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Podcast

Asia Stream: The Afghanistan Solutions Set

Should the Taliban be defied, sanctioned or dealt with?

NEW YORK -- Welcome to Nikkei Asia's podcast: Asia Stream.

Every week, Asia Stream tracks and analyzes the Indo-Pacific with a mix of interviews and reports by our correspondents from across the globe.

New episodes are recorded weekly and available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all other major platforms, and on our YouTube channel.

 

LISTEN HERE

 

This week, we conclude our two-part special report on Afghanistan. What was once America's longest war is now the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Yes, the Taliban are a de facto reality in Afghanistan. But should international sanctions against the Islamists target all Afghans? And what about the millions who face starvation and death due to a collapsed economy?

In this episode, Jack Stone Truitt and Monica Hunter-Hart report on the regional and political solutions prescribed by those who are wary of the Taliban, as well as those who want to help the country. Truitt talks to the ambassadors of two of Pakistan's closest neighbors, Iran and Pakistan. Hunter-Hart connects with the Afghan resistance on the ground, as well experts in Washington.

Asia Stream is hosted by Wajahat S. Khan, our digital editor and executive producer, and produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt.

 

TRANSCRIPT:

(Theme Music in)

WAJAHAT S. KHAN, HOST:

Hello and welcome to Asia Stream -- where we track, report, and analyze the issues and interests of the world's largest region. I am Waj Khan.

Last week, on Asia Stream ...

Twenty-three million facing starvation ... a million of them children at risk of death ... more than 700,000 displaced ... the toll of the world's worst humanitarian crisis that's escalating in an increasingly desperate Afghanistan.

BILAL SARWARY, GUEST: If someone is not that desperate, they will never sell their babies.

KHAN: We discussed the biggest problems facing Afghanistan today. How the country's economy is near collapse, and how international sanctions are biting hard, causing a liquidity crunch as well as near-universal poverty.

LAUREL MILLER, GUEST: It's not that there's no food in the country. It's that people don't have the wherewithal to buy the food that there is.

KHAN: We also reported on how the once-insurgent Taliban now face their own terror threat:

MICHAEL KUGELMAN, GUEST Islamic State Khorasan is the main threat of violence in Afghanistan. ... It doesn't want the Taliban to be in power and it's going to do everything it can to try to undermine the Taliban and to try to push back against this idea that the Taliban has brought an end to the war.

KHAN: And how the U.S. president has walked away from the crime scene:

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT: Do I feel badly, what's happening to, as a consequence of the incompetence of the Taliban? Yes, I do. ... I feel badly about a whole range of things around the world, but we can't solve every problem.

KHAN: In today's episode, we ask important stakeholders how to fix those problems ...

AMBASSADOR MUNIR AKRAM: The sanctions regime applies to about 130 members of the Taliban, and because of those 130 people, the whole Afghan nation should not suffer.

KHAN: Including what to do about the international sanctions that are posing a global dilemma: punish some Taliban leaders, or 38 million Afghans? And ...

AMBASSADOR MAJID TAKHT-RAVANCHI: Taliban is a reality in Afghanistan.

KHAN: Should the insurgents, now in power, be treated as legitimate rulers, or only be dealt with on certain conditions? We speak to the ambassadors of two of Afghanistan's closest neighbors, Iran and Pakistan. Also ...

ALI NAZARY, GUEST: As every day passes, we get more recruits.

KHAN: We ask the last Afghan resistance group that is still fighting the Taliban about their chances and ...

PARASTO: If they banned one school in one area, I will build 10 schools in that area. If they banned 10 school, I will build 100 schools that if they banned 100, I will build 1,000 schools there.

We go inside a secret network of schools that Afghan women are running in defiance of the Taliban ...

This week we focus on solutions, and perspectives on how to grapple with the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

It's quite the show. Buckle up for a deep dive into the now and future Afghanistan.

You're listening to the sound of Asia, streaming in your ear.

From Nikkei Asia, this is Asia Stream.

