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The Economic Disaster Behind Afghanistan’s Mounting Human Crisis
The Economic Disaster Behind Afghanistan’s Mounting Human Crisis
Thinking Through the Dilemmas of Aid to Afghanistan
Thinking Through the Dilemmas of Aid to Afghanistan
An Afghan woman and her children carry bags on their heads as they walk along a path on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif, 5 November 2015. AFP/Farshad Usyan
Statement / Asia

The Economic Disaster Behind Afghanistan’s Mounting Human Crisis

Donors and Afghan state agencies must urgently tackle an economic crisis building up since 2014, when foreign troops started leaving and political instability worsened. The starting point must be a socio-economic assessment of just how big the problems are.

­As Afghanistan’s international donors meet in Brussels in a summit co-hosted by the European Union and the Kabul government on 4-5 October, Afghanistan’s rapidly deteriorating economy must be their central concern. Before this and an escalating humanitarian crisis merge to reach a dangerous critical mass, all must agree on several priorities – alongside renewed efforts to bring peace and political stability: realistic planning based on a thorough new socio-economic assessment, currently absent; adequate aid and support for state policy implementation, especially to help an alarming rise in numbers of displaced and shelterless people; halting repatriation of Afghan refugees, especially from Europe and Pakistan; and boosting investment and above all job creation in the country.

Afghanistan’s impressive average annual growth of nine per cent from 2002-2013 has declined rapidly since 2014. According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, annual GDP growth fell from 14.4 per cent in 2012 to 2 percent in 2013, and 1.3 and 1.5 per cent in 2014 and 2015 respectively. This drastic economic decline is mainly the result of the post-2014 international military drawdown and the year of intensified political instability that followed the 2014 election. Foreign troops once brought hundreds of millions of dollars into the Afghan economy, and their departure from 800 bases, large and small, deprives the country of what was after 2002 its largest single source of revenue. By one estimate, more than 200,000 Afghans have now lost jobs in logistics, security, and other sectors of a war-driven economy.

Heightened security concerns, political uncertainty and the erosion of the rule of law since 2014 have added to a devastating loss of confidence by consumers, producers and investors. Pervasive fears of a political meltdown have led to a surge in capital flight, with both wealthy and middle-class Afghans moving assets to the Gulf States, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Central Asia. Afghanistan’s human capital shrank too, especially among the urban middle class that had emerged after 2001 to play a stabilising role in Afghan politics. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans, mostly young and educated, left the country in 2014 and 2015, often to seek refugee status in Europe.

This sudden economic reversal has considerable political, security and social implications. Rising unemployment and widespread poverty is already widening the legitimacy gap between the National Unity Government (NUG) and the Afghan public, and expanding the reservoir of grievances that insurgents as well as hardline ethnic and regional players could further exploit. Unfortunately, it is not the NUG’s only pressing problem.

An Underestimated Humanitarian Crisis

The economic crisis may have been predictable, but its impact remains poorly understood and insufficiently reflected in strategic thinking and policies about the country’s future. The most revealing indication of such gross underestimation of the situation is the absence of any current, reliable socio-economic data. Three years after the economic reversal began, neither the NUG nor the international community have conducted any substantial assessment of the impact of the collapse of the war economy on the Afghan people and state.

The available figures show that the most vulnerable segments of the population are bearing the brunt of the burden. According to the Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey, the unemployment rate rose from 9.3 per cent in 2011-12 to 24 per cent in 2014. During the same period, the number of people who were not engaged in gainful employment increased from 26.5 per cent to 39.3 per cent of the labour force; among women, the rate increased from 42.4 per cent to 49.8 per cent. Those who manage to find work have to provide for a large number of dependents, with 47 per cent of the population under the age of fifteen. Although no such figures are available for 2015 and 2016, anecdotal evidence makes it abundantly clear that these negative trends are worsening. With Afghanistan’s estimated 32.5 million people growing by perhaps three per cent annually, adding half a million people to the work force every year, the decline in employment opportunities can only worsen.

