Responding to the Taliban’s latest diktat forbidding women from working with the United Nations, a decision that now imperils the careers of about 600 employees of the organization, the United Nations has threatened to pull out of the country in May 2023. Unless the Taliban reverse their decision or the U.N. compromises on its core principles, the development will be catastrophic for millions of Afghans.
Ever since the Taliban took power, the country’s descent into mass poverty and hunger has been swift. The cash-strapped U.N. and other international aid agencies may not be doing much to reverse the downhill slide, but still remain the only hope for millions whose survival is completely dependent on the aid and assistance they provide.
In addition to the Taliban’s incapacity to govern and, more importantly, stubborn attachment to a set of regressive worldviews, Afghanistan’s economic condition has been worsened by a detached U.S. and NATO whose interest in the country is now limited to the subject of counterterrorism. On the other end of the spectrum is a group of regional countries that view the Taliban as an unavoidable, if not lawful, inheritor of power in the country. While the United States still seems to think that the strategy of withholding Afghanistan Central Bank assets worth $3.5 billion will eventually pressure the Taliban into mending their ways, regional countries wish to empower the Islamic Emirate as an antidote to Afghanistan’s larger problems. This perspective was on display in the fourth meeting of the foreign ministers of Afghanistan’s neighboring states held in Uzbekistan’s capital Samarkand on April 13.
The Samarkand Declaration issued at the end of the most recent meeting attended by the foreign ministers and senior officials of China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan peddles a lopsided and half-baked approach as a solution to Afghanistan’s woes. Apart from the customary references and “commitment” to developing Afghanistan “as a peaceful, united, sovereign and independent state, free from the threats of terrorism and drug trafficking” and the “importance of building an inclusive and broad-based governance system that reflects the interests of all segments of Afghan society,” the declaration prescribes engaging with the Taliban and building their capacity to govern as the only solution to address the country’s state of distress.
The Chinese stamp of authority on the declaration is clearly visible as it refers to a host of Afghanistan-based terror organizations that “pose a serious threat to regional and global security.” The Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP), al-Qaida, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Jundallah, Jaish al-Adl, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) find mention in the list, but curiously missing are Kashmir-focused groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).
The declaration, for all practical purposes, makes the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate the centerpiece around which counterterrorism and counternarcotics activities of the regional countries are proposed to be organized. It fails to mention either the linkages the Taliban continues to share with al-Qaida, or the group’s ineffective measures against ISKP. While stressing “the importance of combating the drug threat” and supporting “the development of drug crop substitution programs,” the declaration stops short of pointing at the Taliban’s direct, as well as indirect, role in providing a hospitable environment for the illicit drug trade, which resulted in a 32 percent in increase in opium production in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2022 over the previous year.
Instead of ensuring that the Taliban respect the rights of girls, women, and minorities, the declaration interestingly expresses “confidence” that the “Afghan authorities will respect fundamental human rights.” It calls upon the international community and the U.N. to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan, but makes no reference to series of moves initiated by the Taliban to impede the operations of international NGOs in the country.
The path to Afghanistan’s economic recovery, according to the declaration, consists of targeted blame, self-certification, and an overly simplistic solution. First, it urges unnamed countries “mainly responsible for the current predicament in Afghanistan to earnestly fulfill commitments on the economic recovery and future development of Afghanistan.” In simple terms, it asks the United States to urgently and unconditionally release the $3.5 billion in frozen Afghan assets to the Taliban.
Second, the declaration appreciates the “fundamental significance of major international energy, transport, communication, infrastructure and other projects implemented by neighboring countries for socio-economic development of Afghanistan and its active integration into the world economy.” It is true that a number projects — including the Zaranj-Delaram highway, Chabahar port in Iran, and even the Chinese railroad to northern Afghanistan — were successfully implemented during the two decades of the international community’s presence in Afghanistan. However, since August 2021, Afghanistan’s economic improvement has been hinged to the proposed extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) or a range of Chinese projects to extract the country’s natural resources. Similar Russian and Iranian investment projects are also in the planning stage.
Third, the declaration, somewhat naively, assumes that international assistance “to Kabul in restoring the national economy will create decent living conditions for the population and reducing the flow of migration abroad.” Afghanistan’s economy has been ravaged by decades of war, and the Taliban insurgency was one of the major factors as to why the country remained completely aid-dependent in the two decades since 2001. Until the Taliban pave the way for an inclusive government capable of unifying the country and implementing a well-identified recovery and governance program, no amount of international assistance will be enough to revive its economy and improve the lives of common Afghans.
Legitimizing the Taliban’s rule is not the solution to Afghanistan’s current and future problems. In the past two years, the Taliban have proven themselves to be a factionalized bunch of self-aggrandizing, visionless, and ruthless rulers. They continue to use their notoriety as well as the misery of common Afghans as bargaining chips to normalize their regressive worldview. While engagement with the Taliban may be unavoidable, the terms of such engagement need to be carefully calibrated based on tangible outcomes and a phased approach. The Samarkand Declaration clearly falls short on this account, demonstrating yet again the limits of such half-baked, self-interested regional approaches.