The tragic, heroic evacuation of Kabul is over, and the Taliban is once again in control of Afghanistan. Australia and like-minded nations must now confront a delicate and difficult question: how does the international community balance sanctions against the Taliban with support for the Afghan people?
Unless we want state failure, we must prioritise aid over heavy sanctions. The first step is to work with the same pace and pragmatism of the airlift to keep humanitarian aid going.
Human rights, religious freedom, women's participation in public life and progress on girls' education is set to decline under the Taliban. The threat of a Taliban government instigating state-sponsored terrorism or providing a more comfortable home for extremism is real. This gives reason for the international community to crack down.
Already, the IMF and the World Bank have suspended funding, and the US government has frozen over $US9 billion in assets and reserves belonging to the previous Afghan government. Some commentators say the financial flows of this dangerous regime should be squeezed with heavy sanctions.
Restricting funding flows to the Taliban is rational - but sanctions will cost lives. Heavy sanctions will deter humanitarian organisations at risk of prosecution, essential services will disappear, and effective governance will teeter on the verge of collapse. It is state collapse that lies on the other side of the ledger. Its spiralling effects will suck in the international community once more and create a regional crisis at the heart of an already troubled region.
Afghanistan already ranks 169th of 189 countries on the UN's Human Development Index, and it risks sinking lower. Compounding decades of war, 550,000 people have been internally displaced this year. UNCHR tallies over 2.6 million Afghan refugees. Of those who remain in the country, almost half need humanitarian assistance. A persistent and harsh drought has plunged 14 million people into food insecurity.
As it stands, over 75 per cent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product is generated by aid from governments and multilateral institutions. This provides salaries for teachers, doctors and nurses. It pays for the upkeep of roads, hospitals, health clinics and schools. It pays for storing grain in silos and air traffic controllers at Kabul airport.
Restricting support will cost the Afghan people. It will drive massive reversals in education, public health and livelihoods. People will rightly seek to escape this hopeless situation. Australia could end up turning back boats containing interpreters and women's rights leaders we used to work alongside.
Navigating the tension between sanctions and support will intensify as the Taliban become the Afghan government. But while this is debated, millions are going hungry. NGOs and other agencies must be able to fulfil their humanitarian missions now and into the future.
Humanitarian and development workers will have to engage with the Taliban to do their job. The list of potential engagement points includes negotiating on the delivery of COVAX vaccines and vaccination rollout programs through public hospitals and health clinics. It includes food distribution from storage facilities and education to girls and boys in schools across the country.
The United Nations Secretary-General will convene a ministerial-led summit next week to scale-up lifesaving humanitarian assistance and appeal for full and unimpeded humanitarian access. The EU, UK and US have already expanded their humanitarian assistance. So should Australia. The Australian government should double its humanitarian aid to $100 million, following cuts of one-third in 2020.
There is a way to support local people and avoid granting legitimacy to the Taliban. We were in the same position 20 years ago, and we can navigate this delicately again. We have a responsibility with our partners - as former parties to the conflict - to support the people of Afghanistan and ensure their country does not become a failed state by the end of the year.
- Marc Purcell is chief executive of the Australian Council for International Development.