No easy answers for Afghanistan

What next for Afghanistan – Part Three 

Our last two blogs have focused on the catastrophic failure of the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan and why that dismal outcome was a virtual inevitability without a change in course — in pursuit of a comprehensive negotiated political settlement — that never came.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

We owe it to the Afghan people, and to the Canadians who gave so much in the doomed military effort, to focus now on how we can tangibly contribute to a better future for the people of Afghanistan.

International Crisis Group on the way ahead

Coinciding with an emergency G7 leaders meeting on Afghanistan, the pre-eminent transnational conflict resolution and peacebuilding NGO, the International Crisis Group, has released an important briefing on issues the international community must tackle in determining how it will engage with the Taliban going forward.

At this stage, there are some fundamental uncertainties

Crisis Group first looks at “three fundamental and inter-related uncertainties“, namely:

  • the intentions of the Taliban leadership
  • how these intentions might diverge from those of the Taliban’s military commanders and fighters, in control on the ground; and
  • the extent to which the leadership will want, or be able, to overcome any such divergences.

What shape might the Taliban’s government take?

Despite years of on-and-off dialogue with other Afghans and foreign emissaries seeking to get a peace process on track, the highly secretive Taliban have been notably coy about their political vision.

The short answer is that we just don’t know what structure the Taliban will adopt, with possibilities ranging from reversion to their odious 1990s template, to a hybrid system with theocratic and elected parts, as in Iran.

Crisis Group notes:

The Taliban have signalled that they may be open to including in their new administration some figures associated with the politics of the last twenty years.

As we have discussed in our previous blog, the Taliban have engaged in talks on political inclusion with former President Hamid Karzai and former senior government official Abdullah Abdullah. Crisis Group sees two motivations for the Taliban leadership taking this approach:

  • seeking to defuse domestic opposition to their rule and
  • addressing concerns of external powers, including neighbours, worried about an unstable Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

However, Crisis Group is also quick to point out that that the Taliban leadership has internal constituencies to satisfy that may severely curtail the extent of the political inclusion in a Taliban-led government..

How might the Taliban treat the Afghan population?

The uncertainties surrounding the shape of Taliban government also apply to questions regarding the extent to which they will reimpose the harsh policies and practices of their rule from 1996 to 2000

Here again we see the same push and pull between a leadership wary of their regime becoming the “international pariah” that it was in the 1990s and the necessity to sustain the “loyalty and cohesion” of the deeply conservative military commanders and fighters who brought them to power.

What are the Taliban’s biggest immediate challenges?

Government formation and maintaining public order … are likely to be the group’s principal occupations for at least the weeks ahead.

Among the many challenges they face are:

  • increasing economic strains with foreign assets frozen and the foreign aid that comprised 75 per cent of Afghanistan’s budget now suspended by wary donors waiting to see if Taliban leadership promises on women’s rights are honoured; and
  • multiple humanitarian crises brought on by drought, the COVID-19 pandemic and displacement due to conflict rendering half the population in need of aid.

Note that donors (including Canada) will likely continue offering humanitarian (as opposed to development) aid through UN agencies and international NGOs, but the Taliban still needs to ensure access and effective coordination of this activity.

How might — and should — outside powers respond to Taliban ascendance?

U.S. and European policies do not appear to have grappled as yet with the potential consequences of a deeply impoverished and isolated Taliban-run state, starved of external resources and recognition, and struggling to earn legitimacy among Afghans by providing services (assuming they at least partly perceive their domestic legitimacy in that fashion).

Crisis Group is here highlighting the outcome to be avoided if we can — the worst of all outcomes — a deeply isolated and impoverished Taliban government pushed ever closer to transnational militant groups.

Next steps by the international community beyond safe passage efforts

the U.S., EU and European governments should mount a concerted and visible diplomatic campaign to fill the coffers of humanitarian and refugee agencies for their Afghanistan appeals.

Beyond this immediate, urgent response to the humanitarian crisis is the need to develop diplomatic and economic means to stand with the Afghan people.

In the view of Crisis Group:

[K]ey Western [and regional] governments should begin quiet consultations to determine the feasibility of building consensus on conditions for recognition of and assistance to the Taliban, as well as for sanctions relief.

Much will also depend on how the Taliban decides to govern Afghanistan and the group’s actions on the ground in the weeks ahead.

But it is not too soon to begin evaluating whether there is any set of policies and practices the Taliban might plausibly implement that could meet conditions for recognition, sanctions lifting and potential support from donors and international institutions.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

None of this will be easy. We need smart, patient diplomacy that is clear-eyed about the goal of helping the Afghan people to the maximum extent possible and avoiding a worst case scenario of a tyrannical, isolated Islamist state that is a haven for terrorists.

For more from Crisis Group on the crucially important regional dimension, see: With the Taliban Back in Kabul, Regional Powers Watch and Wait (crisisgroup.org, 26 August 2021).

G7 Emergency Meeting on Afghanistan

Following their emergency virtual meeting on 24 August 2021, the G7 leaders issued a statement which can be obtained in full here.

The main elements of the statement are:

  • an affirmation of commitment to the Afghan people, including through a renewed humanitarian effort under UN auspices;
  • a commitment to working with the international community “to address the critical questions facing Afghanistan”; and
  • a pledge to hold the Taliban “accountable” for their actions in preventing terrorism, upholding human rights and pursuing an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan.

