Afghanistan's troubles can't only be blamed on the Taliban

27 December 2021

6:00 PM

27 December 2021

6:00 PM

In 2001, I spent part of a hard winter in a remote village near Bamiyan in the Afghan central highlands. The Taliban government had just fallen. The village was ringed with landmines. Neighbouring village had been razed to the ground by retreating militia, the roof-beams were charred, the buildings empty, and the survivors had fled to refugee camps in Iran. There was no electricity, no schooling for girls and little for boys. The nearest clinic was three days’ walk away and there were no medicines when you reached it. People made what little cash they had from archaeological looting and child labour.

When I returned to the valley, at the end of last year, it was difficult to recognise the place. For a start, I could drive there, rather than walk, on new roads that had been run up the valley. The mines had been cleared. The villages were three times larger. The refugees had returned. The lights worked. And girls were not only attending school – a number had graduated and gone on to Kabul University. Even more strikingly, carpet-weaving had moved from a dismal, low-paid activity, with a lot of child labour, in dark mud rooms, into weaving centres, with creches, producing extraordinary contemporary designs for top American stores.

And now everything has collapsed again. In just a few months, the electricity has ceased, the clinics have no drugs, the weaving centres have closed, the girls are no longer in university (Kabul University itself is shut). And the valley, reeling from a summer’s drought, now faces starvation. The lights in rural Afghanistan are going out village by village.

Some of this is the fault of the Taliban. But much of the blame lies with the failure of the US, the UK and its allies to sustain basic humanitarian and development assistance since the withdrawal. This begins with the freezing of Afghan government assets, and the cut to the almost half of the Afghan budget once provided by foreign governments. It extends also to NGOs. The US, British and European Development agencies are reorienting programs away from support to Afghan exports and businesses. The European Union is focusing on humanitarian assistance. And the US State Department has already cancelled a number of existing contracts with NGOs, demanding the programs are wrapped up, and money refunded. Meanwhile, international non-profits and UN agencies with deep knowledge of Afghanistan, a proven record of running good programs, and tens of thousands of experienced Afghan staff in place are starved of resources.

Why are we behaving like this? For some it is a response to humiliation – a desire to punish Afghanistan for spurning us. Others want to believe that the Afghans ‘chose the Taliban’ and therefore poverty, (although no-one voted for the Taliban and the idea that a woman in Kabul, somehow supports them, because she was unable to prevent an armed group from seizing her city, is grotesque).

Diplomats fantasise that by threatening to allow starvation, we will somehow change the Taliban’s political leanings. This is the most bizarre idea of all. What leverage the international community had was lost when it left Bagram air-base. Nothing from South Sudan to Myanmar suggests that regimes are moved to compromise with foreign powers, because of the starvation of their own people. Trying to starve the state into submission is impractical, imprudent and above all immoral. We can and should provide support to ordinary Afghans. And we can do so through agencies and non-profits, without giving the money to the government – just as we do in fragile states all over the world.

The US Department of State have at least committed continued support to life-saving activities such as landmine clearance by extraordinary organisations such as the Halo Trust. But the UK has not. It should. Mine-clearance is an uncomplicated good. It is immediately relevant and appealing to Afghans, both as employees and beneficiaries. And it opens the roads and transit routes through which the aid must flow. It is also the right time to be doing this. There are currently three-and-a-half million displaced inside Afghanistan (600,000 displaced by the recent fighting). Now that the fighting has stopped, many of these people will attempt to return home to houses, streets and fields often littered with explosives. The UK should join the US in using this opportunity to achieve a mine-free Afghanistan.

But mine clearance and humanitarian aid are not enough. If Afghans are ever to escape the cycle of horror and humanitarian suffering, the Afghan economy must begin to grow again. And that means restoring support to sectors such as Afghan carpet production which until recently, employed one million rural women. Smart investment and support in quality control would help sustain and grow their links to European and American buyers, creating and maintaining thousands of small businesses, and the incomes and livelihoods that flow from them. But to do this, donors need not only to restore funding, but also to clear the new bureaucratic obstacles which they have put in place on supporting exports or paying export tax.

For twenty years, or more, we have viewed Afghanistan purely as a place of threat, war and oppression. And yet it is a custodian of some of the world’s most extraordinary cultural treasures – extraordinary living traditions of calligraphy, miniature painting, ceramics, woodwork, and textiles. Investing in these crafts, and in the private sector behind them is smart development economics (in the 1990s, carpets composed ten per cent of the Afghan export economy). But it also provides a sense of pride, independence and agency to Afghans. It treats them not as victims but as partners, it draws on their self-reliance and creativity and crucially it connects them to broader cultures, and a wider world, at a time of terrible isolation.

We face three choices. Starve Afghanistan of our support and guarantee terrorism, instability, and immense pressures of flight and migration. Pretend to provide assistance, while tying the aid in ever more byzantine bureaucratic restrictions, and guarantee a continuing humiliating catastrophe. Or work with the many groups already on the ground that know how to support Afghans. By doing so, we can protect some of what we valued in twenty years of partnership, and give some hope that these communities, built up with so much care, do not again revert to blackened roof beams in a desert wasteland.

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Rory Stewart was the UK Secretary of State for International Development. He walked across Afghanistan in the Winter of 2001/2002, established and ran the non-profit, Turquoise Mountain in Kabul, and now teaches at Yale University

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