Even without reliable Afghan government statistics for 2015 and 2016, the trends indicated by anecdotal evidence and UN figures point to a silently evolving, increasingly alarming humanitarian crisis. According to UNHCR, the total numbers of “people of concern”, including Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), refugees and returnees, nearly doubled between 2013 and 2015, rising from 985,197 to 1.77 million people. UNOCHA estimates that 265,141 more were displaced from their homes in 31 of 34 provinces between 1 January and 15 September 2016.

On top of this has come an unprecedented rise in recent months in the return of registered and unregistered refugees from Pakistan, averaging 5,000 people daily in early September. Combined with the new internally displaced, an alarming one million (57 per cent of whom are children) could be on the move just as winter sets in between September and December 2016. All will require urgent food assistance, health, shelter and other essential services. This spike in the numbers of IDPs and returnees will increase the percentage of the population facing seasonal or permanent food insecurity beyond the current estimate of 40 per cent, and will further strain already meagre economic and employment opportunities and public services.

As Budgets Shrink

The decline in economic opportunities has long-term consequences for overall political stability. Over the past three years, state institutions have become by far the largest source of employment and providers of essential public services, but available economic resources are shrinking fast. Reductions in donor assistance and international contracts are increasing the fragility of the post-2001 political order, which is largely based on networks of patron-client relations in which powerful political players have become dependent on the continuous flow of international largesse. As international military spending and contracts shrink, these networks will rely even more on the proceeds of the informal economy including corruption, criminality, the opium trade and the illegal exploitation of resources such as mines.

The decline in economic opportunities has long-term consequences for overall political stability.

The NUG’s inability or unwillingness to respond to these challenges has profound implications for both its legitimacy and the future of the post-Taliban political order. In the Asia Foundation’s 2015 Survey of the Afghan People, citizens who believed the country was going in the right direction declined to 37 per cent from 55 percent in 2014. After insecurity, worsening economic conditions were cited as the main reason for such pessimism. While the NUG inherited problems that were already mounting before it was formed in September 2014, the Afghan public increasingly links the worsening economy with the government’s policies and/or inability to perform. While the NUG has prioritised the economy in its policy reform agenda, popular expectations created by such rhetoric have yet to be matched by a track record in forging or implementing reforms, let alone actual economic benefits. Aside from some major infrastructure projects such as energy transit routes, which depend on good security and may take years to make a tangible impact on the economy, the NUG has done little to respond to immediate asks such as job creation or the protection of the private sector against rising criminality and insecurity. 

The potential gains of some of the government’s most important infrastructure projects, including CASA 1000, which aims to carry power from Central Asia to South Asia, are threatened not just by insurgent violence but also by increased social and political discord over the distribution of national resources. For instance, in mid-2016 a persistent, predominantly Hazara Enlightenment protest movement emerged to oppose the government’s decision to change the route of another power transmission line bringing electricity from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, from a route passing through the Hazara-majority Bamiyan province to one running through the Salang Pass. Absent transparency and accountability, such policy decisions could further escalate ethnic tensions.

The government’s ability to implement economic reforms is hampered by internal political gridlock, bureaucratic hurdles and pervasive corruption. Capacity constraints in most government ministries continue to adversely affect the execution of development projects. Payments are delayed to private sector contractors, suppliers and even the state’s own personnel. As of September 2016, nine months into the current Afghan fiscal year, the NUG has spent only 30 per cent of a $2.5 billion development budget. This slow pace in spending and execution is depriving a cash-starved economy of much-needed funds.

The government’s ability to implement economic reforms is hampered by internal political gridlock, bureaucratic hurdles and pervasive corruption.

Despite its many weaknesses and shortcomings, the NUG has succeeded in maintaining a degree of macro-economic stability and addressing the budgetary shortfalls it encountered in 2014. It has also raised domestic revenues above targets set by the International Monetary Fund. However, the new Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework, 2017 to 2021 is based on an unproven assumption that the three-year economic decline has been stemmed and that over the next five years the economy will grow by an average of five per cent. Domestic revenue mobilisation is in fact a poor indicator of the economy’s overall health, and the current effort to raise more money runs the risk of further shrinking an already fragile and struggling formal tax base.