(Theme Music Ends)

KHAN: This week, appealing for aid, the U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, raised the stakes, as well his demand: asking for $8 billion -- the single largest appeal by the U.N. for any country, ever -- to help Afghanistan. He also asked for a review of the international rules that are restricting the Afghan economy and forcing over 23 million people, over half the country's population, to starve.

ANTONIO GUTERRES, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: Six months after the takeover of the Taliban, Afghanistan is hanging by a thread. For Afghans, daily life has become a frozen hell.

Guetteres made his appeal on the floor of the U.N. Security Council -- the same place where the U.S.-led war against the Taliban was sanctioned over 20 years ago.

But power hates a vacuum. And with the U.S. gone, the region's other countries have been maneuvering both to work with the Taliban as well as deal with the spillover of the problems emerging from the insurgents' return as the rulers of Afghanistan.

In the east, Pakistan, long a supporter of the Islamists, is already embroiled in a diplomatic dispute with them, and even suffering increasing attacks from the Pakistani Taliban, a group the original Afghan Taliban have given license to since they took over.

In the west, Iran, historically wary of the ultra-Sunni Talibs, is moving closer to them to stop the rise of their common enemy, the even more ultra-Sunni ISIS-K.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's northern neighbors, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have recently exchanged threats with the Taliban over military equipment and training camps. Afghan tensions with any of the Central Asian "Stans" would likely invite intervention from Russia, the former Soviet overlord which still considers the region within its sphere of influence.

And finally, China: the only superpower that remains in the region, and even shares a small border with Afghanistan. But ... Beijing has adopted a hands-off approach. Although the Chinese are holding close discussions with the Taliban, trying to secure regional plans for their Belt and Road Initiative, they also fear that a terror threat could spill over. However, despite their proximity, the Chinese are not likely to shore up the Afghan economy like the Americans did for the last two decades.

Meanwhile, even as Pakistan and Iran share the brunt of the humanitarian crisis -- between them, they still house over 3 million Afghan refugees -- both countries, which are essentially bankrupt and have closed their borders to hundreds of thousands of war-weary displaced Afghans, are trying to deal with both an intractable Taliban regime as well as negotiate with the world on behalf of millions of Afghans they now rule.

Thus, winter comes to Afghanistan and the region.

From the United Nations in New York, our correspondent, Jack Stone Truitt, reports on how Afghanistan's neighbors are seeing the new reality of the Taliban.

JACK STONE TRUITT, CORRESPONDENT: The Taliban takeover of Kabul marked a generational turning point in the region. In the wake of American airplanes transporting the last of U.S. forces -- and Afghan refugees -- out of the country, a new Afghanistan was set to emerge. WIth America gone and the Taliban in charge, some countries -- like neighboring Pakistan and Iran, had gotten their wish. For years, Pakistan had supported the insurgents by allowing the Taliban leadership in exile within its borders, and Iran -- always wary of American presence -- even sheltered al-Qaida remnants. But others, like Russia and China, were simply glad to have the U.S. out of their geopolitical backyard. Still, the Taliban were -- are -- in charge of Afghanistan, and as the de facto power there must be reckoned with. No country has recognized them officially, and foreign governments insisted that the Taliban form an inclusive, and representative government. But five months later, the Taliban have yet to create such a government -- one they've promised -- though they've started negotiating with resistance groups and fighting threats, like ISIS-K.

IMRAN KHAN, PRIME MINISTER OF PAKISTAN (IN URDU): It's not easy to break the chains of mental slavery. And in Afghanistan, they've broken the chains of slavery.

TRUITT: That's Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who, just days after the Taliban takeover, proclaimed that the Taliban had, quote, "broken the chains of slavery." Perhaps no country outside of the U.S. has been more entangled with Afghanistan over the past 20 years than neighboring Pakistan. Pakistan's close association with the Taliban started in the 1990s when it was just one of a few countries which formally recognized the group the last time they were in control of Afghanistan, when it was plagued by civil war between different factions, each with the backing of different regional actors.

AMBASSADOR MUNIR AKRAM: History teaches lessons.

