An opening for change in Afghanistan?

Amid an economic crisis marked by hunger, an earthquake forces the Taliban to accept foreign aid without condition.

Afghans receive aid at a camp June 26 after an earthquake in Paktika province, Afghanistan.

When the world responds to a humanitarian crisis in a country under authoritarian rule, it can run the risk that the aid will help the regime. Can that be avoided? It depends on whether there is a mutual recognition that the needs of suffering people come first.

Perhaps nowhere is the demand for aid more urgent than in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban’s takeover last August, an economic emergency has left half the country – including 10 million children, according to the United Nations – stricken by acute hunger. That crisis was compounded by an earthquake last week that left more than 1,000 dead.

Dozens of countries and international humanitarian organizations have pledged food and financial aid in the aftermath, including Germany and the United States. That comes at a time when the Biden administration has already been working with the regime to find a way to release at least some of the $7 billion in frozen Afghan assets for economic relief without those funds being diverted by the Taliban.

The administration’s caution has been based on the Taliban’s history of human rights abuses and broken promises. In the past 10 months, the Taliban have rolled back nearly all rights of women and barred girls from education after the sixth grade. Human rights watchdogs note a catalog of other abuses: extrajudicial executions, attacks on the media, arbitrary detentions, and so on.

Many countries are offering post-quake aid cautiously. Germany pledged aid, “not through the Taliban, but with our partners and agencies ... who can reach people directly on the ground,” said Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

A month ago the Taliban would have rejected that offer. In January, the government barred provincial leaders from accepting foreign aid distributions “without coordination” with the national government. Last month the Taliban established a committee to oversee the distribution of all international aid.

Critics claim the Taliban often seize and redistribute foreign humanitarian aid based on patronage. But there are hints that the earthquake may be prompting some humility.

In a rare public appeal last week, Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader, called on the international community “to help the Afghan people affected by this great tragedy” and vowed not to interfere in the direct flow of humanitarian aid.

In a country facing what U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called “a matter of moral responsibility, of human decency and compassion, of international solidarity,” Mr. Akhundzada’s appeal may mark an opening.

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