This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, through both a report and an opinion piece, we grapple with the Afghan conundrum—which is creating a highly unusual misalignment between Geneva, the human rights capital of the world, and Geneva, the humanitarian one.
The catastrophic humanitarian situation in Afghanistan can be summed up in a single harrowing figure: according to UN estimates, 97% of the Afghan population will soon be living under the poverty line. Starvation, humanitarian organizations estimate, could kill more people than twenty years of war.
But, as a just-released report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights makes plain, egregious human rights violations by the Taliban are continuing, particularly against women and children. Dissent is harshly repressed, most women are banned from working, as are girls from attending school. It makes for bleak reading—as you will see in our story below.
So, the harsh reality is that the Afghans are facing horrendous human suffering but preventing their further descent into despair would mean engaging with a de facto government that no country has recognized because of its abhorrent human rights behavior. Can the Taliban be trusted? Can a de facto (as opposed to de jure) government be held accountable under international law? And if billions in assets were to be unfrozen—the position taken by the American authors of our op-ed piece—how could the international community guarantee that the Taliban would comply with their human rights obligations?
The Afghan conundrum playing out in Geneva remains unresolved.
CAN THE TALIBAN BE TRUSTED? THE UN HAS DOUBTS
By Jamil Chade
Half a year after the fall of Kabul, the human rights situation in Afghanistan remains highly worrisome. Such is, in short, the conclusion of a new report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council during its upcoming session, set to open on February 28.
“Afghanistan remained one of the deadliest countries in the world for civilians,” especially in the period that led to the victory of the Taliban in August 2021. “The increased intensity of the fighting, including in densely populated urban areas, exacerbated the harm to civilians, particularly as the Taliban made territorial gains and advanced on provincial capitals in July and the first half of August.” From May to June 2021, following the announcement a month earlier that the United States forces would begin to withdraw, the UN documented 2,392 civilian casualties, almost as many as the previous four months combined. It was the highest rate of civilian casualties since the UN began systematically documenting the grim tally in 2009.
Although widespread fighting generally ceased after August 15 (apart from small pockets of conflict), civilians in Afghanistan remain at risk of harm due to ISIL-K attacks and leftover improvised explosive devices and other explosive remnants of war, which disproportionately affect children, the document assesses.
What concerns the UN today is that despite the end of widespread fighting across Afghanistan, reports of severe human rights violations continue to be brought to the attention of the UN.
In total, between August 15 and November 15, the UN received credible allegations of more than 110 instances—at least 80 of which were extrajudicial killings reportedly attributed to the de facto authorities.
In Ghazni province, for example, a OHCHR fact-finding mission found evidence that “Taliban fighters had killed at least 26 civilians (one woman and twenty-five male civilians between sixteen and 74).” Investigators also received “credible reports that some victims had been beaten before being shot and that Taliban members had set fire to homes and shops in one of the villages. It was also reported that the Taliban had killed, including by beheading, persons hors de combat in Malistan,” the report reads.
In Kandahar province, after July 16, OHCHR received allegations that at least 85 individuals might have been victims of Taliban abuses, including killings, enforced disappearances, and unlawful detention.
THE AFGHANISTAN INDEPENDENT HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION HAS CEASED TO FUNCTION
OHCHR also warns more broadly of a lack of monitoring in the country, noting that the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has ceased to function and that its legal status remains unclear. Sources familiar with the fact-finding mission tell The Geneva Observer that the situation is serious, and that constant monitoring is essential. The report thus calls for a “strong and independent national human rights institution,” which would be “vital for supporting the implementation of the international human rights obligations of Afghanistan, protecting human rights, and promoting in particular the right of victims, women, minority communities, and other vulnerable groups to have their views taken into account.”
The report casts serious doubts on the credibility of the Taliban’s pronouncements, noting that despite several announcements of general amnesties for former members of Afghan national security forces, OHCHR had good reason to believe that they, and others associated with the previous government, have been killed, tortured, or detained.
Similarly, public statements by the Taliban about protecting the right to education have not been adhered to. In 2021, the UN task force documented at least 47 incidents affecting the right to education, including attacks on schools and education-related personnel, as well as incidents of threats, intimidation and harassment, and the abduction of education-related personnel. “The Taliban were responsible for nearly half of such attacks, all of which occurred between January 1 and August 15,” the report claims.
Following the Taliban takeover on August 15, all awareness-raising activities, workshops, and radio programs on women’s rights were brought to a halt, given the de facto authorities’ general clampdown on civil society and human rights activists. “Women’s rights activists feared for their lives, and many either fled the country or went into hiding in Afghanistan. The de facto authorities’ policy of the curtailment of enjoyment by Afghan women and girls of their fundamental rights and freedoms, such as the right to work, education, freedom of movement and peaceful assembly, although not uniformly applied across the country, stands directly opposed to 20 years of hard-won progress made by Afghans on gender equality and non-discrimination,” the UN report concludes.
Young boys were also targeted: According to the UN, “children in the ranks of [the] Taliban have become more visible since its takeover, leading to perceptions that the recruitment of children has increased, despite much of the recruitment likely having occurred previously.”
