WASHINGTON – World leaders met virtually on Tuesday to discuss ways to prevent an economic and humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, but the Biden administration has maintained a cautious stance in favor of increased support for the Taliban-ruled country.
The European Union pledged € 1 billion, or $ 1.15 billion, in aid to Afghanistan and neighboring countries, as Group of 20 leaders separately affirmed their support for human rights. man and stability in the country.
“We must do all we can to avoid a major humanitarian and socio-economic collapse in Afghanistan,” Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said in a statement. “We have to do it quickly. “
After two meetings with Taliban officials in the past few days, however, the Biden administration has not announced any new US aid for the country as it navigates its approach to an Afghan government led by a group that has fought the United States for almost 20 years.
Experts said the EU funding, some of which had already been pledged last month, was at best a temporary solution to the enormous needs of Afghanistan, a nation of 30 million people with a tight financial system. about to collapse. Most international aid to the country has been halted since mid-August, when the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban took power.
The Group of 20 meeting produced a mostly familiar statement of principles, including the need to protect the rights of Afghan women and for the Taliban to allow humanitarian aid to flow unimpeded. President Biden attended the virtual rally, but some key leaders, including President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China, did not attend.
The Biden administration affirmed its support for “the use of diplomatic, humanitarian and economic means” to help the Afghan people – but only after emphasizing for the first time that leaders at the meeting discussed the need to maintain a “laser focus” on the fight against terrorism and the safe passage from the country of foreign nationals and Afghans eligible for asylum in the United States.
Officials said terrorism and safe passage were the main topics of discussion at two separate meetings that U.S. officials held with Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar, over the past few days – the first of kind since the Taliban formed a government last month. Bigger and much more onerous decisions, such as granting diplomatic recognition to the Taliban or unfreezing billions of dollars in Afghan assets, are not imminent, officials said.
In a briefing for reporters on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said denying safe haven to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ensuring people at risk out of the country were “in national interests. fundamentals, ”a label he didn’t ask for aid to the Afghan people.
New social chaos could fuel radicalism within Afghan borders and trigger refugee flows at a time when Europe is still grappling with a wave of migrants over the past decade that has destabilized governments and fueled far-right nationalism.
Price noted that the United States had approved nearly $ 64 million in humanitarian aid for the country in recent weeks, and that a representative of the United States Agency for International Development joined a session. weekend that US officials held with the Taliban.
Decisions with broader implications – including formal recognition of the new Afghan government and the crucial question of whether to unfreeze $ 9.5 billion in Afghan national assets held by the Federal Reserve – would depend on how Taliban would choose to rule the country, Price said.
Laurel Miller, Asia program director for the International Crisis Group, a deadly conflict-focused nonprofit, said the cold facts of Afghanistan’s needs were “in direct conflict with the politics of the situation.” .
“How can the Biden administration release these assets without being accused of giving billions of dollars to the Taliban?” ” she said.
Ms Miller said humanitarian aid would help in the short term, but there was little that could be done to support a country facing the prospect of economic collapse.
A broken banking and payments system could also seriously complicate the delivery of foreign aid. In a statement, Necephor Mghendi, head of the Afghan delegation to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, warned of “a serious lack of cash” which could lead to the cessation of health care. essential health and other services. “
A senior administration official said the United States was in no rush to unfreeze Afghan assets or provide diplomatic recognition – reiterating the US position that the Taliban must show they rule inclusively, protect human rights, prevent terrorist activities and guarantee freedom of movement outside the country.
The official also stressed that unlocking funds would not necessarily be the key to averting a humanitarian catastrophe, given that the Taliban had yet to prove to the international community that they could distribute and manage funds responsibly.
Adela Raz, who was the former Afghan government ambassador to Washington before the Taliban took power, and who continues to work out of the country’s embassy without Taliban assistance, acknowledged that the United States and other governments faced “very difficult” decisions on how to balance pressure on the Taliban with support for regular Afghans.
“The Afghan people should not be held hostage,” Ms. Raz said in an interview.
But she said “there isn’t much change” so far from the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, when it denied girls basic rights and education. and Afghan women and enforced the law with amputations and public executions.
For the international community, she said, helping the Afghan people without supporting the Taliban was a “unique” challenge. “We’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
In addition to the Group of 20 meeting, officials from the United States and several European countries met with representatives of the Taliban in Doha in what the European Union described as “an informal exchange at a technical level. Which did not constitute recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate government.
This position is similar to that taken by the Biden administration, which refers to the mostly die-hard, all-male Taliban leaders who rule the country as an “interim government,” a phrase that implies hope – which many analysts are calling far – for a more inclusive government to come.
The EU’s commitment includes 300 million euros for the humanitarian aid already announced, as well as an additional 250 million to provide additional support to those “in urgent need of it, in particular in the field of health”, said Ms von der Leyen.
The money will go to international organizations already working in Afghanistan, as will recent American aid.
The new Taliban government has generally cooperated with UN aid agencies, UN secretary-general António Guterres said on Tuesday and “gradually granted access to requested areas and provided security in the event of an attack. need”.
Although the Taliban have kidnapped and murdered foreign aid workers during their two decades of insurgency, they have a vested interest in appeasing the international community now that they are in power, as they hope to gain diplomatic recognition and economic support. direct to rebuild an impoverished country emptied by decades of war.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who hosted the Group of 20 meeting, called it “the first multilateral response to the Afghan crisis”. Speaking at a press conference at the end of the meeting, he added: “Multilateralism is back.
Mr Draghi said the leaders’ talks had gone beyond blame for the fall of the Afghan capital, Kabul, an issue he said dominated the United Nations General Assembly meeting last month, to the issue humanitarian aid. “At least this one allows us to overcome the inevitable differences of opinion,” he said.
Mr Draghi said providing aid requires speaking out – but not officially recognizing – the Taliban.
“There is no alternative to having contact with them,” he said. “They are essential for this response to be effective. “
Michael crowley reported from Washington, and Steven erlanger from Brussels. Emma Bubola contributed to reports from Rome, Thomas Gibbons Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Zolan Kanno-Youngs from Washington.