An Analysis of the Impact of Political Conditionality to Protect Human Rights in Afghanistan: Theory, Practice, Future
The Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15th, 2021 changed the human rights rhetoric in Afghanistan. While previously the discourse revolved around “promoting” human rights, now it centers, thanks to the Taliban, on the lost cause of “protecting” human rights. Words speak volumes and the protection of human rights in Afghanistan calls care to the deprivation
of girls from their right to education (Taliban 2022); the prevention of different groups from celebrating or practicing their religious rituals (Subh 2022), the suppression of peaceful demonstrations (Desk 2022), the crackdown on international media outlets (Taliban 2022), and the brutal beating of journalists (Taliban 2021) – the list goes on. According to Won-Na Cha, UNDP Afghanistan Partnership and Communication Specialist, “In August 2021, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was abolished, and National Human Rights Institute was dissolved, leaving no legal or judiciary systems for women within formal institutions. The media also suffered disproportionately, with 40% of Afghan media closed and 80% of women journalists reported to have lost their jobs” (Peluso 2022). Nonetheless, another way the Taliban have been violating human rights is through their targeted killings. As a briefing by Amnesty International depicts, the Taliban have been committing “a litany of human rights abuses including targeted killings of civilians and surrendered soldiers and the blockading of humanitarian supplies in the Panjshir Valley” (Afghanistan 2021).
In response to that, the world, especially the west, has largely relied on the conditions it sets for its developmental aid to Afghanistan to deter human rights violations. The last conference that pledged developmental aid to Afghanistan was held virtually on November 23- 24, 2020 under the name “2020 Afghanistan Conference”, hosted by the government of Finland, the UN, and Afghanistan. During the conference, Afghanistan’s international partners promised a conditional 12 billion dollars in developmental aid to Afghanistan over 4 years. The donors set specific conditions on the aid, a huge part of which directly addressed human rights issues, particularly focusing on the rights of women and different social groups. However, what is by now crystal clear is that the political conditions for receiving aid communicated to the Taliban have not been able to dissuade them from enforcing their discriminatory policies.
Various factors contribute to enabling the Taliban to defy the conditions levied upon them by the donors. One of the core reasons behind the inefficiency of political conditionality on the Taliban is that donor states find it hard to cut aid in case of transgressions due to humanitarian crises. Richard A. Nielsen develops a “rationalist theory of selective aid” through which he, referring to imposing economic pressures on repressive states by the donors, concludes, “I find that donor responses are more nuanced—donors often slash aid for economic sectors while continuing to give aid for social sectors and human rights promotion” (2013, 11). A sightly identical case is true for Afghanistan. Only two days after the collapse of Kabul to the Taliban, major donors cut aid, and the United States, for specific, froze 9.4 billion dollars worth of assets possessed by the Afghan central bank to disallow a Taliban-led-Afghan government from accessing them (Stein 2021). However, the shocking starvation in Afghanistan forced the US to retreat from its decision. Afghanistan was already a fund dependent country in which foreign funds amounted to 43 percent of its GDP (Tooze 2021). With 75 percent of the country’s economy already based on external funding, the freezing of the assets belonging to the Afghan government as well as the foreign aid to the country, Afghanistan became the largest humanitarian crisis with more than 20 million Afghans in extreme stages of hunger (Time 2022). The same source quotes Jane Ferguson’s account of the depth of the crisis published in The New Yorker, “The infants often weigh less than four pounds when they arrive in the neonatal intensive-care unit. Pregnant women across Afghanistan are increasingly malnourished, and their bodies, unable to carry their babies to full term, give birth prematurely. Meager diets then leave new mothers unable to breastfeed…About a third of the children who arrive at the unit do not survive.” Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Program projected that by the middle of 2022, “Afghanistan could face ‘universal poverty,’ with ninety-seven percent of Afghans living below the World Bank-designated international poverty line of $1.90 a day” (Ferguson 2022). Hence, the Biden administration, in an effort to prevent the universal famine in Afghanistan, released a portion of the assets it had frozen in the banks in New York and issued licenses that allowed certain organizations to carry out humanitarian assistances to the country.
