The Great And The Good In Davos Ignore Afghanistan At Their Peril – Analysis


By Luke Coffey

The world’s leaders, policymakers, commentators, and other movers and shakers gathered in the Swiss mountain town of Davos last week for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. On top of the agenda were some of the world’s most pressing geopolitical issues: Ukraine and Russia, Israel and Hamas, China and Taiwan, trade and economics, energy security, and global shipping.

However, one issue that was notably absent was the situation in Afghanistan and the current humanitarian plight of the Afghan people under the Taliban.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivered a special address about global challenges and didn’t mention Afghanistan once. The same can be said about the speeches by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Chinese Premier Li Qiang. It was almost as if, in the eyes of some of the world’s most influential and powerful leaders, Afghanistan did not exist at all.

And make no mistake, the situation in Afghanistan is dire. According to a recent report by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, “in 2024, more than half of Afghanistan’s population will require humanitarian assistance.”

Another report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says Afghanistan remains in a state of humanitarian crisis characterized by “high levels of protracted displacement, mine and explosive ordnance contamination, restrictions to freedom of movement, increased risk of gender-based violence, child labor, early marriage and increased needs for mental health and psychosocial support.” Girls are still denied an education beyond sixth grade, leaving the future of millions of Afghans uncertain.

There are four reasons that the situation in Afghanistan is the way that it is. The sooner the international community acknowledges these reasons, the sooner action can be taken to help Afghans.

First, as the de facto rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban now realize it was far easier fighting the central government than it is governing the country. Fractures at the very top of Taliban leadership have also made governing Afghanistan even more challenging. The consequence of this poor governance is that Afghan people are facing their worst humanitarian disaster since the Taliban were last in power in the 1990s.

The second reason there is such a severe humanitarian challenge in Afghanistan is that the international community has not figured out how to engage and deal with the de facto Taliban government. For example, at least 13 members of the Taliban’s so-called government are under some form of UN sanctions. The Taliban allow transnational terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda to roam freely despite assurances to the contrary. This makes it difficult for many in the international community to feel comfortable, either legally or morally, working with the Taliban. In the US, there is a continuing debate about how to get humanitarian assistance directly to the Afghan people without lining the pockets of the Taliban elite. After spending so much money in Afghanistan over the 20 years of US involvement, and with little to show for it, many politicians in Congress are wary of sending even more.

Third, the Afghan people were cruelly unlucky in 2023 with natural disasters. This has compounded the humanitarian crisis. Last summer, deadly flash floods struck parts of the country. Meanwhile, other parts experienced drought. Late last year, a series of major earthquakes hit the western part of Afghanistan, killing about 1,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands of more without shelter, basic healthcare, and access to clean water. According to the UN Children’s Fund there is concern about the survival of 96,000 children affected by the earthquakes. Making matters worse, this winter has been particularly cold in Afghanistan.

Finally, the regional situation around Afghanistan does not favor Afghan stability. The de facto Taliban government and Pakistan are experiencing a breakdown in relations. The Taliban’s relations with Iran have been problematic over water rights. Iran’s recent and brazen missile attack in Pakistan’s Balochistan province has the potential to turn into a regional conflict that could spill over into Afghanistan.  Although the Taliban’s relations with China remain cordial, there is very little substance to them. None of the grandiose Chinese infrastructure projects for Afghanistan have come to fruition. None of this helps with the humanitarian crisis.

With many of the world’s leaders gathered in one place to discuss international challenges, the top news story of the week about Afghanistan was not the humanitarian crisis but its whitewash by India in a three-match T20 cricket series. But by any objective measure, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is bad enough to warrant attention at a global summit such as the World Economic Forum.

It is almost as if these world leaders, some of whom are almost directly responsible for handing over Afghanistan to the Taliban and creating the conditions that have led to the current humanitarian disaster, prefer to just ignore Afghanistan hoping that it will disappear from the agenda.

History shows what happens if Afghanistan is simply ignored. When Russia stopped funding the Najibullah regime in 1992, and the international community lost interest, this led to the chaotic conditions in Afghanistan that, in part, helped to bring the Taliban to power in 1994. The 9/11 attacks on America, planned by Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda while they were hosted by the Taliban, soon followed.

It is time the international community acknowledged that mistakes were made in 2021 when the Taliban marched into Kabul, and started addressing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The mistakes of the 1990s should be learned from. The World Economic Forum in Davos would have been a good place to start. Instead, the global elite decided to ignore the problem. This was a missed opportunity and one that will harm Afghans more than anyone else.

• Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. X: @LukeDCoffey.

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