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Engagement with the Taliban is imperative to avoid the collapse of Afghanistan

December 20, 2021 at 10:49 am

Taliban members pose for a photo after they took over Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan on 6 September 2021 [Bilal Güler/Anadolu Agency]

Since the Taliban takeover and subsequent US withdrawal in August, the situation in Afghanistan has evolved drastically. In the absence of a negotiated agreement, it was clear that while a takeover by the Taliban was expected, its manner and speed was certainly not. Now that the movement is in power, even within the confines of its current interim set up, recognition for the Taliban government may not necessarily depend on inclusion, but whether it can deliver in terms of governance, human and women’s rights, political freedom, regional peace and stability and, more importantly, reassurances about counterterrorism.

Domestically, the Taliban has not only inherited weak institutions, but also a non-existent economy, to which must be added a looming humanitarian crisis. In short, the group is struggling as it attempts to consolidate its power, formulate policies towards Afghan institutions and ensure that a humanitarian catastrophe is contained.

Hence, the real test for the group has only just begun; this is by no means restricted to securing power, but more about legitimacy and performance. With every passing day, Afghanistan is inching closer towards the predicted humanitarian crisis with its economy collapsing due to financial sanctions imposed by the West on the Taliban. These have paralysed the banking system, affecting every aspect of the economy. While no country has recognised the political dispensation, the Taliban has been engaging extensively with the international community through Qatar, and directly with regional countries. It appears that at this point, the group may not be looking for recognition but engagement — de facto recognition — as well as humanitarian and financial assistance. While the provision of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan by certain countries has been reassuring, it is not enough to sustain the population.

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In such dire circumstances, it is important for the international community to move away from politics and push towards a consolidated effort to ensure that Afghanistan does not collapse completely, with all that implies in humanitarian terms. If the Taliban government is not able to consolidate its position and ensure some semblance of stability, the fear is not so much of a civil war as transnational terrorist elements taking advantage of the situation and filling the power vacuum. Since the Taliban assumed power in August, for example, there has been a major spike in attacks by the extremists of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). “The continuing deterioration of the Afghan situation threatens to heighten the risk of extremism,” said the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan. As such, while Afghanistan faces domestic issues like the economy and the humanitarian crisis, terrorism is a growing concern.

Engagement is thus imperative. It should be remembered that the Taliban came to power through the Doha agreement with the US, and primarily on the premise that Al-Qaeda has been defeated and assurances that the Taliban will not entertain any terrorist elements on its soil. Yet by refusing to engage with the group, denying necessary economic assistance and freezing Afghanistan’s financial assets — not the Taliban’s, it is important to note — how is the movement expected to govern effectively and deny space to terrorists? This question needs to be viewed through a broader lens and not limited to politics.

US withdraws from Afghanistan, where is this heading to...- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

US withdraws from Afghanistan, where is this heading to…- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

It is important for the international community to ensure that Afghanistan does not collapse. It needs to engage with the Taliban by providing essential humanitarian aid and economic assistance. The situation there should not be viewed as a regional issue; after so many years of international interference and involvement, it is necessarily a global and collective responsibility that needs a consolidated approach.

In this regard, it was heartening to see Pakistan hosting a special session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s Council of Foreign Ministers on the situation in Afghanistan. This was convened at the initiative of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the current OIC Summit Chair, and marked the first and largest international, multilateral gathering on Afghanistan post-Taliban takeover. Representatives from fifty-seven member states from across the Muslim world, including Afghanistan, were joined by participants from the US, China, France, Russia, Britain, the European Union, the World Bank and UN relief agencies.

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The Secretary General of the OIC, Hissein Brahim Taha called for the OIC Mission in Kabul to be provided with financial, human and logistical resources to enable it to coordinate humanitarian and development aid operations within Afghanistan. The summit also agreed upon the formation of a Humanitarian Trust Fund, under the aegis of the Islamic Development Bank; an Afghanistan Food Security Programme; and the appointment of Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian, Cultural and Social Affairs, Ambassador Tariq Ali Bakheet, as the OIC’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan. A number of countries agreed to provide much needed aid; Saudi Arabia alone pledged one billion riyals.

From the outset, Pakistan has been a staunch advocate of a peaceful solution to the conflict which has revolved around a negotiated agreement with the Taliban. It is unfortunate that it has taken more than two decades of bloodshed and wasted resources for the international community to realise this. Moreover, Pakistan has been at the forefront of efforts to avert a humanitarian crisis in its neighbour, and has made repeated calls to the international community not to abandon the Afghan people, provide humanitarian and economic assistance and engage with the political dispensation in Afghanistan to avoid a collapse of the state. As well as hosting over 3 million refugees, Islamabad has provided humanitarian assistance and pledged five billion rupees ($28 million) in assistance to Kabul.

During the OIC session, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, urged the OIC to help Afghanistan and presented a six point proposal: create a channel within the OIC to send immediate humanitarian and financial support to Afghanistan; increase investment in education, health and technical skills for Afghan youth; establish a group of experts from OIC, UN and international financial institutions to facilitate access to the banking system and ease liquidity challenges faced by the Afghan people; enhance food security; invest in capacity building for Afghan institutions to counter terrorism and drug trafficking; and engage with the Afghan authorities to meet international expectations regarding inclusivity, human and women’s rights, and counterterrorism.

While the OIC meeting is a much-needed step in the right direction, and certainly reassuring, it is going to take much more to ensure that some semblance of stability returns to Afghanistan, including a functioning economy. Instead of shifting the onus onto others, there is a need to focus on Afghanistan as a shared responsibility between the two principle stakeholders, the US and the Taliban.

With the latter coming into power as a result of the deal with the US, Washington has a responsibility to ensure that the state does not fail. Similarly, as the de facto representative of the Afghan people, the Taliban must honour its pledges to reform, otherwise it will lose all of the badly-needed support and recognition from the international community, including regional countries, which basically legitimises the government in Kabul. The hope is that good sense prevails and that the Taliban is willing and empowered to focus on a government that is inclusive, responsible and accountable; above all else, a government that serves the Afghan people.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.