While taxation rates remain low in comparison to other countries in the region, there is a widening mismatch between what the government demands in terms of revenue and the services it offers. Meanwhile the costs of doing business are increasing, and rising violence and weakening government control is exposing an already shrinking private sector to extortion and other acts of criminality, including kidnapping for ransom. Those responsible may be the Taliban, urban criminal networks or a range of other actors, some with links to the state. 

Despite a rise in revenue collection in 2015, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) estimated that over half of the country’s customs revenues were lost to graft that year. Public sector appointments, including critical security sector positions, are often casualties of infighting and nepotism. All this indicates the complicity of powerful political networks at the highest levels of government, costs the state and Afghan people hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues, and curtails the delivery of even basic services. Astonishingly, corruption within the security sector extends to the sale of military hardware and ammunition to insurgents.

Recommendations

As international donors and the Afghan government devise their responses to address the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, they should prioritise – alongside coordinated efforts to bring peace and political stability – a comprehensive and robust approach to an escalating humanitarian crisis, and adopt a more realistic vision of economic recovery and growth. They should:

  • Conduct a thorough national assessment of post-2014 socio-economic conditions and challenges to serve as the basis of more realistic strategic planning;
     
  • Urgently respond to the fast-growing humanitarian crisis, pledge adequate resources for the immediate needs of IDPs and refugee returnees for shelter, food, health and sanitation, and support the NUG in devising and implementing a coordinated policy to meet their longer-term needs for access to gainful employment;
     
  • Halt the deportation of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers from Europe; encourage the Pakistan government to end coercive, involuntary returns of all Afghan refugees, registered or unregistered; and provide financial and other incentives to sustain the millions that remain; 
     
  • Create new momentum in the fight against fraud by (i) tackling politically connected corruption networks within government; (ii) integrating robust anti-corruption policies with current revenue collection efforts; and (iii) ensuring robust oversight over payments in government contracts to private contractors and suppliers, while also streamlining these payments;
     
  • Ensure that funds reach the provinces, to promote more equitable distribution regionally and improve the writ of the government, while also prioritising the most under-developed and isolated regions;
     
  • Consider boosting private sector investment through guarantees and other protections and incentives; in particular encourage job-generating and long-term investments by the private sector through tax incentives; and provide, as far as possible, access to public services, including electricity, to firms that create jobs;
     
  • Take immediate, coordinated measures to ensure the security of private investors and business persons, including by targeting criminal networks, some containing elements within or linked to government institutions.  

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that the Enlightenment protest movement emerged to oppose the government's decision to change the route of the CASA 1000. This has now been updated to correctly cite that the opposition was towards the government's decision to change the route of another power transmission line bringing electricity from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan.

Commentary / Asia

Thinking Through the Dilemmas of Aid to Afghanistan

The suspension of external funding for Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to maximise humanitarian assistance, set humanitarian benchmarks for the Taliban to receive further funding and prepare for the possibility of new waves of migration.

Afghanistan is in the throes of a humanitarian crisis – driven by displacement, drought, the COVID-19 pandemic and a struggling economy – that has sharply worsened since the Taliban’s takeover and the prior government’s collapse on 15 August. A fundamental challenge is the country’s extreme dependency on external funds, much of which are now suspended due to understandable foreign concerns about the Taliban government’s direction. Humanitarian aid continues to arrive, but other disbursements that before the political upheaval were used to underwrite development programs, pay civil servants, provide public services and keep government functioning have ceased. Joblessness and poverty are climbing as a result. Afghanistan’s dire straits mean that donors, including the European Union (EU), have to grapple with the dilemma of how to support a population in growing distress while adhering to principles – including protection of fundamental freedoms, equal rights for women and the rule of law – that conflict with emerging Taliban government policies and practices. Although the Taliban’s transition from insurgency to governance is at an early stage, the group’s history and its actions in government so far indicate that there will likely be a wide gap between the nature of their rule and donors’ values. This gap looks set to limit the extent to which the EU and member states can provide a funding lifeline that would inevitably accrue to the benefit of Taliban regime consolidation. 

The EU has framed its criteria for engaging the Taliban government around five benchmarks. These entail the Taliban: (i) allowing the safe, secure and orderly departure of all foreigners and Afghans who wish to leave the country; (ii) promoting, protecting and respecting human rights, particularly for women and minorities, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms; (iii) enabling free access for humanitarian operations (including for female staff) in line with international humanitarian law; (iv) preventing anyone from financing, hosting or supporting terrorist activity from inside Afghanistan and ceasing all ties with international terrorism; and (v) lastly, establishing an inclusive and representative government through negotiations. Brussels has made clear that it will continue “operational engagement” – interactions with the Taliban on practical matters like evacuations and humanitarian operations that do not imply recognition or the resumption of normal diplomatic relations, though the concept is deliberately ambiguous to give the EU greater flexibility. 

Consistent with this framework, the EU and its member states should:

  • Maximise humanitarian assistance. The EU has already answered a portion of a UN flash appeal for additional such aid. It could now take a lead role in funding the UN appeal for the rest of 2021, by making further contributions and rallying other donors. Particular attention is needed to ensure that the health care system, already in a precarious state, does not completely fall apart. Donors in this area will likely have to work with and through the Taliban’s health ministry to some extent, in addition to funding international NGOs still present in Afghanistan. 
     
  • Adhere to the EU Council’s five-part framework for engagement with the Taliban but interpret it flexibly enough – meaning the EU should work towards the achievement of the five principles rather than using them as prior conditions – to help prevent the collapse of essential, life-saving public services, particularly health care, even though the Taliban are unlikely to meet all the conditions in the framework. Preventing such collapse will require provision of funding for some civil servants’ salaries, such as for health care providers.
     
  • Through diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, keep making clear the benchmarks that the new government would need to meet in order to receive European development assistance. The EU and European governments should set a small number of specific objectives drawn from the five-part framework for particular diplomatic focus, tied to a modest volume of development aid, as a means of testing the prospects for using aid as leverage. Because of its importance, educational access for girls and women could be a benchmark for the delivery of non-humanitarian aid. Earmarking aid for girls’ and women’s education is less likely to motivate the Taliban government to make changes than making aid available for other purposes of more interest to the group. 
     
  • Emphasise in engagement with the Taliban that they should follow through on promises they themselves have made, such as their public assurances that restrictions on girls’ education will only be temporary. 
     
  • Prepare for the possibility of increased migration to Europe of Afghan asylum seekers as the humanitarian situation deteriorates. Preparation predominantly should include increasing reception capacity in EU member states. Afghanistan’s neighbours, particularly Pakistan and Iran, already host millions of Afghans and are unlikely to welcome additional large numbers, even if Europe offers financial support.

A Severe Humanitarian and Economic Crisis

Since the Taliban seized power, the overall level of violence in the country has dropped considerably. But more than 3.5 million people remain internally displaced, and many of them have little prospect of returning home, due to property damage, crop failure and fear of Taliban revenge killings as well as fresh violence related to newly shifting power relations among tribes, clans and ethnic groups. 

Meanwhile, the country’s economic woes are deepening. The Taliban have put at the helm of economic policymaking individuals without relevant experience or qualifications, and the suspension of non-humanitarian foreign aid has starved the public sector of resources. Before the Taliban took over, public spending was about 75 per cent financed by foreign donors; without such assistance, the vast majority of civil servants are not being paid. The Afghan National Defence and Security Forces had been a major employer, providing income to many rural families, but are now defunct. Most of the Afghan central bank’s reserves, managed by the U.S. Federal Reserve, are now frozen and unlikely to be released soon, contributing to a liquidity crisis. 

