December 4, 2021

Afghanistan ‘at make-or-break point’ says UN as G20 ministers meet

Leaders will discuss UN proposal to channel funds to Afghanistan to ease growing humanitarian catastrophe

G20 leaders and ministers are meeting by video conference to discuss a UN proposal to channel funds to Afghanistan to ease its worsening humanitarian catastrophe.

It is the first time the world’s richest countries have met to discuss the consequences of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover on 15 August. Afghanistan was 75%-dependent on foreign aid before the takeover, and funds held overseas have been frozen by the US.

The European Union kicked off proceedings by announcing an extra €700m in emergency aid to Afghanistan and neighbouring countries. The pledge takes the total commitment of new funding to €1bn, after the EU executive’s promise of €300m to help prevent basic services in Afghanistan from collapsing and food from running out.

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, said the country was at a make-or-break moment. He told reporters in New York: “Respecting international law and principles, we have to find ways to inject liquidity into the economy for the economy not to collapse. If we do not act and help Afghans weather this storm, and do it soon, not only they but all the world will pay a heavy price.”

He said the cash could be injected via UN trust funds, and other instruments. “I am particularly alarmed to see promises made to Afghan women and girls by the Taliban not being honoured,” he added.

The video conference is being hosted by the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, whose country holds the rotating G20 chair.

Draghi has struggled to bring together G20 countries for the summit. Russia and China oppose the western policy of imposing political demands on the Taliban as a condition of aid, and the US is also unenthusiastic, mainly because it does not want to revisit what has been widely seen as a foreign policy disaster. US officials met the Taliban bilaterally in Doha, Qatar, at the weekend.

Draghi is keen to find a way via the UN and charities for funds to reach ordinary Afghans without providing support to the Taliban, who have done little to suggest they have changed their views towards women or dissent since they ruled most of the county in the second half of the 1990s. The Taliban have pleaded for more time to get girls back into secondary schools.

In a sign of the diplomatic tensions, Russia has arranged a rival Afghanistan conference in Moscow on 20 October, to which Pakistan, India and Iran have been invited. Iran is also arranging a conference of its own.

The Italian-led video conference is scheduled to last no more than three hours and will not discuss the issue of recognition of the Taliban. Instead it will look at how aid can be dispatched to the country without endorsing the Taliban.

Guterres is due to join the summit, underlining the central role given to the UN in tackling the crisis – in part because many countries do not want to establish direct relations with the Taliban.

He said the UN through September had engaged province by province with the Taliban to ensure its female staff could be free to work unimpeded on humanitarian aid.

The World Bank and the IMF, both of which have funds that have been locked since the Taliban took power, are also attending. Qatar, which has played a vital role as a hub for refugees fleeing the country, has been invited, and discussions are likely on the opening up of Kabul airport.

In his speech to the UN general assembly in September, Draghi criticised the Taliban, saying the composition of Afghanistan’s new executive did not meet the international community’s expectations on inclusivity and representation.

Neither the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, nor his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, are participating in the video call, leaving the task to their foreign ministers. Boris Johnson, who is on holiday in Marbella, was involved in work calls with world leaders on Monday.

In the run-up to the summit and speaking in Doha, Afghanistan’s foreign minister appealed to the world for good relations but avoided making firm commitments on girls’ education, despite international demands to allow all Afghan children to go back to school.

“The international community needs to start cooperating with us,” the acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, said at an event organised by the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

“With this we will be able to stop insecurity and at the same time with this we will be able to engage positively with the world,” he said.

Calling for the world to release $9bn-worth of frozen Afghan assets held overseas, Muttaqi said “The Daesh issue has been controlled by the Islamic emirate very well so far,” he said, adding that international pressure on the government was helping Islamic State’s morale. “Instead of pressure, the world should cooperate with us,” he said.

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