TRUITT: That's Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations, Munir Akram. He's trying to convince U.N. members to help aid the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Akram told me that the same mistakes of the past cannot be made if the Taliban are to successfully govern this time around.

AKRAM: And we feel that, you know, what happened in Afghanistan was internal, but also external. The civil war, which took place, had different, different external actors supporting different groups. We don't want that to happen again. We think that all the neighbors of Afghanistan must be satisfied that the Taliban government is not sponsored by any regional power or external power, and that it is a national government,

TRUITT: For the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan ensures an Afghan government outside of the influence of longtime rival India, and gives Islamabad an inside track to those in power as the rest of the region maneuvers to peddle their own interests in whatever the new version of Afghanistan will become. But not all has gone according to plan. Here's Barnett Rubin, a former senior adviser to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan:

BARNETT RUBIN: Having Afghanistan under total Taliban control is really not in the interest of Pakistan. And except for some extremist groups, there is not what Pakistan was hoping for, they were hoping that a situation where the Taliban would have enough influence, they could eliminate Indian presence, at least along Pakistan's borders. But now that the Taliban are in Kabul in power by themselves, Pakistan has much less influence on them.

TRUITT: Since the Taliban have taken over, there have been border skirmishes, trade disputes, and worse -- the Taliban have released scores of anti-Pakistan militants, called the Pakistani Taliban, from Afghan jails. Consequently, while terror attacks in Afghanistan have actually reduced -- the insurgents are in power, after all -- violence in Pakistan by groups affiliated with the Taliban is picking up. Islamabad is finding that a Taliban in full control are no longer in need of the leverage Pakistani support offered when they were still trying to get the U.S. to leave the country.

NEWS BULLETIN MONTAGE

But a country with an increasingly confrontational regime collapsing under the weight of economic sanctions, and an inability to address a hunger crisis, is not the new vision Pakistan was hoping for its northwestern neighbor. For years, Pakistan has hosted more than 4 million Afghan refugees, with around one and a half million remaining in the country today, one of the highest refugee populations in the world. Now, it finds itself between a rock and a hard place: work with the Taliban, and lobby the international community to work with them, or just deal with humanitarian aid and security crises alone. Pakistan says that official recognition is "off the table," But U.N. Ambassador Akram says that addressing Afghanistan's problems will require the international community to establish more formal relations with the Taliban. He insisted that many cannot be punished just because of a few ...

AKRAM: The sanctions regime applies to about 130 members of the Taliban, and because of those 130 people, the whole Afghan nation should not suffer

TRUITT: The biggest of those U.N. efforts so far has been an appeal for $8 billion in emergency humanitarian aid to be paid directly to people on the ground and not the authorities. This money is badly needed, but in Pakistan's eyes a longer-term solution is essential.

AKRAM: At the same time, at some stage, if we are really going to get the economic economy stabilized, to move to reconstruction, move to normal trade connectivity projects between Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the rest of the world, we will have to find ways of actually getting over the sanctions regime finding and finding ways of having formal relations with the Taliban government.

TRUITT: This notion of an inclusive government that represents more than just the Pashtun, Sunni Muslim makeup of the Taliban is a prerequisite for any talk of recogition, It is not merely about protecting the rights and interests of ethnic minorities in the country, but about ensuring that the Taliban have the actual capacity and ability to govern. Decades of upheaval have created an Afghan diaspora that Akram hopes will see a stable and representative government that interests them in returning home.

AKRAM: We have to understand that this is a movement that's been in the, in the, in the wild for 20 years fighting, they have to catch up with the international environment, they have to realize that they are now governing instead of fighting, and that transition will take time. ...

We hope that the Taliban will, once they are secure enough in their, in their control, that they would be open to receiving back many of those professionals, and I think many of those professionals who wish to go back.

TRUITT: It's also a matter of security. A stable and inclusive Afghan regime should also be one that is less prone to letting terrorist groups fester within its borders, something that threatens not just regional actors like Pakistan but also the United States, China and Europe. This is one of the reasons why Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Asad Majeed Khan, says helping relieve the economic crisis is vital.

AMBASSADOR ASAD MAJEED KHAN: And that's really what is driving our approach also, and our keenness to see that there is no meltdown, because when you have no peace, you have ungoverned spaces, that are then occupied by these regressive groups, you know, and we have seen that play out in the past, we dread the day that we have to face that scenario and situation again. And if there is peace, there is a central authority. There is a government which is in control of its territory and space, and as also the will and commitment to make sure that Afghan territory is not used for terrorism purposes against any country.

Another country that's rightfully concerned about an emerging terrorist threat out of Afghanistan? Iran, the country's neighbor to the southwest.

IRAN NEWS MONTAGE

Iran supported Shia groups opposing the militantly Sunni Taliban throughout the civil wars of the '90s, but with the Americans on the ground, relations thawed as Iran began to court the group it once fought indirectly. Now, with the Taliban in charge once again, and the Americans gone, Iran is hoping its years of engagement will start to pay dividends.

AMBASSADOR MAJID TAKHT-RAVANCHI: Taliban is a reality in Afghanistan.

TRUITT: That's Iran's ambassador to the U.N., Majid Ravanchi.

TAKHT-RAVANCHI: At the same time, there are other other voices within Afghanistan. There are, as you know, Afghanistan is a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious society.

TRUITT: Chief among those voices from Iran's perspective are the Hazara and Tajiks, two of Afghanistan's Persian-speaking minorities. Going back to the Soviet invasion, Iran has hosted over 3 million Afghan refugees fleeing the various wars and regime changes. This is why, a government representing all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups and not just Pashtun Sunnis, is essential for Iranto the possibility of official recognition.

TAKTH-RAVANCHI: While Taliban is in control, they have to be reminded that if solutions can be found for the current problems in Afghanistan, they have to agree for the establishment of an inclusive government in Afghanistan; otherwise, you know, the problems will persist.

TRUITT: For countries on Afghanistan's border like Iran or Pakistan, the fallout from the humanitarian crisis, the refugee influx, an emerging terrorist threat, and the flow of illegal drugs fall right on their doorstep. Iran and Pakistan are estimated to have some of the highest rates of opiate abuse in the world, fueled by cheap heroin from nearby Afghan poppy fields. And while they have a unique stake in the country next door, neither Iran nor Pakistan feel they can address the problems of the country without the aid of the international community.

TAKTH-RAVANCHI: Neighboring countries in particular, who are, you know, facing a very immediate problem with regard to the current situation, Afghanistan, they have to be consulted, they have to be part of the overall solution, but that the responsibility rests with all member states of the United Nations.

TRUITT: But neither Iran nor Pakistan have enough money for aid, and because of their own human rights records and experiments with authoritarianism, they don't have the diplomatic sway to shape global opinion for engagement with the Taliban. Barnett Rubin says there really ought to be some kind of road map laid down by bigger players in the international community, in particular the U.S., China and Russia -- not only the three largest permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, but also three countries with direct ties to Afghanistan.

RUBIN: The three largest permanent members of the Security Council -- the United States, Russia and China -- would need to reach some kind of an agreement on what conditions and follow on would have to meet to have those sanctions lifted or at least mitigated. As far as I know, there have not been any such discussions in the U.N. Security Council. So instead, what we are policymakers are working on is humanitarian assistance, which is absolutely needed, but it's grossly inadequate for a situation where the banking system and the economy is collapsing.

TRUITT: And so the international community is faced with a diplomatic catch-22: how to support the people of Afghanistan both in the near and long term, without rewarding a Taliban regime that has yet to make good on its promises. As for Iran, Pakistan and even their partner, China -- who finally saw the U.S. military leave their neck of the woods -- they're now the ones with a problem brewing on their border. For the people of Afghanistan and the international community trying to help, there are few easy answers.

