“After the Western withdrawal, who will take over in Afghanistan?”

In a column for Marianne published on September 18, 2021, Alain Boinet takes stock of the future challenges that the new situation in Afghanistan since the fall of Kabul on August 15 implies, both domestically and geopolitically.

While informed observers expected a final Taliban victory after the American and NATO withdrawal, no one seemed to have anticipated the collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government, army and police. There are lessons to be learned for the future.

If the American military intervention under a UN mandate was fully justified and necessary after the destruction of the World Trade Center, several mistakes with serious consequences were made. First of all, it was a mistake to believe that the Taliban had been definitively defeated. Second, not inviting them to the Bonn Conference on December 5, 2001, when all Afghan factions were participating except them. Let us remember that the objective was to put an end to the conflict and to promote reconciliation.

Then, that of having imposed a Western model on a country that is not, forgetting its fierce tradition of independence, its reputation as the “graveyard of empires” and thus taking the risk that the Taliban would become the patriots fighting against the foreign occupation. Gérard Araud, former French ambassador to the United States, made this observation in Le Point: “The Taliban are undoubtedly closer to the mores, beliefs and practices of the majority of the country than the Kabul elites. The question now is what relationship to have with this country of 38 million people with the Taliban in power.

Six challenges for Afghanistan

Afghanistan presents us with six major challenges, both for Afghans and for ourselves: humanitarian aid, human rights, migration, terrorism, drugs and geopolitics.

The humanitarian challenge. Since the time of the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, humanitarian aid has never stopped despite the vicissitudes. It is never negotiable when it comes to saving lives. Today, one in three Afghans is hungry, a million children are at risk of severe malnutrition, medicines are in short supply, salaries are no longer paid, public and community services are collapsing and the country is as good as closed. The UN has just sounded the alarm to mobilize aid.

The migration challenge. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has stated that it fears the departure of 500,000 Afghans this year in a “worst case scenario”. It is therefore necessary to act quickly, as winter is approaching and a humanitarian and economic collapse would throw many Afghans onto the roads of forced exile.

“Only the Taliban will have the power to ban opium.”

The drug challenge. Afghan poppy production, from which opium and then heroin are derived, is estimated to account for 84% of opiate drugs sold worldwide, particularly in Europe. By 2020, opium production will reach 6,300 tons. Drugs are a serious threat to public health and the spread of corruption. Bernard Frahi, former UN drug control director in Afghanistan and Pakistan, calls for “renewed dialogue” to achieve a “total ban on opium cultivation”. This will require offering effective and profitable alternative crops to Afghan farmers. But only the Taliban will have the power to ban opium!

The geopolitical challenge. After the Western withdrawal, who will take over? While no army will venture into Afghanistan from now on, there is plenty of room for cooperation. Even before the American retreat, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the Taliban’s number two, Mullah Baradar, while castigating the United States. Qatar is now the antechamber for the new masters of Kabul. Pakistan, a staunch supporter of the Taliban, intends to take advantage of this. Turkey has announced its intention to cooperate, while Iran and Russia are taking a pragmatic position. The world has changed since 2001! For the Western countries, the question is whether they will give way to these countries and thus lose all influence in this region.

The challenge of terrorism. Afghanistan is currently home to fighters from Al-Qaeda and Daech, known as the Islamic State in Khorassan (EIK). While the Taliban have pledged to the Americans and Chinese that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for terrorist attacks against them, the challenge now is to prove it. Especially since this does not include the countries of the European Union, including France, which have not yet obtained any assurance.

“Either seek to isolate the Taliban, even punish them, or engage in a difficult and demanding dialogue.”

However, the Aug. 26 Daech attack at Kabul airport that killed more than 300 people can be seen as a declaration of war against the Taliban. But Afghanistan is big with its valleys and mountains and terrorists can easily move across the Pakistani border! The mistake not to make would be to push the Taliban into the arms of the jihadists.

The human rights challenge. This will be the stumbling block. What about ethnic minorities, government and representative bodies, education, the status of women in education and employment, the media? UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in recent days, “If we want to advance human rights for the Afghan people, the best way is to move forward with humanitarian assistance, to engage with the Taliban and to take advantage of that humanitarian assistance to push for the implementation of those rights.”


Basically, there are two main choices. Either seek to isolate the Taliban, even punish them, or engage in a difficult and demanding dialogue based on the six challenges we face together. Is this really the end of the war? Can the Afghans gradually move toward peace? The path is narrow, but it is being decided now. It will certainly not be easy after twenty years of war and division.

It also depends on the Taliban’s policy towards their opponents, towards women and towards Western countries. They must prove themselves, especially since Afghanistan is experiencing a dramatic humanitarian situation. Let’s also be realistic, everyone has now understood that the Taliban are resistant and that we will not go back to the previous situation! Discussions are underway in Doha with former President Hamid Karzai and former Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Even Ahmad Massoud, the son of the famous commander Massoud, is ready to negotiate, but not to surrender.

Lakhdar Brahimi, former Algerian foreign minister and former UN special representative for Afghanistan, said recently: “Peace was possible with the Taliban, but we would have had to talk to them.



