A growing number of Western governments have decided to halt development assistance to Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of virtually the entire country on August 15 in a move that will put a severe strain on the militant Islamist group’s ability to govern.
Donor countries that for more than 20 years have provided billions of dollars to the war-torn country are now declaring they will not abandon the Afghan people but won’t give “a cent to the Taliban.”
Recipe For Disaster?
The International Monetary Fund announced on 18 August that it would block the Afghan government’s access to $460 million, and the United States has frozen nearly $9 billion in Afghan currency reserves. In Sweden, the development assistance minister and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) say they will continue to fund UN programs and NGOs but not a Taliban government.
This is a recipe for disaster. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and one of the most dependent on foreign aid. Consider two sectors that are usually referred to as success stories in the past 20 years: education and health.
Presently, there are around 7 million children (40 percent girls) with 200,000 teachers at Afghan state schools, according to official figures from the Afghan government that was recently ousted.
The health sector has seen a colossal expansion during the past 20 years, not to anything even remotely resembling European standards but far better than ever before in Afghan history. This has contributed, among other things, to radically lowered maternal and child mortality rates. Roughly 70,000 people are employed in the health sector nationwide.
The annual cost to the state for education is an estimated $800 million, while the corresponding figure for the health sector is $1.7 billion. Both are to up to 85 percent financed by foreign donors, and if development assistance is discontinued health and education professionals will not receive their salaries and both programs -- as well as other aid-dependent programs run by the former government -- will imminently collapse.
It is out of the question that the UN and NGOs could manage to substitute the foreign aid being withheld and to keep the education and health sectors functioning as they do.
UNICEF and other UN agencies support education partly through the Afghan government and partly through NGOs. It is estimated that some 200,000 to 250,000 students attend schools supported by these NGOs.
It goes without saying that it is impossible for the NGOs, even if they double or triple their capacity, to take over and fill the void when the development assistance funds from foreign entities to ministries are terminated.
It would also highly unlikely that the Taliban would allow foreign organizations to run the country’s modern education system in what they perceive as “their” country.
The annual GDP of Afghanistan is about $500 per capita, and investments are decreasing to the point of extinction. There is also a critical internal refugee crisis, with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reporting nearly 400,000 Afghans being internally displaced at the beginning of August.
On top of those problems, a severe drought and COVID-19 have worsened the situation even further.
The World Food Program estimates that 14 million Afghans need food assistance. There is every reason -- considering all the problems Afghanistan faces -- to expect a humanitarian disaster.
A justified question is whether European and U.S. politicians have thought of the consequences of their policy of “not one cent to the Taliban.”
One of the greatest worries by European governments is a new wave of Afghan refugees trying to find their way to Europe. With no development assistance, the refugee flow -- which has never stopped and has grown this year – will undoubtedly increase.
Rush To Judgement?
It is understandable that donor countries do not want to support a hardline Islamist government in Afghanistan, but we know that the Taliban is not a monolith. There are moderates and radicals within the leadership ranks, and it will take some time before we see which faction dominates.
We do know, however, that there will be a downturn in democratic practices, rights, and values that have been enacted through the country’s constitution and laws enacted since the U.S.-led invasion of the country overthrew the Taliban in 2001. Exactly what form life will take under the Taliban this time is still unknown.
The Taliban has been unified in its goals of pushing U.S. and other foreign military forces out of Afghanistan and overthrowing the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
But the group’s leadership must decide on concrete policies and decide how similar it will be to the brutal Taliban rule in the 1990s. The Taliban has hinted it will have a broadly based government and there is some hope among observers that its policies will be more akin to modern Islamic countries.
In this context, an argument for the moderate side undoubtedly is, or rather was, the continuation of at least some development assistance.
But with the current European and U.S. policies of “not a cent,” that argument cannot be used. Western governments have thereby deprived the moderates of an argument and themselves of one of the few instruments by which to influence the politics of the Taliban.
It would be advisable for Western governments to protest atrocities and human rights violations by the Taliban but to otherwise stay calm and wait several weeks until it is clear what Taliban rule really looks like.
At that point, Western governments could make decisions more firmly anchored in fact than in a principled rejection of the Taliban.
That would be the true meaning of not abandoning the Afghan people.
These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.