Jessica Davis is the president of Insight Threat Intelligence and the author of Illicit Money: Financing Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century.
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan precipitated an economic crisis in the country, largely because the group is widely recognized as a terrorist organization by the international community. Because of this status, well-earned through two decades of insurgent and terrorist activity, many states have laws prohibiting the provision of financial services and funding to the Taliban. When the group made itself the de facto government in Afghanistan last year, these provisions still applied.
The logic of this prohibition is sound: The Taliban tax and extort the population where they hold territory, meaning that any aid delivered to these areas will benefit the group.
Fears of the Taliban taxing or misappropriating foreign aid are not unfounded; there are reports of Afghans accusing the Taliban of doing so. The Taliban have also recently resumed their auction of U.S. dollars, a form of currency auction through which the central bank, in this case Da Afghanistan Bank, sells foreign currency in a bidding process designed to stabilize local currency and meet demand for foreign currency. The funds used by the Taliban to conduct these auctions were likely acquired through taxation and extortion activities targeting aid organizations, including the United Nations.
Ideally, countries would work to ensure that any money earmarked for foreign aid in Afghanistan would not be able to make its way to the Taliban. However, the international community has quickly realized that, in reality, blocking all foreign aid in an effort to stop any money from flowing to the group is an unsustainable position – it would mean a catastrophic humanitarian and economic crisis for Afghans. In response, the United States quickly implemented a waiver system for aid delivery to Afghanistan, as did the United Nations. Canada did not, despite aid organizations asking for clarity on the issue so they could resume operations.
Under Canadian law, it is prohibited to provide property (financial or otherwise) knowing that it will be used in whole or in part to benefit a terrorist group. Unfortunately, in a case like Afghanistan, it’s almost certain that any goods or money provided to the country’s people will also benefit the Taliban.
Aid organizations argue that relaxing some aspects of this law would help Canada achieve its goal of accepting 40,000 Afghans. However, the Canadian government has been dithering on amending the Criminal Code to create a system for aid to Afghanistan, instead choosing to hide behind our sweeping counterterrorism financing laws. The fix is relatively simple: create a waiver system (an amendment to the Criminal Code), similar to those of the U.S. and the UN, providing the Minister of Public Safety with the ability to issue permits to qualified organizations seeking to deliver aid to Afghanistan.
The amendment would be straightforward, but this system would also require other elements to minimize the extent to which the Taliban (or other terrorist entities) can extort or tax aid delivery. Such a system would need to involve the financial sector, as many money-transfer agents would be rightly hesitant to transfer funds to Afghanistan. Some countries provide comfort letters to facilitate transactions, something Canada could consider.
A waiver system should also include training for aid organizations on how to minimize the ability of the Taliban (and other terrorist groups) to extract “taxes” from them; a system for reporting how much money is being lost to terrorist entities; and the ability to rescind the waiver or permit. Any such system should also include a public reporting mechanism so Canadians know how the government is weighing the need for humanitarian assistance with limiting the ability of terrorist groups to profit from this aid. It’s not an exact science, but rather a balancing act.
A Canadian waiver system will not entirely solve the problem of the Taliban benefiting from aid money, but it would balance the reality of the situation with the needs of the Afghan people. We cannot stop all aid to Afghanistan just because the Taliban will profit from it. Doing so would mean condemning millions of Afghans to starve to death. Instead, we have to accept the realpolitik of the situation: To stop a humanitarian catastrophe and to help refugees, we have to accept some benefit to the Taliban. The amount of aid from Canadian organizations is unlikely to make or break the Taliban, but a continued refusal to allow this aid to be delivered will most certainly mean that Afghans, including prospective Canadian refugees, are suffering unnecessarily.
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