Afghans go hungry as U.S. and Taliban officials blame each other

Women line up outside a store where food is distributed to poverty-stricken families in Herat, Afghanistan.
Families at a hospital ward for malnourished children in Kabul. Children are examined to determine their level of malnutrition, but only the most severe cases are admitted to the hospital.
Gulsoom, seen in March at 8 months old, was not admitted to the hospital in Kabul, but her family was given packets of therapeutic food so she could be treated for malnutrition at home.

DEZWARI, Afghanistan — Ahmed Shah Jamshidi and his family go to bed hungry every night, but not because food is in short supply. They just can’t afford enough of it.

“We were poor before the takeover. Now we have nothing,” said Jamshidi, 42, who lost his job as a security guard after aid cuts crippled the economy. His village in western Afghanistan, in the mountains outside of Herat, had already endured years of drought, forcing most farmers to sell off livestock and look for work in nearby towns and cities.

Throughout the country, millions of lives are similarly threatened. Childhood malnutrition is on the rise, and nearly half of all Afghans don’t have enough to eat, according to the latest figures from the United Nations. Jamshidi’s family is among them, even as he scrambles to keep his wife and seven children from starving. He borrows money from shopkeepers to buy increasingly expensive items like potatoes and cooking oil that his wife uses to make the family’s main meal: a pot of watery stew.

Some days there is no food and “the children scream from the hunger at night,” he said. “Sometimes all we have is donated stale bread and tea. And when we run out of tea, I just gather grass to boil with the water.”

Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis has been building for decades, driven not just by persistent poverty and too little rain, but also by generations of war and an economy almost entirely dependent on international support. Still, it was the Biden administration’s decision to halt aid in response to the Taliban takeover that put the country on the brink of catastrophe.

“Not another cent will go to a future government of Afghanistan that doesn’t uphold basic human rights,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters after the fall of Kabul in August. It was a “knee-jerk” response, in the recent words of one U.S. official involved in those policy discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about them.

The State Department’s refusal to recognize the Taliban also made it impossible for the country’s new rulers to access billions of dollars in foreign assets. Parallel moves by the World Bank and the European Union brought Afghanistan’s economy crashing down.

As winter approached and humanitarian groups warned of famine, the Biden administration came under increasing pressure to prevent a catastrophe. In recent months, the United States and others began to funnel money through the United Nations and groups that bypass Taliban leadership. Yet these hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid are a small fraction of the billions that once kept the country afloat.

The economic isolation of Afghanistan has done little to moderate the Taliban’s hard-line rule. But the consequences have been devastating for the Afghan people, especially the poor.

Lal Mohammed, Jamshidi’s neighbor in Dezwari, lost his job as a day laborer after the U.S. withdrawal. Desperate to find work, he made four attempts to cross illegally into Iran. Border guards beat him and turned him back. The 65-year-old has resorted to subsistence farming with his sons.

Mohammed’s entire family is eating less, including his pregnant daughter.

“I feel weaker,” said Nour Bibi, a 30-year-old mother of two. “I don’t know exactly what’s wrong. I never had this condition before.”

Mohammed wants to take her to the doctor, but he can’t spare the $2 for a taxi.

Lal Mohammed and his sons work their land in Herat province, resorting to subsistence farming. The nearby river has been mostly dry this year. His entire family is eating less as a result.

The blame game

Even though Afghanistan has avoided famine — at least for now — its economy remains in tatters, and neither the international community nor the Taliban is taking responsibility for the hunger crisis.

“This is a huge conundrum for policymakers,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the record. “There is no easy fix. There is no ‘turning the taps back on,’ ” he said, referring to the billions of dollars in aid that flowed into the country over the past two decades.

“The humanitarian situation remains a central and driving imperative of American policymaking,” he said, but “the onus is increasingly on the Taliban.”

The Biden administration has said the Taliban must form an inclusive government and guarantee the rights of minorities and women if it wants to win recognition from the international community. The group has responded by cracking down on dissent, shuttering schools for girls and forcing women to cover from head to toe.

