Stopping State Failure in Afghanistan
Stopping State Failure in Afghanistan
Commentary / Asia 10 minutes

Stopping State Failure in Afghanistan

The extension of Taliban-specific sanctions to the entire Afghan state is a primary cause of the Afghan economy’s freefall and has compounded the country’s humanitarian crisis. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to adopt alternative mechanisms for more targeted sanctions and help restore central banking functions to enable the revival of economic activity.

Afghanistan is now the site of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, in which millions of children could starve to death. As Crisis Group and others have pointed out, the extension of Taliban-specific sanctions to the entire Afghan state is a primary cause of the Afghan economy’s freefall, along with the cutoff of non-humanitarian aid to the country and the freezing of Afghan state assets held in the United States and Europe. The Taliban government’s refusal to acknowledge the scale of the humanitarian disaster, much less take steps to address it, is another factor – although it is unclear what a Taliban-led government could do to ease economic woes in the face of stifling international sanctions. At the same time, the Taliban seems increasingly disinclined to make concessions to Western donors that might, in theory, earn their government some assistance. The crisis is putting great strain on Afghan society, risking disintegration and a refugee exodus. 

The European Union (EU) and its member states should: 

  • Propose and urge adoption of alternative mechanisms for more targeted sanctions at the UN. A revised sanctions regime could continue to target individual Taliban leaders and include an arms embargo while eschewing broad prohibitions that are choking the Afghan economy and disconnecting Afghanistan from the global financial system.
  • Draw a distinction between the Taliban as a movement and the Afghan public sector, which largely remains an apolitical body. The EU should take a leading role in funding specific state functions that ameliorate the humanitarian crisis and could help preserve the social gains of the past twenty years. Top priorities should be support for rural development, health, agriculture, electricity, local governance, education and civil service personnel retention. Keeping the public sector afloat is crucial as it is the country’s single largest employer. 
  • Help restore central banking functions to enable the revival of economic activity. The EU should likewise lead in proposing a plan for such restoration, including recapitalisation of the Afghan banking system by gradually unfreezing assets held in European countries, urging the U.S. to unfreeze assets held there, and soliciting participation in recapitalisation from other states interested in Afghanistan’s stability.
  • Work to establish robust monitoring mechanisms to address concerns that the Taliban could divert aid for stabilising essential services delivery. The EU should help design these mechanisms. Member states with influence over the UN Security Council should ensure that it structures the UN mission in Afghanistan to carry out monitoring activities. The recent re-establishment of a small EU diplomatic presence in Kabul can provide support for such monitoring.
  • Engage persistently with Taliban authorities, to refine and reinforce expectations and work to identify a plausible steady-state relationship that could prevent a failed state and drastic, long-lasting erosion of rights gains.

The Taliban Adopt a Transactional Approach

Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the EU framed its engagement with the Taliban government around five benchmarks. These entailed the Taliban: 1) allowing the safe, secure and orderly departure of all foreigners and Afghans who wish to leave the country; 2) promoting, protecting and respecting human rights, particularly for women and minorities, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms; 3) enabling free access for humanitarian operations (including for female staff) in line with international humanitarian law; 4) preventing anyone from financing, hosting or supporting terrorist activity from inside Afghanistan and ceasing all ties with international terrorism; and 5) lastly, establishing an inclusive and representative government through negotiations. European and many other foreign officials understandably see the Taliban as having done little in the way of compromise or to address international concerns since seizing power. Today, in the face of increasing challenges, the Taliban’s calculations appear to be evolving and their stance potentially hardening even further, which could bear on the EU’s approach to Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s biggest challenge, with serious implications for the well-being of the Afghan population, is to deliver sustainable governance, particularly in the face of looming humanitarian catastrophe and armed group attacks on their fighters. As the Taliban’s international pariah status becomes cemented, the new authorities in Kabul will have fewer incentives to make overtures to donors and instead seek alternative means of burnishing their credentials. Steps they have already taken include moves to remove opposition symbols, including portraits and busts of famous anti-Taliban commanders, and promulgation of ideologically driven policies to showcase their Islamist bona fides, such as restrictions on taxi rides for women. Security forces have also assumed a belligerent stance in border disputes in a bid to show the government’s nationalist inclinations. 

Faced with a continued lack of formal recognition, the government’s overtures to Western countries increasingly focus on tangible goals such as the unfreezing of Afghan central bank reserves, financial support to pay the previous government’s debts, small-scale development aid and donor assistance to manage the humanitarian crisis. In exchange, the Taliban have offered rhetorical gestures such as assertions that they will eventually allow all girls to attend school.

It is doubtful that the Taliban will make concessions that meet the EU’s five-part conditionality framework.

Given these realities, it is doubtful that the Taliban will make concessions that meet the EU’s five-part conditionality framework. Taliban attempts to address international concerns thus far, including this framework, were covered in a previous Watch List update. These steps did not satisfy EU requirements, but Taliban interlocutors have told Crisis Group that the movement should have received some form of EU acknowledgement of its achievements, for instance ensuring the delivery of humanitarian aid without interference. In the absence of political credit and, more importantly, financial assistance, the Taliban see little incentive to take further steps they regard as potentially jeopardising their internal unity. The new authorities appear to be abandoning previous attempts to make what they view as broad compromises in exchange for normalisation of relations. They are switching to a transactional approach in which they offer symbolic moves in the hopes of reciprocation with limited financial assistance. 

According to Taliban interlocutors, the new officials in Kabul feel that Western powers have betrayed the movement, walking back commitments made previously, and making more demands without offering anything substantial in return. Such perceptions are growing even as outside powers scale up what is already the world’s largest emergency relief operation in Afghanistan (with a six-fold increase in EU humanitarian aid throughout 2021), because the Taliban view the hunger crisis as a result of Western economic restrictions. The sense of betrayal appears to be strengthening arguments among Taliban leaders for adopting a hardened stance and going back on some of their own commitments. 

