The international community is trying to bring desperately needed humanitarian relief to Afghanistan without empowering the extremist Islamist regime, but critics are sceptical of the West’s tactics.
In the face of the Taliban’s illegitimacy and human rights violations, aid groups estimate that half the country—23 million people—are on the brink of starvation as sanctions against the unrecognized Taliban de facto government have frozen the billions in aid money the country relied on. The sanctions have plunged the country into an economic crisis that has compounded the drought-caused famine already gripping many regions.
The United Nations Security Council addressed the situation in Afghanistan in an emergency meeting on Wednesday, January 26th, where UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the release of the $1.2 billion of the World Bank-administered Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund to ensure Afghans can survive the winter, Reuters reports.
Since the Taliban overran the country in August, on the heels of the departure of U.S.-led coalition forces that had supported the legitimate government, and declared the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” they have implemented severe restrictions on women’s professional work and travel. Schools for girls have also been closed since September.
Last week a female activist, Tamana Zaryabi Paryani, disappeared after a group of men reportedly broke down the door to enter her family’s house. She was among about 25 women who had taken part in a protest last Sunday, January 23rd, against forcing women to wear the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, for women. A Taliban statement seemed to attribute the incident to the protest, saying insulting Afghan values will no longer be tolerated, according to Euronews. Aljazeera reports that technically the Taliban have not issued any law that explicitly requires covering for women, but the regime is intent on enforcing Sharia law as part of Islamic values, and has started a poster campaign promoting the full-face covering, the burka. It also reports that groups of Taliban soldiers sometimes take enforcing Islamic morality into their own hands.
The UN Security Council meeting followed multilateral talks with the Taliban in Oslo, designed to elicit human rights assurances from the Islamist extremists in exchange for releasing needed liquidity and aid money into the country. With Norway as host, a 15-member contingent of the Taliban, humanitarian aid groups, and diplomats from the U.S., UK, and France, met for three days of closed-door sessions at a hotel outside the capital. The gathering ended on January 25th.
At the meeting, diplomats demanded that the Taliban reopen schools to women and girls as a first step for the release of international financing. The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Thomas West, had pledged that the U.S. and the international community would pay the salaries of teachers if all-girls schools throughout the country were reopened by March.
The Taliban also met with female Afghan activists, who presented their hopes to the Islamist regime in writing, including demanding an investigation into Paryani’s disappearance.
“Yes, they were listening. I should say that. They really were listening. We gave them a paper. We asked them what we wanted. They took it. They were very, very cordial about it,” Mahbouba Seraj, one of the women activists who met with the Taliban, told the Afghan news outlet TOLO.
But what the Taliban will do back in Afghanistan remains to be seen.
“If they continue this way, to tell us something and do something else, that’s when the trust is going to break, completely. When the trust breaks completely, they should remember what happened to the ex-government of Afghanistan. We lost trust with them too. The people of Afghanistan could not find themselves in that government either,” Seraj also said.
Western leaders emphasized that the multilateral talks were in no way a recognition of the Taliban, but also had to admit that they were powerless to ensure that the Islamists would keep their promises.
“It does not in any way imply any recognition of the coup that took place. We will make strong demands on the Taliban, but we do not know if they will implement them afterwards,” the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Norway Anniken Huitfeldt said before the meetings.
But analysts fear that the multilateral talks will only serve to legitimize the Taliban. Indeed, while the international community is holding its breath, the Taliban left the meeting in high spirits.
“Norway providing us this opportunity is an achievement in itself because we shared the stage with the world,” Afghanistan’s Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told the press.
Many of the Afghans living in Oslo were particularly critical of the talks. During the meetings, groups of protestors gathered outside the hotel.
“We do not want the Taliban here in Norway. They do not represent us,” Shahia Soltani, an Afghan citizen and one of the demonstrators, told Euronews. “The Taliban is on the blacklist for terrorists in the United States. So why should we invite and negotiate with them?”
The Taliban delegation of 15 members, all men, included Anas Haqqani—one of the heads of the Haqqani network—is considered a terrorist group by the United States. Media reports that a complaint against Anas Haqqani for war crimes has been filed in Oslo. “This hurts. It is as if Anders Behring Breivik [the Norwegian neo-Nazi who killed 77 people in 2011] went to a country,” the author of the lawsuit, Zahir Athari, explained. “He [Anas Haqqani] and his network are behind the deadliest attack on the civilian population in Afghanistan since 2001. It hurts that he came as an honored guest here in Norway, instead of being handcuffed to the podium at the human rights court in The Hague.”
Norway said it had no control over who the Taliban sent to the talks, but the Taliban were flown to Norway on a private jet. Some social media posts contrasted the comfort in which the Taliban arrived in Europe with the poor condition of those who had fled the country to escape the Islamists.
Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights, was also roundly criticized on Twitter for wearing a headscarf during the meeting. She does not appear to normally wear the hijab.
“The West should stop being naïve in front of radical islamists. Yesterday at a meeting with the Taliban in Norway, western women put Hijab on!! This is the moment that political Islam enters in your country and starts to destroy your values,” one Twitter user wrote.
Still, millions in Afghanistan not only lack rights but even basic sustenance. Many people have resorted to selling possessions to buy food, burning furniture for warmth, and even selling their children. Now in the middle of winter, both food and warmth are concerns.
Torek Farhadi, an American Afghani who works in international development andis a former advisor to the Afghan government, Tweeted in December, “Afghan woman called from Kabul and asked to give this message: “We certainly want our rights, but we first want our children to have something to eat.”
“The number one problem now is that western sanctions are creating a liquidity crisis, which means we cannot get aid into the country,” said Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the NGOs taking part in the talks. “We cannot save lives as we should. So, the West and the Taliban need to talk. And we need to have an end to sanctions hurting civilians.”
The UN had also managed to release $280 million in December to support nutrition programs and pay for electricity in the country, but much more aid is still needed for a country not only facing political and religious oppression, but hunger and famine as well. At the UN Security Council meeting, the U.S. said it was taking steps to ensure that western sanctions did not hamper humanitarian activity and to weigh options to inject liquidity into Afghanistan’s economy. But how the international community will finesse helping the people of Afghanistan without collaborating with the Taliban remains to be seen.
The subject of religious persecution did not seem to be part of any of the recent talks.
Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.