“Our fight was against the invaders to free Afghanistan from occupation and establish Islamic law,” acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told The Washington Post. “There will be no change in our stance.”

Asked whether the group would soften its interpretation of Islamic law in exchange for humanitarian relief, Muttaqi was indignant: “In the past, our people were killed in bombings and raids, even the mother of bombs was used on them. So do you think that was better?”

Residents in Dezwari say they have not received help from the Taliban or outside groups. The withdrawal of U.S. forces was unnerving, said Jamshidi, but most people thought better days were ahead.

“We thought once the war was over, there would be even more jobs for us,” he said. “Instead, the United States left everything in disorder.”

Thousands of Afghan families have fled the countryside, only to face further deprivation in the cities.

Muhammed Azam Yaqub lost his livelihood when his farm was destroyed last summer in clashes between the Taliban and Afghan government forces. With no money to rebuild in his village and no way to support his family, he spent his savings to move them to Herat.

“We thought even if there is no work here, we can at least find help” from aid groups, he reasoned. “But we haven’t found anything.”

He now lives in a makeshift camp on the city’s edge, and his sons beg door to door for food.

“The hunger, it makes us weak,” said Yaqub’s mother-in-law, Shiringul. “I never thought our family would be in a situation like this.”

Other children from the camp, some as young as 4 or 5, are sent into Herat to shine shoes on street corners, making less than a dollar a day for their families to spend on food.

The Taliban’s deputy minister for refugees and repatriations admitted that the assistance it provides to displaced families is “insufficient” but blamed the international community.

“We are facing financial hardships,” Muhammad Arsala Kharutai said. “When we arrived in Kabul, there was no money left in the government accounts.”

With an economy in tatters, many families have been forced to relocated to a camp for internally displaced people outside the city of Herat.

Born into hunger

The malnutrition ward at Kabul’s main children’s hospital has been full for months, with some babies sharing beds. There aren’t enough nurses to attend to everyone, so family members operate delicate medical devices like feeding tubes.

Madina Noori had to travel more than 250 miles from Mazar-e Sharif to get help for her daughter, Sahar, who was born soon after the Taliban took control. “She was fine when she was born, but after a few days I began to worry something was wrong,” said Noori, who didn’t have enough milk to sustain her. “Her skin started turning yellow, and she was very weak.”

Sahar’s health deteriorated quickly. By the time Noori got her to the hospital, the baby couldn’t swallow liquids. Even after a week of treatment, Sahar hadn’t improved. Her hands and feet were gaunt, her skin a pale gray.

“They told us she may need to stay here for weeks, but I don’t know if we can stay that long,” said Noori, who is quickly running out of money. She and her mother sleep on the hospital floor beside Sahar’s bed because they can’t afford a place to stay.

A doctor at the hospital, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the facility’s shortcomings, said the crush of cases means that only the most critically ill patients can be treated. “Everyone else, we send them home with packets of formula,” he said.

Fahima Galani and her 7-month-old daughter, Sama, were among those turned away.

“I had never heard of malnutrition, but when we arrived at the hospital I saw so many other similar babies,” Galani said. “We were shocked.” For more than a month, she and her older daughters took turns feeding Sama a formula paste from the hospital. The little girl is still not gaining weight.

The Taliban’s deputy economic minister acknowledged in an interview this week that “people are suffering.”

“We have experienced a major revolution, and it has had its impacts,” Abdul Latif Nazari said. “The people have to endure it to reach the next phase.”

For Galani’s family, that has meant slowly selling off household items like carpets and kitchen pots to buy food. Her husband has been out of work since the Taliban takeover and their savings are gone.

“She had such a good appetite when she was born,” Galani said, rocking her crying infant in the family’s bare front room in Kabul. “I just think of all the times I couldn’t feed her.”

“I feel like this is my fault.”

Mothers and children wait to be seen by a nurse at a hospital ward for malnourished children in Kabul. The crush of cases means that only the most critically ill patients can be treated.