Afghan refugees are arriving in droves in neighboring Pakistan. Photo: AFP

With nearly half of the Afghan population facing famine as the war-torn nation’s winter weather starts to bite, the West, China and Russia could tacitly contribute to a humanitarian crisis through their collective failure to provide the Taliban with desperately needed aid.

The UN’s World Food Program estimates around 40% of Afghanistan’s crops have been lost to severe drought this year and that almost 3.2 million children are at risk of malnutrition. The UN agency has said around 1 million children could starve to death without immediate food aid.

Famine could drive literally millions of Afghans into neighboring countries and on to Europe in a new epic tide of refugees. That displacement, in turn, could create the perfect dire conditions for Islamic militant groups to recruit and thrive – a terror threat that could once again spread from Afghanistan to the wider world.

Despite those risks, there is no sign that the US, EU, China or Russia are prepared to yield on their standing non-recognition policy towards the Taliban’s newly formed “Islamic Emirate” until it clearly cut ties with the various transnational terror groups in its midst.

Beijing and Moscow have both maintained that the West – especially the US – should provide urgent aid to Afghanistan to prevent a famine situation they claim the West has de facto facilitated through its failed occupation and abrupt withdrawal of the country.

Yet neither China nor Russia, both more geographically proximal and thus more vulnerable to new waves of instability and terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, have taken any major or meaningful steps to financially assist the Taliban in its hour of need.

This is curious considering both China and Russia built strong contacts with the Taliban’s diplomatic representatives during the militant group’s war against the US and NATO. Analysts suggest both have withheld diplomatic recognition from the Taliban because of changes in the group’s power dynamics and messaging since it toppled Kabul in August.  

The resurgence of hardliners in the national capital – in particular, the Haqqanis, who are known to have ties with ISIS-K and al Qaeda and are a bulwark against credible action against terror groups – has caused both Beijing and Moscow to reassess their Afghan engagement strategies, despite the geopolitical opportunity opened by America’s ignominious withdrawal.

Islamic State-Khorasan fighters at the Sheikh Jalaluddin training camp in Afghanistan in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

While China has been directly and indirectly emphasized that recognition and financial assistance are linked to the complete elimination of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and ISIS-K terror groups, Moscow is further unsettled by the fact that many of the Taliban hardliners include leaders that actually fought against the Soviet Army in the 1980s and are not particularly known for their pro-Russia views.

Moscow has withheld aid and kept the Taliban on its list of designated terror groups, even though the Taliban has pledged support on key regional issues and even recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Strategists, spies and diplomats in both Beijing and Moscow no doubt recognize the threat of a new and more complicated civil war if political and ideological divisions among Taliban factions break into the open.

That, in turn, means there is a risk that any financial and economic assistance extended to the Taliban could ultimately end up in the hands of hard-line factions opposed to China and Russia’s ambitions in the country and linked to terror groups that have Beijing and Moscow in their sights.

Unlike Russia and China, the West’s stance vis-à-vis the Taliban regime is being largely shaped by the ignominious end of the two-decade-long war that ended in August this year.

The fact that the Taliban did not reach a political settlement with the toppled Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani and instead seized Kabul militarily remains a political embarrassment in Washington. Top US officials, meanwhile, continue to face tough questions about their hasty and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

That partly explains why the Biden administration has so far refused to release $9.5 billion of Afghanistan central bank financial assets frozen in US financial institutions or lift sanctions on the Taliban regime.

While the US has extended nearly $144 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, the aid will only be distributed via independent humanitarian organizations including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the World Health Organization (WHO), it has ensured the funds bypass the Taliban.

Afghanistan is teetering towards famine under Taliban rule. Image: Facebook

The punitive policy, as some analysts have pointed out, aims to give the US new leverage to force the Taliban to accept and fulfill some of its key demands, including not least the creation of an “inclusive” government and elimination of terror groups’ sanctuaries.

The US, Chinese and Russian positions have all run contrary to the suggestion of the UN Secretary-General, whose office has suggested extending aid as a means to develop “effective engagement” with the Taliban.

The fact that all these countries are withholding assistance or providing a small amount without engaging the Taliban shows how the politics of aid are being tactically deployed to punish the Taliban for their failure to stand by the 2020 Doha pact or take firm action against ISIS-K and ETIM.

That stand, of course, is a high-stakes gamble, especially for Russia and China. If the Taliban’s hold over Kabul weakens and the country descends into a new and bloody civil war coincident with a famine, it will inevitably destabilize Afghanistan’s many neighbors.

Both China and Russia must be aware of the potential for a disaster that reaches their nearby borders. While withholding aid and recognition has certainly weakened the Taliban, if the country is allowed to tip towards a humanitarian catastrophe compounded by a new war it will not be in either power’s national or geostrategic interests.