Afghanistan can only be saved from state collapse and widespread starvation if the definition of legitimate humanitarian aid to the country is broadened, some of Britain’s most senior former security and diplomatic chiefs have said.
The group, including two former national security advisers, a former chief of defence staff and a former ambassador to Afghanistan, write in a letter published in the Guardian that the aid that can be sent to the Taliban-controlled country without fear of sanctions is too restricted.
Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation has deteriorated drastically since last August when the Taliban stormed back to power 20 years after being toppled. International aid came to a sudden halt after their takeover, worsening the plight of millions of people who were already suffering from hunger after several severe droughts.
Taliban leaders flew to Oslo on Saturday to participate in talks with Afghan civil society representatives and western powers on human rights and sanctions.
The British former officials also call for an international conference to raise funds for the country and say Afghanistan is heading towards famine, not previously seen in 40 years of conflict.
The group say a distinction needs to be drawn between money that can still be withheld to try to leverage political concessions from the Taliban, such as large-scale infrastructure projects, and money to enable government institutions to deliver basic human services and to keep the economy from collapsing.
Aid exclusively channelled through the humanitarian system “cannot replace institutional service delivery to 40 million people”, the letter says.
It adds: “Humanitarian agencies are ready and able to pay medical staff, teachers and other civil servants delivering public services. But they need the money to do so – far more than has yet been delivered. And they need a clear political mandate from donors, not least the US. Projects must be scrutinised and adjusted to ensure no direct benefit accrues to the Taliban.”
The letters’ authors insist they are not seeking to give succour to the Taliban, but they warn economic collapse would cause widespread death and suffering and that this would not be in the interests of western security.
A UN security council resolution passed on 23 December tried to give aid agencies greater leeway to deliver aid without fear of sanctions, but the resolution has not yet lifted the cloud of uncertainty preventing agencies and banks from sending aid to Afghanistan.
The Norwegian government said the three days of talks it was hosting in Oslo did not amount to de facto recognition of the Taliban or a pullback from demands that the Taliban give Afghan women the right to work and be educated.
“These meetings do not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban,” said the Norwegian foreign minister, Anniken Huitfeldt. “But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster.
“In order to be able to help the civilian population in Afghanistan, it is essential that both the international community and Afghans from various parts of society engage in dialogue with the Taliban. We will be clear about our expectations of the Taliban, particularly as regards girls’ education and human rights, such as women’s right to participate in society.”
The Taliban will meet officials from western powers and also exiled female Afghan leaders, journalists, and individuals working to safeguard human rights and address humanitarian, economic, social and political issues.
“Every step taken toward the Taliban is a step taken against the people of Afghanistan,” Huitfeldt said, noting that the last time EU officials met the Taliban in Kabul, the houses of women who participated in protests were raided and activists were arrested.
Nargis Nehan, an Afghan former minister for mines, petrol and industries who now lives in Norway, said she had declined an invitation to take part. She told Agence France-Presse she feared the talks would “normalise the Taliban and … strengthen them, while there is no way that they’ll change”.
She asked: “What guarantee is there this time that they will keep their promises?”