On 15 August 2021, the Taliban entered Kabul largely unopposed, marking the end of a two-decade-long conflict and the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan. Concerns were immediately raised about how the Taliban would rule, throwing into doubt the continued flow of international assistance on which the country has depended.
Those concerns were not quieted when the Taliban announced an all-male interim cabinet dominated by members of its movement and led by individuals who are subject to international sanctions in relation to terrorism. Neither have these concerns been assuaged by reports that women have lost access to public life, unable to return to public spaces, from secondary schools to workplaces.
International concern has tangible consequences for Afghanistan. Since 2001, when the Taliban were driven from power by a military intervention led by the United States (U.S.), the country has relied heavily on external support. Canada alone has provided at least $3.6 billion in international assistance. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a United Nations (UN) agency, international funding accounted for more than 70% of the Afghan government’s non-military budget. That funding – suspended when the government collapsed – paid for salaries and sustained services.
In the wake of the Taliban’s return to power, observers have warned that Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian crisis, alongside economic and financial instability. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that one possible future Afghanistan faces is “near universal poverty.” It is in this new, uncertain landscape that Canada and its allies must determine what their level of engagement will be with Afghanistan’s new rulers and how they can support Afghans in need.
A poor and land-locked country that sits where the Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia converge, Afghanistan has gone through a series of conflicts that together span four decades. Recently, drought and the COVID-19 pandemic have added to the vulnerabilities created by insurgency and dislocation.
The OCHA estimates that almost half of Afghanistan’s population – some 18.4 million people – were already in need of humanitarian assistance when the government collapsed on 15 August 2021. In September 2021, the World Food Programme reported that 95% of households in Afghanistan did not have enough to eat.
Figure 1 – Number of People in Need in Afghanistan
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament based on data from United Nations, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Humanitarian Needs and Funding 2010-2021,” Humanitarian Data Exchange, Database, accessed 12 October 2021.
International donors pledged significant support for a UN emergency humanitarian appeal launched in September 2021. However, so far, that appeal and the larger annual one it is meant to supplement are underfunded in comparison to their identified requirements. As of 3 November 2021, Canada was the donor of the 5th highest reported amount of humanitarian funding in Afghanistan for the year, after the U.S., the European Commission, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund and Japan.
A complex operating environment
Afghanistan is not the only jurisdiction where the humanitarian system has to navigate sanctions regimes to help vulnerable populations without conferring political support or legitimacy on those in power. What heightens the complexity of this situation in comparison to that in other places like Syria and Yemen, however, is the combination of the Taliban’s effective control of Afghanistan’s territory, its inheritance of a state apparatus that was built and sustained largely with the support of Western governments, and the fact that the group’s leadership has been sanctioned in relation to terrorism.
Like the U.S., Canada imposed its own sanctions on the Taliban in addition to those that apply to individuals and entities designated by the UN Security Council. In September 2021, the U.S. government issued two general licences – or exemptions – to allow the continued flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan through a list of organizations that includes UN agencies and the Red Cross.
Nevertheless, an analysis of past situations published by the International Peace Institute indicates that sanctions can have unintended consequences. Operations can be delayed or scaled back because of administrative and legal complexities and when the financial institutions and businesses that humanitarian organizations rely on seek to avoid any risk relating to sanctions compliance.
Even if money and supplies continue to reach trusted organizations in the field, concerns remain about operating conditions. Given the Taliban’s history, these include concerns about whether organizations will be permitted to deliver the full range of assistance, of which services that respond to gender-based violence are a part, and whether female staff will be allowed to remain active in humanitarian field work, particularly Afghan women.
At the same time, some operations may become feasible if the security conditions in the country remain stable, including the announced polio vaccination campaign that the World Health Organization says “will be the first in over three years to reach all children in Afghanistan.”
Balancing practical engagement with accountability
Although the international community recognizes the need to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, the provision of funding beyond emergency relief is uncertain. This is because development assistance – the other larger stream of international assistance – typically brings donors much closer to government institutions and usually requires some form of partnership, or at the very least, regular contact.
Afghanistan’s foreign reserves held in the U.S. have been frozen. Moreover, financing from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has been suspended. That includes the World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which alone funded 30% of Afghanistan’s civilian budget and to which Canada has contributed nearly US$890 million since 2002.
The Group of Seven nations have articulated a conditions-based approach to recognizing the new interim government. They insist that, in addition to adhering to its international obligations to prevent terrorism, any future government in Afghanistan must “safeguard the human rights of all Afghans, particularly women, children, and ethnic and religious minorities.” So far, the Taliban has not adopted a posture that meets those conditions.
Most Western governments moved their diplomatic operations to Qatar or elsewhere following the military evacuation of the Kabul airport. However, some countries – including China, Pakistan and Russia – have reportedly maintained their diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.
After meeting with Taliban representatives in Moscow on 20 October 2021, those three countries, in addition to Iran, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, called for further steps toward forming an Afghan government that “adequately reflects the interests of all major ethno-political forces in the country.” At the same time, the joint statement suggested that “further practical engagement with Afghanistan needed to take into account the new reality, that is the Taliban coming to power in the country, irrespective of the official recognition of the new Afghan government by the international community.”
While these larger political dynamics have evolved slowly and carefully since August 2021, reporting suggests that conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated quickly and significantly.
The UN system is pursuing arrangements meant to avert a collapse in basic services without channeling funds through the Taliban. The UNDP announced that it will use both existing contributions and the new ones it hopes will be made to the recently established UN Special Trust Fund for Afghanistan. The objective is to support community activities by providing grants to micro businesses, cash-for-work projects to the unemployed and temporary basic income to people with disabilities, among others. The UNDP emphasizes that the assistance will be delivered directly to beneficiaries. Moreover, the UNDP describes its initiative as a “humanitarian+ approach,” a possible sign of the blurring lines between humanitarian and development assistance in a situation where services have been considerably curtailed.
As is evident in evaluations of the assistance that the U.S., Canada and others provided to Afghanistan after 2001, development results are hard to achieve and sustain, even with large-scale funding. Many of the challenges that Afghanistan has faced for years persist today. Decision-makers now face the challenge of trying to preserve the hard-won progress made after almost 20 years of effort without compromising core principles.
Twelfth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2557 (2020) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace stability and security of Afghanistan, United Nations Security Council, S/2021/486, 1 June 2021.
World Food Programme, Half of Afghanistan’s population face acute hunger as humanitarian needs grow to record levels, News release, 25 October 2021.
United States Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, Full Committee Hearing: Afghanistan’s Future: Assessing the National Security, Humanitarian and Economic Implications of the Taliban Takeover, 5 October 2021.
European Commission, Afghanistan: Commission announces €1 billion Afghan support package, News release, 12 October 2021.
Authors: Allison Goody and Scott McTaggart, Library of Parliament