With nearly half of the Afghan population facing famine as the war-torn winter weather begins to bite, the West, China and Russia could be tacitly contributing to a humanitarian crisis through their collective inability to provide much-needed aid to the Taliban.
The UN World Food Program estimates that about 40% of Afghan crops have been lost to severe drought this year and nearly 3.2 million children are at risk of malnutrition. The UN agency has said about 1 million children could starve without immediate food aid.
Famine could literally drive millions of Afghans to neighboring countries and to Europe in another epic influx of refugees. That relocation, in turn, could create the perfect dire conditions for Islamist militant groups to recruit and thrive — a terror threat that could once again spread from Afghanistan to the rest of the world.
Despite these risks, there is no sign that the US, EU, China or Russia are willing to succumb to their permanent non-recognition policies towards the newly formed Taliban ‘Islamic Emirate’ until it clearly cuts ties with the various transnational terror groups in its midst.
Beijing and Moscow have both insisted that the West – especially the US – must provide urgent aid to Afghanistan to avert a famine that they claim the West has de facto facilitated through the country’s failed occupation and abrupt withdrawal.
But neither China nor Russia, both more geographically proximal and thus more vulnerable to new waves of instability and terrorism emerging from Afghanistan, have taken major or meaningful steps to financially assist the Taliban in the hour of need.
This is remarkable given that both China and Russia established strong links with the Taliban’s diplomatic representatives during the militant group’s war against the US and NATO. Analysts suggest both have withheld diplomatic recognition from the Taliban over changes in the group’s power dynamics and messaging since it toppled Kabul in August.
The resurgence of hardliners in the national capital — most notably the Haqqanis, who are known to have ties to ISIS-K and Al Qaeda and are a bulwark against credible action against terror groups — has prompted both Beijing and Moscow to renew their Afghan engagement. assess strategies, despite the geopolitical opportunities presented by America’s ignominious withdrawal.
While China has been emphasizing directly and indirectly that recognition and financial aid are linked to the complete elimination of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and ISIS-K terror groups, Moscow is further alarmed by the fact that many of the Taliban’s hardliners include leaders who actually fought against the Soviet military in the 1980s and are not exactly known for their pro-Russian views.
Moscow has withheld aid and kept the Taliban on the list of designated terror groups, even as the Taliban have pledged support for key regional issues and even acknowledged Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Strategists, spies and diplomats in both Beijing and Moscow undoubtedly recognize the threat of a new and more complicated civil war as political and ideological divisions among Taliban factions come to light.
That, in turn, means there is a risk that financial and economic aid to the Taliban will eventually end up in the hands of hard-line factions opposed to China’s and Russia’s ambitions in the country and linked to terror groups targeting Beijing and Moscow.
Unlike Russia and China, the West’s attitude toward the Taliban regime is largely determined by the ignominious end of the two-decade-long war that ended in August this year.
The fact that the Taliban failed to make a political settlement with the overthrown Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani and instead took Kabul militarily remains a political disgrace in Washington. Top US officials, meanwhile, are faced with tough questions about their hasty and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
That partly explains why the Biden administration has so far refused to release $9.5 billion in Afghanistan’s central bank financial assets frozen in US financial institutions or lift sanctions against the Taliban regime.
While the US has provided nearly $144 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, the aid will only be distributed through independent humanitarian agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) , the International Organization for Migration (IOM ), and the World Health Organization (WHO), has ensured that the funds evade the Taliban.
The punitive policy, as some analysts have pointed out, is designed to give the US new leverage to force the Taliban to accept and fulfill some of their key demands, including not least the creation of an “inclusive” government. and the elimination of terror group shrines.
The positions of the US, China and Russia all run counter to the suggestion of the UN Secretary General, whose office has proposed providing aid as a means of developing an “effective engagement” with the Taliban.
The fact that all of these countries withhold aid or provide a small amount of money without involving the Taliban shows how the policy of aid is being used tactically to punish the Taliban for not adhering to the 2020 Doha Pact or taking strong action against ISIS-K and ETIM.
That default is, of course, a high stakes gamble, especially for Russia and China. If the Taliban’s grip on Kabul weakens and the country plunges into a new and bloody civil war coinciding with a famine, it will inevitably destabilize Afghanistan’s many neighbours.
Both China and Russia need to be aware of the potential for disaster reaching their nearby borders. While withholding aid and recognition has certainly weakened the Taliban, it is not in the country’s national or geostrategic interest if the country is allowed to tip into a humanitarian catastrophe exacerbated by another war.