Afghanistan faces famine, economic collapse as international community poses conditions for aid


1) Jacques Follorou, “l’on n’a plus à manger, on va finir par mourir de farm’: à Kaboul, le désespoir et la misère,” Le Monde, le 15 septembre 2021 (11h48, mis à jour à 16h14).

2) Daniel Boffey (Strasbourg), “EU has no choice but to engage with Taliban, says foreign policy chief; Josep Borrell tells MEPs that EU can only influence future developments by engaging with new Afghan regime,” The Guardian, September 14, 2021 (18.55 BST).

3) Ãngeles Espinosa (Kabul), “El mercado que surgió de la desesperanza en Kabul; La tragedia humana y económica que afronta Afganistán se refleja en un rastro surgido en la capital donde muchos venden sus bienes más básicos para poder comer, El País, el 15 de setiembre 2021 (4:44 CET).

Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, hit the nail on the head when he said, “Maybe it’s a pure oxymoron to talk about human rights but this is what we have to ask them (the Taliban).”

The EU is setting conditions on its level of engagement with the Taliban, however, including the protection of human rights.

“Maybe it’s a pure oxymoron to talk about human rights but this is what we have to ask them,” Borrell said. “To have any chance of influencing events, we have no other option but to engage with the Taliban … engaging means talking, discussing and agreeing when possible.

It is an oxymoron, at least as a starting point.


“Taliban religious beliefs pose huge obstacle to modernization, respect for human rights including women’s rights,” The Trenchant Observer, September 8, 2021.

The international community needs to adopt a highly flexible approach to dealing with the new Taliban government, taking into consideration that it is now dominated by the most ruthless hardline factions.

Western governments and international actors, including humanitarian assistance agencies and other international actors, need to adopt a two-tiered approach.

First, they should supply food and other humanitarian assistance, including funds to prevent the collapse of the healthcare system, without any conditions.

That’s right. They should not condition the supply of this assistance on respect for women’s rights and other human rights. Whether this aid should flow if the Taliban engage in a broad pattern of war crimes and crimes against humanity, e.g., by hunting down and executing former Afghan army, intelligence or other officials, or killing women and journalists who worked for organizations whose work they disapproved of, is a hard question. Answers to it may depend on domestic politics in different donor countries.

The key point is that the international community should not deny to the people of Afghanistan–the individual life-and-blood human beings–the aid they need to survive, on the theory that withholding aid will make the Taliban respect human rights. For examples of the challenges of survival these human beings face, see Espinosa and Follorou, above.

This theory won’t work for three reasons.

First, it assumes the Taliban is a single unitary actor, acting like a single rational, calculating mind. This is known as “the rational actor” fallacy. In fact, the Taliban is made up of competing leaders and factions, and any “decision” by the government will be the product of the interplay of these leaders and forces. Any implementation of such a “decision” will be the ptoduct of the further interplay of these forces and leaders.


“The “Rational Actor” Fallacy and Stopping Syria’s Atrocities—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #8 (March 9)”, The Trenchant Observer, March 12, 2012.

Second, as Josep Borrell suggests, the concept of human rights is totally foreign to the religious ideology of the Taliban. So, even if the Taliban were a single rational actor, which it is not, it would not be likely to sacrifice fundamental religious beliefs (e.g., the roles of women) in exchange for humanitarian and other aid flows.

Third, the very confrontation between the international community and the Taliban over respect for human rights could further weaken the position within the Taliban of the more “moderate” faction led by Mollah Baradar, which has just been shunted aside by the Haqqani Network hardline faction.

Since this zero sum game-theory approach is not likely to work, and instead contribute to an immense human catastrophe, a better approach would be to offer a second tier or level of financial and other support that is conditioned on Taliban respect for human rights and in particular women’s rights, in addition to Taliban compliance with international law norms regarding war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In short, help the human beings in Afghanistan survive, while offering a carrot to the Taliban in the form of additional aid provided they respect fundamental human rights.

The Trenchant Observer

The Trenchant Observer has been following Afghanistan closely since 2005, when he worked in Kabul as the Team Leader of group of six lawyers charged with advising the government on modernizing its criminal justice process to better meet international human rights standards.

The Trenchant Observer is an international lawyer with a historian’s eye.  A former Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, where he received the degree of Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law (S.J.D.), he is also a summa cum laude graduate of Stanford University, where as an undergraduate he received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the Best Senior Honors Thesis in History.