Analysis

Foreign Aid Won’t Moderate the Taliban

International assistance isn’t the political lever many hope it will be.

Members of the Taliban, all men, sit at a fancy table.
Members of the Taliban delegation Shahabuddin Delawar (left), Amir Khan Muttaqi, and Khairullah Khairkhwa (right) meet with foreign diplomats in Doha, Qatar, on Oct. 12. Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, foreign aid has frequently been framed as a possible lever the international community can use to push them to moderate their rule.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres argued after the takeover that “humanitarian assistance is an entry point for effective engagement with the Taliban.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen emphasized that aid would not be released until the Taliban met the European Union’s conditions, including the promotion, protection, and respect of human rights. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken similarly noted that the Biden administration is looking for ways to use foreign assistance to “successfully incentivize positive actions by the [Taliban] government.”

The logic here is simple: Foreign aid is a carrot. In exchange for foreign assistance, which the Taliban desperately need to prevent economic collapse and ensure their own political survival, donors expect they can extract political concessions.

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, foreign aid has frequently been framed as a possible lever the international community can use to push them to moderate their rule.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres argued after the takeover that “humanitarian assistance is an entry point for effective engagement with the Taliban.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen emphasized that aid would not be released until the Taliban met the European Union’s conditions, including the promotion, protection, and respect of human rights. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken similarly noted that the Biden administration is looking for ways to use foreign assistance to “successfully incentivize positive actions by the [Taliban] government.”

The logic here is simple: Foreign aid is a carrot. In exchange for foreign assistance, which the Taliban desperately need to prevent economic collapse and ensure their own political survival, donors expect they can extract political concessions.

The need for foreign assistance is likely to be a strong motivator in bringing the Taliban to the bargaining table, but our research on foreign aid diplomacy, international intervention in fragile states, and state-building in Afghanistan suggests it’s unlikely to incentivize the Taliban to uphold human rights and political freedoms in the long run.

For aid to be an effective political lever on the Taliban, four (almost impossible) conditions have to be satisfied:

1. Donors have to be willing to suspend aid to Afghanistan if their conditions aren’t met. For foreign aid to produce political change, the conditions under which it was granted must be enforced. That is, if the recipient violates the terms of agreement, donors must be willing to cut off aid. Research, however, tells us that donors often fail to uphold political conditionality.

In the case of Afghanistan, aid has continued to flow to the country despite massive and credible claims of corruption. Corruption has been so widespread that, in 2008, the U.S. Congress mandated the creation of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction to monitor the billions of dollars injected into the Afghan economy. Yet even the outright theft of aid dollars failed to result in a systematic decrease of aid to Afghanistan.

Following the Taliban takeover, it was merely a matter of days before the donor community began discussing how to unfreeze aid to Afghanistan. In mid-October, the U.N. Development Program set up a trust fund to offset Afghanistan’s “economic implosion,” while the European Union pledged 1 billion euros in immediate humanitarian aid to the country. For its part, the U.S. government is still holding off on unfreezing around $7 billion in Afghan currency reserves currently held in the United States, but it has released almost $64 million in humanitarian aid.

There are real and pressing humanitarian reasons that prevent donors from withholding aid to Afghanistan. In the words of Guterres: “The Afghan people cannot suffer a collective punishment because the Taliban misbehave.” Yet if donors were not even willing to fully suspend aid when the Taliban took power, how can they credibly threaten to do so in the future?

2. Donors need to sufficiently understand exactly what the Taliban want and need. To conduct negotiations, donors need a basic understanding of the recipient’s ideal outcome as well as their reservations. In other words, they need to know where the recipient is willing to settle. In aid negotiations, this information is often missing. This is particularly true when negotiating with highly secretive groups like the Taliban, who were able to cover up the death of their historical leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, for over two years.

Not only did Taliban leaders spend most of the past 20 years in hiding, but they also have refrained from taking strong policy stances that could jeopardize the group’s internal cohesion. The Taliban have yet to make important, potentially divisive, decisions on their future relations with al Qaeda, the extent of women’s civil liberties, or the form of political system they will establish.