The UN made a flash appeal for humanitarian aid that was the focus of a 13 September donors’ conference in Geneva, seeking $606 million to meet immediate needs. The EU increased its planned humanitarian aid spending for 2021 from €57 million to €200 million, almost a fourfold increase – but more money is needed. The UN’s appeal is only about 35 per cent funded as of early October.

This aid may help Afghanistan avert severe food insecurity, but with non-humanitarian assistance suspended, it is unlikely to prevent a sharp economic downturn. Whether or not to restart that assistance – and in what circumstances – presents the EU and other donors with a true conundrum.

EU Aid to Afghanistan and Conditionality

The EU has been one of the main financial backers of the heavily aid-dependent Afghan state, with €1.4 billion committed between 2014 and 2020. Brussels sent much of this aid as budget support for the Afghan government, to help finance agriculture and rural development programs, health care, policing, the justice system, anti-corruption initiatives and democratisation projects. Even before the Taliban seized power in August, however, the Afghan government’s uneven commitment to EU aid conditions (particularly enhancing governance and public institutions, fighting corruption, and fostering human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially for women, children and minorities) led the EU to slow or withhold the release of some of its assistance.

The Taliban takeover prompted the EU to suspend non-humanitarian aid altogether and re-evaluate its conditionality framework. On 21 September, the EU Council defined five benchmarks, outlined above, that would guide any future engagement with the Taliban government, though the EU has made it clear that for now it intends to keep what it is calling operational lines of communication to the movement open. Neither the EU nor any of its member states have yet clarified how stringently these benchmarks will be used as aid conditions. Yet, even as humanitarian aid for 2021 has been significantly increased, so long as the EU is not able to verify progress on the benchmarks, the €1 billion that Brussels was planning to deliver from 2021 to 2027 for development assistance will stay in European coffers.

Taliban Priorities and Reactions to EU Conditionality

The Taliban have not publicly responded to the EU’s conditionality framework. Indeed, few of the Taliban interlocutors who spoke with Crisis Group had even studied it. They were, however, aware of the broad contours of EU demands, given that various regional and other states have been pushing similar agendas to varying degrees. 

The Taliban are pressing for the establishment of a working relationship with the EU.

The Taliban appear to have an optimistic set of objectives for what they want from the EU and its member states: formal recognition, normalised diplomatic relations and unconditional aid to the country. As an immediate priority, the Taliban are pressing for the establishment of a working relationship with the EU. They see the possibility of Europeans re-establishing diplomatic presences in Kabul as a stepping stone to formal recognition. The Taliban see these measures as warranted because they have unchallenged authority in Afghanistan and because they believe the country remains strategically important to the EU. Some Taliban interlocutors warn that if Western states shun their government, they could increasingly fall under the influence of meddling neighbours, particularly Pakistan. They also caution (whether genuinely or opportunistically is difficult to say) that if Western countries do not quickly display good-will, the group will assume that they are hostile and defer to hardliners who wish to reinforce the group’s Islamist and jihadist credentials. 

Be that as it may, the Taliban leadership is increasingly cognisant they are unlikely to receive any time soon formal recognition or anything like the financial aid flows the previous government enjoyed. Their most pressing priority seems to be removal of sanctions. The Taliban leadership is aware that to maintain Afghanistan’s public services machinery and ward off state collapse, they will require financial and technical assistance that enables them to restructure their security and intelligence forces and build fiscal management, technological and service-delivery capacity. Without sanctions relief, almost none of that help is attainable. The Taliban’s leaders appear to believe that if they can get even a fraction of the aid the country previously received, then they would be able to run a functioning government. The Taliban seem to want to extract as many benefits as possible while offering little in return.

The Taliban will accept financial aid only if there are minimal conditions. However bad the situation in Afghanistan, at least so far they appear willing to forego assistance if it entails stringent conditions. Publicly, top government officials have emphasised the need to remove conditions for providing aid. Privately, Taliban interlocutors acknowledge the futility of asking for aid with no strings attached but stress that they will be unable to fulfil strict conditions. They say donors should set realistic goals, though have not defined what they would regard as realistic.

