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The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have declared that 19 million people in Afghanistan are experiencing “high levels of acute food insecurity” and that that number will climb to 22.8 million this winter unless action is taken.

The world’s beef with the Taliban is bad news for the hungry people of Afghanistan who are only going to get hungrier if numerous governments make their first priority a more representative government as winter closes in. The Taliban have been fighting since 1996, and its mujahideen veterans since 1978, and a regime of one-meal days isn’t going to deter them.

The Taliban recently threatened Europe with a migrant wave if sanctions aren’t relaxed and the U.S. doesn’t return the almost $10 billion in reserves it holds — and that was after the U.S. agreed to provide humanitarian assistance. 

After the 1918 revolution in Russia, the Bolsheviks faced a food crisis, but rather than trying to feed everyone, one revolutionary reportedly said the new government should first decide “how many [people] we need to keep.” That attitude probably shaped the Taliban’s threat to unleash waves of migrants on Europe, hoping Brussels will flinch at the prospect of more refugees that will (again) roil the politics of the continent. 

The refugees would likely head to Europe via Iran, Turkey, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus, so those countries will be ready to speed the delivery of food aid to the Afghan people, if for no other reason than to keep desperate and malnourished refugees, susceptible to (or carrying) COVID-19, out of their territory. And Pakistan, which is already hosting over 1.4 million Afghan refugees and is vexed by cross-border attacks by Afghanistan-based militants, will want in.

How can aid get to Afghanistan?

Central Asia was the final stage of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), used by NATO to resupply its forces in Afghanistan. The NDN started in Europe or the Caucasus, wound through Russia, then Central Asia, before discharging into Afghanistan. The region would again be ready to facilitate the movement of the humanitarian cargo, and Uzbekistan has offered the use of the transport hub at Termez Cargo Centre, which is already storing UN aid awaiting import approval by the Taliban.

Pakistan was also used to flow cargo to NATO forces in Afghanistan. Though the availability of this route depended on the state of relations between Islamabad and Washington, D.C., Pakistan will likely be motivated to ensure aid flows unobstructed to Afghanistan — both to relieve the burden of hunger for the Afghans and to keep the Afghans in Afghanistan.

Iran has three major border crossings to Afghanistan and also has an interest in relieving the misery of the Afghans, but Iran is struggling to import food, as many potential traders are wary of dealing with it to avoid U.S. sanctions and may be reluctant to use Iran as a means to supply Afghanistan. For this route to be useful, the U.S. would have to assure food suppliers and shippers — in advance — that they won’t be sanctioned for supplying Iran and Afghanistan.

The U.S. says it wants a stable Afghanistan, but its primary concerns so far are the makeup of the Taliban government (all Taliban commanders, many under sanctions), and the status of women and girls. Those are important issues — after everyone has a full belly. Washington’s priority should be to get to when the snow melts, then escalate those issues with Kabul.

Can the U.S. contribute to a solution?

Yes, but Washington will have to “lead from behind” as, aside from some die-hard interventionists, no American wants to return to Afghanistan. What the U.S. can do is provide political support, sign some checks (the WFP needs $220 million a month), pressure other wealthy donors, and ensure sanctions don’t hinder relief.

The sanctions will be a stumbling block to making shipments via Iran, as most of the transport sector is controlled by the sanctioned Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. And arranging delivery of food in cooperation with the Taliban government will be complicated by the fact that more than half of the 33-man cabinet is sanctioned. 

Afghanistan’s neighbors, such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have engaged with the Taliban for several years. Pakistan has sent high-ranking delegations to Kabul, and the Taliban has assured them it is not supporting Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Baloch Liberation Army, both of which are arrayed against Islamabad. Iran has urged the Taliban to adopt a “friendly” approach to its neighbors. China has the shortest border with Afghanistan, less than 50 miles, but has asked Kabul to remove Uighur militants from the China-Afghanistan border. 

If Washington is patient and thinks long-term, it will encourage all Afghanistan’s neighbors and others such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is already coordinating aid with Kazakhstan, to participate in this critical humanitarian project.

A successful campaign would mobilize the effort of the neighbors and the expertise of the specialized UN agencies — the FAO and the WFP — and ensure that the Taliban understand that any interference with the UN’s food distribution effort will guarantee the embargoed funds will remain in the U.S. for use by a successor government.

A timely, concerted effort will rebound to the benefit of the region by encouraging Taliban engagement with all its neighbors — and build leverage with Kabul to get that representative government the West is pining for.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).



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