The UNDP’s Resident Representative in Kabul, Afghanistan, Abdullah Dardari, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the political dialogue between the international body and the Taliban was constructive and making progress before the latter issued a decision to ban girls from education.
Dardari noted that the Taliban is fighting a vicious and explicit battle against ISIS.
In a Zoom interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he pointed out that there is a statement from the “Taliban” that there is no room for al-Qaeda’s activity in Afghanistan and that authorities are monitoring the implementation of the decision.
On the issue of drugs, Dardari said that 10 % of the total agricultural areas of Afghanistan are planted with opium flowers.
“Afghanistan produces 80 % of the global production of opium flowers and has around four million addicts that include one and a half million women and children,” said Dardari.
According to Dardari, the opium flower trade generates between $2-$3 billion and has a market value of $200 billion.
Dardari noted that Afghanistan’s position was both a “blessing and a curse.”
Here’s the full text of the interview:
It will be the first anniversary of the significant change in Afghanistan in about a month. Can you describe your impressions of that turning point when US forces withdrew?
Last August 15, I was in my office in a meeting with the remaining staff. I had asked 77 international staffers to leave Afghanistan and 350 local personnel to work from home. I was expecting things to deteriorate. I had three international staffers and a few local workers in the office. The UN compound is in the southeast of Kabul, on the outskirts of the city.
My office manager came to me at half past ten in the morning and collapsed, saying, “They arrived” (to the compound gate).
Those were moments that evoked fear, fear of the unknown.
They knocked on the compound’s door and entered it without causing any problems, asking to speak with security officials. They assured the security officials that they were here to protect us and that there was no need to be afraid.
The Taliban committed to two things: 1 - The UN staff has the right to enter any area in Afghanistan and communicate anywhere. 2- Full protection insurance.
We are touring Afghanistan and entering all the regions with an escort from the Taliban.
On August 15, I waited until the evening to call the UNDP leadership in New York, and was asked, “What do you want to do?” I decided that we had to stay and put together a team abroad based on a clear plan.
I arranged things, and I left a few days later for Dubai, where I gathered a team and was the first to return via Islamabad and joined the team members successively.
The UNDP has been operating in Afghanistan for 50 years and has never left, and I thought this approach could not be changed. Other UN organizations have also remained.
As the UNDP team, have you reached places in Afghanistan that you were not able to get under the previous government?
This is correct. I spent 13 hours on the road between Kandahar and Kabul, stretching over 465 km; Almost every 100 meters, there was a crater caused by an explosion. No side can expect victory in Afghanistan. This is an impossible war. We entered areas we had not entered before, neglected areas that lack health and educational services. Everyone we interviewed said they didn’t want a food basket but a job opportunity. Afghans are generous people and want to work.
What are the UNDP’s priorities? Will it be different from its priorities at the time of the previous government when it was perhaps aid without empowerment?
From the first moments, the absence of a government forced us to work with local communities, not with central institutions with which the results of cooperation were questionable. There were also wasted investments. We work with people on the ground, with rural women and youth. We provide funding and training as they run projects. We reach everywhere and support people directly.
The illiteracy rate in Afghanistan is at 70%, but they have a very high and sophisticated development awareness. Work here can be tiring and stressful, but we see immediate results. We secured 500,000 temporary jobs; This means that 500,000 families have an income after they could not know how to ensure their next meal.
Those people had said they were about to walk to Iran, then to Turkey and then Europe.
There is no international recognition of the Taliban government, but through your contacts with donors, major countries, and the US, did you raise the issue of releasing billions of frozen dollars that belong to the Afghans?
The position of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is to allow the Afghan people to benefit from their resources.
The frozen funds are about $7 billion. Development aid is worth $7 billion annually, and the total annual needs are $8.4 billion for humanitarian and development needs. Since August 15, the UNDP in Afghanistan has received $2.2 billion, of which $950 million has been transferred in cash.
