Backing the UN can help Afghans facing a tough winter

Millions urgently need help as they face catastrophic food shortages, mass unemployment, and collapsing health and education systems in Afghanistan.

Expert comment Updated 3 March 2022 Published 26 August 2021 3 minute READ

The international community was ill-prepared for the rapid collapse of the Afghan government, but now international donor governments need to rapidly determine how to respond to the profound economic crisis unfolding in the country.

As 38 million people living in Afghanistan prepare for a long hard winter with massive population displacements within and outside the country, the international community must come together behind the United Nations (UN) to engage with the new administration in Kabul.

The priority tasks to focus on are releasing frozen assets, mobilizing humanitarian assistance, refocusing the UN presence in the country, and setting ground rules for future collaboration in all sectors of the economy.

The Afghan economy is being brought to its knees by the closure of banks and offices receiving remittances, a collapse in the value of the currency, shortages of food and fuel in the cities, price inflation, the disruption of trade, and the inability to pay wages.

Perfect storm being created

All these dramatic shocks are taking place against a backdrop of a severe drought which has already brought acute food insecurity to one-third of the population, creating a ‘perfect storm’ needing a broad range of urgent responses which must go beyond simply increasing humanitarian assistance.

The nature of the US engagement in Afghanistan is critical to averting economic catastrophe and safeguarding services and institutions required to manage the economy

The Taliban takeover is already having severe negative economic and social consequences. Disruptions to services, administration, and to external assistance will only be exacerbated if Afghan government funds remain frozen in US banks and by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

If the freeze continues for a lengthy period, it will cause a massive contraction in government financing, leading to the lay-off of civil servants and NGO staff, the collapse of essential services such as health and education, and the risk of hyper-inflation.

The international donor community made few preparations for engaging with the Taliban if it took power. Plans were framed within the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework (ANPDF) and based on the optimistic view there would be some form of negotiated political settlement.

Within such a settlement, donors could establish their conditions for resuming aid flows, especially with respect to human rights and the position of women. Even in the absence of an agreed political transition, the default option was to ensure aid would be limited to humanitarian assistance through UN agencies and NGOs.

The challenge for the international community is to separate the issue of engaging with a de facto Taliban administration – to protect the livelihoods of ordinary Afghans – from domestic political difficulties involved in any formal recognition of a Taliban government.

The nature of the US engagement in Afghanistan is critical to averting economic catastrophe and safeguarding services and institutions required to manage the economy because the US government holds the keys to the release of frozen Afghan assets, including those available through the IMF and the World Bank.

But domestic political pressures and US counterterrorism legislation means the US government may not find it easy to resume humanitarian assistance and release frozen US dollar deposits. Restarting essential support for health and other services along with the critical institutions of administration presents a complex challenge for engaging primarily through the World Bank.

China, Pakistan, and more recently Russia, have signalled a readiness to recognise a Taliban-led government, and it appears the Taliban has also reached an accommodation with Iran by providing reassurances for the security of the Hazara (Shia) minority population.

The acceptance of a Taliban-run Afghanistan, however reluctant, by its regional neighbours now appears likely, with the Taliban’s diplomatic success highlighting the lack of an international consensus. But it is vital for states to work together to find pragmatic ways of dealing with issues of recognition and legitimacy in the interests of the long-suffering people of Afghanistan.

UNAMA and the international community need to work together to reformulate its mandate and restructure the mission

The G7 Summit on Afghanistan on 24 August shows the challenges involved in averting economic crisis and maintaining development gains. Boris Johnson said the UK’s engagement with the Taliban would be through the UN, recognizing it is designed for this type of crisis and that this is an opportunity for the UN and its agencies, funds, and programmes to demonstrate what they can do, and for governments claiming to believe in multilateralism to give support.

The current mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) does provide sufficient basis to build on the dialogue it has maintained with the Taliban over the past decade and to act as an effective interlocutor in support of donor engagement. But UNAMA’s mandate is up for renewal, bringing the risk member states may either seek to overload the UN with tasks and functions for which it is not equipped or mandated, or seek to reduce its size and scope.

Strengthen and support donor coordination

For the moment, it is wise to simply extend the current mandate and strengthen and support UNAMA’s donor coordination function, in collaboration with UN humanitarian and development agencies. Although the Taliban wants to maintain the presence of the UN agencies as the primary channel for humanitarian and economic assistance, its interest in the continued presence of the UN political mission is less certain.

UNAMA and the international community need to work together to reformulate its mandate and restructure the mission as a means of underwriting continued international engagement. Challenges include retaining its human rights capacity and maintaining presence across Afghanistan.

But the immediate requirement is extend its mandate, strengthen staffing in critical functions, and support its role in simply ensuring Afghans can get through the coming winter with enough to eat and the support of essential basic services.