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Development cooperation

In spite of the Taliban, Afghanistan deserves help

In support of Afghanistan’s people, the international community should re-engage in development cooperation. The education sector would be an ideal entry point.
Taliban fighter in Kabul, Afghanistan. picture alliance / REUTERS | Ali Khara Taliban fighter in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has been isolated since the Taliban took power on 15 August 2021, with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan being denied international recognition. Sanctions that were imposed on the Taliban in 1999 were transferred to the new interim government. The downside is that the sanctions make it harder to maintain the basic infrastructures that health care, education and food security depend on.

Afghanistan’s economy has collapsed. More than half of the population suffer food insecurity, with ongoing drought compounding problems (see Jörg Döbereiner on www.dandc.eu). International aid agencies struggle to keep humanitarian operations going as regular transfers of money have become impossible.

Two essential facts

The current scenario proves two things:

- The first is that what happened in terms of reconstruction in the past 20 years did not prove sustainable. An important reason was that measures were largely foreign driven; Afghans’ needs did not get enough attention.

- The second is that the international communities’ sanctions offer some leverage. Policymakers should use it to interact with Afghanistan’s interim government in a well-considered  way. Without formally acknowledging the Taliban, the international community should expand humanitarian aid and restart development cooperation, focusing on people in desperate need.

A strategy based on multilateral aid funds looks feasible. They can bypass state agencies by directly funding UN agencies such as the Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as well as local actors and civil-society organisations. In the medium to long run, however, sanctions must be lifted for aid agencies to run regular, broad-based operations again.  

Reaching out to pragmatists  

Within the Taliban, there are considerable tensions between pragmatists and orthodox hardliners.  Major controversies concern the justice system and the constitutional order for example. So far, there is neither a coherent approach to what role women should play in public life nor to what to do about possible terrorist attacks by militant Islamists operating from Afghanistan. Such frictions offer opportunities to exert influence – right now. The international community would be wise to signal support to development-friendly efforts of pragmatic Taliban groups. 

One has to note the dilemma that foreign funding will contribute to establishing parallel structures. That will weaken the state administration, which was rebuilt with great effort in the past 20 years. The smart option would  be to involve representatives of state agencies at least informally in consultations and aid delivery.

Education would be an ideal starting point for testing common ground. The Taliban announced that schools will open again on 22 March, including for girls. Disputes concern curricula and other details, but a general consensus involving the international community is obviously feasible. To build trust, international partners should provide unconditional funding for schools, initially for one year. Teachers’ salaries matter – and in the longer run, options for funding infrastructure or teachers’ training may arise.

At the same time, engaging in a longer-term informal dialogue is essential. There is a need to identify common denominators and differences, including in talks about women’s rights and human rights. On such a basis, further cooperation regarding health care and food security might follow.

To draft a roadmap, the international community should cooperate with representatives of the interim government. Rapprochement and trust building will not be easy – but both are urgently needed. 

Further Reading (in German)
Schetter, C., and Mielke, K., 2022: Die Taliban. Geschichte, Politik, Ideologie (The Taliban. History, politics, ideology). Munich: Beck.

Conrad Schetter is the director of the Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies (BICC).

Katja Mielke is a senior researcher at the BICC.