KHAN: That was Jack Stone Truitt, reporting from the United Nations about how Afghanistan's closest neighbors are grappling with the challenge of dealing with the Taliban. But how are those within the country going through everyday life under Taliban rule? Is there an Afghan resistance? And is there any consensus for calibrating the international sanctions regime so that it only punishes the Taliban, not the people of Afghanistan? Monica Hunter-Hart reports.

MONICA HUNTER-HART, CORRESPONDENT: One of the biggest criticisms of the Taliban regime has been of their discrimination against women. Most girls over 12 have had their secondary schools shut down. Many women have been banned from their previous employment. There are hijab mandates and bans on women traveling long distances without a male relative. Even the Ministry of Women's Affairs has been shuttered and replaced by the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was notorious for the organized supression and violence against women in the '90s, during the first Taliban regime. But, when the Taliban took over in August, many Afghan women immediately started protesting for their rights.

(Sound of protest)

HUNTER-HART: The Taliban have quelled dissent, attacked demonstrators and detained activists. Though the protests are continuing to this day, they're getting smaller and smaller. Just last week, a video from a young activist named Tamana Zaryab Paryani drew international attention. In the video, Paryani shouts for help as men she says are the Taliban pound on her door in the middle of the night.

(Sound of Tamana Zaryab Paryani yelling at the Taliban)

HUNTER-HART: Paryani reportedly managed to share the video with a local news outlet before the Taliban entered her home and took her and three of her sisters away. The Taliban deny having arrested Paryani. The U.N. has called on the Taliban to provide information about her whereabouts, as well as that of another female demonstrator who was taken away last week.

ANTONIO GUTERRES, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: We urge the Taliban to seize this moment and garner international trust and goodwill by recognizing and upholding the basic human rights that belong to every girl and woman.

HUNTER-HART: Their disappearances have left Kabul's women protesters even more shaken than before. Here's one of them, Shabana Shabdiz, describing how she and others need to move between safe houses.

(Shabana Shabdiz's voice comes in, then volume lowers under translation)

SHABANA SHABDIZ, GUEST: As a female protester, I can't sleep peacefully in my home. We continuously change our places because we are afraid of being caught by the Taliban. The women who have raised their voices, they are not safe today and they don't live in peace. They have been arrested and their future is not clear. We don't know what is going to happen to them next.

HUNTER-HART: But she and others persist.

(Shabdiz's voice rises again, then volume lowers under translation)

SHABDIZ: Afghanistan without women is like a bird without a wing. It's a paralyzed and failed society. Don't let us become a part of the Taliban policies and jailed. Please hear our voices -- the voices of female protesters whose lives are in danger.

HUNTER-HART: People are defying the Taliban in many other ways, too. Currently, secondary schools for girls are closed in about two-thirds of Afghanistan's provinces. So secret schools are emerging in many places. One underground network is run by Parasto, who's withholding her real name for safety reasons. She and some friends call their new educational community SRAK, which means "the first light of morning" in Pashto.

PARASTO, GUEST: The teachers are ladies, they are female, the students are female. We are having our Islamic subject, we are having our chemistry, science, arithmetics. We have good system here, which is not very much professional, but the thing is they are committed and our teachers are committed.

HUNTER-HART: They have no budget, so everyone works on a volunteer basis, and it's still fairly small, but she says the students are just grateful to be able to learn.

PARASTO: They are very happy everyday they are attending the classes and they are having the efforts and whatever homework we are giving them they are bringing it so much like professionally they are doing it and now they are happy.

HUNTER-HART: And she has plans to expand beyond Kabul.

PARASTO: If the schools didn't reopen, we want to start this and like five or six more provinces in Afghanistan as well. Even if some Taliban came to our door of the schools and said, "What are you guys are doing here?," we are showing them that we are learning something here. And the system we built does not have anything negative that they have to tell us to ban the schools. If the Taliban, I'm not sure if they, they will, but if let's suppose if they banned one school in one area, I will build 10 schools in that area. If they banned 10 school, I will build 100 schools that if they banned 100, I will build 1,000 schools there.

HUNTER-HART: Schoolteachers aren't the only ones resisting the Taliban in secret.

(NRF gunfire)

HUNTER-HART: There's also clandestine support for the National Resistance Front -- which is the weak successor of the once-mighty Northern Alliance that helped the U.S. topple the Taliban and fight al-Qaida 20 years ago.

60 MINUTES BROADCASTER: And who are our allies inside Afghanistan? Well, they called the Northern Alliance.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ANNOUNCER: Hundreds of Taliban fighters gather on a dusty desert road. Exhausted by the relentless fighting, they have decided to negotiate a truce with the Northern Alliance.

HUNTER-HART: The NRF is still loyal to the now-defunct Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the government that fell in August. Most of the front is now in Tajikistan, but their spokesperson, Ali Nazary, who's currently based in Washington, D.C., told us that there are huge numbers within Afghanistan who hide their affiliation.

ALI NAZARY, GUEST: So, as every day passes, we get more recruits. [...] Back in September, we were only present in two provinces. Today, we're active in more than seven provinces.

HUNTER-HART: U.S. policymakers are divided about whether to support the NRF. Nazary said that more than 10,000 armed men are involved. They're fighting the Taliban to this day.

NAZARY: Our goals for this year is to liberate our country. And right now, as we see, the Taliban are fracturing, they're weak, they're fighting against each other, they lack a leadership, they lack cohesion. And we see more people starting to rise up against them. The situation right now is fluid, where by spring and summer, it's very difficult to perceive that the Taliban will still keep their control throughout the country.

HUNTER-HART: Members of the Resistance Front met with the Taliban earlier this month for informal talks, hosted by Iran. Nazary insisted that the Taliban themselves asked to meet, and that the NRF gave in only after several other countries asked them to. He claimed that the Taliban offered the Front a few positions in their government.

NAZARY: We said no, because our, our fight isn't for a few positions in power. Our objectives are clear. And we will only stop this resistance once we achieve those objectives.

HUNTER-HART: Those objectives are to overthrow the Taliban and form a democratic, decentralized political system that protects minority rights -- a pretty ambitious goal for the Emirate of Afghanistan. In comments to Iranian media, the Taliban's acting foreign minister said the meetings involved informing the NRF that they could safely return to Afghanistan. I asked Nazary, whose official title is head of foreign relations for the NRF, how the international community can help fix Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis.

NAZARY: The only thing that the international community could do is address the core problem, the root cause of this problem, which is a terrorist group coming in hijacking the country and controlling everything. They have to find ways to remove this terrorist group from power. We believe that, yes, sanctions should continue. But there has to be more political pressure. They should be contained, they should be isolated. In 2014, did the international community start cooperating with ISIS? ISIS took over huge chunks of Iraq and Syria. Why is the terrorist group being legitimized in Afghanistan while it's happening, while it wasn't legitimized in Iraq and Syria?

HUNTER-HART: Of course, there is a difference here. ISIS never signed a peace deal with the U.S. government, or engaged in negotiations for several years with China, Russia, and France, all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. The Taliban did. Also, the Taliban control nearly 100% of Afghanistan's territory, whereas ISIS at its peak controlled about just over a third of Syria and Iraq. In general, the international community, rather than trying to strengthen the NRF for another offensive, is just trying to figure out how to help Afghanistan economically.

UN SECURITY COUNCIL CHAIRPERSON: Good morning. The 8,954th meeting of the Security Council is called to order.

(Knock)

GUTERRES: The provisional agenda for this meeting is the situation in Afghanistan.

HUNTER-HART: One of the central issues that the Taliban are facing is that nearly $10 billion of their assets are frozen by the U.S. and Europe. Many analysts, even the United Nations, argue that those assets -- or at least a significant portion of them -- need to be unfrozen as quickly as possible, given that over a million children are at an immediate risk of starvation. But there's a bit of a policy paralysis in Washington about what to do to help an Afghanistan that's suffering but now run by the heavily sanctioned Taliban.

Here's Laurel Miller, director of the International Crisis Group and former envoy of President Barack Obama to Afghanistan and Pakistan. She says American policymakers have been reluctant to take any steps that might strengthen the Taliban's grip on power.

