on a continuum to catastrophe". More than one million Afghan children will die of acute severe malnutrition unless there is immediate life saving treatment.
What brought about this tragic situation? After 42 years of war and instability Afghanistan was greatly impoverished. The last 20 years of war ravaged the economy, making Afghanistan dependent on aid from the international community.
When the Taliban became the Interim Government of Afghanistan in August the US imposed sanctions on the new administration, which was blocked from accessing Afghan Central Bank reserves in the US, worth about $9.5 billion.
Mark Weisbrot, Co-ordinator for the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington commented "for the US to seize Afghan Central Bank reserves would be a big mistake. It would be telling the Taliban the US government wants to destroy them and their country's economy."
Also, other countries, the IMF and the World Bank ceased payments to Afghanistan, that had represented 40% of its GDP.
Human Rights Watch reported that consequently the economy, banking system and social system collapsed. Much of the population is deprived access to food, water, shelter and health services. There have been reports of children being sold to pay traffickers so desperate Afghans can flee the country. The food crisis has been exacerbated by water shortages and severe drought.
The UN warned the international community that if it didn't help Afghanistan there would be a humanitarian catastrophe as food supplies were running out. More than one billion was pledged. Unfortunately, only a third of the money was sent to the World Food Programme, which called the current financial commitment "a drop in the ocean". The catastrophe is taking place.
The Afghan people feel abandoned. One Afghan man was reported to have said in despair "I clearly see that soon most Afghans will die for just not having food, and as always no-one will care".
European NGOs pointed out that Afghan people should not be denied vital health care and be abandoned without food because the international community sees economic starvation as the only available tool to influence the Taliban regime.
"For women the discrimination we are likely to see institutionalized under the Taliban will pale in comparison to the effects of the collapsing economy. We are not supporting Afghan women by starving them.... The international community is effectively punishing Afghan civilians for the actions of their government".
The neighbours of Afghanistan ‒ Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran and several Central Asian pre-Soviet countries ‒ have adopted a very different approach. Interested in maintaining stability in the region they have remained in contact with the Taliban, and supported Afghanistan economically.
They have been encouraging the Taliban to keep the promises they made in April, especially in regard to the rights of women, girls and ethnic minorities, as well as their promise to form an inclusive government.
Pakistan and Russia have hosted meetings where the neighbours discussed the future of Afghanistan and guided the Taliban to govern more wisely this time. The US has participated in two of these meetings, where it had discussions with the Taliban.
Pakistan and China have advised the international community to be realistic, pragmatic and patient with the Taliban Government. The Pakistan Foreign Minister emphasized that it is essential they don't abandon the people of Afghanistan and isolate the Taliban, but instead engage with them. He also considered it crucial that the Central Bank assets are released.
He noted that it was encouraging the Taliban had included the ethnic minorities, the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, in their government. Also, that in less than six weeks law and order was improved, fighting stopped and many internally displaced Afghans have come home.
In an interview with Associated Press the Foreign Minister of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan (the name of the Taliban government) said that the Taliban want good relations with all countries, including the United States. He said the Taliban had changed since it last ruled due to interactions with the nations of the world. "In each hour of the day we will get more experience and make more progress."
He said under the new Taliban government girls are going to school through to grade 12 in 10 of the country's 34 provinces. Private schools and universities are operating. 100% of women who had previously worked in the health sector are back on the job.
The Foreign Minister contended the Taliban had not targeted its opponents, but had instead announced a general amnesty. However, Human Rights Watch reported there have been killings. But there have been no reports of large scale retribution.
The Foreign Minister admitted the Taliban had made mistakes in its first months in power, and that "we will work for more reforms that will benefit the nation." He also said the Taliban will not allow a terrorist entity to attack another country from Afghanistan.
He expressed hope that with time "America will slowly, slowly change its policy towards Afghanistan as it sees evidence that a Taliban ruled country, able to stand on its own feet, is a benefit to the US".
It must be very painful for Afghan women and girls used to 20 years of freedom to now have it curtailed. The Afghan society and religion of the Taliban are very patriarchal. That is why it is important countries concerned about the rights of women and girls, as well as other Afghans, engage with the Taliban government.
Trading with it and offering to help rebuild a devastated Afghanistan could act as an incentive for the Taliban to respect the rights of all Afghans. Reopening their embassies, as the EU has done recently, would provide an invaluable opportunity to be a constant guiding presence encouraging the Taliban to govern wisely.
Recent events seem to have been a trigger for a change in US policy regarding Afghanistan.
"Unless action is taken immediately Afghanistan is headed for chaos" the Prime Minister of Pakistan warned Foreign Ministers at a Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) convening on December 20 to urgently help their brothers and sisters in Afghanistan.
The UN Undersecretary General of Humanitarian Affairs, present at the Summit, warned that "Afghanistan's economy was in free fall. If we don't act decisively, with compassion, I fear this fall will pull the entire population with it."
The OIC pledged to set up a humanitarian trust fund for Afghanistan as millions face poverty and hunger. A Resolution released after the meeting said the Islamic Development Bank would lead the effort to free up assistance by the first quarter of 2022. It also urged Afghanistan's rulers to abide by regulations under international human rights covenants, especially with regard to the rights of women, children, youth, elderly and people with special needs.
Also on the 21st December, in an open letter to President Biden and the Treasury Department almost 40 US Democratic House members said they stand by the American Allies, and humanitarian experts urging the US to avoid harsh economic measures that will harm Afghan families and children.
It was pointed out that the US freeze of Afghan reserves could lead to more deaths in 2022 than were lost in the last 20 years of war.
On the 21st December hundreds of Afghan protestors marched through the streets of Kabul towards the closed US Embassy urging the release of Afghan's frozen assets. "Give us our frozen money".
On the 22nd December the Biden Administration responded to these voices of concern and issued what it called "broad authorizations" to ensure that the UN, US Government, Afghans and aid groups can provide humanitarian relief to Afghanistan without running foul of sanctions against the Taliban. Unfortunately the sanctions freezing the Central Bank reserves remain.
It may be difficult to persuade the Biden Administration to release these sanctions. Many countries have US sanctions imposed on them. Economic warfare seems to have replaced military warfare as the main US foreign policy.
The US organization, Brookings, has pointed out that sanctions are a form of intervention which can cause great damage to innocent people. In its attempt to punish its old enemy, the Taliban, the US Government has instead punished the people of Afghanistan.
It would do well to listen to the wisdom of one of the heroes of the US, Martin Luther King, that "love, even for enemies, is the key to the solution of the problems of the world".
[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]