However, reports have it that humanitarian aid barely feeds the needy public. That is, for the sake of the security of the employees of NGOs and international organizations, most of the aid donated by foreign countries is channeled to the public through the extremist group themselves. This leaves much room for manipulation of the aid on the Taliban side. Initially, the Taliban started a program called “food for work” which demanded the public to work in exchange for aid. Despite repetitive attempts by the needy though, and due to extravagant nepotism, the connection-less paupers were left unemployed (Synovitz 2022). Later, the Taliban expanded the “food for work” program to pay their employees through aid. Hence, it is hard for international humanitarian aid to reach its intended recipients and is utilized to keep the government functioning.
Another reason why the Taliban do not stick to the conditions is that the donors do not hold a unified stance against them based on political observations. Nielsen also argues that “Donors selectively sanction some states but not others, following a generally rational logic of realpolitik” (2013, 11). That is, the 2020 Afghanistan Conference consented to the continuation of funding to Afghanistan upon the observation of tangible attempts by the government of Afghanistan toward fulfilling those conditions. However, the practice has shown that a game of interests leads different donors to adopt different approaches toward the Taliban. While the United States, the European Union, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund responded to the Taliban takeover of Kabul and their acts of human rights violations with sanctions and funds freezes, countries like Pakistan, China, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar welcomed them with empathy and pledges of cooperation and funding without serious conditions attached to them. This is all the more evident in the case of Russia. Russia professedly has no interest in the state of human rights in Afghanistan and is chiefly concerned with the security in Central Asia (Dixon 2021). According to Kirill Krivosheyev, an Afghanistan analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank as cited in the Washington Post, “Russia doesn’t care about human rights in Afghanistan or women’s rights in Afghanistan. Our red line is security for Central Asia to stop any terrorism and influx of armed men into those countries” (Dixon 2021).
This internal disharmony on the donors’ side strengthens the Taliban in combatting the economic pressures they are met with. The Taliban are well-aware that they are in dire need of external funding and cannot survive without them. They also know that the west in the past 20 years has been the main donor to Afghanistan. Hence, their dependence on foreign aid puts them vulnerable to any influences on the side of the donors. However, a disharmonious donor front deprives the contributors of this chief leverage. Instances of such discord were conspicuous from the very beginning of the Taliban rule and even before. For one, only a few days after the United States and IMF froze Afghan assets, the government of China in early September 2021 pledged 31 million dollars in immediate aid to Afghanistan without any conditions. China also took the chance to harshly criticize the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan stating that the United States had inflicted “serious damage on the Afghan people from the very first day of its invasion to the last minute of its withdrawal” (China 2021). Such conflict-representing proclamations and aid pledges are deemed to be promising to the Taliban as their spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, maintained, “China is our most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us because it is ready to invest and rebuild our country” (Al Jazeera 2021).
However, it is not only China that has been friendly with the Taliban. Russia, for instance, frequently blamed the United States for the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan and called on the west to decide on how to cooperate with the Taliban by summoning an international conference to compensate for the wrong the United States had done to Afghanistan in the past 20 years (Dixon 2021). Qatar immediately increased its monetary aid to reach an amount of 50 million dollars notwithstanding its continued shipment of various commodities to the recipient country. According to the same source, Doha News, a statement by the country’s foreign ministry read, “Qatar reiterated Monday its full solidarity with the people of Afghanistan and its continuous support till they achieve their legitimate demands for stability, security, peace and development” (Qarjouli 2021). The United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, promised to continue implementing its humanitarian projects in Afghanistan worth another 50 million dollars besides having delivered “12 planes carrying 285 tonnes of urgent food and medical supplies … via an established airbridge” in only two first weeks of September 2021 (UAE 2021). Pakistan’s role as the terrorist group’s chief long-time harbourer is of course out of question. Hence, in the absence of a united donor representation, the Taliban play a better game than the world and see no obligation to cut their outrageous conduct. As insignificant the mentioned contributions may be compared to what the west pledged to donate in the 2020 Afghanistan Conference i.e. 600 million dollars by the US, 510 million dollars by Germany, 191 million dollars by the United Kingdom, and 72 million dollars by Norway amongst others, they still provide the Taliban with an advantage in the negotiating table considering that there are no conditions whatsoever attached to the donations by certain countries, and the aid delivery language depicts the disharmony of the donors with the west (Afghanistan 2020).
