Roza Otunbayeva, UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, meeting with Talib leaders in northern Afghanistan. (Photo: UNAMA)

The UNDP study – Afghanistan Socio-Economic Outlook 2023 – clearly illustrates how the country’s economic output collapsed by 20.7 per cent following the arrival in Kabul by the Taliban in August 2021. Despite Afghanistan’s significant mineral wealth potential, estimated at over three trillion dollars by Western sources, plus ability to serve as a relatively productive agricultural exporter to the region, restrictive Talib policies have kept Afghanistan as one of the poorest nations in the world.

The UNDP report notes that “despite tentative signs of recovery” with a relatively stable exchange rate, an increase in exports, growing demand for labour, and muted inflation, GDP is believed to have declined by 3.6 per cent in 2022.

The situation could have been far worse. “A sustained inflow of foreign aid, to the tune of 3.7 billion USD in 2022, has helped avert the total collapse of Afghanistan,” said UNDP representative Abdallah Al Dardari. With up to 34 million out of Afghanistan’s 40 million people constantly wondering where their next meal will come from, basic survival for many has depended on foreign humanitarian aid. As UNDP asserts, outside support for up to 26.1 million Afghans has helped stabilize the exchange rate, curb inflation, and affect other economic indicators.

Opium poppy production, which the Taliban have officially banned, is widely still considered by western drug enforcement agencies to be a significant contributor to the country’s financial coffers. According to the Vienna-based UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan continues to rank as the world’s largest opium producer and is a major source for heroin in Europe and Asia.

Some Taliban dispute this. From their point of view, Afghanistan’s financial situation has improved because of their crackdown on corruption which was rampant under the previous western-backed regime. As independent on-the-ground sources note, while graft within public institutions, such as government ministries, is believed to have been reduced, it persists in other forms among different Talib factions, often in the form of threats and illegal confiscations.

UNDP: Women need to engage with all aspects of Afghan society, including a return to high school and university, if Afghanistan is to be saved from complete collapse. (Photo: UNAMA)

UNDP: The participation of women in Afghan recovery is crucial

For UNDP, however, there can be no sustainable recovery without the active participation of Afghan women in the economy and in public life. This includes participating in vital humanitarian initiatives. “Only the full continuity of girls’ education and women’s ability to pursue work and learning can keep the hope of any real progress alive,” maintained UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, Kanni Wignaraja.

Current Talib edicts severely restrict the rights of women and girls from working, including on UN projects, or participating in further education, such as high school and university. Actual implementation, however, depends on the province. Given that the Taliban is a movement consisting of different mainly Pushtun-dominated factions, some provinces are more flexible than others. However, the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, such as Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, where the US-led NATO forces spent much of their time and billions of dollars in security combatting the Talib insurgency, are the most restrictive.

As UNDP stresses, harsh Talib policies are directly affecting economic productivity and may impact the level of international aid inflows. UNEP warns that this could also produce adverse geopolitical factors and economic difficulties in neighboring countries, such as Pakistan and Iran. Furthermore, such restrictions on women could contribute to a further contraction by 0.4 percent of the economy causing Afghanistan to plunge to the bottom of the global poverty scale.

Others fear that the worsening situation will result in a return to outright civil war, which is already being pursued by armed opposition elements, such as the National Resistance Front of Ahmad Massoud, the son of the renowned former guerrilla leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda suicide bombers on 9 September 2001 as a precursor to 9/11 assaults in the United States. The Taliban, too, are showing signs of internal divisions.

Afghanistan: a country on the brink of collapse

With the country on the brink of collapse, many Afghans have already sold their assets in order to survive. They are even turning family members, notably children, into labourers or beggars. Some, too, in utter desperation, have been selling off girls as young as eight or nine into forced marriages or as slaves.

