A year ago today (28 August), the last UK evacuation flight left Kabul following the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan.
This anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on the current situation in Afghanistan and look ahead to the future.
Underpinning the UK’s approach is our strong sense of commitment to the Afghan people. While we no longer have a physical presence in Kabul, this bond means that we remain closely engaged in supporting the livelihoods and wellbeing of the Afghan people.
Afghans have seen enough conflict over the years, and we want to see a more peaceful and secure future for Afghanistan and the wider region, where everyone is able to live in peace, with their basic needs and rights met.
Over the past year, the country has changed dramatically.
While there are a number of concerning developments, the fact that there has been a significant reduction in violence and civilian casualties following the end of large-scale conflict is beyond debate. This is positive and should be welcomed.
The Afghan people have suffered from conflict for far too long, and further violence will benefit no one.
For our part, we have made clear that we do not support the use of violence as a means of pursuing political goals in Afghanistan. But we do regard peaceful political activity not only as legitimate, but also more important than ever.
If there is anything the conflict over the past four decades has shown, it is the need to balance the drive for central control with the need to represent the interests of all groups in Afghan society.
The greatest immediate challenge that Afghanistan faces is the drastic humanitarian situation and the significant levels of hunger across the country. Over 24 million people – more than half the population – remain in need of humanitarian assistance. Despite all efforts, the number of people in dire need has hardly reduced.
The UK is playing a leading role in the international response to this crisis.
Last year, there was significant concern at the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe over the winter. The UK, recognising the seriousness of the situation, doubled its aid to Afghanistan, disbursing $347 million.
We have pledged the same amount this financial year, and have already distributed $170 million of this funding.
This is the UK’s largest bilateral programme of aid anywhere in the world this year.
Beyond our national commitment, last March the UK co-hosted a pledging conference with the UN, Qatar and Germany, which raised $2.4 billion in new humanitarian aid.
Our strong support was also on display in the devastating aftermath of the earthquake in June in Paktika and Khost provinces. The UK, recognising the need to rally in support of the international response, allocated over $3.5 million to the crisis within a matter of hours.
Throughout 2021 and 2022, aid provided by the UK has reached 4.3 million Afghans with emergency humanitarian support for health, water, sanitation and hygiene, protection, shelter, food, livelihoods, and education.
However, we also understand that humanitarian assistance alone cannot solve the long-term problems of Afghanistan.
Crises across the world, including the war in Ukraine and famine elsewhere, will put additional strain on donor budgets to continue providing humanitarian aid indefinitely.
So it is more important than ever to address the underlying economic crisis that is the cause of much of the hunger and poverty in Afghanistan, in order to avoid a continued cycle of humanitarian disaster.
The UK understands the importance of broader economic stabilisation and longer-term development support.
Here, the Taliban need to help us to help the people of Afghanistan.
This need is made all the more important and stark in the aftermath of the discovery of Ayman al-Zawahiri living in downtown Kabul just last month.
The international community had been assured consistently over the past year that the Taliban were not harbouring Al-Qaeda leadership. This was proven patently false.
Such disregard for key commitments undermines the trust needed to work together on shared interests and makes it even more difficult to consider lifting sanctions..
The UK does not propose to lecture or impose its values on others – but there are some fundamental principles that are universal, necessary and also pragmatic.
This latest development comes in the context of a trajectory of decisions around human rights by the Taliban, including on women and girls in particular.
The decision on 23 March 2022 not to allow girls to attend secondary school is of course totemic for the international community. Empowering women through education and equality is the key to unlocking the country’s future potential.
This is not a ‘western’ perspective. There are many Islamic states where women and girls participate fully in society, contributing to their countries’ success and prosperity.
As set out in the UN human rights report last month, there are significant concerns across the human rights spectrum that it will be important to make tangible progress on.
The UK wants to continue to work pragmatically to support a positive future for Afghanistan.
We are willing to work together pragmatically, and to put historic differences to one side. We are willing to do so for the benefit of the Afghan people, who have been through so much for so long.
But we cannot move faster than the Taliban’s actions allow.
I say this because I believe that engagement with the Taliban is essential to build common approaches to resolving the problems afflicting the people of Afghanistan.
In order to be accepted as a legitimate member of the international community, it is crucial for the Taliban to adhere to key commitments made to the international community, and to build trust.
The shared expectations of the entire international community were set out in the UN Security Council Resolution 2593 of 30 August 2021 and in a number of subsequent resolutions.
I am proud to serve as Chargé d’Affaires for the UK’s Mission to Afghanistan.
Our Mission and Government continue to work tirelessly in the hope that we will be able to take positive, tangible steps to bring Afghanistan increasingly back into the international community.
After decades of war and conflict, I remain optimistic about the potential for Afghanistan. Not out of a misplaced idealism, but out of an abiding faith in the strength, fortitude, ingenuity and resilience of the Afghan people.
One thing is certain: the UK is committed to taking this journey with and in support of the people of Afghanistan, now and for many years to come.
Op-Ed by Hugo Shorter, Chargé D’Affaires – UK Mission to Afghanistan