On the edge, again


By Maleeha Lodhi

Afghanistan may not be making international headlines anymore but global concern is growing about the worsening humanitarian situation there. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told a recent regional conference in Tehran that the country is “confronting an epic humanitarian crisis and is on the verge of a development catastrophe.” The chief of the World Food Programme also held out a grim warning that Afghanistan faced the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” which might lead to a “catastrophe” if assistance didn’t reach on time with winter approaching.
For the first time, the Taliban leadership has also sounded an alarm about the deteriorating situation. Government officials have started describing it as desperate and have urged the international community to help Afghanistan overcome the cash crunch to avoid an economic and humanitarian crisis. Taliban spokesmen have called for unconditionally unfreezing Afghanistan’s foreign exchange assets lying in the US and Western banks. Billions of dollars are in America’s Federal Reserve Bank and European central banks. With IMF-World Bank assistance also suspended at US behest, the economic situation is getting more dire. Sohail Shaheen, the Taliban nominee for Permanent Representative to the UN, recently reiterated the demand for his country’s foreign assets to be returned and for development assistance to resume.
Compounding this situation is the fact that banking channels are not functioning to enable funds committed by the international community to easily reach the country. Even the UN has been compelled to use non-banking channels to send cash for humanitarian assistance. UN officials acknowledge that they are not able to send enough money to help Afghans in urgent need.
Meanwhile diplomatic efforts continue by regional states, especially Pakistan, to persuade Western countries to engage with Afghanistan and step up humanitarian help to avert a crisis. This was a key message of the recent meeting of the ‘Moscow Format’, attended by Pakistan, China, Iran, other regional states and Taliban representatives while the US stayed away. The joint statement issued called for steps to address the deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation. It proposed early convening of a “broad-based international donor conference” under UN auspices. While it stressed the need to continue engagement with the “reality” of the Taliban government, it also said that for formal recognition, the Taliban must improve governance and form “a truly inclusive government that adequately reflects the interests of all major ethnopolitical forces in the country.”

Taliban guarding the roads in capital Kabul

While almost all regional states are engaging Kabul’s new rulers, this statement indicates that they expect the Taliban to abide by the commitments made to the international community. Western countries however seem conflicted about how to deal with the Taliban. Although almost all of them see the need to extend humanitarian assistance and are doing this to varying degrees, they are reluctant to do anything beyond this to lend legitimacy to the Taliban government until it lives up to its international obligations – upholding human rights, permitting girls education and countering terrorism. Many European countries for example are not engaging bilaterally with Kabul but only in multilateral settings in Doha. Thus, indications are that recognition will not happen any time soon.
Apart from calls by regional states including Pakistan, Russia and China for the US to unfreeze Afghanistan’s foreign assets, there is little pressure from the rest of the international community on this count. Even the issue of the Taliban government’s representation at the UN is pending. The Russian envoy to the UN summed up the issue last month by saying no one is in a hurry to recognize the government, not until the Taliban deliver on their promises.
The Taliban government itself has not been proactive enough on the international front to encourage greater engagement and inspire confidence. At home too it has not taken necessary steps to reassure the global community that it intends to depart from the past and live up to its commitments. This is compounding the country’s problems. The government has certainly consolidated its power and faces little organized opposition. The so-called resistance based in Tajikistan is weak and in disarray. But it confronts two big challenges – the danger of an economic meltdown and the threat from Daesh.
To prevent an economic collapse, the Afghan government needs help from the world community which is why it is repeatedly pressing for its cash assets to be released from Western banks. Without securing access to these, government officials fear they will run out of cash by the end of the year. 
The threat from Daesh seems to be growing with its ranks swelled by members of former militias. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, former members of disbanded security forces including NDS have also been joining Daesh. Attacks by Daesh against ethnic and religious minorities have intensified and the terrorist group seems to have established a presence across much of the country. Last month two deadly attacks on Shia mosques led to scores of casualties. Hundreds have in fact been killed in Daesh bombings since August. Targeted attacks against the Taliban and Afghan Security forces also continue. The latest assessment by the US Pentagon that Daesh could develop the capability in six months to a year to conduct violent operations outside Afghanistan has raised an alarm among the international community. A targeted bomb attack on a military hospital in Kabul on November 2, which the Taliban blamed on Daesh served as another reminder of this threat.
Addressing this complex security challenge in the midst of a dire economic and humanitarian situation will test the governing ability of the Taliban, already confronted with a plethora of daunting problems including persisting skepticism among the international community.

(Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha)