A senior State Department official said the United States is “extremely concerned about the worsening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan,” adding the country was suffering such a crisis before the military takeover by the Taliban in August.
Last week, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi wrote an “open letter” to the U.S. Congress, warning of a mass refugee exodus from Afghanistan unless the United States unlocks more than $9 billion in Afghan central bank assets and ends other financial sanctions against the country.
“Unfortunately, even before the change that took place in the middle of August, Afghanistan was already suffering a horrific humanitarian crisis. The reason we saw it worsen had a lot to do with the evaporation of international aid, on which the Afghan economy depended enormously over a period of 20 years,” U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West told VOA in an interview on Tuesday, his first on-camera interview since taking the new position.
“We made clear that if they (the Taliban) chose a military path to power, that that aid would disappear, and that is what occurred,” he said.
West, who is also a deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department, participated in the so-called “Troika Plus” meetings earlier this month where Pakistan hosted China, Russia and the U.S. for talks on Afghanistan, bringing them to Islamabad at the same time as a Taliban delegation led by Muttaqi also arrived.
In a joint statement, the four countries said they agreed to “continue practical engagement with the Taliban to encourage the implementation of moderate and prudent policies that can help achieve a stable and prosperous Afghanistan as soon as possible.”
“I do not see moves by Russia and China, in particular, to recognize the Taliban. I think the Pakistanis are engaging more actively and in a more forward-leaning manner than certainly we are comfortable engaging at the moment. But the answer to your question, since it's a hypothetical, is no,” West said when asked whether the U.S. would follow suit if other members in the Troika Plus group move ahead to formally recognize the Taliban.
The following are excerpts from the interview. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: On access to frozen reserves, what are the specific conditions and steps to release those assets? What is the U.S. response to the Taliban’s warning about the worsening humanitarian situation? What does the Taliban’s appeal to unfreeze those assets say to you?
WEST: The United States is extremely concerned about the worsening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. I think, if you step back, you have to take a nuanced and reasonable view about the reasons for this worsening humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately, even before the change that took place in the middle of August, Afghanistan was already suffering a horrific humanitarian crisis. The reason we saw it worsen had a lot to do with the evaporation of international aid, on which the Afghan economy depended enormously over a period of 20 years. Some 75% of the former government's public expenditures were foreign donor funded, some 40% of the country's GDP was foreign donor funded. And so really, in our engagement, and frankly, in our allies’ and partners’ engagement with the Taliban over a period of years, we made clear that if they chose a military path to power, that that aid would disappear, and that is what occurred.
VOA: What is your response to the Taliban’s appeal to release those assets?
WEST: At the moment, the reason that those assets are not moving is not because there is some executive branch action to freeze them, so to speak. That's a misnomer that I know has gotten a lot of attention in the press. There are very complicated legal reasons, as well as judicial reasons, for why that money is not moving from particular banks into other places. I think it's important also to recognize that there are an additional $2 billion worth of foreign reserves located outside of the United States. That money, likewise, has not moved for similar reasons.
VOA: Earlier this month, you had participated in the Troika Plus meeting with counterparts from China, Russia and Pakistan. You also met with the Taliban’s foreign minister in Pakistan. What are your takeaways in these meetings? What role can China and Russia play to stabilize Afghanistan and to counter terrorism, as they are also members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?
WEST: So, this was the first time on, I guess it was the 11th of this month, that the so-called Expanded Troika met since August 11th or so. This is a format that the United States supports.
I think we see an important role for the countries of the region, including Russia, including China, including Pakistan, in achieving stability in Afghanistan. That is a format that bridges East and West. We’ve certainly been encouraged, even by our allies in the West who do not participate in this format, to represent their views. I thought we landed on a responsible, common statement out of those meetings, and I was very glad to see that my Russian, Chinese and Pakistani counterparts share a commitment that we share: to move toward fundamentally more inclusive governance, on the protection of women, minority rights and on moves to permit access by humanitarian aid workers to all aspects of delivery. So, it was a good meeting, I think, a positive outcome where we demonstrated unity, and I appreciated Pakistan's effort to host.
VOA: Could you please elaborate on counterterrorism, including countering Islamic State Khorasan, and what roles does the U.S. want to see China and Russia play?
WEST: (President Joe Biden) has made clear that the United States will maintain an unwavering commitment to ensure that Afghanistan never again represents a threat to the United States or its allies. Certainly central to our discussions with the Taliban on October 9 and 10 and, frankly, even going back to August when I was in Kabul as a part of our efforts to support the evacuation. Fulfillment of the Taliban's terrorism commitments has been just a bedrock gating issue for us, and it will remain so. As far as Russia and China are concerned, I think they share our depth of concern over the possibility that terrorists will present a threat to their countries and to their neighbors. And so, it's a common point of concern for the entire international community when it comes to engaging with the Taliban.
VOA: An American is being held hostage in Afghanistan: Mark Frerichs. Do you have anything on his condition?
WEST: I'll tell you that Mark’s release is an essential issue for us with the Taliban, essential issue that we raise on virtually every occasion. Responsible states do not hold hostages. That's just a fact. And so, if they want to be treated as a responsible state going forward, then we will see Mark’s return as soon as possible.
VOA: How do you assess Pakistan's role, given its support for the Taliban in the past 20 years? Is Pakistan’s support for the Taliban a point of contention in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship? Or could it be a leverage over the Taliban to make concessions on women’s rights, girls’ education, and to form an inclusive government, et cetera?
WEST: You know, we will continue intensive discussions at all levels of the Pakistani bureaucracy on Afghanistan. They do still hold considerable leverage, I think, in the region and in Afghanistan, just by dint of their history, their linguistic and cultural ties, and the strong ties between communities across the border. Is it a point of contention? Sometimes yes, and it's a two-way dialogue. I think the Pakistanis have concerns about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and we've long had concerns about Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan. I think the important part is that it is a two-way dialogue, and we are not shutting down channels of communication, as evidenced by their good effort to host the last expanded Troika meeting.