The urgent need for New Zealand aid to Afghanistan

By Keith Locke

The following article was published in the Daily Blog on 4 September 2021

Our government has understandably been preoccupied with helping refugees leave Afghanistan. But now the focus should shift to emergency aid for Afghanistan itself.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe, and urges ”all member states to dig deep for the people of Afghanistan in their darkest hour of need. “

As a participant in a war that pulled Afghanistan apart, New Zealand has a moral duty to be at the forefront of this international aid effort.

New Zealand should not follow the example the United States, which doesn’t seem to care about the economic plight of ordinary Afghans. The Biden administration has frozen the US$9 billion of Afghan Central Bank money deposited in American accounts, severely limiting the access of ordinary Afghans to their own cash.

To add insult to injury the Americans trashed Kabul airport as they left making it that more difficult for passengers and air freight to get in and out of the country.

All this in a poor nation where around 40% of Afghanistan’s GDP has been coming from foreign aid. Given America’s spiteful attitude towards the new Afghan government much of this aid may not continue.

The channeling of international aid into Afghanistan would be expedited by early recognition of, and engagement with, the new Taliban government, when it is formed. It will be far from the government we would like, but it will be the government, and an effective aid effort requires its cooperation.

Exactly what the new Taliban government will look like is not yet clear. Life in the big cities might bear some resemblance to that in Saudi Arabia, where women are allowed to work but have their other rights restricted.

Clearly, the Taliban movement has different currents, some more “modernising” than others. There is a good argument that early engagement with the Taliban by countries like New Zealand could strengthen the hand of the more modernising elements.

New Zealand has already received praise from one of the seemingly more moderate Taliban spokespeople, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, for last month’s $3 million contribution to humanitarian work in Afghanistan, channeled through Red Cross and the UN refugee agency. Mr Balkhi thanked New Zealanders “for showing empathy with their fellow human beings.”

There has been a huge groundswell of support for New Zealand’s contribution to the extraction of refugees from Afghanistan. We identified with the fear these people felt when the Taliban took control.

We can, and must, support these refugees. But we should also recognise that the sudden departure of tens of thousands of highly skilled Afghans will worsen the economic and social crisis the country faces.

The situation is dire. Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan, has pointed out that with most of the international aid shut off, and money scarce, many government services cannot function. He added that more than half of Afghan children are struggling to find their next meal.

New Zealand’s initial aid contribution of $3 million is a good start, but we have a responsibility to give much more given the huge need in Afghanistan today.