Conversations with Taliban interlocutors suggest that the group’s policies are first and foremost driven by concerns internal to the movement, particularly maintaining its cohesion, followed by broader domestic considerations, with demands by outside powers, especially faraway ones, coming a distant third. In practice, the group may frame its actions as ways to address EU concerns, where those concerns align with the Taliban’s own goals. Where they diverge, however, the movement will put internal and domestic imperatives ahead of EU demands.

The Taliban appear to believe they have already fulfilled some of the EU benchmarks. The group cites its cooperation during the post-15 August evacuation of foreign citizens and many Afghans as an example showing it can be a responsible, constructive counterpart. Interlocutors argue that with the main airports again operational, foreign citizens are free to enter and exit the country. Although concerned about brain drain, they say they are prepared to allow Afghans who want to leave the country to do so and they have facilitated some flights, even though there are also anecdotal indications to the contrary. For such cooperation to continue, they will want something in return. Taliban interlocutors also believe they are on track to meet the benchmark regarding humanitarian operations. The Taliban generally attribute occasional interference in humanitarian organisations’ work to lack of discipline among the rank and file, and the group claims to be taking steps to curb such behaviour. At the same time, it is likely that the Taliban will use engagement on humanitarian operations as an opportunity to maximise interactions with foreign states in the hopes of building informal diplomatic relations and implicit recognition. 

On counter-terrorism issues, the Taliban believe that compliance with their February 2020 Doha agreement with the United States (which they claim to be honouring) is sufficient to meet this benchmark. The Taliban argue that the Doha agreement set up a framework whereby their government will treat foreign fighters as refugees, with all the rights and obligations this status entails. They say they will take action against any foreign militants who seek to abuse this status. Yet Taliban interlocutors are also keen to emphasise – probably at least in part to deflect responsibility – that they would require continued security and intelligence cooperation from the EU and U.S. to detect and stop threats emanating from the country. Given the increasingly dire challenges the Taliban face, they are unlikely to place a high priority on countering militant groups that they do not see as a threat to themselves. The Taliban also do not appear to have a comprehensive understanding of counter-terrorism obligations under international law and practice, including the obligation to cut off terrorist group financing. The group appears to believe that the Doha agreement, rather than Afghanistan’s broader international obligations, defines its commitments in this area. Taliban interlocutors say they believe the group would require the removal of sanctions as well as financial and technical assistance to fulfil financial counter-terrorism obligations. 

The Taliban also argue that outside powers should interpret their latest appointments, which only slightly diversified the ethnic composition of their Pashtun-dominated government, as a sign of their willingness to form an inclusive government. Interlocutors claim that inclusion will be effectuated slowly and incrementally, as the group seeks to balance its fighters’ sensibilities against the need to fulfil its “obligations” to foreign countries. They also suggest that the government is preparing to form a specific ministry for women that will be led by a woman. If their conduct so far is any guide, however, it is likely that the Taliban will at best bring in one woman in a symbolic position, akin to the inclusion of a Hazara as a deputy public health minister, in order to claim that the government has now become inclusive.

One area in which the Taliban have not come anywhere close to meeting European conditions is the protection of rights and fundamental freedoms for women and girls.

One area in which the Taliban have not come anywhere close to meeting European conditions is the protection of rights and fundamental freedoms for women and girls. Taliban interlocutors insist that women will have the right to work and get an education, but they are studiously vague about when, and under what circumstances, women will be able to exercise these rights. On paper, the Taliban have extended girls’ schooling up to the sixth grade to all parts of the country, including the south, where, as an insurgency, local commanders forbade girls to attend even primary school. Anecdotal evidence about women’s access to university education is mixed; while some reports indicate that women have been allowed to attend classes in some places, other reports say new restrictions have made that practically impossible in others. At present, however, girls are not being allowed to attend school from the sixth grade through the twelfth, despite the fact that boys of equivalent grades have resumed schooling. The Taliban have claimed that the exclusion of girls is temporary. But they have set no timeline for when girls will be able to resume their studies, making vague excuses for the delay. The group has also curtailed women’s ability to work outside the home. They have allowed women to resume working in the health and education sectors as well as in a limited number of security roles that involve interaction with other women (such as at airports). Beyond that, the Taliban have generally barred women from going to work until further notice. While Taliban interlocutors told Crisis Group that these restrictions are temporary, the Taliban’s history gives reason for doubt. Scepticism is all the more warranted given many powerful Taliban commanders’ opposition to girls’ education beyond the sixth grade. 

