Foreign diplomats meet with a Taliban delegation in Doha, Qatar, on October 12, 2021, in talks opposed by ISIS. Photo: AFP / Karim Jaafar

As the Ukraine crisis pushed Afghanistan off global headlines, representatives of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council followed by European Union diplomats held deliberations this week in Doha with Taliban delegates, led by acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi.

This is part of ongoing hectic parleys with the Taliban aimed at unlocking frozen Afghan financial assets abroad and initiating additional endeavors to redress the country’s intensifying humanitarian crisis and its global implications.

A couple of weeks ago, another Taliban delegation led by Amir Khan Muttaqi was hosted in Oslo for talks with diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the EU and the United States.

In mid-December Pakistan had invited Taliban leaders to Islamabad to present their case in front of an extraordinary session of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation plus several other nations’ observers and institutional heads. They set up a Humanitarian Trust Fund and Food Security Program, which are yet to be made operational.

Now, Britain has announced its intention to co-host next month a United Nations summit to raise US$4.4 billion as requested by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to save 24.4 million Afghans facing this humanitarian disaster. Britain has already pledged £286 million ($389 million) as its contribution for that fund.

Continuing deadlock

No doubt unlocking Afghan assets abroad and raising funds for humanitarian aid remain uphill tasks. Yet equally complex challenges stand in the way of disbursement of this aid to the target population.

Here again the Taliban and the West remain at loggerheads. While the Taliban have failed to live up to Western benchmarks such as creating an inclusive government or showcasing respect for Western notions of basic human rights, the West has openly expressed its refusal to allow humanitarian aid to be routed through an unrecognized Taliban government. 

Western powers insist on sending all humanitarian aid, including this Afghan money, through UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations. The West fears aid routed via the Taliban might be usurped by its leaders and cadres with little or no benefit reaching hapless civilians.

These agencies and institutions in turn remain suspect in the eyes of the Taliban. The Taliban face added tribulations of now being in power; even their mentor Pakistan has expressed reluctance to recognize their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Taliban have not caved under this increasing disenchantment at home and abroad.

Western powers, however, continue to exude confidence in providing relief to Afghans who are drifting into doom by the hour. They believe they have strong leverage over the Taliban with more than $10 billion in Afghan money lying in their financial institutions – including $7.1 billion in the United States alone.

But so far, the Taliban have shown little ability or inclination to implement prescribed benchmarks.

Last week, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order setting aside $3.5 billion of these frozen assets for compensation to victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks even though the Taliban have repeatedly disclaimed awareness of al-Qaeda plans and therefore any responsibility for those attacks. 

Even the old US ally and former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, described Biden’s move as an “atrocity against Afghans,” asking the US president to rescind the order.

All in all, even in the face of a worsening situation inside Afghanistan, these former foes – who fought against each other for 20 years – find it difficult to become developmental partners.

Taliban tribulations

There seems no end to the Taliban’s tribulations. A combination of suspension of this foreign aid – which had kept the Ashraf Ghani government afloat – and freezing of all of the former Afghan government’s foreign assets, plus severe drought conditions at home and international sanctions on several Taliban leaders, is pushing Afghanistan, already suffering high levels of poverty, to a point of no return.

In addition to Afghanistan’s developmental challenges, multiple security crises flowing from its border skirmishes with Pakistan – including the latter’s cross-border strikes on sanctuaries of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP) and so-called Baloch terrorists – as well as continued violent campaigns by Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) have resulted in protests and resistance. 

The Taliban’s worsening ties with Pakistan have emerged as one more stumbling block for delivering aid to Afghans.

On Tuesday, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West confessed that the Americans “don’t have a choice but to work with Pakistan,” calling it a “mark of our pragmatism” in overcoming mutual contentions. But Pakistan’s bridge-building also has its limits and it has to please both its foster child the Taliban and its Western donors.

So while expressing refusal to recognize the Taliban, Prime Minister Imran Khan also says “you cannot impose women’s rights in Afghanistan from abroad” and make humanitarian relief hostage to bridging such deep-rooted cultural differences among former foes.

Similarly, the Taliban struggle within its limited bandwidth on forming an inclusion government and showcasing respect for Western notions of basic freedoms, yet occasional videos of a Taliban judge show him saying women have inferior brains.

Meanwhile, Pakistani National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf is reported to have complained that the Taliban were allowing Afghan territories to be used by organized terrorist networks against Pakistan. 

The Indian approach

While these former foes have dug in their heels in egotistic confabulations, India, with historical inter-societal linkages with Afghans, has shown dynamism at least at the tactical level.

While taking part of various talks and pioneering some regional dialogue on Afghanistan, New Delhi has sought to avoid making its aid hostage to tectonic transitions in the international community’s engagement with the Taliban.

While having reservations over the Taliban’s tools, techniques and templates as well as avoiding making any lofty announcements of millions of dollars in aid, India has sneakily broken the ice with its arch-rival Pakistan to reach out to Afghans.

Starting next Tuesday, India will be sending 50,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan overland via Pakistan. This wheat will be handed over to the local office of the World Food Program for distribution. 

Likewise, on January 1, India sent 500,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Afghanistan via Tehran, as there were no direct flights between India and Kabul and India and Pakistan were still negotiating on overland logistics.

Meanwhile, Iran has also expressed willingness to transport India’s wheat using Chabahar Port.

On December 11 as well, India sent 1.6 metric tons of life-saving medicines on a special charter flight from New Delhi to Kabul to be handed over to the World Health Organization for use at Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health in Kabul.

New Delhi has managed to prioritize the Afghan people over the Taliban first adhering to its predefined benchmarks. To some extent, Taliban leaders have also been accommodating toward India, which was not among the enemies they were fighting in Afghanistan.

As the most apt example, and to the displeasure of Pakistan, the Taliban refused to make any anti-India comment on India’s reorganization of its province of Jammu and Kashmir. At one point, they even called it India’s internal affair.

But that may not continue forever. There were occasions when the Taliban played a different tune on Kashmir. 

Growing instability at home and resultant cracks among Taliban factions are only radicalizing them further.

Recently, the Taliban announced raising a new military unit named the Panipat operational unit to commemorate the victory of the founder of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Abdali, over the Marathas around the present Indian city of Panipat in 1761, which cannot go unnoticed in Indian foreign-policy circles. This means time remains at a premium.


Soon after the Taliban takeover last August, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) forecast a million Afghan children being at risk of starvation and death. Another study by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) projected 97% of Afghans to sink below the poverty line by mid-2022.

However, Western powers’ expectations of the Taliban proving themselves on predefined benchmarks have so far continued to be met with varying degrees of reticence, resistance and resignation.

Given that former foes find it irksome to erase their past quickly, there is urgent need to expand the circle of neutral donors and neighbors to help Afghan masses in distress.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.