Senior Senate authorizers and appropriators on Tuesday warned that they would oppose continued foreign aid to Afghanistan if the Taliban retake control and roll back human rights advances in the country.
Following President Joe Biden’s announcement earlier this month that all American troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, lawmakers are grappling with what that will mean not only for U.S. counterterrorism operations but also for the future status of Afghan women and minorities as well as the billions of dollars in annual foreign assistance that taxpayers provide to the country.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pessimistic about the ability of the Afghan government to hold out against the Taliban without a U.S. troop presence to back them up. And if the Taliban topple the civilian government, as they did in the 1990s after the Soviets left the country, lawmakers are seriously worried the fundamentalist religious group will seek to reverse the gains made in girls’ and women’s education and in female public representation in society.
In many respects, the Taliban appear to be in a “stronger military position now than at any point since 2001,” according to a March analysis by the Congressional Research Service. “Some Afghan officials reportedly suspect the Taliban of remaining in negotiations long enough to secure a full U.S. withdrawal, after which the Taliban would capitalize on their advantage on the battlefield to seize control of the country by force.”
Speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations hearing Tuesday with Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special envoy for peace talks in Afghanistan, Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said he wanted to be “crystal clear” to the Taliban as the group considers a negotiating strategy toward the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani.
“I don’t believe under any circumstances that the United States Senate will support assistance for Afghanistan, especially under the World Bank’s program, which provides budget support, if the Taliban has taken a governing role that ends civil society advances and rolls back women’s rights,” Menendez said. “I don’t believe we will bend on this point.”
Added Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who leads the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for foreign aid: “I will continue to support robust development assistance for the Afghan government and the Afghan people but not if there is a takeover by the Taliban and they break some basic commitments to respecting the role of women and fundamental human rights and the democratic process.”
More than $100 billion already spent
Since fiscal 2002, Congress has appropriated more than $143 billion in overall aid for Afghanistan, according to the CRS brief. Over two-thirds of that has been for security assistance and a quarter, or nearly $36 billion, has been in governance and development assistance.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced his department would provide almost $300 million in additional civilian assistance for Afghanistan this year. The assistance was first announced at a November donors’ conference. The money is to be used for improving access to essential government services, health and education, anti-corruption efforts, supporting women’s empowerment and bolstering civil society.
Khalilzad said he has stressed in his meetings with stakeholders to the peace talks that “the issue of human rights, particularly women’s rights, is second to terrorism in terms of the hierarchy of U.S. policy importance.”
“I believe that the development assistance, which the Talibs say they also want from the United States, provides us with leverage to incentivize and I support that it be condition-based,” said Khalilzad, an Afghan-American diplomat who served as ambassador to Afghanistan during the George W. Bush administration and has been the lead U.S. peace negotiator to the country since 2018.
Committee ranking member Jim Risch said he didn’t think it was a good idea for the State Department to transfer the $300 million in foreign aid right now when it might be useful leverage to pressure the Taliban to adhere to any human rights and democracy commitments that Washington and the Ghani government are trying to secure.
“We’re in this state of flux where we’re moving out and the Taliban, at least they’re telegraphing to some people that they’re gonna move in. It seems to me that we would be better off holding on to our $300 million right now until we see exactly which way it’s going,” the Idaho Republican said.
But Khalilzad pushed back on that argument.
“The announcement of the release of the $300 million that we had withheld was to demonstrate to the Afghan government that we are in support of the government and in support of Afghan women and civil society at this time of transition,” he said. “It doesn’t say anything about a future government.”
Khalilzad confirmed news reports from earlier in the day that the State Department is reducing the number of diplomats it has in Afghanistan.
“Yes, there will be some small numbers of diplomats and right-sizing the embassy that those who are not necessary” will be sent back to the United States, he said.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., the only woman on the Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime advocate for the rights of Afghan women and girls, highlighted the June 2020 murder in Kabul of an Afghan midwife, Maryam Noorzad. She was killed by a Taliban gunman when she refused to leave the hospital bedside of a mother who she was helping with her delivery. The gunman killed Noorzad, as well as the mother and the newborn. Two-dozen women, children and babies were massacred in the attack on the maternity ward.
“These are the Taliban who we are being asked to join at the negotiating table to support. I will not support any efforts that will allow them to continue to commit these horrific acts without any accountability for their behavior,” Shaheen said. “What we do over the next four months is going to impact the lives of women for generations to come and I believe we have to do everything in our power to support the women of Afghanistan.”