The UN’s Afghan challenge

Ian Black

Geneva’s Palais des Nations is the impressive European headquarters of the United Nations. Completed in 1938, it is an architectural gem located in a leafy park adjoining the nearby lake. This week it will be the site of one of the most important challenges to the global order that has resulted from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan following President Joe Biden’s controversial decision to withdraw US forces after 20 years.

At stake is the fate of that country’s 38 million people who have been described by the UN as facing a “looming humanitarian catastrophe”. Emphasizing the importance of this issue the conference will be hosted in person by the secretary-general, Antonio Guterres. Guterres will advocate for a boost in funding so that humanitarian operations can continue and appeal for full and unimpeded access to make sure Afghans continue to get the essential services they need.

Afghanistan is facing the collapse of basic services and food and other aid is about to run out, as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned last week. Millions of Afghans were in need of food aid and health assistance. The agency has released an urgent appeal for $600 million to meet humanitarian needs for 11 million people for the rest of the year amid warnings of drought and starvation.

Over half a million people have been displaced internally in Afghanistan this year as Taliban fighters swept across the country, culminating in their seizure of Kabul on August 15. Medecins Sans Frontieres also warned that the vulnerable healthcare system was facing a “potential collapse”. Even before the Taliban victory, Afghanistan was heavily aid-dependent – with more than a third of the country’s gross domestic product drawn from foreign funding.

Unicef also cautioned that hundreds of children have been separated from their families amidst chaotic conditions in and around the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. And the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said that the crisis has caused significant disruption and threatens Afghanistan’s critical winter wheat season, which is about to begin. Half of the average Afghan’s daily calorific intake comes from wheat, and most of the supply grown in the country is sourced to the upcoming rainfed winter season.  As one veteran official put it: “People are again faced with no food in the larder, no food to put on the table, having to sell the little bit of assets or livestock that they have to try to survive.”

And malnutrition already affects one in two children under the age of five in Afghanistan, where 14 million people or one-third of the population faces “acute food insecurity”, the WFP says.

As several key donors including Germany, the World Bank and EU have suspended their aid following the Taliban’s lightning military victory, spiralling food prices and uncertainty over how the hardline Islamist movement will provide services to an impoverished and largely rural population, the question of aid has become ever more urgent.

In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover the US froze $7 billion of Afghan reserves, while the International Monetary Fund shut off financing to the country, including hundreds of millions of dollars in Special Drawing Rights, which can be converted into currency during times of crisis.

This is extremely difficult problem as the Taliban have been careful to convey positive messages to the international community about access to aid organizations and about freedom for foreign nationals to leave the country by land and air. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the UN should take the lead in engaging with the new government in Kabul despite clear reservations about the Taliban attitude to women and turning Afghanistan, as before, into a launching pad for jihadist groups.

Last week’s announcement of a new Taliban caretaker government has not been encouraging: it is an all-male, and Pashtun-dominated cabinet that has ignored calls to form an inclusive administration. And violence against protesters and journalists in Kabul are not positive signals.- despite what observers term a “charm offensive”.

In theory now the US and its allies have real if constricted leverage – again for obvious financial and humanitarian reasons. The UN must offer carrots and sticks to Kabul, and hold back on recognising this new regime until they prove themselves, and their awareness of international expectations.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a former and highly experienced Algerian foreign minister and UN envoy, may also be right: “I have the impression that the international parties involved in Afghanistan realise that boycotting the Taliban in the 1990s was not the best option. Kept in total isolation, the Taliban had a distorted image of the rest of the world….  Likewise, would Usama Bin Laden have been given the opportunity and protection he needed to prepare and execute 9/11 if the Taliban had enjoyed international recognition?”

As Gutteres declared when announcing the Palais des Nations conference in Geneva: “The United Nations stands in solidarity with the people of Afghanistan and is committed to staying and delivering for them”. Let’s hope that the Taliban heed that pretty clear signal and decide to behave accordingly.