Afghanistan has faced an ongoing humanitarian and economic crisis of immense proportions since the Taliban seized the country by force in August 2021. The United Nations estimated in January 2022 that nearly 24.4 million Afghans were in need of humanitarian aid—more than half the country’s population, with children comprising more than half of those in need. A recent assessment by the World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations also projects that 18.9 million Afghans will confront acute food insecurity this year, and 92 percent of Afghans face insufficient food consumption.
Compounding this humanitarian crisis is an economic collapse brought about by the end of significant foreign assistance, which propped up the Afghan economy for two decades until the Taliban seized power. Making matters even worse, an earthquake in eastern Afghanistan on June 22, 2022, left hundreds of people dead and thousands lacking sufficient medical support, food, and shelter. However, as bad as the situation remains, predictions of complete catastrophe have not yet come to pass.
Afghanistan’s dire circumstances represent the most severe and complex human security crisis in the world today. It is a situation without comparable historical precedent—one that requires practical and creative action by the United States and others to stave off hunger and malnutrition, help Afghans rebuild sustainable livelihoods, and protect basic health care services and education. These goals must be pursued despite the Taliban’s lack of interest in their core governing responsibilities. There are no easy or simple solutions, but there are a number of ways the United States and the international community can act.
Creative ways the international community can head off a total humanitarian and economic catastrophe
The Taliban bear primary responsibility for the current plight of the Afghan people. The militant group took power by force—not the ballot box or as part of a negotiated settlement with the former Afghan government. The United States and other nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reduced international aid as a result; key international organizations such as the International Rescue Committee voiced concerns about these decisions. Counterterrorism sanctions also remain in place due to the Taliban’s ongoing ties to international terrorist groups such as al-Qaida. The Taliban have not displayed interest in the material well-being of ordinary Afghans nor the health of the Afghan economy; the group has instead promulgated and enforced repressive religious edicts, with a particular focus on denying Afghan women their basic rights and freedoms.
Recent reports indicate that the United States and Taliban are in talks to unfreeze reserves belonging to Afghanistan’s central bank. It is unclear the extent of progress made in these negotiations, including whether the Taliban will agree to U.S. conditions for the release of this money, nor is it certain who would manage these funds if unfrozen—Afghan technocrats, a third-party trust fund, or some other financial management mechanism. Other creative financing mechanisms have been proposed in differing circumstances—such as for safeguarding Libya’s oil revenues—and similarly creative thinking should be applied to the Afghan case.
U.S. policy to date
Talks between the United States and the Taliban in Qatar will be critical to get increased funds flowing to those Afghans most in need without bolstering the Taliban regime. The funds in question are tied to the Biden administration issuing a controversial executive order freezing $7 billion in Afghan central bank funds held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; much of the funds in question accumulated from interest on billions of dollars in U.S. assistance over the past two decades. Under this order, half of these funds were to be dedicated to supporting the Afghan people while the other half remains tied up in still-unresolved legal proceedings over the Taliban’s involvement in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Seeking a New Balance for U.S. Policy in the Middle East
In addition to these talks, the United States has taken some steps to address Afghanistan’s more immediate post-withdrawal humanitarian and economic crises. Most notably, the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued a wide-ranging general license permitting financial transactions to Afghanistan, including for “governing institutions” and NGOs operating in the country, provided they are not owned or run by sanctioned individuals or organizations. The department has explicitly stated that financial transfers to the Afghan ministries of Education, Finance, and Public Health are authorized under this general license. To put it another way, the U.S. government has made clear that sanctions against the Taliban and other terrorist networks in Afghanistan need not apply to Afghan ministries that provide basic services.
Since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, the United States has pledged some $775 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan—including $55 million recently announced for earthquake relief and recovery efforts. Some $567 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance has already been delivered to Afghanistan, some of it in ways comparable to how U.S. aid has reached the Gaza Strip, where the U.S. Agency for International Development often works with credible international nongovernmental aid organizations and some local partners to deliver aid to the Palestinian people without handing over funds to the Hamas-run local government. Similarly, assistance funding rarely flows directly to the Palestinian Authority in either the West Bank or Gaza, but rather is directed to contractors and NGOs. This approach is part of how U.S. aid currently flowing to Afghanistan could be expanded upon to provide the Afghan people with necessary aid moving forward.
Although there are practical limitations to these moves—the specter of sanctions may deter otherwise legitimate financial transfers to Afghanistan, for instance—the financial transactions guidelines, increased U.S. emergency humanitarian aid and other assistance, and negotiations to unfreeze certain Afghan central bank funds represent the first steps toward establishing ways to help the Afghan people without giving inadvertent legitimacy or material subsidies to the Taliban regime.
U.N. transitional engagement framework
Far more ambitious—indeed, unprecedented in both scope and scale—is the U.N. plan to effectively take over the provision of basic services to the Afghan people, including education and health care, at an estimated cost of $3.42 billion. The United States should support a U.N. proposal called the “Transitional Engagement Framework.” This framework focuses on two main areas: immediate humanitarian relief, such as alleviating widespread food insecurity, and the provision of basic services. At the end of March, an international donor conference cobbled together $2.4 billion in pledges for humanitarian relief in Afghanistan—well short of the $4.4 billion the United Nations says it requires to meet Afghanistan’s humanitarian needs this year.