I was afraid, after the start of the war in Ukraine, that there would be a decrease in the volume of aid to Afghanistan, but that did not happen, and the support continued at the same pace.
After the war in Ukraine, there was no change in the commitment of donors?
Regarding the UNDP in Afghanistan, there has been no change in either commitments or implementation.
Taliban’s Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani had expressed his frustration over the lack of recognition of the Taliban government. I appreciate that your work has nothing to do with politics, but have you put forward some steps that could facilitate recognition of their government?
This type of political discourse is left to expert parties. But, according to my knowledge, the dialogue was progressing well between the UN and the de facto authorities. Although they weren’t advancing in terms of recognition, the space available was expanding every day by donors.
There were exceptions to sanctions until the morning of March 23, when the Taliban issued a decision to prevent girls from education at the secondary level. This had a very negative impact on the atmosphere of dialogue. It was a constructive conversation.
We are also interested in reviving the Afghan banking system, which is on the verge of collapse, and we are still working.
Banning girls’ education at the secondary level was a negative shock.
How would you explain this decision?
Whenever we raise this issue with an official, their response is that this is a technical decision. One of the officials assured me in English, “Education for all is our policy.”
They cite technical reasons such as gender segregation in the classroom and providing female teachers. We have offered them help in these matters.
I want to point out here that several Afghan provinces continued to educate girls at the secondary level. There is an honest debate about it and no explanation for this decision.
Let’s talk about drugs in Afghanistan …
In Afghanistan, an area of 220 thousand hectares, about 10 % of the total agricultural areas, is planted with drugs.
Afghanistan produces 80 % of the world’s total production of opium, and has four million addicts, including one and a half million women and children, out of 40 million Afghans.
Returns from drug cultivation range between $2 billion and $3 billion dollars inside Afghanistan, but after manufacturing and exporting, the market value may reach $200 billion.
Is there a UN plan to deal with the drug issue?
The UNDP has an important program funded by the US Department of State to provide alternative crops. But the volume of drug intake represents the economy of a country. We are concerned, because there are 4 million addicts who need to be treated and followed up.
Alternative cultivations can not only be done through the UNDP, but it needs a huge joint work. A portion of the drug can be legitimately manufactured for the pharmaceutical industry. But there is no complete and ready-made program.
We are still in the phase of humanitarian work and securing primary humanitarian needs.
There is a reluctance to go to the purely developmental issue, as this needs to be dealt with by a government, and we work within restrictions, and propose solutions to immediate and long-term problems within a very narrow scope.
Tell us more about the position of the Taliban on ISIS and Al-Qaeda...
The Taliban are in fierce war and a clear battle with ISIS. They are killing and getting killed in those battles. As for Al-Qaeda, there is a clear and explicit declaration that there is no room for Afghanistan to be a place or a launching pad for terrorist operations. Authorities are monitoring the application of this declaration.
Can you speak about the importance of the geopolitical position of Afghanistan regarding the next stage, with the rise of China and the exit of the US from Afghanistan?
Afghanistan’s location is both an advantage and a curse. Its location could be an opportunity for Afghanistan to advance economically as its location contributes to regional economic interdependence.
The energy available in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan can only reach Pakistan and India through Afghanistan; So, it is a very important strategic location.
Also, moving from China to the Gulf passes through Afghanistan. The railway between the Mediterranean and Asia must pass through Afghanistan as well.
It must be noted that Afghanistan is landlocked. This makes it necessary to have access to ports freely to distribute their products. Afghanistan has a strategic position that no other country can take as it is located at the crossroads of Central and South Asia.
If you were a leader of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on August 15, would you worry?
I would have looked at it from an angle: How can my country benefit from these developments? The level of relationships is important. On the 25th of this month, a meeting of 40 countries will be held in Tashkent to discuss regional cooperation on and with Afghanistan.
Regardless of who rules Afghanistan, its position cannot be ignored. We have seen a significant increase in transit trade after the security situation has become much better, bribery levels have decreased, and moving from northern Afghanistan to the south has become more accessible.