By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Afghanistan is one country in the world which seems destined not to savor independence, peace and prosperity. Currently, it is sinking further into poverty as rich nations, which can lift it out of poverty and destitution, are haggling with the Taliban regime over conditions for recognition, even de-facto recognition to reach urgently needed humanitarian assistance.
Kanni Wignaraja, Director of the UN Development Program’s regional bureau for Asia and the Pacific, told the Washington Post at the end of September, that a combination of political instability, the freezing of foreign reserves, a collapsed public finance system, drought and the coronavirus pandemic, could soon lead to a worst-case poverty rate of 97 to 98%. The current poverty level is 72%.
Before the Taliban took over, when the US and other countries were aiding Afghanistan, the per capita income had more than doubled, life expectancy at birth had increased by nine years, and the years of schooling had gone up from six to 10, Wignaraja recalled, showing the fruits of external assistance.
Referring to another important dimension to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, Abdullah Al Dardari, the resident UNDP representative in Afghanistan, said that 70% of the Afghan economy is in the hands of women who operate small businesses and agriculture in small towns and rural areas. It is the women who are directly affected by the rich nations’ sanctions, Al Dardari pointed out.
Al Jazeera reported that the number of displaced people is now more than 570,000, 80% of whom are women and children. Hunger haunts 14 million. A third of Afghanistan’s population of 38 million is facing food insecurity, including two million children who are already malnourished, according to the World Food Program (WFP). Some 40% of crops have been lost and livestock devastated by droughts.
The Taliban government has warned US and European envoys that continued attempts to pressure them through sanctions will undermine their own security and trigger a wave of economic refugees.
“Weakening the Afghan government is not in the interest of anyone because its negative effects will directly affect the world in the security sector and economic migration from the country,” the Acting Afghan Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, told Western diplomats at talks in Doha recently. Indeed the flow of refugees really worries the EU, Pakistan and Iran.
Muttaqi urged the world to end existing sanctions and let banks operate normally so that charity groups, organizations and the government can pay salaries to their staff.
The US and the EU, the rich nations, are blowing hot and cold. On the one had they say they will send aid and on the other they lay down conditions which the Taliban are loathe to accept under duress. At a recent meeting between the Taliban and a EU-US delegation in Doha, Qatar, the EU pledged US$ 1.2 billion in aid. The G20, which met virtually on October 12, also said it is committed to aiding Afghanistan.
But neither the EU nor the G20 wanted to have anything to do with the Taliban regime. They wanted to reach aid to the Afghan people directly through UN and non-government agencies. However, the Italian Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, who hosted the G20 summit, struck a more realistic note. “It’s very hard to see how one can help the Afghan people without some sort of involvement of the Taliban government,” Draghi told a post-summit press conference.
But while the EU and G20 at least talked of sending aid to Afghanistan, albeit circumventing the Taliban regime, the US was fixated on tackling the terrorist threat from Afghanistan emanating from the Islamic State Khorasan (IAIS-K). A White House statement said the leaders of G20 “discussed the critical need to maintain a laser-focus on our enduring counterterrorism efforts, including against threats from ISIS-K.”
Many wonder why the US should set its face against recognizing the Taliban administration, even for a limited purpose, when it had recognized the Taliban, de-facto, to hold prolonged talks with it to enable the withdrawal US troops from Afghanistan without so much as a scratch in August this year. The question is: Why hold up US$ 9.5 billion of Afghanistan’s reserves in the US after successfully withdrawing from that country, courtesy the Taliban?
India appears to be on the horns of a dilemma. Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the G20 summit that Indians feel the pain which the Afghans are experiencing and that India had been aiding the Afghan people in multifarious ways for two decades. But at the same time, he underlined the need to ensure that Afghan territory does not become a source of radicalization, terrorism and drug smuggling. He also sought an administration in Afghanistan that includes women and minorities. “A unified international response based on UNSC Resolution 2593 is necessary to improve the situation in Afghanistan,” is Modi’s mantra.
But by throwing its lot with the US, India has ignored its own special geo-political and economic interest in Afghanistan. Its trade with Afghanistan was US$ 1.5 billion in 2020 and its aid to that country is worth US$ 3 billion. It has 500 projects covering all the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. It has built the Zaranj-Delaram highway, the Salma Dam and the Afghan parliament building among other things.
India needs the government of Afghanistan to counter a hostile Pakistan and reach out to Central Asia. India should recognize the reality of the Taliban regime and find conventional or unconventional ways of working with it to regain its valuable turf there.
China’s stand on Afghanistan, on the other hand, is more independent and down to earth. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that unilateral sanctions or restrictions on Afghanistan should be lifted as soon as possible. Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves (blocked by the US) belong to the people of Afghanistan to be used by its own people, and not be used as a bargaining chip to exert political pressure on Afghanistan, the Chinese say.
Unlike most countries which are either hostile or sitting on the fence on the recognition issue, China has said that it is ready to deepen “friendly and cooperative” relations. It has taken the realistic stand that it is the right of the Afghan people to independently determine their own destiny.
China has big economic stakes in Afghanistan. “China first entered Afghanistan as a major investor and developer in 2007, when it won a US$ 3.5 billion contract to operate the Ayanak copper-gold mine in the country’s eastern Logar Province. Then, it also invested in oil and gas exploration projects and railway infrastructure development in the war-torn country,” according to The Jamestown Foundation
Russia’s President Putin has taken a stand similar to that of China. He criticized foreign involvement in domestic Afghan affairs and said Moscow has “learned lessons” from the Soviet Union’s invasion of the country. In the 1980s, the then Soviet Union had fought a disastrous decade-long war in Afghanistan that killed up to two million Afghans, forced seven million more from their homes and led to the deaths of more than 14,000 Soviet troops.
Putin has invited the Taliban for an international conference in Moscow on Afghanistan on October 20. It had hosted peace talks on the Afghanistan situation prior to the American withdrawal from that country. Russia, like China and Pakistan, did not shut its embassy in Kabul after the Taliban took over the country on August 15 this year. Moscow has been having a strategic interest in Afghanistan from Tsarist times. In the 19th.Century, the Russians and the British imperialists were competing here in what came to be branded as the “Great Game”.