On some issues the Taliban see themselves as performing a balancing act between appeasing (as they see it) Western donors and not antagonising their hardline elements. This is seen in spheres such as media and moral policing. The Taliban have so far let many media outlets continue broadcasting. At the same time, numerous journalists report being harassed, arrested and even severely beaten by the Taliban. In the resulting climate, most media outlets are forced to self-censor lest they draw the Taliban’s ire. In deference to hardliners, the group has also reinstituted the Vice and Virtue Ministry, feared under the Taliban regime of the 1990s for its harsh and often violent moral policing. The ministry has thus far abstained from regulating citizen’s behaviour nationwide. There have been reports, however, of ministry officials banning music, the shaving of beards and Western hairstyles, particularly in Helmand province, although the government has rejected these reports as fabricated. As the Taliban government wrestles with a multitude of governance and security challenges, there is a risk that it will reverse these meagre concessions to international opinion – and to the views of many Afghans – to placate hardliners.

What the EU Can Do

The immediate priority should be making sure that Afghanistan gets as much humanitarian aid as it needs. The EU and its member states should contribute additional funds to the UN humanitarian appeal for the rest of 2021 and urge other donor governments to follow suit. In addition to addressing immediate needs, it will be crucial to find ways to prevent the health care system from collapsing. Although this can be partly achieved by providing funds to international NGOs that remain active in the country, it is unlikely that donors will be able to entirely avoid working with and through the Taliban health ministry in doing so, as even if they scale up their operations, these NGOs alone will never be capable of providing health services across the country without some kind of collaboration with the government-run national health system.

Although humanitarian assistance may be able to stave off disaster for the Afghan population, it will not replace the provision of public services. Nor will it prevent the country’s further impoverishment. Should the Taliban make sufficient progress toward the benchmarks set by the EU Council, the European Commission should at least prioritise resuming development assistance in the health sector. At the same time, the EU could evaluate the feasibility of a more expansive development aid program. 

While aid conditionality is not likely to shape Taliban policies to any great degree, it is not impossible that renewed aid with conditions could bring some small improvements. The Taliban’s practices are driven primarily by ideology and the group’s perceived need to consolidate its grip on power. The group’s leaders generally appear to believe that, as the military victors, they need not compromise. They seem inclined to blame the country’s economic woes on Western donors, whom they regard as inflexible and bearing grudges, even if it is clear that their own policies and actions, many of which are anathema to European values, are the chief factor obstructing the resumption of non-humanitarian aid. Nevertheless, the EU should continue to test through engagement whether renewed aid with conditionality could bring worthwhile changes, all the while sticking to its five-part framework. It should also keep reminding the Taliban government of its own commitments, such as its statements that the suspension of girls’ secondary education is only temporary.

Lastly, the EU member states should prepare for large numbers of Afghans potentially fleeing the country. Even if humanitarian aid can stave off the worst in the approaching winter, the prospect of repeated humanitarian crises and possibly renewed violence in Afghanistan means that Afghans will continue to seek to migrate abroad. Many will probably head for Pakistan and Iran, the countries next door, where millions of refugees already reside. So far, the EU has suggested it will fund neighbouring countries to host Afghan refugees. But Afghanistan’s neighbours are baulking at accepting new arrivals. Moreover, past attempts to increase the reception capacity of other countries have not prevented large numbers of Afghans from attempting the risky journey to Europe. The EU and its member states should accordingly prepare – politically and operationally – to welcome large numbers of Afghans themselves.