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Canada is still blocking aid to Afghanistan

More than 23 million Afghans currently need humanitarian aid

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastWar ZonesHuman Rights

A Taliban soldier in Kabul, August 21, 2022. Photo by Callum Darragh/Wikimedia Commons.

It has been almost three years since the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan. Since then, the United States and its allies, including Canada, have attempted to diplomatically and economically isolate the new government at every turn—with disastrous consequences for ordinary Afghans.

While some countries, including China and Russia, have effectively acknowledged the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, the isolation of the country’s rulers persists. Afghanistan was excluded from COP28 at the end of 2023, despite being significantly vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. In February the following year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres refused to meet with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar.

Washington has led the economic isolation of Afghanistan. In February 2022, the Biden administration seized $7 billion in Afghan central bank reserves, depriving the government of much-needed funds as it attempted to rebuild after decades of war. Soon after, malnutrition rose across Afghanistan, putting the lives of over one million children at risk.

Canada was an active participant in the military occupation of Afghanistan from 2003 to 2011, and played a leading role in Western-led efforts to isolate the Taliban after it captured Kabul in August 2021.

In fact, Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan preceded 2003. Operation Apollo, the Canadian military’s expansive contribution to the Bush administration’s Operation Enduring Freedom, began in October 2001 and ran until October 2003, by which point a more formal structure of occupation had been established. After the Harper government withdrew Canadian combat forces in 2011, hundreds of trainers remained there until 2014. Ottawa subsequently provided funding to the Afghan National Army.

Throughout every point during its mission, the Canadian government claimed to put the wellbeing of Afghans first. Canadian leaders justified the war on the basis that Western powers were bringing democracy and gender equality to Afghanistan, and that military force was required to protect these gains from a barbarous terrorist group.

Now that the Taliban govern Afghanistan (again), Ottawa’s concern for Afghans seems to have evaporated.

After the Biden administration’s theft of Afghanistan’s central bank reserves—and reports of desperate Afghans selling organs and marrying their child daughters for dowry payments simply to survive—the Canadian government made the decision to prevent much-needed food and medical aid from entering the country. In one case, Ottawa blocked a World Vision Canada shipment that would have fed 1,800 children.

Canada blocked these deliveries on the basis that their distribution may have incurred taxes to the Taliban, a federally recognized terrorist organization. The federal government threatened aid workers with criminal prosecution for bringing aid to Afghans—the very people Ottawa claimed to be protecting during the occupation.

In December 2022, amidst pleading from aid groups to allow their operation in Afghanistan, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan announced unspecified “tweaks” to Canada’s anti-terrorism laws. Inaction followed in the first half of 2023. Then, in June of that year, Parliament passed a bill offering blanket exemptions to terrorism financing laws for those delivering life-saving aid during emergencies. The exemption applies to “humanitarian” work as opposed to “development” work, a distinction that has left many aid workers confused as to what they are legally allowed to do inside Afghanistan.

By November 2023, Canada’s choice to maintain a highly restrictive aid regime continued hampering the work of international organizations. That month, the CBC reported that “Canadian aid groups say Ottawa hasn’t cleared roadblocks that bar them from getting aid into Afghanistan, despite Parliament passing legislation this spring.” Martin Fischer, policy director for World Vision Canada, described himself as “frustrated and bewildered” by the restrictions.

It is now midway through 2024, and Ottawa is still restricting the operation of aid programs throughout Afghanistan.

There is no justification for doing this. The prior rationale for blocking aid—that the terrorist Taliban government would derive resources from the deliveries—no longer exists, by Ottawa’s own admission. If it did, why would the federal government be busy reforming its anti-terrorism laws to allow aid in?

Despite these minimal reforms, Canada continues blocking aid, even as the United Nations notes that 23.7 million people in Afghanistan require humanitarian assistance.

Since June 2023, aid groups have struggled to figure out which forms of aid Ottawa considers “humanitarian” and which it considers “developmental.”

In late April 2024, Asma Faiza, head of the Afghan Women’s Organization, told Global News: “groups are trying to address a wide spectrum of issues—from hunger and disease to political repression—and remain confused about which projects should fit into either category [humanitarian or developmental].” For example, there is a lack of clarity about how to legally categorize initiatives such as vaccination programs, mental health projects, and direct aid to women and girls. In other words, bureaucratic delay is obstructing progress and blocking the fulfillment of these essential programs.

Faiza added that Canadian organizations are “ready, willing and able to work” in Afghanistan, but “they are prohibited” by the federal government.

Martin Fischer said that “there’s still this passing of responsibility” in Ottawa. “General exemptions for a few organizations are not enough.”

Ontario Senator Ratna Omidvar has criticized the government’s constraints on Afghan aid since the Taliban takeover. In April, she told Global News: “Canadians need to understand, accept and acknowledge that we were complicit in all of this… But we can be front of the line in terms of aid, humanitarian and developmental.”

Omidvar is right: Canada is partly responsible for Afghanistan’s multifaceted humanitarian plight. By shunning the Taliban regime, Ottawa is isolating Afghanistan at a time when it needs international cooperation more than ever: to rebuild its infrastructure, relieve mass hunger, and mitigate the impacts of climate change. As Graeme Smith and Ibraheem Bahiss wrote in Foreign Affairs, “the world has no choice but to work with the Taliban.”

From 2001 onward, Canada chose to involve itself in Afghan affairs, directly influencing the country’s security and economic policies. Canada ran the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team from 2005 to 2011, engaging in deadly special forces missions, large-scale ground combat, psychological operations, and more. The Canadian military’s heavy hand, including its documented complicity in torture, turned many Afghans against us.

Canada made extensive development promises to Afghans during this period: the high-profile Dahla Dam, a polio eradication campaign, and school construction. As I outline in my book, Canada in Afghanistan, none of these aid projects lived up to their promises.

Canadians helped draft the Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS), which endorsed widespread privatization as a pillar of the new economy. Canadian companies then poured into Afghanistan to take advantage of these policies, making substantial profits from a system imposed on the country through military occupation.

Ultimately, Canadian advisors helped build a military, judicial, and economic system in Afghanistan that many Afghans viewed as corrupt, unaccountable, and repressive. Many Western participants in the occupation knew this fact very well. As one former security advisor told the Toronto Star: “If I were Afghan, I too would join the insurgency in a heartbeat. Compared to the [Western-backed] Karzai group, the Taliban comes across as Robin Hood.”

During the occupation, Canada claimed to be in Afghanistan for the good of Afghans—for democracy, women’s rights, and economic development. The heavy-handedness of the military, and the profit opportunities created for Canadian capital, were not mentioned, as they would have undermined the image of Canadian benevolence that Ottawa so carefully manages.

Canada was quick to wash its hands of events in Afghanistan after 2014, refusing to take responsibility as the Taliban grew in strength and the new state became more discredited locally.

After the Taliban seized power in August 2021, Canada blocked aid deliveries as the situation grew more dire by the day. And despite pleading from charities, there seems to be no political will in Ottawa to reform the laws that are still restricting aid deliveries to Afghanistan. The government’s current plan—to achieve “full operational capacity by late 2024”—reveals a total lack of urgency, and a glaring lack of interest in the lives of people whom Ottawa claimed for years we intervened in Afghanistan to defend.

Every day, the Canadian government makes the active decision to deprive Afghanistan of much-needed aid. If Ottawa wants to maintain the illusion that it cares about Afghans, it needs to unblock aid—now.

Owen Schalk is a writer from rural Manitoba. He is the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023 and the co-author of Canada’s Long Fight Against Democracy with Yves Engler.

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