The Taliban Are Losing Some of Their Cash Cows

The U.S. and U.N. are halting aid as the Taliban ratchet up their atrocities.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Afghan boys stand in a queue as they wait to receive food aid from a nongovernmental organization in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Afghan boys stand in a queue as they wait to receive food aid from a nongovernmental organization in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Afghan boys stand in a queue as they wait to receive food aid from a nongovernmental organization in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Jan. 3. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

The United States and the United Nations have suspended some cash deliveries to Afghanistan as the U.N. Security Council prepares to hold an extraordinary closed-door meeting to discuss the Taliban’s decision to ban women from working with some international charities. The moves follow reports that the Islamists controlling the country are diverting humanitarian aid to their own supporters to shore up their base amid growing challenges to their rule.

Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the BBC last week that the U.N. has stopped cash deliveries to Afghanistan while it investigates the impact of the Taliban edict against women’s employment by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). “We have called for a pause to assess precisely where this is going,” he said.

The ban on women working for national and international NGOs was announced on Dec. 24 and was greeted by many Afghans as an expected continuation of the misogynistic policies that have been rolling out since the Taliban regained control of the country in August 2021. It does not apply to the U.N., which has about two dozen agencies operating in Afghanistan. The U.N. has, however, suspended much of its work in the country, despite also acknowledging that doing so exacerbates the hardship of millions of people it purports to help. The U.N. did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The United States and the United Nations have suspended some cash deliveries to Afghanistan as the U.N. Security Council prepares to hold an extraordinary closed-door meeting to discuss the Taliban’s decision to ban women from working with some international charities. The moves follow reports that the Islamists controlling the country are diverting humanitarian aid to their own supporters to shore up their base amid growing challenges to their rule.

Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the BBC last week that the U.N. has stopped cash deliveries to Afghanistan while it investigates the impact of the Taliban edict against women’s employment by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). “We have called for a pause to assess precisely where this is going,” he said.

The ban on women working for national and international NGOs was announced on Dec. 24 and was greeted by many Afghans as an expected continuation of the misogynistic policies that have been rolling out since the Taliban regained control of the country in August 2021. It does not apply to the U.N., which has about two dozen agencies operating in Afghanistan. The U.N. has, however, suspended much of its work in the country, despite also acknowledging that doing so exacerbates the hardship of millions of people it purports to help. The U.N. did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The United States will also halt aid that had been delivered to the tune of $40 million a week after the Taliban regained control. Those cash deliveries are now banned by the latest National Defense Authorization Act, the omnibus defense funding bill. The United States has given Afghanistan more than $1 billion since the republic collapsed; the U.N. says more than half the population of 40 million needs aid, with women and girls the most vulnerable to hunger.

Since the Taliban took control, after 20 years of war with the U.S.-backed republic, they have presided over a humanitarian crisis even worse than that under the republic government, which generally relied on international largesse for its survival. Women’s rights that were guaranteed by the constitution have been revoked, and the Taliban have since been introducing restrictive legislation banning women and girls from education and employment. The extremist group, largely led by men sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council as terrorists, are bringing back the policies of their last regime, which lasted from 1996 to 2001.

Members of the U.N. Security Council are reportedly due to meet this week in private to discuss how to react to the NGO ban and an earlier edict locking women out of university education. Girls were already essentially banned from secondary school.

The Security Council meeting follows pressure from a wide range of sources, according to the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce (AACC), a D.C.-based organization that aims to facilitate trade between the two countries. In a recent newsletter, the AACC cited a range of policy suggestions for Security Council consideration that it said were from unnamed think tanks, women’s organizations, NGOs, and counterterrorism experts.

The recommendations included: extending the list of sanctioned Taliban figures and banning them and their families from international financial transactions and travel; offering rewards for the arrest of Taliban figures living outside Afghanistan; diplomatic démarches to the governments of Pakistan and Qatar, where many Taliban figures are believed to live, for prosecution at the International Criminal Court at The Hague for crimes against humanity; and the deportation of Taliban family members living abroad to Afghanistan to ensure they can’t access education or health care outside the country. As the Taliban are not recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, none of their representatives have diplomatic immunity.

The AACC also said the United States and NATO “should announce preventive military actions” that could be taken against Taliban leaders inside Afghanistan due to their “protection of international terrorists and for violating previous diplomatic agreements.” In a deal signed in 2020 with the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump, the Taliban pledged not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for terrorist attacks against the United States. Yet the Taliban have welcomed the presence of many terrorist and jihadist organizations, including al Qaeda and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, an affiliate now fighting to overthrow the Pakistani state.

The Biden administration has said it will not fund or arm any anti-Taliban groups, and there is little appetite among allies for a return to military operations in Afghanistan. For now, Washington seems content to deal with the Taliban as a counterterrorism partner; it can point to the drone killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul last July as evidence of the success of this approach.

Still, the suggestions echo those of many people who have direct contact with the Taliban, former members of the republic government and military, and Afghan NGOs who have witnessed the rapid deterioration of conditions for people who were already among the poorest in the world before the terrorist-ruled group took back control. The Taliban have allowed an already-troubled economy to evaporate, forcing millions of people into desperate poverty while raking in money from traffic in heroin and methamphetamines and commodities such as coal, as well as the sale of passports and visas to people clamoring to leave the country. They announced last week a contract with a Chinese state company to develop oil resources in the north, though this appears to be a renewal of an earlier deal with the republic.

Pakistan, China, Russia, and other countries that supported the withdrawal of the United States and NATO are now concerned about the impact of the Taliban on regional and global security. Yet the group has yet to face any real consequences for its documented abuses against Afghanistan’s people and institutions.

Fear of losing support at the grassroots level is one reason for the Taliban’s diversion of aid to their followers, sources in the charity sector have said. The local branch of the Islamic State, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP), appears to be gaining ground as it attracts conservatives who do not approve of the upper ranks of the Taliban dealing with non-Muslim countries and are dismayed at the Taliban’s inability to develop the economy or improve security. The United States regards the Islamic State as a greater threat than the Taliban, sources close to the Biden administration have said, and had been willing to overlook some excesses while continuing cash transfers as long as the Taliban were able to keep IS-KP in check.

While Griffiths was unable to guarantee that U.N. aid was not being diverted, he said he “wouldn’t agree with the notion that the Taliban is relying on international funding for its survival. The Taliban is raising money through taxes and all kinds of sources in its administration of Afghanistan. I wouldn’t think that the U.N. system is their banker.”

But former parliamentarian and women’s rights campaigner Fawzia Koofi told the BBC that the Taliban “have been benefiting” from aid deliveries as “they have been controlling the way the aid was channeled; it’s the Taliban who decide.”

Speaking from the Qatari capital, Doha, she said: “Some level of pressure should come on the Taliban so they know that this is not always going to be a luxury for them. They need to be accountable.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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