Different Approaches from the US and China to Economic and Humanitarian Challenges in Afghanistan

5 October 2021 Tridivesh Singh Maini, FDI Visiting Fellow

There is a consensus in the global community as far as providing financial support for dealing with the economic and humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan is concerned. China, however, has been the only country which has said that economic sanctions against the Taliban should be removed and that the reserves of Afghan Central Bank should be released, given the multiple challenges the country is facing.

 

Background

The US Treasury issued licences on 24 September 2021 to ensure that, while humanitarian aid to Afghanistan would not be obstructed, sanctions on the Taliban will remain in force. The Foreign Minister in the Taliban’s interim government had previously sought unconditional humanitarian assistance from the global community and the lifting of sanctions.

The existing US sanctions freeze the Taliban’s assets in the US and prohibit Americans from dealing with the group, by way of funds, goods or services.  The US had also frozen of the Afghan Central Bank’s funds, estimated to be worth about US$9 billion ($12.4 billion). The former Afghan Central Bank governor, Ajmal Ahmady, in a tweet in August 2021 said that an estimated US$7 billion ($9.7 billion) of that amount was in the form of US Federal Reserve bonds, assets and gold.

Comment

State Department Spokesperson Nick Price, commenting on the decision of the US Treasury, said that US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC):

‘… issued two general licenses [sic] to support our continued flow of humanitarian assistance or other activities that support basic human needs for the people of Afghanistan as well as critical food and medicine.’

Andrea Gacki, Director of OFAC, said that Washington would work with international organisations and financial institutions so that medicines, agricultural goods and other essential items could be sent to Afghanistan without any impediments.

The US Treasury’s decision signals that Washington is not turning a blind eye to the serious humanitarian challenges that Afghanistan faces while media attention is focused on security issues and at times ignores the human dimension.

A Dire Situation

Even before the take-over by the Taliban, an estimated 18 million Afghans were dependent on aid. According to estimates, the World Food Programme estimated that 95 per cent of Afghans do not have enough food. UNICEF estimates that one million children under the age of five were at risk of malnutrition.

In August, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of a ‘humanitarian disaster’ and in September the UN convened a meeting seeking US$600 million ($829 million) in assistance to avoid a humanitarian crisis. Donors committed over US$1 billion ($1.39 billion) at that meeting and the UN US$20 million ($27.6 million).

Reactions of International Community

On September 30, the first batch of humanitarian assistance worth US$31 million ($43 million) from China reached Afghanistan; the delivery included blankets and jackets. While China’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Wang Yu, said that Beijing would be providing more assistance, Acting Minister of Refugee Affairs of the Afghan caretaker government, Khalil-ur-Rehman Haqqani, described China as a ‘good neighbour and friend of Afghanistan’ and expressed the hope that China would continue to support the country.

India, too, said that it would provide humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people subject to the condition that all restrictions and logistical issues faced by those providing humanitarian assistance are addressed.

Russia announced that it would provide assistance to Afghanistan and Pakistan has sent humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan through the Torkham land crossing.

Sanctions against the Taliban

While there is a consensus in the international community with regard to the need to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, there is a clear difference between Washington and Beijing as far as sanctions against the Taliban and Afghan Central Bank Reserves are concerned. Addressing the G20 Foreign Ministers on 23 September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that all sanctions against Afghanistan should be removed and that the foreign reserves of Afghan Central Bank should be released by the US and not utilised as a means of exerting political pressure.

Regional Implications

While there has been much speculation about the regional geo-political implications after the take-over by the Taliban, there is likely to be another important outcome for Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. Afghan refugees may cross over into Iran and other neighbouring countries. As of late-September, over 35,000 Afghans had moved to Iran (19,300), Pakistan (10,800) and Tajikistan (5,300) during the current year (the official figure could be much higher). Both Iran and Pakistan have also expressed their apprehensions about the influx of Afghan refugees into their countries.

While it is perfectly legitimate for the world community to send out a clear message to the Taliban that it should follow its commitments with regard to an inclusive government and safeguarding the rights of women and minorities, a nuanced approach by the global community that understands the need to help the Afghan people is welcome. The recent steps taken by the US Treasury are important in this context. While Washington has been criticised for its decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and for the consequences of that decision, it is important not to portray itself as being indifferent to Afghanistan’s humanitarian challenges. Along with other countries and international organisations, those need to be addressed.

The Taliban, for its part, should be responsive to the demand for a more inclusive government. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, during his address at the United Nations General Assembly, commenting on the make-up of the interim Taliban government said that it does not reflect ‘the whole gamut of Afghan society — ethno-religious and political forces — so we are engaging in contacts. They are ongoing.’ Iran, too, has expressed its reservations with regard to the composition of the government.

While it is true that the global community needs to give the Taliban government time to find its feet and not shirk its humanitarian responsibilities in Afghanistan, it is important for the Taliban government to focus on the welfare of the Afghan people and live up to its commitments of an inclusive Afghanistan. If it fulfils those commitments, the interim Taliban government will send out the right signals, which so far have been mixed. While analysts and commentators have focussed on the geopolitical landscape of Afghanistan, the dire state of its economy and humanitarian challenges, which will have deep regional implications, have been relegated to the side-lines.

 

About the Author

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst and FDI Visiting Fellow.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
Suite 5, 202 Hampden Road, Nedlands WA 6009, Australia.