Mr President of the Republic, let us protect the humanitarian aid which is in danger!

Violence-abuses, massive population displacements in DRC and emergency relief | © Solidarités International

What is referred to as “humanitarian space” implies that relief efforts must be able to access populations in danger within the framework of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and in accordance with the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence.

This is unquestionably one of the main issues at stake at the next National Humanitarian Conference (CNH) in Paris on 17 December in the presence of the President of the Republic who announced, at the 75th UN General Assembly on 22 September, that he would present an initiative on the protection, impunity and criminalisation of humanitarian aid at this conference.

Expectations are at the highest level for humanitarian organisations faced with a considerable increase in the needs of populations in danger and, at the same time, a multiplication of political-administrative constraints and an increase in the number of wounded, killed and hostages.

Humanitarian aid is threatened in war zones by the collateral effects of fighting, banditry and threats from groups such as Daesch who, let’s not forget, claimed responsibility for the assassination of 7 ACTED aid workers in Niger on August 9th.

Charline, Antonin, Myriam, Stella, Léo, Nadifa, Kadri Abdou Gamatche, Boubacar Garba Soulay. Victims of the 9 August 2020 attack in Niger.

These dramatic incidents, which increased sharply last year, have been compounded by obstacles, obstacles, and even real threats, due to the “sanctions regime and anti-terrorist laws”, to the point that the UN Security Council recognised this danger at the end of 2019.

Sanctioned humanitarian aid.

Indeed, anti-terrorist laws de facto criminalise humanitarian actors who bring relief to populations in territories where so-called jihadist or terrorist groups operate.  These humanitarian actors can thus be considered as accomplices of terrorists and can be brought before the courts and condemned!

At the same time, a series of obstacles or draconian conditions are placed in the way of humanitarian action and dangerously hamper it. Subject to anti-terrorist laws, banks can go as far as refusing transfers of funds, which are essential for aid programmes in war-torn countries where relief is vital in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

In addition, donors who finance NGO projects, particularly in France, impose so-called “screening” measures aimed at controlling NGO partners, suppliers and staff using specialised software. These measures can go so far as to require ‘screening’ for the first euro spent and sometimes even include the recipients of aid, as now required by the French Development Agency (AFD).

Priority to International Humanitarian Law over anti-terrorist laws in conflict zones.

Let us be clear. There can be no question of the humanitarian community “screening” relief beneficiaries in the name of International Humanitarian Law. It is a matter of our security and incidentally that this is not where the terrorists are! On the other hand, the constant screening of suppliers, partners and NGO members at the first euro is simply not feasible. This is precisely what Thierry Mauricet tells us in his interview published on Défis Humanitaires.

If one can understand anti-terrorist laws, all the more so as we ourselves are victims of terrorism in our humanitarian missions and even at home, in France in Paris and Nice, as elsewhere in the world, it is easy to understand the existential incompatibility between terrorism and humanitarianism.

And then, let’s be serious. If we seek to fight terrorism, let us look at the States that support it, the weaknesses that allow it and, unfortunately, the errors that can fuel it without ever justifying it.

MSF hospital in Kunduz after an American bombing triggered by the Afghan army. 2015 © AFP

One can indeed wonder when one hears the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior in France acknowledge that we are today paying for decades of denial and weakness.

But there is a broader reflection that must challenge us. Is terrorism, which is always condemnable, artificial intelligence technologies, ambient insecurity, the disintegration of social and national cohesion, not leading us down the dangerous slope of generalised tracing and control inspired by the Chinese model where freedom is in question, as the writer Georges Orwell has already announced.

The President of the Republic can prevent the paralysis of humanitarian action.

That is to say that we are expecting a disruptive initiative from the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, on 17 December at the CNH. And the essential thing for us is that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) prevails and, consequently, the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols that legitimise and protect humanitarians in the exercise of their mission in war zones. And this applies to both States and non-State armed groups.

Consequently, it seems essential that humanitarian actors adhering to IHL and humanitarian principles should have an exemption clause from anti-terrorist legislation in war zones. If France wants to set an example in this respect, it could, as Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, from MSF, proposes in this edition, include this humanitarian exemption provision in the French penal code in order to preventively protect its nationals who could become victims in the future.

Other important subjects are on the agenda of the CNH (humanitarian nexus – development – peace, climate change, European humanitarian airlift, Humanitarian Strategy of the French Republic, Humanitarian Emergency Fund), and we will report on them in our next edition at the beginning of January.

For the first time, the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, will be taking part in the National Humanitarian Conference and we must welcome this presence which cannot be satisfied with a lukewarm initiative, but which requires a disruptive declaration commensurate with the freedom of action that is indispensable for humanitarian relief in the world.

We do not forget that the President of the Republic declared to the United Nations: “This is why, together with French NGOs and our international partners, we are building an initiative to ensure the effectiveness of international law, the protection of humanitarian personnel and the fight against impunity”. He added: “The neutrality of humanitarian action must be respected and its criminalization must be curbed”.

We can only hope that this will be translated into concrete action.

Alain Boinet

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