Both the Taliban and individual business interests, including foreign players from countries like Saudi Arabia and Emirates, are taking advantage of this. In return for their grassroots support, the regime has promised free wives to young rural Taliban, many of whom would normally not have the means to afford a spouse. In one recent incident, Talib fighters waited outside a house in Kabul for weeks demanding that the family turn over their teenage daughters for marriage. The family eventually eluded this by escaping to France.

Women asserted themselves as key promoters of business during the NATO occupation but have lost out since the return of the Taliban. Whether the Kandahar leadership can be persuaded to allow them to return is debatable, but not impossible, if properly negotiated. (Photo: UNAMA)

The real problem now is how to persuade the Taliban to become more amenable. (See Edward Girardet article on talking with the Taliban: a necessary exercise in frustration) Over the past months, the UN has sought to engage with the Kandahar leadership which is running the show. This includes explaining why the Taliban should respect basic women’s rights and allow girls to return to school. The harsh reality, however, is that the Kandahar leadership does not care what either the UN or the world thinks. Nor is there any respect for those UN interlocutors, particularly women, seeking to put across what is perceived as a western position.

As far as the Kandahar Talib chiefs are concerned, they won the war, so why should they even consider such outlandish concerns as women’s and girls’ rights. From their point of view, this is how traditional Afghanistan works. The fact that some Afghan and international Koranic scholars consider the Talib position as un-Islamic and not what Mohammed was advocating is also ignored.  But this should not stop more from speaking out given that the Taliban are giving Islam such a bad rap.

While the UN continues to persist with these mediation efforts, such talks are clearly going nowhere. If the international community is to make a breakthrough, it needs to become far more imaginative before it is too late. This means establishing a body of independent interlocutors who know how to speak the Taliban’s language and be respected enough by Kandahar to listen.

A mixed group of Afghan advocates are already pushing for such an initiative which needs to be supported by governments such as Switzerland, Norway or Finland, or even the European Union, all of which have professed concern for what is happening in Afghanistan. Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrein and Dubai also have a responsibility for supporting such an initiative. But this needs to happen quickly even if such a process might take months, if not longer, to implement.

The UN could offer its facilities in Kabul, but such a group should be headed up by an individual, whether Afghan or foreign, based in Afghanistan who understands Islam and knows how to communicate with the Taliban.

Whether the international community likes it or not, realistically this person must be male. The Kandahar leadership will not tolerate talking with a woman, even if outsiders regard this as making an important point from the global public point of view. One is dealing with harsh on-the-ground realities. If the international community is genuinely concerned about the plight of ordinary Afghans, it will have to stomach this.

Such a respected mediator will be in a far better position to “drink tea” with the Taliban in order to make them understand that both they and Afghanistan could benefit by embracing certain step by step ‘reforms’. Increased outside investment possibilities could also serve as an enticement.

The need to bring women and girls back into the fold

What needs to be made clear, with subtlety and without pressure, is that ensuring access of Afghan women to health, school and humanitarian jobs together with further education to produce female doctors and nurses is crucial. If not, ordinary Afghans, including the Taliban, can expect their women and children, including their sons, to suffer from poor health and die. While hard-line and traditional tribal Pushtuns, who dominate the Taliban, would prefer their women to remain out of sight, they do care about their male offspring. So this is one lever that needs to be pushed.

Global Insights editor Edward Girardet is a journalist and author focusing on conflict, humanitarian crises and development who has covered Afghanistan since just prior to the Soviet war in 1979. His 2011 book “Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan” is considered a ‘classic’ (New York Review of Books) and one of the most informed on this country’s apparently never-ending humanitarian and economic turmoil since civil war first broke out in the summer of 1978. Other books include: “Afghanistan: The Soviet War”; “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan”. (4 fully-revised editions) and “Somalia, Rwanda and Beyond.” Girardet is currently working on a new book, The American Club: The Hippy Trail, Peshawar Tales and the Road to Kabul.

Writer Edward Girardet reporting clandestinely during the Soviet war in northern Afghanistan in 1982. (Photo: Edward Girardet archives)
Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan
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