One example is the authorities’ efforts to form an “inclusive” government, as requested by donors, by retaining elements of the previous civil service and appointing non-Taliban technocrats to deputy ministerial positions. The Taliban have made small steps to diversify their government’s ethnic composition. In addition to previous appointments, the de facto government named Abdul Latif Nazari, a member of the Shia Hazara minority, as deputy economy minister in late December. While the Taliban’s efforts fall far short of many foreign powers’ expectations, they argue that their government comprises officials from all of the country’s major ethnicities and therefore should be considered inclusive. The Taliban have yet to include any women in top government positions, which is a key indicator for meeting the requirements of inclusivity from the EU’s perspective. Women appear to have little input overall under the Taliban’s government. 

Nor, despite Taliban officials holding high-profile meetings over recent weeks with minority groups including Shia Hazaras and Sikhs, has the government taken steps to incorporate the rights of minorities formally into the new political order. More broadly, that order remains ill defined, with no written description of the new system and no new constitution. The new government ministers have so far shown a propensity to declare policies with no reference to the rights of minorities. Now, facing financial burdens, the Taliban could backtrack on even the modest steps toward inclusion they have taken, making further cuts to the public sector and reducing it to an even more skeletal version of a state apparatus, manned exclusively by Taliban loyalists.

One of the few policy areas where the Taliban have promulgated directives at the highest level is women’s rights. An early December decree by the Taliban’s top leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, enumerated some basic rights of women, pertaining to marriage and inheritance, that the government’s ministries should respect. Conspicuously missing from the decree was anything pertaining to women’s rights to education or work. 

So far, the Taliban have allowed women who had been working in the public sector to return only to roles in health and education or to security positions requiring direct interaction with females. Meanwhile, they have failed to appoint a woman as a minister or deputy minister. The previous women’s ministry remains shuttered, its building occupied by the Taliban’s ministry for promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice, though Taliban interlocutors say authorities have not officially removed the women’s ministry from the government structure. The government has reopened public secondary schools for girls in nearly a dozen of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces – but not across the country. There are indications that private secondary schools for girls are open. Recently, Taliban forces have reportedly harassed and forcibly disappeared women protesters, with some protesters still missing. This worrying development could portend a trend of suppressing women’s civil dissent.

On counter-terrorism, the Taliban claim to be committed to the 2020 U.S.-Taliban Doha agreement benchmarks. The group no longer invokes that agreement, however, when speaking about its counter-terrorism policies. Taliban interlocutors suggested to Crisis Group that the new authorities view the Doha agreement as no longer in effect due to what they argue are U.S. breaches (the Taliban see Washington’s freezing of Afghanistan’s assets and refusal to lift sanctions or recognise the Taliban government as breaches, even though the Doha agreement was premised on the Taliban entering talks with the Afghan government and other political forces, not seizing power by force). They further suggested that the group no longer sees itself as bound by the agreement. Still, Taliban interlocutors say authorities will continue to honour counter-terrorism commitments as a matter of internal policy. 

How the EU Can Help Prevent State Collapse

Donor states’ approach of exerting pressure to extract concessions has yielded no significant compromises. The new authorities show little sign of buckling under the pressure; to the contrary, the Taliban’s positions appear to have hardened. 

There is another path available for donors such as the EU: providing targeted assistance to the Afghan public sector to test Taliban willingness to cooperate with international demands, and to prevent a collapse of public services that would have dire consequences for the Afghan people. Some European state donors have already started down this path, pledging support for the UN multi-donor trust fund that would go beyond emergency relief and, at least to a limited extent, address the economic roots of the crisis. The EU has supported this approach, too, committing over €268 million to projects primarily for health, education and food security, channelled through UN agencies and other international and non-governmental organisations. Although these funds are critical (yet insufficient) to improve Afghans’ living standards, they are not delivered through state structures and thus give the government only limited incentive to alter policy. Offering some development aid would give the EU and member states the ability to increase or decrease assistance contingent on the government’s cooperation – a degree of leverage that is impossible with strictly humanitarian aid. 

The policies of Western donors have not kept pace with [Afghanistan’s] fast-growing humanitarian crisis.

The policies of Western donors have not kept pace with the fast-growing humanitarian crisis. The continued isolation of the new authorities in Kabul is likely to amplify voices in the Taliban leadership arguing for rolling back the meagre compromises they have offered so far. Financially strained, the Taliban will likely give short shrift to policies adopted to allay Western concerns. For example, it is unlikely that the Taliban will have the capacity or will to fund the salaries of civil servants who previously delivered social programs or to finance girls’ public education. There is a risk that the Taliban will increasingly monopolise state machinery as they seek to hold on to power. 

Several actions would enable the EU to balance the Afghan population’s need for a reasonably functioning state and the importance of engaging with the Taliban on respect for rights, especially of women and minorities, while developing a realistic working relationship with the authorities short of official recognition. The EU’s recent establishment of a minimal diplomatic presence in Kabul and the direct talks between EU officials and the Taliban authorities in Doha could help achieve this goal. Measures to revise sanctions regimes would loosen the unintended stranglehold on the Afghan economy. Targeted assistance for state structures that directly support livelihoods and Afghans’ well-being would stave off the collapse of essential services. Support for restoration of central banking functions, with international and European technical assistance and oversight, would help alleviate Afghanistan’s economic troubles without depending upon wider Taliban progress in improving governance. Increasing efforts along these lines also would give the EU a firmer footing for dialogue on governance, rights and security issues than would a more disengaged stance.

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