“I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit,” Biden said, likely reacting to the uproar in Washington over the havoc of the withdrawal. But beyond paying lip service to extending U.S. humanitarian aid to the country, Biden said far less about the plight of the millions of Afghans now living under de facto Taliban rule. And that plight is getting all the more dire.
The Taliban takeover has intensified overlapping humanitarian crises in Afghanistan. Food prices are skyrocketing. Banks are shut, depriving the Afghan people of access to much-needed cash. Salaries for public-sector employees are not being paid, as confusion and political paralysis grip the country.
The Taliban is trying to present a reasonable face to the international community, while its leaders are in talks with other Afghan politicians in Kabul about the way forward. But they are faced with the unwelcome consequences of their own dramatic success. “For weeks now, the country has had no government, no armed forces, no system, no salaries, no leaders,” Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence chief who recently fled to Uzbekistan, told my colleagues. “The vacuum only adds to public confusion and endangers the hope for positive change.”
As the Taliban seized control, the international aid that drove a large portion of the Afghan economy was shut off. “Last week, the World Bank froze its aid to Afghanistan, citing its concerns over ‘the country’s development prospects, especially for women,’ under Taliban rule,” my colleagues noted. “The International Monetary Fund has similarly blocked access to Afghanistan’s $460 million in emergency reserves. The United States has blocked about $7 billion in Afghan central bank reserves held in U.S. institutions.”
These steps allow the United States and the rest of the international community to maintain a degree of leverage over the powers-that-be in Kabul, even as American troops and diplomats were evacuated. But it’s also setting the stage for the country’s potential economic collapse. Foreign aid accounts for some 40 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product; the country’s currency, the afghani, has tumbled since the Taliban’s ascent.
U.N. agencies warn of cascading crises buffeting Afghanistan. The World Food Program reported last week that 1 in 3 Afghans are going hungry, and 2 million malnourished Afghan children may need urgent treatment.
“There’s a perfect storm coming because of several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by COVID,” David Beasley, WFP’s executive director, told Reuters. “The number of people marching towards starvation has spiked to now 14 million.” He added that, absent emergency funds from international donors, his agency would be hard-pressed to carry out its work in the country, thereby putting millions of lives at risk.
Throughout the pandemic, major international humanitarian operations have gone underfunded. That is clearly the case in Afghanistan, where a $1.3 billion U.N. humanitarian appeal has only received 39 percent of its necessary funding. The political limbo in Kabul, and suspicions over how the Taliban may or may not allow the passage of international aid, only further complicates matters.
On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres announced plans to launch a flash appeal for Afghanistan in coming days. He said about 18 million people — approximately half of Afghanistan’s population — may need some form of humanitarian assistance to survive. “People are losing access to basic goods and services every day,” Guterres said. “A humanitarian catastrophe looms.”
In a briefing Monday, Hervé Ludovic De Lys, the Afghanistan representative for UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency, said some 10 million Afghan children are in need of humanitarian assistance. In a country that was “already one of the worst places on earth to be a child,” De Lys said, there were now harrowing new reports of children being brutalized by militants and recruited as child soldiers.
“Against a backdrop of conflict and insecurity, children are living in communities that are running out of water because of the drought,” he said. “They’re missing life-saving vaccines, including against polio, a disease that can paralyze children for life. Many are so malnourished they lie in hospital beds too weak to grasp an outstretched finger.”
Then there’s the impact of climate change. Last week, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned that an “ever-worsening drought” threatens the livelihoods of some 7 million Afghans who work either in the fields or with livestock. There are areas in Afghanistan that have warmed at twice the rate of the global average, while spring rains have grown more inconsistent. Impoverished countries around the world are struggling to cope with the socio-economic fallout of a shifting climate, but conflict-ravaged Afghanistan is facing an even more acute challenge.
“The war has exacerbated climate change impacts. For 10 years, over 50 percent of the national budget goes to the war,” Noor Ahmad Akhundzadah, a professor of hydrology at Kabul University, told the New York Times last week. “Now there is no government, and the future is unclear. Our current situation today is completely hopeless.”
Taliban officials, meanwhile, are selling a story of normalcy and optimism. “Most important is our national unity, integrity,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a briefing Tuesday, urging international aid and support. “And that’s why we need all the economic experts and professionals to step forward, come together and lay down a road map for the future.”
“I invite you all to come and invest in Afghanistan,” he continued. “Your investments will be in good hands. The country will be stable and safe.”