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Photo: A map of Afghanistan. BY pixaby, CCO

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A more civil engagement with the Taliban

The international community is currently focused on immediate humanitarian issues and sounding out relations with the new authorities in Afghanistan. In this blog, Alastair McKechnie argues it is also time to start thinking through how a longer-term engagement might take shape, and he offers a series of principles to guide that process.

Published: 16 December 2021

Authors: Alastair McKechnie

As the Taliban consolidate their control, Afghanistan’s partners are confronted with choices about whether to re-engage, and if so how and to what extent. Such choices are limited by the current lack of widespread recognition of the new interim government, which constrains financial relations with the Afghan authorities. The international community is currently focused on immediate humanitarian issues and sounding out relations with the new authorities. However, it is now time to start thinking through how a longer-term engagement might take shape in order to maintain the structures for delivering essential services such as health and education, and to avoid future hasty, ill-considered reactions to a changed context. Looking forward, the recent experience of Afghanistan and other countries that have undergone post-conflict transitions suggests some pointers for the international community should it wish to move towards a civilian-led development engagement:

1. Distinguish between the government, state institutions and the people of Afghanistan.

With support from its partners, Afghanistan has transformed its institutional capacity to at least the level of other countries of similar income, not only in service delivery but also in the machinery of government, such as the management of public finances and the central bank. These institutions, which took two decades to build after collapsing in the 1990s, provide essential services, and their organisation and staff are more mission-oriented than political. However, such core institutions of the state could crumble through emigration, lack of resources (including foreign technical support), inexperienced leadership and the loss of female expertise. Governments evolve or change, but the institutional capacity built through the joint investment of Afghans and their partners is worth preserving.

2. Balance humanitarian and development instruments that meet short-term needs and investment that supports permanent systems that can over time reduce dependence on foreign aid.

In the short term, Afghanistan clearly will need humanitarian aid to support nutrition, shelter, health, and social protection. The scale of the crisis is beyond the capacity of the new government. What now requires a humanitarian response will take on the nature of a development challenge, where more permanent institutions, systems, and investment, linked to more effective local administration, will be needed that will ultimately require sustained funding from Afghanistan itself. Current humanitarian crises present an opportunity for Afghans to redress the balance between central and local authority, and to strengthen community and district-level institutions.

3. The quality of external assistance will assume greater importance now that aid levels are likely to fall.

Smaller aid volumes will increase pressure on donors and governments to use aid more effectively. Afghanistan’s development successes show how developmental impact can be squeezed out of constrained resources, with examples such as national programmes in health, the Citizens Charter/National Solidarity Program, and the expansion of infrastructure such as local roads, especially when they were Afghan-led. Because of political and reputational risks some foreign partners may prefer to apply humanitarian instruments to development problems, but bypassing Afghan leadership and ownership in this way will repeat the mistakes of the past, fail to enable Afghan capacity to grow and create aid dependency. But the provision of aid will also require dialogue with the new authorities, whose priorities have hitherto been national determination, security, and justice, rather than development.

4. Recognise the reality of the political economy of Afghanistan, and that change will happen slowly through political dialogue that shifts authority at national, sub-national and local/community levels.

The political economy of Afghanistan is complex and multi-layered, with national, provincial and district actors with differing allegiances and agendas, as well as community and kinship groups. One lesson from the past two decades is that change promoted by foreigners without broad Afghan ownership fails. While international partners directed their support towards Afghan leaders with visions of change, these local reformers needed to convince other Afghans, not just foreigners, in order to institutionalise deep-rooted change. Such change needs to be embedded in a durable political settlement that includes groups that can mobilise opposition, as the exclusion of the Taliban from the Bonn Agreement demonstrated.

5. Seek partners within the new administration with whom prolonged engagement is possible.

Even with the worst governments, development practitioners have usually found islands committed to development and partners with whom to work. Despite a pro-Western government in Afghanistan since 2002, some ministries were poorly led and incapable of achieving much, while others were capable of outstanding results. As the new administration consolidates its position, it will be worth some exploratory dialogue to identify potential partners, including at the local level, even if some have unconventional profiles. One criterion for engagement could be the extent to which the partner organisation or ministry has been able to retain staff with the skills to carry out its mission.

6. Approaches based on conditionality without country ownership are unlikely to be successful, and sanctions have a mixed record at best.

The leverage of Western partners may be exaggerated: L4P’s recent research shows that the volume of aid that reaches Afghan regions may be much smaller than other resources, mainly licit, available to the Taliban and other local powerholders. Other research has shown how donor conditionality that does not support reforms that are country-owned tends to fail. While Western countries may have short-term influence through the freezing of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, access to the global payments system and ODA, economic sanctions generally have limited impact. Sanctions could be relaxed progressively to avoid adversely impacting the Afghan population, which is already facing multiple crises, and to minimise the damage to Afghan institutions.

7. Moralise less on corruption, pay more attention to destabilising rent-seeking that enables violence and use multilateral institutions to transfer risks to those best placed to manage them.

International partners will want to ensure that their funds go to the purposes. Meanwhile, they will have to navigate the local political economy, be sensitive to whom they are empowering and avoid indirectly supporting actors who are violent and destabilising. Multilateral institutions such as the UN and international financial institutions have the global legitimacy and expertise to facilitate results in difficult and risky contexts. The multi-partner trust funds managed by the World Bank and the UN, such as the ARTF, have the potential to be adapted as transparent, accountable financial conduits for Afghanistan.

8. Follow the lead of Afghan women and provide assistance that is capable of improving conditions for women and girls at scale.

Afghan women have demonstrated resistance and will have to choose where to engage with their new rulers, and whether to seek allies among Afghan powerbrokers and from abroad. Afghan women and their local allies will be best placed to judge which gender issues matter most (e.g., access to post-primary and tertiary education, maternal and child health and paid employment) and when opportunities arise to be seized or negotiated. Depending on where opportunities emerge, such negotiations may take place locally where there is community support, rather than more visibly at the national level. Support from abroad will be needed and will have to be calibrated carefully.

9. Ensure consistency, coordination and mutual support among development, humanitarian, diplomatic and security agendas to help prevent future conflict.

Lack of coherence and coordination among different policy communities and partners has characterised foreign engagement with Afghanistan over the past 20 years. The international intervention was initially security-driven, and despite the withdrawal of foreign forces the risk remains that partner policies will be dominated by counter-terrorism agendas that have proven counter-productive in the past. Without the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, there are better prospects for a coherent civilian-led engagement directed not only to the needs of the Afghan people, but also the drivers of Afghan and transnational violence. Greater leadership by multilateral organisations and pooling of funds can enable better coordination and targeting of international support to create conditions that reduce the risk of further conflict, which overwhelmingly affects civilians.

Afghanistan’s international partners will not find it easy dealing with a government that is more familiar with violent jihad than the international system, that is assertive of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and that does not share liberal values. The development of a country is not linear, takes place over many decades and can go backwards as well as forwards. While some partners will be tempted to walk away or seek to impose conditions incompatible with the new realities of Afghanistan, the Afghan people face multiple crises and remain in need. Most of the considerable investment in development and institutions of the past 20 years is worth maintaining and will be expensive to reconstruct in the future. Few benefited and many suffered when the world turned its back on Afghanistan the last time. The cost of turning away, in terms of suffering, renewed conflict and the burden of rebuilding, could well come back to haunt us in the future.