Significance of the Troika Plus meeting
The recent meeting of the Troika Plus is significant for several reasons. Comprising Pakistan, China, Russia and the US, the Extended Troika met on November 11 for the first time in Islamabad. This underlined Pakistan’s increasingly lead role in diplomatic efforts on Afghanistan. It was also the first meeting of the informal group that was attended by the US representative since the Taliban assumed power. The US had stayed away from the Moscow meeting of the Troika Plus in October.
Deliberations in Islamabad on the situation in Afghanistan were followed by talks between the Extended Troika and an Afghan delegation led by acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. This marked the most wide-ranging and substantive engagement of the group with Afghanistan’s new government. The joint statement issued after the Troika Plus meeting reflected the in-depth nature of discussions and set out the issues subsequently taken up with the Taliban delegation. It also expressed the consensus among member states on this count and their shared expectations of the Taliban.
Afghanistan’s liquidity crisis and its worsening humanitarian situation was a priority concern in these discussions. The UN has for weeks been warning of an impending catastrophe if assistance doesn’t reach the country in time with winter fast approaching. As remote regions are usually cut off during winter months, international concern has been rising about the fate of people residing there. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has been trying to send assistance to remote provinces on an urgent basis but sounded an alarm that its effort is underfunded. It is estimated that almost nine million Afghans confront a food emergency.
Compounding the situation are the formidable difficulties faced by the UN and other relief agencies in sending funds for humanitarian assistance because of lack of banking channels and facilities in the country. This at a time when nearly half of Afghanistan’s population is in dire need of help and two-thirds face “acute hunger,” according to the World Food Programme. What has contributed to Afghanistan’s cash crunch is the fact that some $9 billion of its foreign reserves mostly lying in US banks have been frozen by Washington. The World Bank’s development assistance also remains suspended apparently at the US behest. Aid that kept Afghanistan financially afloat has all but come to an end.
Against this grim backdrop, Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and the danger of an economic collapse were the principal focus of the Extended Troika’s deliberations. The joint statement expressed the deep concern of participants about the “severe humanitarian and economic situation and reiterated unwavering support for the people of Afghanistan.” It also “welcomed the international community’s urgent provision of humanitarian assistance” and the UN’s greater role as coordinator. In fact, almost half of the joint statement’s 15 points were related to humanitarian and development assistance for Afghanistan. The fact that the US signed up to this statement and joined other Troika members to voice support for Afghanistan and its people was a note-worthy development as Washington has so far been reluctant to deal with a country run by the Taliban.
Even more significant was the reported US willingness to consider how it could help in the process to restore banking channels so that financial transactions can proceed without hindrance. This doesn’t mean that Washington is prepared – as yet – to unfreeze Afghanistan’s financial assets. But it does mean acceptance that the liquidity crisis needs to be resolved and the US is prepared to look into this. No timeline has however been given for this.
While skeptical Western countries are showing readiness to disconnect politics from Afghanistan’s humanitarian needs, it would be a mistake for the Taliban to construe that they can revert to past practices and not fulfil promises.
Talks in the meeting between the Extended Troika and senior Taliban representatives ranged over all key issues, principally inclusive government, counter-terrorism, economic and humanitarian needs, human rights, girls’ education and drug control. On the issue of inclusive government, it was clear that the Taliban’s notion of what it means is fundamentally different from international expectations. Their representatives pointed out that hundreds of thousands of civil servants have resumed work which gives the government enough of an inclusive character.
The discussion on counter terrorism is said to have made some headway. In response to the international demand that Afghan soil is not used by terrorist groups to attack any country, as reflected in points 11 and 12 of the joint statement, Taliban representatives assured the group that their government would ensure this. But they asked for time on grounds that if all armed groups residing in Afghanistan were simultaneously confronted this would open multiple fronts and drive members of these groups to join and strengthen Daesh. But the delegation reiterated its leadership’s promise to abide by international obligations in this regard. On narcotics control they claimed that actions would soon become evident.
On girls’ education, the Taliban delegation are said to have told participants that schools are operational in at least ten provinces and that they intend to open them across the country. But as funds for salaries and running these schools came from foreign assistance, once this was resumed girls’ education would be made possible.
These parleys indicate that while the Taliban have much ground to cover to fulfil pledges on key issues, they are indicating the willingness to move in that direction. The Islamabad meetings suggest that diplomatic engagement by key powers will continue with the Taliban – even if recognition is far away – but so will international pressure to ensure that the government lives up to its promises. While skeptical Western countries are showing readiness to disconnect politics from Afghanistan’s humanitarian needs, it would be a mistake for the Taliban to construe that they can revert to past practices and not fulfil promises. The Troika Plus meeting may generally have been positive for the Taliban but that doesn’t mean international support can be taken for granted. The ball is now in Kabul’s court.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha