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G20 leaders pledge to avert Afghanistan humanitarian crisis

Italian prime minister Mario Draghi attends a press conference after the G20 Extraordinary Leaders Meeting on Afghanistan at Palazzo Chigi, Rome, Italy 20 October. (Credit: Keystone/ EPA/ Riccardo Antimiani)

G20 leaders agreed on Tuesday to work together through the United Nations to avert a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, even if that means involving the Taliban in getting aid into the country.

The virtual emergency summit of G20 countries was held as the UN urged leaders to pledge billions in aid to support Afghanistan’s economy and address urgent humanitarian needs during a “make or break” moment for the country.

Italian prime minister and current chair of the group Mario Draghi said leaders and ministers had agreed to act through the United Nations and its agencies. He said there was a consensus that there would be no choice but to involve the Taliban in sending aid into the country, but this did not mean the group would be recognised as a legitimate government.

“Addressing the humanitarian crisis will require contacts with the Taliban, but this does not mean their recognition,” Draghi told reporters following the meeting. “We must acknowledge that they will be judged for what they do, not for what they say.”

“It is very hard to see how you can help people in Afghanistan without involving the Taliban,” he added.

Aid agencies have warned Afghanistan is on the verge of collapse, with foreign aid having dried up since the Taliban took power and around $9bn of Afghan assets overseas frozen by the United States.

Before the takeover, the country had been 75 per cent dependent on this aid to survive. Food prices have since soared, banks have run out of money, civil servants are no longer being paid and essential services such as healthcare have been shut down in many areas. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that millions of Afghans are at risk of severe hunger as winter approaches, with 95 per cent already not getting enough food to eat – up from 80 per cent before the Taliban seized control.

“To stand by and watch 40 million people plunge into chaos because electricity can’t be supplied and no financial system exists, that cannot and should not be the goal of the international community,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters.

The European Union opened the talks by pledging an extra €700m in emergency aid to help Afghans both inside the country and those who have fled since the Taliban seized control of the country on August 15, bringing the total EU commitment to €1bn.

Ahead of the meeting, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warned world leaders to take action to “find ways to make the economy breathe again” as well as provide urgent humanitarian aid for millions of Afghans.

“This can be done without violating international laws or compromising principles,” he told reporters in New York on Monday. “If we do not act and help Afghans weather this storm, and do it soon, not only they but all the world will pay a heavy price.”

He said money could be injected into Afghanistan's economy via UN trust funds and other instruments. He added he was particularly concerned about the Taliban not honouring promises made regarding the rights of Afghan women and girls, and that the UN had been engaging with the group throughout September to ensure its female staff can work unimpeded.

The G20 meeting was the first time the world's richest countries had come together to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, while the Taliban held its first in-person talks with a US-EU delegation in Qatar. US president Joe Biden told the meeting that aid should be provided through independent international organisations such as the UN rather than put directly into the hands of the Taliban.

China's President Xi Jinping and Russia's President Vladimir Putin did not attend the conference but instead sent representatives. Russia has arranged a rival conference on Afghanistan in Moscow on 20 October and invited Pakistan, India and Iran as well as the Taliban.

Prime Minister Draghi said the absence of Russia and China's leaders did not undermine the importance of the meeting. “This was the first multilateral response to the Afghan crisis… multilateralism is coming back, with difficulty, but it is coming back,” Draghi said.