Taliban in Oslo: The West’s Biggest Challenge in Afghanistan Is Corruption

The problem is not relief aid in itself, but the actual moving of money under a corrupt Taliban government.

5 min read
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It's all very civilised. A hall in Oslo, the conferring parties, polite greetings, and the tailored suits. But this time, there are also the ‘perahaan tunbans’, the loose tunic and pants worn by Afghan men, and the turban worn according to their status and origin. And the Afghans are the Taliban, against whom these very same suits fought for nearly 20 years. In a gesture to the times, and no more, a few Afghan women and rights defenders were also present. The Taliban want the billions held in US banks, and the civilised suits want fewer extremists and more of everyone else in government. It’s a tall order, but the Oslo meeting is a beginning.


It's All About the Money

The Taliban delegation, led by Amir Khan Muttaqi, the acting Foreign Minister, flew in by a chartered aircraft, which reportedly cost the government some 3.6 million Swedish kroner. The sight of the Taliban in such luxury infuriated those who felt the group should have been marched straight to the Criminal Courts in the Hague. Protests against the meeting were many, including outside the Norwegian embassy in London. Norwegian officials, however, stuck to their guns, saying there was no option but to talk to the ‘de facto’ government, and that the meeting in no way constituted a recognition.

The Taliban met eventually with special representatives of the European Union, the US, the UK, France and Italy, together with the host, Norway. These countries effectively hold the purse strings, and unless they agree, the Taliban will not be able to access international aid, or even what is very technically their own $10 bn in US banks. The United Nations has appealed for $5 billion in aid given a looming humanitarian catastrophe.

The Actual Moving of Funds Is the Problem

While the Taliban are still a designated terrorist group, the channelling of aid was made possible by a humanitarian exemption in December 2021. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced another $380 mn in recent weeks, keeping the US at the top as the largest contributor of relief aid. But the problem lies in the actual moving of money, with even experienced NGOs like USAID, unaware of how to pay even their own staff, having to finally use the “hawala” system. International banks are wary of actually moving money, given the chaos in the banking system, and the fact that many of the Taliban ‘officials’ are listed terrorists.

The new Bank Governor is Haji Mohammad Idris, who had long ‘managed’ Taliban funds and thus would be well-acquainted with its many sources, including narcotics, smuggling and extortion.

Given all this, the wall of sanctions is intended to protect the international banking system as well as to deny the group the legitimacy that it desires. Therefore, any move to open up the banking system and return the frozen funds is unlikely.


Civil Society Protests 'Celebrity Style' Peace Initiative

The 15-member Taliban delegation also met separately with a host of rights groups. The two sides managed to cobble together a statement that recognised that “understanding and joint cooperation are the only solutions”. They also declared “with one voice” that more such meetings should be held. That’s nice for everyone, especially the Taliban. It's not every day you get to travel in such luxury.

Civil society groups were critical of this ‘celebrity style’ peace initiative, while former officials of the previous government refused to attend the meeting. That was hardly surprising. A few days ago, two women activists disappeared in the capital after taking part in protests. A secondary school ban remains in place for girls, and there is no indication at all of any movement towards even loosely liberal ideas – after all even previous education was heavily laced with religion – but a return to a life that ordinary Afghans are now accustomed to.


How Aid Is Transferred Amid Widespread Corruption

Then, there’s the problem of distribution of even the aid that is pouring in and the ability of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to operate.

While there is an announced ‘food for work’ programme, reports note that wheat, provided mostly by India, is being used to ‘pay’ state employees instead of reaching starving Afghans. In addition, only those with ‘connections’ within the Taliban are able to get registered in the work programme.

The utter impossibility of the Taliban, for instance, in providing aid to those communities or tribes that opposed it makes the whole exercise well nigh impossible. In addition, the hurried exit and subsequent collapse of the Ghani government led to the ground staff of NGOs leaving their posts in fear of reprisals. The Taliban have since assured protection for the United Nations and related agencies. Whatever Kabul may promise, aid workers say that the Taliban on the ground don’t allow women staff to operate.

Again, the problem lies in providing salaries to NGO staff. Well-known NGOs, such as Doctors Without Borders, could not pay their staff for months. As the United Nations (UN) got its $600 mn ‘flash aid’ demand through, it has begun to pay its staff directly, without going through the Taliban. That means physically transferring dollars through aid workers or informal channels, as financial institutions are understandably risk-averse. That trend is likely to continue, making it difficult for the Taliban to hold its people hostage in order to get access to the big money.


85% People Don't Have Bank Accounts

Meanwhile, aid organisations, such as the Norway Refugee Council, are justifiably arguing that sanctions should be lifted to allow the free flow of aid. According to Save the Children, 3.9 million young children face malnutrition in Afghanistan, an increase of 7,00,000 since the end of last year.

There are other staggering statistics, but the key point is this: aid cannot be distributed in Afghanistan unless the Taliban allow it to flow fairly, and not just to whom they favour.

The fact that some 85 per cent of people don’t have bank accounts means that cash has to be transferred, and that clearly can't be done through the Taliban, who will most certainly use it to line their own nests. In all fairness, that was also the case with the Ashraf Ghani government.

The Only Motivator in Afghanistan

One way out is to start punishing those who pilfered big money out of Afghanistan, thereby setting an example of what lies in store. There are enough of them in the US itself, while the riches in Dubai are staggering. Naming and lifting a Taliban official or two for the same crime should follow in later months, with the money transferred to an account run by agencies like SIGAR ( Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction) with huge experience on the ground.

The message from Oslo should be that corruption while Afghans starve is entirely and completely unacceptable. Begin with the easiest and equally criminal targets outside the country. In Afghanistan, nothing works as well as the threat of withdrawing the money bags and possible retribution. Most importantly, don’t listen to those who have only sat at conference tables and not penetrated into the Afghan streets. Ignorance is dangerous at all times. In Afghanistan, it can be fatal.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Afghanistan   Taliban   Norway 

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