Nonetheless, it is not only the plausible non-western donors for Afghanistan but also the Taliban’s own sources of revenue, too. According to the investigations carried out by BBC, by the end of 2018, the Taliban’s income could have increased to as much as 1.5 billion dollars annually, not limited to but mainly coming from their foreign donors such as Pakistan, Russia, Iran, Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, their hold on the drug trade with an estimated income of 100 to 400 million dollars annually, taxing the areas under their control, and illegal extractions of mines and minerals (Azami 2021). Such sources of revenue coupled with unconditional non western aid make it far easier for the Taliban to resist the economic pressures enforced on them by the west.
That established, and after a year of Taliban’s rule, the question remains whether or not the West’s setting conditions on aid to elevate human rights’ status quo should continue. Even though political conditionality has been unsuccessful so far to achieve its objectives, arguments could still be made in favor of its continuation, but tangible outcomes are expected only if conditions are complemented by certain other measures.
For one, China as the main country expected by the Taliban to fill the void left by the US seems reluctant in investing in Afghanistan. China, as a matter of fact, moves slowly and with meticulous observation. For China, it should be worrisome that the Taliban are again the pariah state they were back in the 90s; they have failed to assume any degree of legitimacy, they struggle with internal conflicts, have not formed an inclusive government, have not been
able to bring stability to the country, are grappling with a tremendous humanitarian crisis, and are re-emerging as the safe-haven for international terrorism with Ayman Alzawahiri, the Al Qaeda chief, being killed in the heart of Kabul. Despite China’s immediate aid allocations, its total aid of 80 million dollars donated from August 2021 to April 2022 pales into triviality set side by side with above 500 million dollars donated by the US in the same time period (Stone 2022). According to the same source, China, nonetheless, has times and again clearly communicated its wishes to the Taliban: “an inclusive government comprising non-Taliban factions; “moderate” domestic and foreign policies; a “clear break” with terrorist forces; and a “peaceful policy” with other countries, especially Afghanistan’s neighbors”. Bearing that in mind and with Taiwan’s dispute prone to aggravation, it would be safe to conclude that China’s supposedly consolation role to the Taliban is unconvincing and will be so for some time.
Notwithstanding, the rest of the Taliban-sympathetic countries are not reliable sources of revenue for the fundamentalist group, either. Russia is engaged in the Ukraine war and is attempting to forge a plausible new alliance worldwide. Despite their fears of the inundation of extremists into Central Asia, Russia has committed little to no monetary assistance to the Taliban. Pakistan, the country with the most leverage on the Taliban, on the other hand, is seriously concerned with the resurfacing of TTP and a restored capability of Baloch militant groups to disrupt the stability (Sheikh 2022). Wrestling with volatile politics and a towards bankruptcy-sliding economy, Pakistan, nevertheless, does not have sufficient means to monetarily support the Taliban singlehandedly (Chaudhury 2022). Although the Taliban relish financial assistance from other countries too, that is insignificant. Taliban’s own resources of income coupled with external aid sufficed to feed their few thousand fighters and launch their offensives, but are not enough to supply above 30 million Afghans for long. With their internal conflicts surging, their incapability to settle minimal military resistance for over a year now, their incompetency to provide services to the public, and their mistreatment of the public and political leaders, among others, it should not take long for them to consider alleviating their radical policies to survive.