MILLER: There has been some, I would say hope, that there is a way to , you know, spare the Afghan people a lot of pain while not getting your hands dirty by engaging with the Taliban. Drawing a sharp line between support for the Afghan people and support touching or benefiting the Taliban. That sharp line is not one that really works, because the Taliban are, in fact, the de facto authorities of Afghanistan now, and that's just an unavoidable reality.

HUNTER-HART: Here's Suhail Shaheen, the spokesperson of the Taliban's only international office -- really, their only embassy -- in Doha, Qatar. We asked him how Afghanistan's new rulers see the sanctions regime that has choked assistance to the country.

SUHAIL SHAHEEN, TALIBAN SPOKESPERSON: Our plan is to call for removal of the sanction imposed on our country on, on our people because these sanctions are targeting the common people.

HUNTER-HART: We asked Shaheen whether the Taliban are concerned that their harsh policies are alienating the international community and harming the regime's own ability to gain recognition and get support for the Afghan people.

SUHAIL SHAHEEN, TALIBAN SPOKESPERSON: I ask question, whether the international community is worried about alienating Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan? Because we are committed on the basis of the Doha Agreement to not allow anyone or individual or entity to use the site of Afghanistan against any other country. So, while we are abiding by that commitment, it is the obligation of the international community that they contribute and help us in bringing about stability and peace in the country.

HUNTER-HART: The Doha Agreement he mentioned was a pact signed by the U.S. and the Taliban in February 2020. The Americans agreed to gradually withdraw all troops as long as the Taliban didn't allow international terrorists to operate in Afghanistan. But that was pretty much the only big ask from the Taliban. The agreement did not stipulate that the Taliban should respect democracy or protect women's and minority rights. Back in Washington, Miller doesn't imagine a scenario in which continuing to freeze the assets would actually encourage the Taliban to implement reforms.

MILLER: I think it might be impossible to define conditions that the Taliban could meet, and that could be politically acceptable in the U.S. I think the gap could just be too great.

HUNTER-HART: The Taliban haven't historically caved to incentives from the international community, she says. And it doesn't seem like they're about to start now.

MILLER: They're not helping the outside world help them. Having just come to power, I have no doubt that their No. 1 priority is staying in power. They need to satisfy the constituencies that brought them to power, they need to, from their perspective, consolidate their hold, and so you know, they have a different set of priorities than, than doing the maximum to try to win Western support.

MICHAEL KUGELMAN, GUEST: Let's suspend our disbelief for a second and imagine that the U.S. decides to unfreeze those $9 or $10 billion in Afghan foreign assets so that that money can flow back into Afghanistan.

HUNTER-HART: That's Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington.

KUGELMAN: Does the Taliban have the capacity, the absorptive capacities, to suddenly be managing huge amounts of money flowing back into the country? I don't really think so. And can we trust the Taliban, even if it were to gain access to those funds, to use them in the ways that should they should be used, essentially, to try to ease the humanitarian crisis, ease the economic crisis, and so on? Now, I'm not saying that we should just simply should not have that money released. But I think it's important to, to highlight that that we need to be on the ground to ensure that all of that money is going in the places that it should that it should go to.

HUNTER-HART: To see if the money goes where it's supposed to go, Shah Mehrabi, chairman of the audit committee of the central bank of Afghanistan, who is also professor of economics at Montgomery College in Maryland, has proposed a litmus test to check the waters of the Taliban's capacity and intent. He suggests that the Biden administration release just $150 million of the frozen assets and see whether the Taliban uses it the way it's supposed to.

SHAH MEHRABI, GUEST: Now, so the United States can have the ability to verify how these funds are used. [...] How? They can do it by an independent, international auditor for auditing firm that are still operating in Afghanistan. [...] I have said, as a trust-building mechanism, let's allow $150 million, and you see how it is going to be dispersed. Which, if it's not used for the purpose of auctioning and bringing price stability, then it could be stopped at any time.

