n August, the world watched in shock as the Western-backed Afghan government rapidly collapsed and the country spiraled into chaos, culminating in the Taliban’s takeover of the capital, Kabul, and return to power after nearly 20 years.
Since then, Afghanistan has faded from global view. But almost nine million Afghans are now at risk of famine, and a further 14 million are facing acute hunger, owing to a drought and an economic collapse triggered by the sudden suspension of foreign aid. The World Health Organisation warns that one million Afghan children are at risk of dying this winter.
In December, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution exempting humanitarian aid from sanctions against the Taliban. But that is just one piece of the puzzle in addressing the humanitarian and economic crisis in Afghanistan. The global community is facing an urgent challenge to prevent mass starvation and avoid a complete collapse of basic services.
The Council on State Fragility, of which I am a member alongside prominent global leaders, is calling on the international community not to abandon the people of Afghanistan, and to act now to head off imminent famine. Specifically, we urge world leaders to focus on three key imperatives.
First, as Afghanistan slides further into a devastating economic and humanitarian crisis, the UN – the one global actor that can help the country pull through – can still support Afghans, even as its member states continue to debate whether to recognise the Taliban government. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, acting with the full backing of the Security Council, should strengthen the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and send a special envoy to be based in Kabul with UN agencies’ staff. Furthermore, Guterres should task the UNAMA with maintaining clear and consistent communication channels with the Taliban leadership and ensuring an integrated approach to humanitarian, development, and peace efforts.
The UN and its agencies are not new to such challenges. Similarly strong and coordinated UN responses have had a clear impact in other difficult contexts, including in North Korea, Yemen, and Sudan. In Afghanistan, UN agencies have excellent local staff: well-trained, experienced, and devoted men and women, many of whom successfully delivered aid programs under the Taliban’s previous regime in the 1990s. They have done the same in Taliban-controlled areas in the recent past.
Second, inclusivity is essential to a stable, lasting peace. An inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan remains as necessary today as it was before the Taliban retook control of the country. Rather than writing off the Afghan peace process as dead in the water, the international community should view it as a multi-year, adaptive, and ongoing process of bringing all sides together to build bridges and reach a common understanding regarding the country’s future.
The winner-takes-all politics that has long plagued Afghanistan must be avoided at all costs, because exclusion will only fuel endless cycles of conflict. National consensus-building mechanisms, chief among them a well-prepared and well-led Loya Jirga – a traditional gathering of ethnic, tribal, and religious leaders – can help to foster agreement among the country’s communities and lead to the patient construction of the new dispensation Afghanistan needs.
Lastly, Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and near-neighbours – primarily Iran, Pakistan, China, and India, as well as key regional actors such as Qatar and Turkey – have a critical role to play in stabilizing the country. The international community should urge these countries to contribute to peace efforts in Afghanistan, and support existing constructive engagement by regional players, such as Qatar, that have established a track record as trusted interlocutors between the Taliban and the outside world.
The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is severe, and millions of lives are at stake this winter. The international community, with strong UN leadership, can and should step up to support Afghans at this challenging time. The world must deliver aid where it is most needed, and support national reconciliation and peace processes for as long as necessary.
The writer, a former Foreign Minister of Algeria, is a former United Nations special representative in Afghanistan. ©Project Syndicate.