Testing the Taliban: Aid Distribution as a Critical Task
Oct 26, 2021
Uzbekistan will play a prominent role once again in Afghanistan as a conduit for much-needed UN aid to the country. Due to a looming humanitarian crisis and economic disaster, the UN World Food Program (UNWFP) has pushed to establish a 5,000 square-meter aid distribution and logistics center in Uzbekistan’s city of Termez. Termez, presents itself as a convenient point of transfer because of its proximity to the border with Afghanistan. Tashkent has extended this offer of facilitating aid as a sign of goodwill and engagement with the Taliban government in an effort to promote stability and prevent the spread of insecurity beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The use of the logistics center in Termez is conditional, based on international collaboration, and does not serve as a gesture of recognition for the Taliban government. Uzbekistan is keen to mitigate the spread of violence from Afghanistan and prevent a mass refugee exodus and famine on its border. Assisting the UNWFP in aid distribution allows Uzbekistan to become a partner to secure the region and prevent humanitarian crisis from spreading further into Central Asia.
Uzbekistan has already shown its capability in administering aid. The country has provided nearly 1,400 metric tons of food aid to Afghanistan since September, so it is not a stretch to imagine that substantial amounts of international aid can be successfully shipped from Termez to Afghanistan. Nearly 50 percent of aid distributed by the UNWFP has been through Uzbekistan. The UNWFP has estimated that Afghanistan will need a minimum of 54,000 metric tons of food for Afghanistan to have supplies through December. 100 tons of UNWFP airlifted aid shipments from the Termez Cargo Center in Uzbekistan have already been delivered. Mazar-I-Sharif in northern Afghanistan is responsible for accepting the aid and subsequently transporting it by truck throughout the country. Currently, the UNWFP estimates that there are roughly 20 million people in desperate need of food aid due to a collapsing economy and the consequences of a severe drought last year that impacted harvests in Afghanistan, pushing food shortages into their second year.
This aid distribution is likely to be a pivotal step for Central Asian states engaging the Taliban. With economic collapse on the horizon due to lack of cash, disrupted supply chains, and capital flight, the Taliban are likely to be dependent on border states to secure supplies, given the lack of transportation infrastructure and regional transport networks required for states outside the region to deliver aid into Afghanistan. Major players will be Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Each country possesses extensive capabilities to export food to Afghanistan and has already sent limited humanitarian and food aid to Afghanistan. This uneven relationship could potentially be leveraged to force the Taliban into some concessions that the Central Asian states want. It will be interesting to see which regional and international actors provide aid to Afghanistan as the demand for basic goods and services increases. China and Russia have already been staking out claims, with China focused on economic gains while Russia is more concerned about improving its security vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Other actors might be waiting to assess the success or failure of the aid distribution before committing resources and time to engage with Afghanistan.
Questions remain about whether the Taliban has the capacity and will to distribute this food aid effectively. With only two months in power, the Taliban are struggling to effectively govern their territories, sustain the economy, and create diplomatic relations. The international community has doubts about the ability for the Taliban to be an effective governing body and conduct aid distribution on par with other governments. This would prove to be an important litmus test not only for the Taliban’s capabilities but also for their ability to work with the governments of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, among others in a collaborative effort.