HUNTER-HART: Many have criticized the U.S. Treasury Department sanctions as too broad. They are preventing overseas entities like banks, financiers, investors, and even donors and NGOs from engaging with Afghanistan in almost any financial transaction. But some see a way out of the blanket sanctions regime that doesn't legitimize the Taliban.

MILLER: What I'm proposing is not to eliminate sanctions altogether, but to kind of flip the script on sanctions. You know, if there had been no preexisting sanctions, as there were on the Taliban on the day that they came to power in Afghanistan in August, you would design something much more targeted: sanctions on particular individuals, an arms embargo, perhaps some other selective measures. Instead, you know, what you've got is a situation of broad prohibition that touches all sorts of economic activity and the functioning of the state with limited carve-outs for humanitarian assistance.

HUNTER-HART: The Biden administration has taken some steps to deal with the humanitarian and economic crisis. Back in December, the U.S. Treasury Department issued exemptions to allow certain kinds of humanitarian assistance to reach Afghanistan, like remittances and medicine. But critics say that does nothing to shore up an entire economy which is, really, in the middle of a freefall. Experts like Miller suggest another step to ease the fear of violating sanctions: "comfort letters," which are basically no-objection certificates from the Treasury Department that clarify the intended scope of sanctions.

MILLER: That's one thing that that can be done to, to move towards reconnecting Afghanistan to the global financial system.

HUNTER-HART: Mehrabi agrees.

MEHRABI: Comfort letters are one way of making certain that, that those who engage in activities with central bank and others, that they will not have the fear that they have now. I think that would be a relief.

HUNTER-HART: But, Miller suspects that the Treasury Department is uncomfortable with releasing comfort letters because it's not a common practice for them. And, besides the bureaucracy, she says the Biden administration is concerned about the political optics of engaging with the Taliban, especially in an election year. Right now, Washington is focused inwards.

MILLER: From the very first day, the U.S. and other Western countries were in a policy stance of isolation towards the Taliban regime. It is something where any kind of loosening up of the stance towards the Taliban, or arguable loosening of the stance towards the Taliban, could expose the administration to criticism from its political opponents. And that means that there's a kind of political fraughtness to every step that you now take. You know, it's just, I don't see Afghanistan as a topic -- as much as people do, I think, you know, within government worry about the humanitarian crisis, it's not a an issue set where there's a desire to take a lot of political risk right now. When there are a lot of other priorities here in Washington.

HUNTER-HART: Policy paralysis in Washington is a familiar story. But in this case, it's contributing to an international inertia that has stranded the Afghan people. Washington still yields immense influence in Afghanistan through sanctions. Even with no troops on the ground, the U.S. holds the levers of power -- those levers are just financial, rather than militaristic. But, as the Taliban dig their heels in and stifle all dissent, Washington politicians hem and haw. The world is waiting on D.C. for a cue about what kind of intervention will be legally permitted and not violate American sanctions. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is starving and freezing. January is the coldest month in Kabul. No solution is perfect, but many courses of action are on the table for U.S. policymakers -- the question is, will they take any of them, anytime soon?

KHAN: That was Monica Hunter-Hart. This week, in the Taliban's first official visit to Europe since they stormed to power six months ago, the group's leaders met Western diplomats in Oslo, Norway. In closed-door meetings about the flow of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, the Islamic Emirate was told that aid will be tied to improvement in human rights. But as the Taliban made promises about doing so, the international watchdog, Human Rights Watch released a report claiming that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Afghanistan have been increasingly threatened since the Taliban took over. Many have reported being attacked, sexually assaulted or directly threatened by members of the Taliban because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Taliban have denied the claims.

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KHAN: That's it for Asia Stream this week.

KHAN: As always, I encourage you to head to Nikkei Asia at asia.nikkei.com for more in-depth coverage of Afghanistan and, of course the rest of Asia. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, subscribe and leave us a review -- and hopefully, a five-star rating! And a reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners: just type in code ASIASTREAM, all caps, no spaces, at checkout.

This episode was produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt.

I'm your host, Waj Khan. Let's cross streams next week.

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