By Sahr Muhammedally
Nearly three months after the Taliban’s takeover, Afghanistan is reeling from the combined shocks of COVID-19, conflict, drought, and economic collapse. Together, these factors have compounded to create a humanitarian crisis that threatens the lives of Afghans. The political transition in August 2021, with the collapse of the previous government and the Taliban filling the vacuum after international forces withdrew, has resulted in frozen foreign reserves, crumbling public finances, and rising poverty. Additionally, war, a global pandemic, and hazards of climate change still remain and are punishing the most vulnerable. Yet the international community has failed to develop a comprehensive approach to support Afghans in this new political reality with civilians paying the price.
World Food Programme (WFP) has declared that over half of Afghanistan’s 39 million do not have enough to eat and the United Nations (UN) reported that 97 percent of the country could be plunged into poverty by mid 2022. Since January 2021, over 677,000 individuals are internally displaced. Many are unable to return to their original homes, which are destroyed or damaged due to fighting during the first half of 2021. Since the Taliban takeover, over 300,000 have arrived in neighboring countries seeking protection. Furthermore, a second drought in four years is impacting the livelihoods of those in rural communities who rely on agriculture and livestock to survive.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Afghanistan is the 15th riskiest country in the world for children due to heat and drought, lack of health care, and risks from explosive remnants of war. In October 2021, UNICEF reported that half of Afghanistan’s children under five are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition. The healthcare system is on brink of collapse, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting that responses to COVID-19, including vaccination efforts, have diminished. As winter approaches, aid agencies in Afghanistan are in a race against time to deliver life-saving aid and supplies to communities, but this response plan remains only a third funded.
After the Taliban took over Kabul in the middle of August, international governments abruptly halted payments through the World Bank-administered Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, previously used to pay salaries to millions of civil servants, doctors, nurses, teachers, and other essential workers. Millions of Afghans lost their incomes as a result. The New York Federal Reserve also cut off the Afghan Central Bank’s access to its US dollar assets and the World Bank stopped the Central Bank from accessing its assets held by the International Monetary Fund.
Donors are understandably concerned about actions that would bolster or appear to legitimize Taliban authorities and are demanding an inclusive government, implementation of humanitarian operations, and respect for and protection of human rights – especially children’s and women’s rights. To date, there is limited compromise from the new authorities in Kabul. The brunt of this stand-off is borne by civilians who in the face of economic collapse are begging door-to-door to see if anyone can share food and, desperate to feed families, are reportedly selling off their children to survive.
Decades of war have taken an immense toll on Afghan citizens, who have suffered from landmines, IEDs, night raids, indirect fire, airstrikes, attacks on health care facilities, destroyed homes and schools, and displacement. In 2021, the Islamic State Khorosan (ISK) group has continued indiscriminate attacks against civilians, as evidenced at the Kabul airport, hospitals, schools, and mosques – killing hundreds and inflicting terror on the local population. On top of this, Taliban authorities are arresting activists, journalists, and former government workers, and adopting policies and practices that violate rights of women and girls to education, employment, and freedom of movement. Women face restrictions on work in the public sector, including delivery of humanitarian aid, which limits the ability in reaching and assessing needs of women and girls as the society is segregated by gender.
The resilience of Afghans to face these multiple protection threats is already stretched and the current humanitarian crisis has made it worse.
The Need for International Response
The United States, European Union, and other European countries are focused on the evacuation of at-risk Afghans and resettling allies; some are examining lessons from two decades of troubled efforts in rebuilding Afghanistan. But international donors need to urgently pay attention to the fate of the millions who remain in Afghanistan. The Taliban authorities, like the previous government, do not have adequate revenue sources to fund government services or the capacity to support Afghans facing the multiple threats of conflict, climate, COVID-19, and economic collapse. The dire humanitarian situation cannot be ignored because the Taliban are in charge. In fact, the political transition makes it more important than ever for the international community to develop a pragmatic approach to address the humanitarian and protection concerns of Afghan civilians.
The international community must urgently maximize humanitarian assistance and fulfill donor pledges to aid agencies; restore funding to public sectors such as health and education through World Bank and UN agencies in a way that benefits Afghans, discourages corruption, and holds the Taliban accountable to adhere to international norms; and review the complex set of UN Security Council, US, and EU sanctions to ensure they do not complicate delivery of humanitarian assistance by nongovernmental organizations. The Taliban will need to accept that donors will support assistance and services that are equitably distributed between men, women, girls, and boys, and should facilitate the work of humanitarian actors in safe way and remove bureaucratic obstacles to ensure timely aid to Afghans. This is a narrow path to prevent Afghanistan’s march toward starvation, as projected by the WFP.
Protracted war in Afghanistan has caused thousands of deaths and injuries, weakened essential services, and forced mass displacement. Afghan civilians should not suffer because of the international community’s difficulties in dealing with the Taliban. Instead, a comprehensive approach that puts humanitarian and protection of civilians concerns at the center of all engagement is urgently needed. Walking away from Afghanistan and the provision of support that is vital to ensure essential services and basic needs are met only hurts the Afghan people – it is indefensible.