Politics

Joe Biden snared in a diplomatic dilemma over Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis



The diplomatic crisis facing President Biden after the Taliban seized Afghanistan includes tough calls about continuing humanitarian aid to the country, which ranks as one of the poorest countries in the world.

On one hand, the administration doesn’t want to cut taxpayer-funded checks to the Taliban, which is known for trampling human rights, brutal enforcement of Shariah law and fostering the terrorists of al Qaeda. On the other hand, withholding aid could worsen what’s already a full-scale humanitarian crisis.

The U.S. is the largest donor of aid to Afghanistan, providing more than $266 million through early June, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which is responsible for administering foreign aid.

That’s a little more than half of the $500 million the U.S. has allocated to spend this year on humanitarian relief in Afghanistan. It is unclear if the remainder of the money will be distributed since the collapse of the Afghan government.

President Biden has pledged to continue aid to Afghanistan.

“We will continue to support the Afghan people. We will lead with our diplomacy, our international influence, and humanitarian aid,” he said.

What that aid will entail is still being debated inside the White House. State Department officials privately acknowledged that there are significant challenges to distributing aid under the Taliban regime.

The Taliban has already seized 500 tons of food and medicine stuck at the Afghanistan border, the United Nations World Food Program said this week.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, it refused to allow female aid staff, chose who received aid and demanded payments or “taxation” for allowing access to citizens. And some of the funds had been siphoned off to enrich Taliban leaders.

Those demands will likely be reinstated, although the Taliban has not yet announced its aid policies.

Afghanistan was already locked into multiple humanitarian crises before the Taliban took control. A severe drought, surging COVID-19 infections, and mass displacement because of violence already besieged the nation.

About half of all Afghan citizens required humanitarian assistance in 2021, a sixfold increase from 2017, according to the United Nations.

The delicate situation poses a dilemma for countries that provide aid to Afghanistan.

Save the Children, a humanitarian organization that provides aid to children in nations ravaged by war or natural disasters, said it was “extremely concerned” about a severe hunger crisis in the drought-plagued nation.

“Even before the Taliban advancement, Afghanistan had the second-highest number of people facing emergency hunger levels in the world. Half of all children under five were expected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year and require specialized treatment to survive,” the group said in a statement.

Some European countries have raced to suspend development aid after the Taliban seized power.

Germany announced it was halting all aid to Afghanistan, which would have totaled $300 million. None of that money had been paid out so far, but Afghanistan is the largest recipient of German development aid.

Separately, Finland and Sweden said they were suspending aid and offered no timetable for when it could be restored.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said in a social media post his country needed to reconsider how to best deploy aid in Afghanistan.

“We are not abandoning the Afghan people,” he wrote. “But Sweden will need to redirect some of the aid to Afghanistan following the Taliban seizing power.”

The European Union, which had pledged $1.4 billion in development assistance through 2024, also announced it would suspend aid payments.

NATO followed suit, announcing “there is no Afghan government” to support.

The United Kingdom bucked its European allies and announced it will increase aid spending by as much as 10 percent.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a radio interview that the Afghans were in desperate need of aid. But also stressed that the government was working to ensure the funds don’t go through the Taliban.”

While the U.S. has not officially halted aid, it has taken some steps to deprive the Taliban of cash.

The Biden administration this week froze billions of Afghan government reserves held in U.S. bank accounts. That blocked the Taliban from accessing the funds.

Administration officials could also block aid from organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. A spokesperson for the Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment, but the U.S. took similar steps to halt aid to Venezuela.

The International Monetary Fund in June released a $370 million loan to Afghanistan to help boost its economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The frozen assets, however, are only a drop in the bucket compared to international support for Afghanistan. The nation’s economy is largely propped up by the U.S. and other international donors.

About 80% of Afghanistan’s budget is funded by other countries, including the U.S., John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction told Reuters in March.

Without that aid, he warned, the country would collapse into chaos.

“Even the Taliban recognizes they really need foreign support,” he told the outlet. “Without it, the government falls.”

The U.S. accounts for most of the funds. Afghanistan is the largest recipient of American aid, accounting for 10% of all U.S. aid in 2019, according to USAID. That year, Afghanistan received $4.9 billion in U.S. aid.

Former President Trump had begun to slowly decrease the amount of aid shipped to Afghanistan. In 2015, USAID gave Afghanistan nearly $10 billion. Mr. Trump reduced that amount to $500 million this year.

Andrew Natsios, who served as administrator for USAID under former President George W. Bush, said he expects the U.S. will ultimately halt aid to Afghanistan. He said if the U.S. were to continue aid, it should do so through a nonprofit, non-government organization (NGO) to ensure the funds get to Afghanistan’s most vulnerable.

“I doubt the U.S. government will provide any development assistance to Afghanistan given the high likelihood the Taliban will be committing atrocities across the country; their promises otherwise are not creditable,” he said. “We should provide humanitarian assistance given the forced displacement going on but only through NGOs and U.N. agencies.”

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