By Frishta Qaderi
In August 2021, harrowing scenes from Afghanistan captured the world’s attention as the Taliban stormed Kabul, undermining years of largely western-driven development. While NATO forces, diplomatic staff, and foreigners evacuated the country, Afghans were left to face the return of Taliban rule. Overnight, women became largely barred from public life and independent media shuttered operations. As Afghans enter a new era of political and economic uncertainty, one exacerbated by a surging poverty rate, humanitarian organizations are once again at the forefront of yet another catastrophe.
While foreign assistance is necessary to mitigate the ramifications of the unravelling humanitarian crisis, the international community’s treatment of the Taliban as reliable development partners is questionable. Development organizations were initially barred from operating in Afghanistan as the Taliban and their affiliates in the militant Haqqani network are designated as global terrorists by the United States and face sanctions by the United Nations. A December 2021 UN Security Council resolution later permitted them to resume engagement in light of the growing humanitarian crisis. To date, the international community has granted the Taliban over one billion dollars in humanitarian assistance.
Given the Taliban’s hardline stance on women’s rights and persecution of dissenting voices, donors framed aid as a powerful tool for leveraging the Taliban into respecting human rights. The closure of girls’ secondary schools was notably at the forefront of these lofty aspirations. As the Taliban celebrate their regime’s first anniversary, there are few indications that the international community’s goals are materialising.Girl’s secondary schools remain closed, despite the Taliban’s public assurances to open schools at the start of the Persian New Year in March 2022. On August 2, a US drone assassinated Al-Qaeda Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in an upscale residential neighbourhood in Kabul, questioning whether the Taliban cut ties with the global terrorist group as mandated by the 2020 Doha Peace Deal.
Considering these setbacks, it is imperative for the international community to reckon with its complicity in systematically marginalizing locals through its historic and contemporary engagement strategies. The short-lived Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was undeniably an international project, conceptualized within the conference halls of Kabul, DC, and Brussels. Aligned with Max Weber’s ideas of state-building, the international community theorized that a strong centralized government would be the cure-all to Afghanistan’s political, economic, and social dilemmas. Afghan technocrats and foreign dignitaries met at the 2001 Bonn Conference to operationalize these ideas, producing a president with decision-making powers that exceeded even those of twentieth-century Afghan kings. In support of a centralized Afghan government, the US alone invested 150 billion dollars of nonmilitary aid between 2001-2021 in civilian government institutions, civil society, and the market economy.
Two decades’ worth of efforts to build a centralized administration has imbued foreign partners with a myopic view of Afghanistan. The fall of the western-backed republic signifies the international community’s urgent need to revisit its engagement strategies. During the era of the Islamic Republic, development entities relied on state narratives to navigate the country. In doing so, these organizations operated through a narrow scope that rendered relevant stakeholders and local grievances invisible. Through programmes such as the World Bank-supported National Solidarity Program (NSP), Kabul sought to reconstruct local communities by introducing democratically-elected institutions. NSP, however, ultimately only undermined local governance systems that were not only seen as more legitimate by citizens but had proven their resilience through decades of conflict.
Despite the Taliban’s human rights record and recent accusations of aid mismanagement, the international community continues to rely on them to administer assistance. The Afghan Women’s Advocacy Group alleged that the Taliban have used substantial amounts of aid towards maintaining their fighters. An investigation by independent Afghan newspaper Hasht-e Subh found that Taliban commanders were directly involved in distribution, favouring their own affiliates as they personally compiled lists of aid recipients. In Bamyan province, the Taliban governor reportedly denied humanitarian assistance to displaced Hazara families fleeing conflict in Balkhab district. Rather than investigate such alarming claims, the international community continues to accept the Taliban’s rosy briefings on the state of the country, operating off state narratives just as they did during the Islamic Republic’s era. While poverty, food scarcity, and natural disaster necessitate action, this strategy is inexcusable as the international community has curated over forty years of experience in Afghanistan. Despite wielding such valuable knowledge to stage independent humanitarian interventions with trusted local associates and advice, they are consistently casting it aside.
Beyond rolling back hard-earned women’s freedoms, the Taliban continue clamping down on perceived rival social groups. The Achakzai tribe in Kandahar face reprisals for their cooperation with NATO forces. Tajiks, particularly in Panjshir and Andarab, are targeted for perceived ties to both historic and contemporary Anti-Taliban resistance groups. Afghanistan’s Turkic community silently grapples with forced evictions and further socio-political marginalization. Structural discrimination against Hazaras intensifies as the Taliban condones acts of mass displacement and terror. Internally, in-fighting between various ideological and ethnic factions within the Taliban intensifies. While the UN Security Council has been briefed on these plights by exiled members of Afghan civil society, independent investigations have not materialized.
As Afghans were forced to adjust to a new reality following August 2021, the international community stubbornly refuses to acknowledge Afghanistan’s thorny reality. In-fighting among the Taliban inflicts devastating consequences for civilians. Ethnic and sub-ethnic cleansing flourishes under the international community’s neglect.A burgeoning resistance expands. The Taliban demonstrate no indication or will to allow girls to resume their schooling despite international pressure while their commanders consistently mismanage aid administration. Despite boasting of such a record, the Taliban are yet to be held accountable.
While Afghanistan’s fall was humiliating for the international community, it was devastating for Afghans who awoke to a new draconian reality. As a crippling famine sets in and countless Afghans attempt to recuperate after the collapse of an aid dependent-economy, humanitarian services are needed now more than ever. Foreign donors, however, have no pretext for exercising such callous conviction in the Taliban’s ability to respect human rights and administer aid equitably. They have garnered decades of experience in Afghanistan, including successes and failures, reliable local partners, and a track record to evaluate the Taliban. This valuable insight must be harnessed to gauge independently the country’s state and formulate pragmatic and effective development interventions. Allowing the status quo to go unchallenged inflicts another layer of violence on the people of Afghanistan.
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