Afghanistan: Facing Old Challenges and Needing New Perspectives

12 November, 2023 - 15:12


While the world is distracted by other global priorities, notably the tragedy unfolding in the Middle East and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Afghanistan – ruled by a de facto government - is facing multiple challenges mixed with fewer opportunities and potential solutions at a critical juncture.

In spite of the reduced attention, some off-radar diplomatic initiatives are being pursued by the UN, major donors and regional countries to address outstanding issues and disputes that arose after the Taliban seized power 27 months ago on the heels of the US/NATO military withdrawal. The country is widely peaceful now after 45 years of turmoil, but the new leadership has also imposed gender employment curbs and fundamental rights restrictions in the public education sector.

Furthermore, Afghanistan continues to face a nagging humanitarian crisis as it struggles to cope with the aftermath of a powerful earthquake, the influx of thousands of refugees from neighboring countries, and the sporadic threat of terrorist attacks.

The country, which had, until recently, been at war for more than 40 years, has seen some improvements in overall stability, safety, counter-narcotics, counter corruption, and counter-terrorism efforts under the Taliban regime, but the situation remains dire[os1] for millions of Afghans who lack basic services, livelihoods, and face basic rights restrictions.

The international community has been providing emergency aid to Afghanistan since August 2021, amounting to more than $6 billion[os2]  through the U.N. and NGOs. However, while this generosity prevented mass famine and catastrophe, the overall engagement modules have not addressed the root causes of the humanitarian crisis - which experts and practitioners assert are man-made.

After the key donors, through the U.N., cut off development assistance to Kabul, there is now a need for a more coordinated and comprehensive approach that goes beyond humanitarian assistance and focuses on supporting livelihoods, building consensus, recalibrating donor policies, easing banking restrictions and taking realistic political action. This is the only way to improve the situation for the more than 40 million Afghans who are facing acute food insecurity, loss of income, sporadic threats and uncertainty every day.

Considering the complex and urgent situation in Afghanistan, the UN Secretary General took a bold step in April to initiate an assessment mission led by a seasoned Special Coordinator[os3] , who, according to a knowledgeable source, is “consulting with international stakeholders, listening to relevant Afghan actors and gauging a rethink that is technically practical and politically feasible[os4] ,” as part of a report to be delivered this month.

The mission, headed by Feridun Sinirlioglu, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, could be a chance to bridge the differences between the various actors, present a revised and pragmatic roadmap, and to enhance Afghan and international understanding on how to address the various components of the Afghan dossier.

A recent joint statement [os5]  by G-7 countries, Norway and the EU highlighted the Western donors’ latest position on “means of developing consistent joint policies on Afghanistan and promoting coherent approaches of the group to the outstanding challenges of present-day Afghanistan.”

The country is also dealing with a massive refugee crisis, as more than 300,000 Afghans have returned [os6]  from Pakistan and Iran since October, according to UN agencies. Many of them have been forcibly deported or pressured to leave due to harassment, discrimination, and violence. Ahead of winter, the returnees face a bleak situation in Afghanistan, where they have limited access to shelter, food, water, health care, and education. The Taliban have said they welcome the returnees, and have allocated land for them, but the resources are insufficient to meet returnee needs, and there are fewer jobs to go around.

In addition, Afghanistan is still plagued by sporadic sectarian suicide attacks that target civilians and security forces. Most of these attacks have been claimed by the Islamic State Khurasan (ISKP), an anti-Taliban outfit. The terror group exploits dissatisfaction, poverty and ethnic tensions to sow disorder. While the Taliban have vowed to fight the ISKP, the group remains resilient and capable of finding resources and manpower from outside sources.

Complexities and Stakeholder Roles

Afghanistan’s challenges are manifold and interrelated; they can be grouped into three main categories: 1. unresolved 2021 transition issues; 2. governance shortcomings and 3. geopolitical, geoeconomic and security dynamics.

The key players in the Afghan imbroglio are: The de facto Taliban regime; key neighboring and regional states with heterogenous interests in Afghanistan; major humanitarian donors (the US, the EU, Japan and others); and the Afghan public, which includes civil society, women, ethnic, religious and community leaders, and members of a fragmented diaspora with diverse agendas and interests.

The core issues that divide the Taliban and the international community were inherited from the abrupt and chaotic collapse of the previous regime before a power-sharing arrangement was due to be finalized in Doha [os7] . By the time Kabul’s ex-leadership fled on August 15, 2021, American forces were already in evacuation mode and did not have orders to re-engage or secure the capital, thus leaving the Taliban in control of almost the entire country.

The Taliban's second takeover of Afghanistan halted the intra-Afghan process and sidelined all other political activists who remained in the country. The group has so far refused to engage in any formal dialogue with other political actors as it claims to be the sole legitimate authority in the country. The regime calls itself the "Islamic Emirate" and says that it represents all ethnicities, but its leadership is dominated by its own trusted members. Only a handful of non-Taliban and non-Pashtun (the dominant ethnic group within the Taliban) officials have been given leadership roles in the administration. Although some women are joining the private sector and still work in specific sectors, no women remain in top government positions.

This decision by the Emirate’s top leadership has raised questions about legitimacy [os8]  at home and has prevented recognition by the international community, which is universally demanding  political inclusivity as a precursor for de jure recognition. A revamped UN mission would certainly need to collect all views on this issue and seek practical solutions that would be acceptable to all sides.

Meanwhile, there are signs that a debate [os9]  is underway within the top ranks of the Emirate on broadening the base of governance, adopting a new Constitution, and calling on professional and technical experts to assist in the rebuilding efforts, but only if the leadership in Kandahar endorses a more open approach. Little is known about the details or modalities of such measures. What is lacking though is a dialogue process at home and abroad, leading to a consultative process to gather views from Afghanistan’s pluralistic constituencies and to channel those into a representative assembly that could discuss and approve a more legitimate order.

The second bone of contention is the Taliban's restrictive policies on women's education and employment. They claim that they are following Islamic principles, and that they are revising the curricula and the work environment to make them more suitable for women. However, after two years, most Afghans and Muslims around the world agree that education is a basic right [os10]  that should not be denied or distorted by any group. There are, however, Sharia-sanctioned ways to promote education and work opportunities for women without provoking backlash from Taliban hardliners or causing in-group tensions. These ways should be explored by Taliban leaders, with advice from credible Islamic scholars, especially the followers of the Hanafi school of thought, and implemented as soon as possible.

A Revamped UN Role

The UN assessment will undoubtedly address the two key topics directly or as part of a more comprehensive and pragmatic approach. What is clear though is that the previous strategies have thus far not worked in favor of access to education, enabling a participatory system and other rights. It is also conceivable that the Taliban may implicitly be looking for a grand bargain (especially with their former US foes), that would include talks with key stakeholders and resolution of certain issues in return for diplomatic recognition that would automatically include the Afghan seat at the United Nations.

The new regime and the international community are divided over contentious matters. But the foreign actors who have supported new sanctions [os11 against the new regime since August 2021 through the UN Security Council and other national and multilateral bodies, do not share a common vision either. They have differing views and approaches on how to deal with these two issues. For instance, some countries do not prioritize the gender rights issue while others advocate for an ethnic-based political inclusivity model.

In order to reform the current situation, there would have to be a high level of agreement among the different stakeholders and the permanent members of the Security Council, who often have conflicting views. The political climate in some main capitals is also not favorable for reaching such an agreement at this moment. However, new initiatives could help reduce the politicization of the rights issue and encourage various forms of interaction and discussion within and outside the country, involving credible figures who seek dialogue and reconciliation as part of a national consultation process.

A possible way to enhance the UN role in Afghanistan is to have a dedicated special envoy who can work closely with the international community and the Afghan parties. This envoy would have the support of the main actors and could help resolve any disputes or challenges that may arise, as well as support the efforts of UNAMA. This is similar to what happened after 2001, when a special envoy played a key role in facilitating the political transition in Afghanistan.

Taliban Governance and Policy Shortcomings

For the past two years, the de facto authorities have focused on strengthening their regime, disarming militant and armed opposition groups, building up security forces, fighting terrorism in an ad hoc fashion, fighting drugs and corruption, collecting revenues, reviving the economy and applying Sharia law, as the top leadership sees fit. However, governance has been affected by low technical capacity and poor management. Many of the former officials are either jobless or have left the country. The Taliban will face more serious challenges in providing services, rebuilding the economy, attracting investment, governing effectively or preventing a brain-drain without keeping or hiring skilled and experienced professionals (including women) in various sectors. This requires creating opportunities for professionals who can manage and lead, within the limits of national interest and local norms. This also means lifting the ban on girls' education [os12] , allowing women to work and enabling civil society, including media, to operate legally and transparently.

On the foreign policy side, it is becoming evident that the regime is weary of geopolitical entanglements and is inclined to balance regional and great power competition by adopting a non-aligned posture anchored in regional economic connectivity, trade, transit and investment.

Relations have recently soured with Pakistan. Pakistan’s interim government claims that the anti-state terror outfit TTP [os13]  is using Afghanistan as a staging ground. Islamabad has requested a crackdown, but the Taliban deny any support and point to a blame-game to cover inadequacies inside Pakistan. This has led to a rapprochement to other neighbors, Iran – that can offer an alternate transit route via the Chabahar port - Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and China, but also new avenues to Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, Kazakhstan and to a lesser degree to India and Tajikistan.

Meanwhile, the country’s grave humanitarian crisis [os14] , compounded by a shortage of donor funds for the upcoming fiscal year, have not only put stress on the 97% of the population who earn less than $2 per day, but also on the more than 29 million Afghans who depend on food rations, especially in urban centers.

To avoid a humanitarian calamity and switch to a more sustainable model, donors have no other option left but to gradually shift from a pure humanitarian aid model to small to medium size development and livelihood projects to create jobs and generate sustainable income. There is also a need to work on the country’s macro-economic indicators, avoid deflation, control inflated currency values, stabilize inflation, increase productivity and exports, and work on livelihoods. This means donor recalibration, World Bank, IMF and ADB guidance and monitoring, and more importantly, Taliban willingness to cooperate and meet technical demands to allow for fiscal and monetary reforms to take place.

The Way Forward

The challenges facing Afghanistan are complex, interrelated and require a coordinated and comprehensive response from all stakeholders. The Taliban leadership needs to demonstrate their commitment to peace, human rights, professional and representative governance, and engage in dialogue with other political factions to form a more inclusive administration. The rest of Afghanistan also needs to overcome its divisions and work together through trust building mechanisms and dialogues to rebuild the country and society. And the international community needs to support Afghanistan's humanitarian needs, development goals, and security interests, while holding the Taliban accountable for their actions and obligations.

Omar SAMAD is a non-resident Senior Fellow with Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada. He is a co-founder of the Salaam Center for Dialogue and is involved in track-2 and dialogue platforms dealing with Afghanistan.

NOTE: Since this commentary was published, the UN has received the Assessment report and forwarded it to the UNSC for further deliberations. A senior Russian diplomat has also expressed readiness to review and discuss the report’s findings.



 [os2]Afghanistan | OCHA (

 [os3]Special Coordinator, Independent Assessment mandated by Security Council resolution 2679 (2023) | United Nations Secretary-General

 [os4]Off- record remarks by UN official


 [os6]The Azadi Briefing: Taliban, Pakistan In War Of Words Over Mass Expulsion Of Afghan Refugees (

 [os7]Afghanistan Peace Efforts | United States Institute of Peace (

 [os8]Afghan Taliban Views on Legitimate Islamic Governance | United States Institute of Peace (


 [os10]Islamic Perspectives on Education new format Aug 09 (

 [os11]Sanctions by the Numbers: Spotlight on Afghanistan | Center for a New American Security (en-US) (

 [os12]Afghanistan: Taliban ban women from universities amid condemnation - BBC News

 [os13]Terrorism: Pakistan decides not to back Afghan Taliban after it fails to rein in TTP terror group: Report - Times of India (

 [os14]Afghanistan | OCHA (