Western states and the UN aid system reacted to the Taliban assumption of power in August 2021 essentially the same way they did in 1996-2001 when Taliban first ruled from Kabul. There was no recognition, a battery of sanctions were imposed, funds held by the Afghan state overseas were frozen, and no humanitarian assistance or other aid funds were channeled through the Taliban controlled state. Instead, donors used international agencies and national and international NGOs to provide mostly humanitarian assistance, deliberately bypassing the administrative machinery that they with so much effort had built up during the previous two decades of the US-led intervention.
The policy rested on two premises and a hope: The first premise was that the international community had a humanitarian responsibility to assist the Afghan people, most of whom quickly fit the category of “highly vulnerable “persons, exposed as they were to economic deprivation by the sudden collapse of foreign aid which in previous years had constituted some 75 per cent of government revenues. A devastating earthquake added to the suffering caused by disease and hunger and the cold from the remorseless Afghan winter. The second premise was that aid should not be extended to a state that denied its people fundamental human rights as expressed in international law and norms, in particular the rights of women and girls. The hope was that sanctions and non-recognition eventually would make the Taliban yield on the rights issue.
The historical experience during the first Taliban regime suggests that this hope is illusory. Taliban did not yield to Western and UN pressure then. After a year in power this time, they have not yielded either and in some respects turned more rigid (notably by denying girls access to secondary education). A regime change seems most unlikely. The Taliban has consolidated its political position and even generated new sources of revenue by taking over checkpoints long used by local power holders to tax travelers and traders (Alcis 2022).
Meanwhile, donors have been struggling to find ways to provide aid to a country whose government it does not recognize, as one analyst put it (Shapour 2022). The aid system that had evolved by mid-2022 provides some essential services by supporting food distribution and the health sector. It also includes what the aid community called “humanitarian-plus”-programs in the grey zone between humanitarian and development assistance for e.g. education and food cultivation.
The World Bank has become the principal dispenser of donor money for humanitarian-plus purposes. Much of the funding comes from the multi-donor trust fund ARTF that is distributed to the UN agencies (WHO, FAO, UNDO), and/or international and national NGOs. The system has some similarities with previous aid programs, but with the key difference that donor aspiration after the 2001 intervention was to support the Afghan state by channeling an increasing and substantial amount of aid money through the Afghan government. The government in turn utilized NGOs for project implementation, but the state was an active partner by managing aid funds through the national budget process.
The present bypassing of the state raises some fundamentally problematic issues. Central agents in the international donor community have taken responsibility for providing basic economic and social services that are critical to society, and that normally are provided by, or in collaboration with, the state. Apart from issues of control of funds in areas of the country where donors have no access, a “humanitarian governance” system of this kind has moral and political implications (Fassin 2010, de Lauri 2016). A parallel state has in practice replaced national state power, but lacks political mechanisms for providing representation and ensuring accountability. The deeply asymmetric power relationship as well as distance – in all meanings of the word – between the international aid community and Afghan recipients suggests negation of principles of equality, power, and responsibility. There is also an element of 'moral hazard'. Donors can choose to terminate programs without inflicting direct pain on their own population; the costs will be borne in their totality by “the other”.
The dangers of self-perpetuation are obvious. As vested interests develop, a program that was intended as temporary can become self-reinforcing and long-lasting, especially in a situation where the political conflict seems deadlocked. Continued internationally managed aid can foster greater dependence in society, encourage the Taliban to disclaim responsibility for providing basic social services, and make the transition to more normal aid cooperation more difficult.
In the longer run, a parallel international aid system that bypasses the state will weaken the public structures established over the past twenty years and erode the potential for sustainable development and poverty reduction. In this respect, the international donor community is now deliberately walking back from the ideological doctrine of state-building that guided its two decades of previous involvement in Afghanistan.
The state-building literature that focuses on post-conflict reconstruction situation, as in Afghanistan, has long concluded that a functioning state is necessary for development and modernity, and that a responsible and representative state is a foundational requirement of peacebuilding. Conversely, "failed states" are seen as the root of poverty, war, and conflict. Over the past 25 years, much of OECD/DAC’s intellectual energy was spent attempting to translate this knowledge into aid policies to repair "failed states."
The first step for the international aid community to exit what in the long run is an untenable situation is a broader engagement that entails cooperation with the administrative Taliban state. Several Afghan ministries (Finance, Education, Rural Development, and Health) were given good marks at the end of the US-led intervention period and could be engaged before inactivity causes further institutional disintegration.
The second step is to wind back sanctions to enable the Afghan banking system and thereby the country’s traditionally enterprising private sector to play their part in meeting the immediate needs as well as economic recovery. Until now, US sanctions in particular have made international transfers very difficult and greatly limited the role of the private economic sector.
The scale of the current humanitarian crisis cannot be solved through humanitarian aid alone, as the former British Foreign Secretary and current head of the International Rescue Committee has pointed out (Miliband 2022). The US and its allies could move towards more sustainable solutions by progressively un-shackling the constraints they have put on both the Afghan state and the private sector.
De Lauri, A. (Ed.)(2016). The Politics of Humanitarianism. Power, Ideology and Aid. I.B. Tauris.
Fassin, D. (2010)” Inequality of Lives, Hierarchies of Humanity: Moral Commitments and Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarianism”, pp. 238-255, in I. Feldman and M. Ticktin (Eds.) In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care. Duke University Press.
Miliband, D. (2022). Written Statement for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism. “Afghanistan: The Humanitarian Crisis and U.S. Response”.
Shapour, R. (2022) “Donors’ Dilemma: How to provide aid to a government that you don’t recognize”, AAN.