WASHINGTON – World leaders practically met on Tuesday to discuss ways to prevent an economic and humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, but the Biden administration remained cautious about lending more support to the Taliban-run country.
The European Union has pledged € 1 billion, or $ 1.15 billion, to aid Afghanistan and neighboring countries, as G-20 leaders separately reaffirmed their support for human rights and stability in the country.
“We must do everything in our power to prevent a major humanitarian and socio-economic collapse in Afghanistan,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement. “We need to do it quickly.”
However, after two meetings with Taliban officials over the past few days, the Biden administration has not announced any new US assistance to the country as it is guided in its approach to the Afghan government, led by a group that has fought the United States for nearly 20 years.
Experts said EU funding, some of which was already announced last month, was at best a temporary solution to the huge need in Afghanistan, a country of 30 million whose financial system is on the brink of collapse. Much of the country’s international aid has been cut off since mid-August, when the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban came to power.
The G-20 meeting adopted a declaration on largely familiar principles, including the need to protect the rights of Afghan women and that the Taliban allow the unhindered flow of humanitarian aid. President Biden attended the virtual gathering, but several key leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, did not.
The Biden administration reaffirmed support for “using diplomatic, humanitarian and economic means” to help the Afghan people – but only after it first emphasized that the leaders at the meeting discussed the need to maintain a “laser focus” on counter-terrorism and safe passage of foreign nationals out of the country. and Afghans eligible for asylum in the United States.
Officials said terrorism and safe passage have been major topics of discussion in a separate pair of meetings US officials have held with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar in the past few days – the first of its kind since the Taliban formed a government last month. … Larger and much more complex decisions, such as granting diplomatic recognition to the Taliban or unfreezing billions of dollars in Afghan assets, are not inevitable, officials said.
In a press briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that denying safe haven for terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and securing an exit for endangered people are “key national interests,” a label he does not called. seek help from the Afghan people.
Further social chaos could fuel radicalism within Afghanistan’s borders and spark refugee flows at a time when Europe is still grappling with an influx of migrants over the past decade that has destabilized governments and fueled far-right nationalism.
Mr Price noted that the United States has approved nearly $ 64 million in humanitarian aid for the country in recent weeks and that a representative from the United States Agency for International Development attended a weekend meeting that US officials held with the Taliban.
Decisions with broader implications – including whether to formally recognize the new Afghan government and the critical question of whether to unfreeze $ 9.5 billion of Afghan national assets held by the Federal Reserve – will depend on how the Taliban decides to rule the country – said Mr. Price said.
Laurel Miller, director of the Asia Program for the International Crisis Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to deadly conflicts, said the cold facts about Afghanistan’s needs “are in direct opposition to the politics of the situation.”
“How can the Biden administration release these assets without being accused of transferring billions of dollars to the Taliban?” she said.
Ms Miller said humanitarian aid will help in the near future, but it can only do so much to support a country facing the prospect of economic collapse.
A collapsed banking and payment system can also seriously impede the distribution of foreign aid. In a statement, Nechefor Mgendi, head of the Afghan delegation to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, warned of “an acute shortage of funds” that could lead to the interruption of essential medical and other services. “
A senior administration official said the United States is in no rush to unfreeze Afghan assets or secure diplomatic recognition, reaffirming the US position that the Taliban must demonstrate that they govern in an inclusive manner, protecting human rights, preventing terrorist activities and ensuring freedom of movement. moving out of the country.
The official also stressed that freeing funds will not necessarily be the key to averting a humanitarian catastrophe, given that the Taliban have yet to prove to the international community that they can responsibly distribute and manage funds.
Adela Raz, who was the previous Afghan government’s ambassador to Washington before the Taliban came to power and who continues to work in the country’s embassy without guidance from the Taliban, acknowledged that the United States and other governments have faced “very tough” decisions about how to balance pressure on the Taliban with the help of ordinary Afghans.
“The Afghan people cannot be taken hostage,” Ms. Raz said in an interview.
But she said “little has changed” from the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, when it denied Afghan girls and women basic rights and education and enforced amputation and public executions.
According to her, for the international community, helping the Afghan people without the support of the Taliban is a “unique” task. “We’ve never seen anything like it before,” she said.
Understand the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid unrest following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. They used harsh public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more details on their origins and their track record as rulers.
In addition to the G-20 meeting, officials from the United States and several European countries met with Taliban representatives in Doha in what the European Union called an “informal exchange of views at a technical level” that did not mean recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate government.
This stance is similar to that of the Biden administration, which refers to all-male Taliban leaders who are usually on a hard line, running the country as “interim government,” a phrase that implies hope – which many analysts describe as distant – for a more inclusive government to come. …
The EU pledge includes € 300 million for already announced humanitarian aid, as well as an additional € 250 million for additional support for those “in dire need, especially in the health sector,” said Ms von der Leyen.
The money will go to international organizations already working in Afghanistan, as did the recent US aid.
UN Secretary General António Guterres said on Tuesday that the new Taliban government generally worked with UN aid agencies, “gradually providing access to requested areas and providing security when necessary.”
Although the Taliban have kidnapped and killed foreign aid workers during their two decades of uprising, they have a strong interest in appeasing the international community now that they are in power, as they hope to gain diplomatic recognition and direct economic support to rebuild an impoverished country. decades of war.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who hosted the G-20 meeting, called it “the first multilateral response to the Afghan crisis.” Speaking at a press conference at the end of the meeting, he added: “Multilateralism is returning.”
Draghi said the leaders’ discussions have moved from accusations of the fall of the Afghan capital, Kabul, an issue that he said dominated the UN General Assembly meeting last month, to the issue of humanitarian assistance. “At the very least, it allows us to overcome the inevitable differences of opinion,” he said.
Mr. Draghi said that in order to provide assistance, it is necessary to speak with the Taliban, but not to officially recognize him.
“There is no alternative to contacting them,” he said. “They are necessary for this response to be effective.”
Michael Crowley reported from Washington, and Stephen Erlanger from Brussels. Emma Bubola provided a report from Rome, Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Zolan Canno-Youngs from Washington.