The G7 statement ends with the following:

The legitimacy of any future government depends on the approach it now takes to uphold its international obligations and commitments to ensure a stable Afghanistan.

The problem, of course, is how to “hold the Taliban accountable” without harming the Afghan people, and on this the G7 statement is silent. That is why the Crisis Group analysis, in our view, is so important. See also:  International Talks aim for consensus on Taliban government (theguardian.com, 30 Aug 2021).

UN Secretary-General convenes meeting to discuss Afghanistan resolution with Permanent 5 Security Council Members

On Monday, 30 Aug 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, will convene a meeting in New York of ambassadors from the five permanent members of the UN security council – Russia, China, the US, the UK, and France – to discuss a potential joint resolution on Afghanistan that could be passed later this week. The resolution has been under discussion over the weekend.

Update on Canada’s Taliban terrorist listing

Further to our discussion of this issue in last week’s blog, we have an important update on Canada’s inclusion of the Afghan Taliban on our designated terrorist entity list, unlike the USA and most, if not all, of our NATO allies.

It turns out that the listing was enacted way back in 2013 by the then hard-line Harper Conservative government, just as negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government were starting to get underway under Qatari auspices.  But note also that the listing was reviewed by the Liberal government in late 2018 and remained unchanged.

RI President Peggy Mason comments:

The timing of the original listing, in my view, was no accident. Then PM Harper had long publicly ridiculed the very notion of negotiations with the Taliban, pinning the label “Taliban Jack” on the then NDP federal leader, Jack Layton, for his courageous and far-sighted support of a negotiated end to the conflict as early as 2008.

The point we want to highlight here is that the Canadian terrorist designation legislation, unlike the American, does not preclude diplomatic contact. See the section on Suppression of Terrorism Regulations pertaining to Al-Qaida and the Taliban on the Global Affairs webpage entitled Canadian Sanctions Related to Terrorist Entities, including Al-Qaida and the Taliban.

In a welcome step, Foreign Minister Garneau today indicated that David Sproule, Canada’s envoy to Afghanistan (and a former Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007), is in Doha, Qatar to engage with allies and regional partners on the ground while representing Canada in ongoing talks.

Canada increases already substantial humanitarian aid to Afghanistan

On 26 August the Government of Canada announced an additional $50 million in humanitarian aid, on top of the $27.3 million in humanitarian assistance already allocated for Afghanistan in 2021:

This assistance will be provided in response to international humanitarian appeals, as coordinated and led by the United Nations.

Channelling Canadian aid through multilateral organisations is consistent with the G7 pledge and the Crisis Group recommendation on how to respond to the urgent, and growing, humanitarian emergency in Afghanistan.

Canada is also a significant donor of development assistance to Afghanistan, with our combined humanitarian aid and development assistance totalling $3.6 billion since 2001, but those funds too are administered by multilateral agencies, not the government of Afghanistan.

The view from Doctors Without Borders/MSF

Operating on the principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality, MSF aims always to work with the agreement of all parties to a conflict.

For the view of a highly respected NGO working in Afghanistan, see this article by two staffers of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/ Doctors Without Borders entitled: Will we talk to the Taliban? Why not, we always have (Jonathan Whittall and Christopher Stokes, Aljazeera.com, 26 August 2021).

Canadian evacuation flights from Kabul end, but third country assistance available

While Canadian and most other allied evacuation efforts from Kabul airport have ended, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Foreign Minister Marc Garneau have pledged to keep helping those trying to flee the country who are eligible to come to Canada.

What of Canada’s diplomatic stance?

We have already noted above the welcome appointment of a special envoy to represent Canada in the Doha talks and to engage with allies and regional partners.

Smart, patient, quiet diplomacy is urgently needed and all federal parties have a role to play, whatever the perceived short term electoral interests in play.

We call on the Government of Canada to commit to the quiet, patient diplomatic work needed to help build an international consensus on conditions for the recognition of, and assistance to, the Taliban.

And we call on all federal parties and candidates to put aside partisan electioneering in favour of a cross-party approach that puts the interests of the Afghan people first.

Debating foreign policy during this election

The crisis unfolding in Afghanistan daily reminds us of the importance of Canada being an active, principled and constructive player in international affairs. We issued a call in last week’s blog for either a specific foreign policy debate or a significant allocation of time for this subject in one of the two scheduled leaders’ debates.

Thinking along the same lines, the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy has spearheaded a letter to the federal party leaders — signed by 40 scholars, experts and former diplomats from across the political spectrum — urging them to prioritize foreign policy in this election.

RI President Peggy Mason is among the signatories to the letter, which states in part:

It is imperative that the next government articulate Canada’s voice on foreign policy issues and how it will navigate its international relationships in the years ahead. Canada’s failed bid for a UN Security Council seat, its second in a decade, indicates that its global presence may already be waning. With the international order in flux, Canada needs a strategy to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

If Canada continues to marginalize the vital role of foreign policy discussions at home, it risks diminishing its ability to secure its way of life and prepare for an increasingly uncertain world.

For the full text of the letter, click here.

Photo credit: Canadian Forces image (Op Aegis evacuation in Kabul)

(Posted 27 Aug, updated 30 Aug, 2021)

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