This plan will require the United Nations to establish a minimally functional relationship with the Taliban, creating with it the potential for moral hazard and corruption that have marked other well-intentioned U.N. and international efforts to address difficult humanitarian problems—something the United Nations should remain well aware of as it pushes ahead with its engagement framework. Earlier and separate U.N. nation-building efforts—distinct from immediate humanitarian relief operations—have occurred with the approval and cooperation of host governments or the protection of foreign security forces with peacekeeping mandates.
In short, the plan proposed by the United Nations involves a degree of difficulty unseen in recent memory. Its effort would entail unprecedented financial, political, and human risks, as well as almost certainly creating new avenues for corruption. The Taliban already have a track record of attempting to use humanitarian aid to bolster their own grip on power, much in the same way the Assad regime in Syria and Houthi militants in Yemen have done over the past decade. These foreseeable difficulties and formidable odds do not mean that the United Nations should not proceed with its plan to pick up the slack of basic service provision for the Afghan people or that the United States should not support this effort—far from it. But they do mean that the United Nations, United States, and others should acknowledge the challenges and limitations this program will likely face.
How to mitigate service delivery appropriation by the Taliban
The United States should focus on two key areas: guardrails and funding. Although some leakage is inevitable, the United States should insist on strong safeguards to prevent international aid from falling into Taliban control or propping up Taliban rule. In promoting these safeguards, the United States should focus less on sanctions and other financial regulations than on ensuring that most of the international money goes to civil society groups fighting for basic human rights and freedoms as well as specific purposes such as salaries for teachers, doctors, and other critical service delivery professions. These safeguards need to include the strongest possible monitoring mechanisms to alert donors to potential malfeasance and make sure aid money goes where it is needed.
Helpfully, humanitarian and human rights groups such as Refugees International and Human Rights Watch have already begun publishing guidelines for international aid to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, especially foreign assistance intended to benefit Afghan women and girls. These guidelines include continued funding for primary schooling as long as it continues to include Afghan girls, support for “community-based education” that bypasses the Taliban and allows girls to learn outside the formal education system, and continued or restored financial assistance to Afghan civil society groups and communities that fight for women’s rights and freedoms. Other recommendations include differentiating funding by geographic region: Some provincial rulers may show more respect for basic rights and freedoms if schools, clinics, and other services receive funding from international donors.
In the event that arrangements to unfreeze Afghan central bank funds cannot ultimately be made, the Biden administration should use the $3.5 billion currently held by the Federal Reserve to support the U.N. engagement framework. That sum alone would cover the entirety of the United Nations’ request for its basic service provision program. In addition, the World Bank has made $1 billion from the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund available for basic service delivery. Combined with the $2.4 billion in humanitarian aid pledges received earlier this year, this funding would total $6.9 billion—less than the $8.07 billion requested by the United Nations but leaving a gap that is much more feasible to close.
Finally, funding for basic service delivery—distinct from humanitarian aid meant to alleviate hunger, provide emergency shelter, ensure adequate medical care, and meet other immediate needs such as sanitation and water—should be conditioned on a minimal respect for basic human rights and freedoms, particularly those of Afghan women and girls. International assistance for secondary schools, for instance, should not be provided so long as the Taliban prohibit girls from attending them. However, these rules should be somewhat flexible in order to reward local officials who meet these conditions even if the Taliban regime in Kabul fails to do so. It will prove difficult if not impossible to answer the hard questions of moral hazard involved here, but the situation in Afghanistan is dire and urgent enough to make it worth taking risks to help ordinary Afghans while also taking precautions against the Taliban.
Getting needed assistance to Afghans will also require the United States to closely engage with regional partners such as Qatar and Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors to the north. Doha has already hosted talks between American diplomats and the Taliban on the status of Afghanistan’s central bank reserves, and the Qatari government will likely play a similar mediating role moving forward. Similarly, an Emirati company now runs Afghanistan’s airports for the Taliban—making cooperation with the United Arab Emirates imperative. As ever, Pakistan remains an essential logistical conduit into Afghanistan, necessitating a pragmatic working relationship with Islamabad to ensure humanitarian aid reaches the country.
Calls to lift sanctions or give the Taliban unconditional access to billions of dollars in frozen Afghan government funds do not directly address the fundamental problem at hand: the Taliban and their indifference toward governance as we know it. Moreover, it is unrealistic to expect the United States and other foreign governments to effectively bankroll a repressive Taliban at any level of funding—much less fill the entirety of the gap left by the sudden cutoff of international aid last summer. But with creativity and hard work, the United States and other nations can help alleviate the immediate suffering of ordinary Afghans and avert the worst outcomes moving forward.
There are no good historical analogues for mounting a substantial state-supporting effort in the absence of international security forces such as the United Nations is proposing for Afghanistan. Moreover, it is unrealistic to assume this effort would have any more success than the one carried out by the United States and its allies over the past two decades. The risk of corruption and cooptation by an illegitimate Taliban regime remains exceedingly high, and the group has insisted on control of foreign aid money on multiple occasions.
Accordingly, it is unrealistic to expect the United States and its allies to financially support the Afghan state to the extent they did before the Taliban seized power by force. But that does not mean the United States can or should sit back and do nothing as ordinary Afghans suffer under Taliban misrule. A clear-eyed strategy that focuses on helping Afghans fighting for their basic rights and freedoms and aligned concrete actions as outlined above will not solve Afghanistan’s insurmountable economic and humanitarian problems, but they can go a long way toward reducing the suffering the Taliban have imposed on the Afghan people.
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Senior Policy Analyst