The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Afghanistan is facing a vast humanitarian disaster — and not only at the airport

An internally displaced girl outside her makeshift home in Kabul in January. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Barnett R. Rubin is a former senior adviser to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department, and a nonresident fellow of the Center for International Cooperation of New York University and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Media coverage of Afghanistan is understandably focused on the precarious situation of thousands of Americans and Afghans who are desperate to leave. But there is far more to Afghanistan’s dilemma than the crisis at the airport — and the world needs to start confronting a host of other daunting realities.

The United States and other aid donors have responded to the Taliban takeover by stopping the flow of financial aid and freezing Afghanistan’s reserves and other financial accounts. Yet Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most aid-dependent countries in the world. An internal document of the World Food Program warns that, “A humanitarian crisis of incredible proportions is unfolding before our eyes. Conflict combined with drought and covid-19 is pushing the people of Afghanistan into a humanitarian catastrophe.”

According to this document, more than 1 in 3 Afghans — some 14 million people — are hungry today, while 2 million children are malnourished and urgently need treatment. More than 3.5 million — out of a population of 38 million — are internally displaced. Just to make matters worse, a massive drought has devastated crops. More than 40 percent of the country’s crops were lost to drought this year.

On August 13, Central Bank Director Ajmal Ahmady reported that we “received a call that given the deteriorating environment, we wouldn’t get any more dollar shipments.” The Afghan currency, the afghani, “spiked from a stable 81 [to the dollar] to almost 100 then back to 86,” Ahmady said. Food products, mainly wheat, constitute about 14 percent of Afghanistan’s total imports. According to the WFP document, the price of wheat, the main staple food, is now 24 percent above the five-year average, and sustained instability or devaluation of the currency will result in even higher food prices, assuring that hunger will spread. In the same internal document, WFP says that it needs $200 million immediately to pre-position food stocks by October to assist 9 million Afghans per month over the winter.

The country’s health system is collapsing. One official still at his post in Kabul, who spoke to me anonymously because he was not authorized to do so, told me: “We don’t have medicine, consumables and required basic equipment in the government-run hospitals. Staff salaries are pending for the last three months at least.” And this is taking place while Afghanistan is suffering from a crippling third wave of covid-19, the true dimensions of which are unknown.

Extending the Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Kabul airport, which is now being considered by the Biden administration, might maintain some order in the exodus, but the flow of refugees and migrants in all directions is certain to accelerate as hunger and disease add to the toll of war and repression.

A former official familiar with government operations told me that, in addition to health workers, no other civil servants were paid in Afghanistan last month. He added that the ministry of finance, which funds the government payroll, is shuttered. That means that virtually all providers of essential services — both government-funded civil servants and employees of foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations — are unemployed. The official suggested that international financial institutions may be able to use some existing mechanisms to get the ministry of finance working without funding the Taliban.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan has no government. The Taliban’s deputy leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, who led the group’s negotiations with the United States in Qatar, is now in Kabul, negotiating with former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, who headed the former government’s talks with the Taliban, about the formation of a new government. These talks are likely to drag on as the Taliban takes a hard line and seeks to consolidate its unexpected victory.

The people of the country need assistance desperately. Even if there is no government to recognize or no government worthy of recognition, international organizations have experience delivering humanitarian aid in areas controlled by unrecognized authorities. That may require establishing U.N. humanitarian corridors to allow people to flee and to deliver aid to areas beyond Kabul. It may require supporting some government institutions with whatever safeguards can be put in place. Even as the United States uses its dwindling influence to affect the political outcome, it is vital to mobilize all possible international resources to rescue Afghanistan from an even worse humanitarian crisis.

President Biden may claim that the United States went to Afghanistan solely “to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden.” Yet, in 2014, when Biden was vice president, the United States signed the Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan, which stated that the two countries “are committed to seeking a future of justice, peace, security, and opportunity for the Afghan people.”

Afghans are facing a humanitarian catastrophe of daunting proportions. The world must take action — sooner rather than later. After 20 years of botched policy, the United States has a particular obligation to mitigate the oncoming disaster. Let us hope it can find the will to do what it can.