In the meantime, while conditions are in place – strict, clear, and demanding specific outcomes – the aid structure could undergo alterations. As Madadi, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute suggests, “It is critical for aid money to build resilience by supporting economic activity at the local level instead of fueling further dependency through short-term, piecemeal interventions” (2022). For Afghanistan, there needs to be an Afghanistan-specific scheme based on its own conditions and qualities. One such is supporting the private sector in Afghanistan. Post-2001 Afghanistan saw a rise in creativity and management. The private sector went hand in hand with the public sector in implementing projects and played a huge role in shaping the Afghan economy. In addition, the west, especially the United States, can use diplomacy to sign a Doha-like agreement with the Taliban whereby the Taliban will promise to protect international aid workers in the country. This way, the humanitarian aid would reach the needy.
To complement the conditionality and aid scheme; however, the donors and major actors can take measures such as asset freezing of Taliban’s real state in foreign countries and reinstating travel bans on the Taliban leaders. One way to force the Taliban back from their fundamentalist inhumane policies in Afghanistan is to freeze their assets. Although economic pressures on Afghanistan as a country is, as argued and detailed above, inefficient, asset freezes on the Taliban group, and not the country of Afghanistan, specifically the group’s leaders and their families can pose tangible threats to their survival and push them to reconsider their strict policies. According to Mullah Yaqoob, the second deputy leader of the Taliban, real states especially in Pakistan and the Gulf countries – all strategic history-long partners of the United States – bring as much as $80 million annually in revenue to the Taliban (Sufizada 2020).
Hence, an asset freeze of the Taliban leaders and their families endangers $80 million worth of their revenue. The west can also impose travel bans on the Taliban leadership and their family member. A Taliban delegation visited Norwegian officials in Norway to hold talks with them. They also attended the Tashkent Conference 2022 in person. As Annie Pforzheimer, former deputy chief of the US mission to Kabul has said, “Suspending the travel ban has allowed the Taliban to pursue the diplomatic recognition it craves, setting in motion the creeping normalisation of an authoritarian and extremist movement that other groups will emulate” (Wintour 2022). The same source also quotes Heather Barr from the Human Rights Watch, “It’s time for governments to turn consensus that the Taliban’s actions are unlawful into coordinated actions that show the Taliban that the world is ready to defend the rights of Afghans, particularly women and girls, in meaningful ways.” While the Taliban have taken 40 million people in Afghanistan hostage, they should not be able to live luxury lives abroad.
While millions of Afghan girls cannot get an education and people die of hunger, the Taliban’s sons and daughters should not study at private international schools. Once they themselves and their family members are deprived of their fashionable lifestyle and privileges, they will be forced to retreat from their inhumane stances. The world has already imposed such sanctions and bans on the families and friends of certain politicians, hence they obviously can and should punish the Taliban in the same way.
Lastly, the UN and major international players should use any leverages in hand to stop any/all mining activities carried out by foreign firms in Afghanistan. That is, Afghanistan is ultrarich in minerals, especially lithium. The Taliban attempt to make the best of their sources of revenue. Hence, they try to attract foreign firms to extract Afghanistan’s minerals. Imprudent extraction of the country’s treasure becomes all the more hazardous under a state with its leadership and cabinet not only comprised of sanctioned and most-wanted intercontinental terrorists but also welcoming of other international terrorist groups. Their financial capability endangers the security of the whole world and increases human rights violations by an empowered fundamentalist terrorist-led group.
Eventually, this paper establishes that political conditionality has failed in dissuading the Taliban of their hard-line policies and human rights violations for different reasons detailed above. However, the paper still argues for the continuation of conditions and further emphasis on them while they are also complemented by certain other measures. Sanctioning the Taliban and their family members – confiscating their assets and imposing travel bans on them as well as a no-foreign-investment-in-Afghanistan approach – are some plausible immediate go
together steps that have the potential to force the Taliban to reconsider their harsh stances inside Afghanistan.
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