The High Commissioner’s report will no doubt prompt frank debates during the Human Rights Council’s session. It will certainly provide ammunition for those Council members who believe that the Taliban cannot be trusted to fulfill their human rights obligations and that the international community’s engagement with the de facto government of Afghanistan should be carefully calibrated.
Western diplomats told the G|O that the report invalidates the claim by some countries that the Taliban has taken steps to fulfill its human rights obligations. One diplomat told us that the report was a pointed response to countries such as China—which has given an “unconditional blank check” to the Taliban, arguing as it did during the Council’s last session that it was US behavior in Afghanistan, in fact, that “ought to be investigated for crimes against humanity.”
America’s Afghan Imperative
By Charles A. Kupchan and Douglas Lutte*
The United States may have lost the war in Afghanistan, but it can still salvage the peace. To prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed state, the US must end its economic isolation of the country and, instead, jumpstart international efforts to resuscitate its collapsing economy. The US also needs to develop a road map that could open the door to recognizing and working with the Taliban-led government, which, like it or not, is set to remain in control of Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
The chaos produced by the US-led military withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer made daily headlines. Yet global attention has faded, even though the suffering that accompanied the fall of Kabul pales in comparison to the effects of cutting off external economic support after the Taliban takeover. Under Afghanistan’s previous Western-backed regime, international development aid financed 75% of the government’s budget, and foreign assistance accounted for over 40% of GDP. Withdrawing this support has triggered a dire humanitarian crisis, with disease spreading and half of the country’s population of roughly 40 million facing life-threatening food shortages. The United Nations estimates that 97% of Afghans will soon be living below the international poverty line ($1.90 a day).
The international community is well aware of Afghanistan’s plight, and is seeking to increase funding for the many organizations delivering humanitarian assistance on the ground. The UN aims to raise $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid, the largest single-country package in its history. But even this sum will fall well short of what is needed to rescue Afghanistan. The unraveling of the country’s economy and state institutions means that humanitarian assistance is a bandage, not a remedy.
While the US and its international partners are right (for now) to sanction the Taliban and deny them recognition and funding, they can and should work around Afghanistan’s nominal leaders to revive the economy.
The only solution on the scale needed is to free up the country’s roughly $10 billion in frozen reserves and task the UN with establishing a supervisory council in Kabul to disburse these funds to restore liquidity, keep ministries functioning, and pay public-sector salaries.
The unfrozen funds would go to technocrats in the central bank, other non-political civil servants, and the doctors, teachers, and other essential workers needed to keep Afghanistan afloat. The UN body would allocate funding in accountable segments to ensure that the money does not fall into the hands of the Taliban leadership.
Such arrangements are a tall order, but they have worked elsewhere. In parts of Yemen controlled by the Iran-backed Houthis, the international community has successfully routed funds to the public sector, circumventing the rebels who ostensibly control the ministries. In the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas, an Islamist group designated by the US and the European Union as a terrorist organization, the UN has worked around the Hamas leadership to provide Gazans with direct food support, invest in schools and medical facilities, and help improve infrastructure.
Funding and cooperating with Afghan technocrats and other non-political workers represents the international community’s only viable option for staving off state collapse while keeping the Taliban at arm’s length. And although the Taliban may bristle at this foreign intrusion, they would likely prefer it to the failure of the country they seek to govern.
The prospect of international recognition would further encourage Taliban acquiescence to this plan. Establishing a UN body to disburse the currently frozen funds is only a stopgap measure to keep Afghanistan on its feet. Over the longer term, the US and its partners also need to set clear criteria that the Taliban must meet in order gain international recognition and sanctions relief.
To move from international isolation to diplomatic normalization, the Taliban must meet three benchmarks. First, they must deny safe haven to transnational terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Although the Taliban are taking on the Islamic State, they maintain deep ties to al-Qaeda. They must break these links and demonstrate a willingness to share with international authorities information on terrorist networks operating in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders currently sanctioned as terrorists also need to step down.
Second, the Taliban must adhere to basic international norms regarding human rights. This requirement includes permitting the departure of Afghans who wish to emigrate, reopening schools for girls, and ending the abuse of Afghans associated with the former regime, the media, and civil-society organizations.
Third, the Taliban must build a government that reflects Afghanistan’s diversity, in which women and ethnic and religious minorities all become stakeholders. Afghanistan has changed over the past two decades, and the Taliban must adapt to new social realities to succeed politically. Only inclusive governance can bring sustained stability to a country that has been at war for more than 40 years.
The Taliban may of course prove unwilling or unable to meet these standards for recognition. That possibility only reinforces the need to establish a UN body tasked with disbursing the funds required to keep the country’s economy functioning and its people alive.
The international community must confront the harsh reality that Afghanistan is descending toward catastrophic human suffering and state failure. For both geopolitical and moral reasons, the US must lead the effort to move quickly beyond the provision of humanitarian assistance. That means getting essential funding into Afghanistan’s economic bloodstream while laying out clear standards for normalizing its relations with the international community.
*Charles A. Kupchan, is Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University Douglas Lute, a retired US Army lieutenant general, was Coordinator for Afghanistan at the National Security Council from 2007 to 2013 and US Ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017.