Furthermore, political, regional, and generational disparities are a source of tension within the group, along with friction between leaders and rank-and-file members, combatants and diplomats, and the Taliban themselves and loosely affiliated groups. As a result, Taliban rhetoric and actions are often at odds. For example, they promised amnesty for Afghans who worked with foreign forces or the government, while simultaneously engaging in violent reprisals and revenge killings.

To further complicate matters, the Taliban have long used modern technology and social media to their advantage. They communicate different messages, in different languages, on different platforms, to different audiences. Even Afghanistan experts cannot say with confidence what motivates the Taliban as a group. Why, then, would we expect foreign aid donors to know?

Without knowledge of the preferences and constraints of the group, donors are negotiating in the dark.

3. The Taliban’s need for Western aid has to be so strong that they would be willing to make core political concessions. To leverage aid for political concessions, Western donors need to be offering something no one else is. In an increasingly fragmented aid landscape, this just isn’t the case. In addition to their discussions with Western donors, the Taliban are also courting international aid from donors that are less demanding of political moderation, such as Qatar, Turkey, China, Pakistan, and Russia.

In early September, China’s foreign ministry announced it would provide close to $31 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. That same week, a Pakistani aircraft landed in Kabul carrying food and medical supplies.

Motivated by the Kremlin’s concerns of terrorism spillover, Russia has adopted a more cautious approach toward the Taliban. Yet just two weeks into the new regime, Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan called on the World Bank and the United States to release frozen Afghan financial assets and warned the international community “not to try to push anything on [the Afghan people], based on one’s own cultural notions of democracy and order.”

As long as the Taliban have other options, the leverage of Western donors is limited.

4. Donors must reject the Taliban’s attempts at window dressing. Donor agencies are ultimately accountable to constituents in their home countries, which shapes how much scrutiny they place on recipients. Domestically, many conflicting political concerns have to be satisfied, including concerns over migration, counterterrorism, and the evacuation of citizens.

Even if human rights and civil liberties are perceived as mattering to domestic audiences—as is often the case for the rights and fate of Afghan women, for example—what likely matters most for donors is the perception that the Taliban have moderated, not that they have actually done so. Donors have every incentive to engage in what scholars refer to as “satisficing”—that is, applying exactly as much scrutiny as needed to satisfy a majority of political constituents but nothing more.

In Afghanistan, this could have a perverse effect: As long as the Taliban exert a modicum of political restraint, for example by avoiding the infamous displays of violence of the 1990s (such as public executions and the amputations of hands), and issue declarations that echo donors’ demands, donors can claim some success and argue that their demands are being met. This would allow donors to stay in business with a Taliban regime that does little more than erect a Potemkin facade.

As the international community decides on the relations it wishes to have with a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, foreign aid will inevitably be part of the package. However, it would be risky to assume that it can incentivize the Taliban to transition from a violent insurgent organization to an inclusive and legitimate government. If the Taliban embark on a more pluralistic political path, it will likely be for reasons unrelated to aid.

Going forward, the Taliban will almost certainly face more societal pressure and resistance to their rule than in the 1990s. The Afghan population is now younger, more urban, more liberal, and more educated.

To legitimize their rule, the Taliban may be forced by citizens to provide security and protect people’s livelihoods, as well as guarantee a minimum of civil liberties to retain skilled workers and public servants. To govern effectively and, ultimately, remain in power, the Taliban may also have to broaden their political base and include some of Afghanistan’s most prominent power brokers.

To what degree the Taliban are willing or able to go down this path remains an open question. However, it is unrealistic to assume that foreign aid diplomacy would be the deciding factor.

Haley Swedlund is an associate professor at the Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Twitter: @hjswedlund

Romain Malejacq is an assistant professor at the Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Twitter: @afghanopoly

Malte Lierl is a research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies. Twitter: @MalteLierl

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