We have a humanitarian crisis, a tragedy, unfolding right in front of our eyes. Between September and October, it was reported that 19 million Afghans experienced high levels of acute food...
We have a humanitarian crisis, a tragedy, unfolding right in front of our eyes. Between September and October, it was reported that 19 million Afghans experienced high levels of acute food insecurity. That is almost exactly half of the country’s population. The number is projected to go up to about 22 million in the next couple of months.
It is also reported that of the 2300 health facilities that the World Bank opened in the country, only 17 percent are currently functional – two-thirds of these have no medicine. A brutal winter, or a few, later – and after much suffering, death and grief – the world might come around and ask how we let it happen, again. If history is any guide, likely not. We might in fact never ask that question, because after all it is only Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, for a long time now, is a strategic place. It is often not even seen as a place. Sometimes, as Brzezinski saw it, it is a square on the chessboard. On other occasions, it is a pawn on the chessboard. The sufferings of the Afghan people, therefore, are strategic – a gambit of sorts. Their suffering has a strategic value. If we alleviate the suffering, how does it affect us strategically? If we let them endure, does it improve our chances of gaining from the situation? These are the questions everyone seems to be asking.
Director Operations ICRC Dominik Stillhart told Aljazeera that you cannot keep the entire population of Afghanistan hostage. Well, Dominik, sorry to disappoint you, you can. It is strategy.
Let’s talk strategy then. The idea is that if we withhold diplomatic recognition of the Taliban government and keep any interaction with them to a minimum, it will make them change their ways. They will become more moderate, and we can all go back to being one happy world – or a slightly less miserable one. This is conventional wisdom too.
When does conventional wisdom become dogma? How to tell if a policy is motivated by the former and not the latter? Saddam Hussain survived sanctions for more than a decade. When he died, I reckon it was not because of starvation. When he lost power, it was not because the sick and hungry of his country rose against him demanding Western style democracy or because they were angry that they did not get enough food or medicine.
As a student of politics, I understand that the international community does not want to recognize the Taliban because no country wishes to seem like the one enabling a government that, to put it mildly, stands for values that the wide majority of the members of the international community agree should have no place in this day and age. I also understand that withholding diplomatic recognition and preventing access to resources provide leverage for demanding inclusivity and moderation.
What also impedes the recognition is because some fear that recognising the Taliban would allow them to access frozen funds. Others are apprehensive that they will have a claim to a chair and a voice at the United Nations. This may be true. But when we are choosing between two evils, it is the one that we choose for which we are remembered.
How do we make a choice? Right now, we see two approaches. The US that had no time on its hands before the withdrawal now has the luxury of all the time in the world to wait and see and be oblivious in the meanwhile. The Western world, in general, seems to believe that the occasional Afghan refugee story is all the public diplomacy they need for now.
Those in the neighborhood have a different predicament. They are afraid that if not reined in with some form of an engagement or another, the Taliban government might become more reckless – there is always room for more. They can harbour groups that threaten China and its interests. They can encourage others that target Russia, Pakistan, or Iran. If there is a refugee crisis, the regional states, especially Iran and Pakistan, are the first ones that will have to deal with it. Indifference is a commodity that these countries can hardly afford.
Realising the same, the regional countries have made efforts to diplomatically engage the Taliban. Moscow hosted the Taliban and nine other regional states in October. They dangled diplomatic recognition and promised economic assistance to tempt the Taliban into mending their ways. There have been bilateral and trilateral meetings. The Chinese foreign minister has called for lifting economic sanctions from Afghanistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan has spoken about the need and inevitability of recognising the Taliban government.
The world is divided on the Taliban, like it is on most other issues around which it should be united. There is a danger that some might recognise the Taliban too soon at the peril of questions about legitimacy and good behavior and others might delay any engagement to prolong the seemingly endless and constantly intensifying suffering of the Afghan people.
We have no perfect solutions. What we ideally need is to call an international conference like those at Bonn. The global community should put its heads together. The strategy of recognising the Taliban should be disentangled from the policy of preventing relief from getting to the Afghan people.
The decision on whether to recognise or not to recognise must be global and not left to individual states. Every hour we wait and calculate, the ordinary Afghan suffers in unimaginable ways.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Peshawar.