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In Afghanistan, a humanitarian disaster looms

After braving two decades of conflict, the country’s battered population braces for crippling poverty and famine

By Hammad Sarfraz/Abdur Razzaq |
PUBLISHED December 05, 2021

In a little over three months, the situation appears to have come to a head for Afghanistan. A hasty pullout by foreign forces may have handed the Taliban the reins to the country on a platter, but everything else since has been a tumultuous ride.

The Taliban’s efforts to establish their rule has been rocked by a series of bloody attacks by ‘Khorasan’ offshoot of the Islamic State. But a far greater challenge has been shaped by the global community’s reluctance to engage with the new regime in Kabul. With the West in particular freezing all funds the Afghan government could once have laid claim too, an edifice built and sustained purely on foreign aid is collapsing.

After braving and surviving two decades of bloody conflict, the people of Afghanistan now face a new phase of crippling poverty and acute food shortage. With their nation suspended between larger global forces again, there seems to be no end in sight once more.

Glimpses from the ground

PHOTO: Omid Hiran

PHOTO: Omid Hiran

Thirty-year-old Omid Hiran of Nangarhar province of Afghanistan is the sole breadwinner of his six-member family. Hiran has a master’s degree in Pashto literature and before the takeover of the Afghan Taliban, he worked as a communications expert at the presidential palace of Afghanistan and earned AFN 62,000 per month however, even before the Taliban takeover, his two months salaries was not given to him by the government.

Since the fall of Kabul, Hairan has lost his job and is now facing severe financial issues. He spent all of his savings during the last five months and has now resorted to borrowing from others in order to pay rent and bills.

Another 35-year-old resident of Jalalabad city of Nangarhar province, Mehruban Stoman sells sugarcane juice on a handcart in the city. He says that during the previous government when his daily earning was more than AFN 1,000 he used to keep a helper as well.

Now Stoman’s earnings have reduced to about AFN 250 per day and cannot afford to keep a helper as he was able to just a mere three months ago.

Stoman adds that due to financial issues he made his his four daughters and two sons drop out of private schools and enrolled them in a religious seminary where they get a free education. He says that he hardly meets his home’s expenses including utility bills, food items and medicines due to his meagre earnings and the current high inflation in the country. According to him, due to the economic uncertainty in the country people think twice before spending money on juices and drinks. “Everybody is trying to save even a single penny for coming days,” he said.

Asia Ahmad, aged 23, is a Kabul-based fashion designer who runs a clothing store in the city. Through her store’s earning Ahmed runs an 11-member family including her parents, sisters, brothers, sister-in-law and her brother’s children. Her net profit was previously above $5,000 per month but has plummeted to less than $100. According to Ahmad, their family’s high standard of life has turned into a miserable one. “Before August 15, our lives were normal and there were no fear of bombings and attacks by gunmen. We were having even fashion shoots and had handsome earnings but after the Taliban takeover everything has changed,” she said.

Previously, there were 25 men and six women working in her shop but now she employs six men and one woman in her shop just to keep her business alive.

Ahmad too has had to dip into her savings the last three months just to buy food items, medicines, pay utility bills and other costs.

Before the takeover, she kept her shop open for more than 10 hours but now she just visits the store for an hour to meet her employees. Ahmad says so far she has kept her business open just to support the families of her workers in the current hard situation. “Before the Taliban takeover, a large number of people were visiting markets in Kabul but now only a few people come to buy some used items according to their needs,” she added.

Faiz Muhammad, aged 45, is a resident of the Kandahar province and runs a super store comprising food and other essential items in the provincial capital. According to him, his business has been hit hard by price hikes and the decline of purchasing power of people. “During the Ashraf Ghani government people had sufficient amounts of money but now the economic situation deteriorated in the country and people cannot afford to buy things,” he said. “During the previous government if a person was able to buy products worth AFN 500, now they can do shopping of AFN 100.”

Due to low sales and high costs of commodities, Muhammad cannot meet his household needs and expenses. “Buyers are trying to get goods on loan but I have to refuse them as I know that they are unable to repay the loan in the upcoming months. In the past whole sale dealers gave us products on loans but now the whole business is carried out on cash because of financial issues.”

A resident of Kandahar province, Mehmood Khan, aged 40, is a mason by profession a mason and a father of three school-going children. According to him, last year even in the winter, masons along with laborers had odd jobs as people were constructing houses and buildings, but now they are waiting for hours and hours but no one calls them for work.

PHOTO: Omid Hiran

PHOTO: Omid Hiran

Despite continuous efforts, Mehmood has been unsuccessful in earning a single penny in the last ten days. In preparation of the cold months ahead, he has begun to collect old tires, plastics and leather items from trash for burning purposes in order to keep his home warm as he cannot afford to buy wood or coal for burning.

“Like other food items, prices of every kind of medicine is also high,” he said. “Just a few months ago, we thad different kinds of food items in our house but now we have to eat single dish for days just to keep ourselves alive.”

Due to the lack of work available and increasing financial issues, he has to borrow food items from a next door shopkeeper. “How much time can he [shop keeper] can support me without my being able to pay him?”

Naqeeb Ullah, who is 50 years old, runs a hotel in Kandahar city. He has three children - a daughter and two sons. According to him, after the Taliban takeover, very few people have come to stay in his hotel. He previously employed 10 workers in the hotel, however the number has quickly dwindled down to six. “In the past, people had money so a large of customers used to visit the hotel but now hardly two to three people eat here in a single day,” he said.

Due to financial issues and unemployment, the number of workers who used to visit his hotel have left the city and only some workers of different kinds and laborers remain in the market to keep their workshops open.

“Before the political change in Afghanistan, my daily earnings were more than AFN 7,000, which has now reduced to about AFN 2,000. For the last two months, I have been borrowing money from others to run my business and meet my expenses. Just in the last two months, I have had to borrow more than AFN 100,000.”

Other nearby hotels have shut down and if the current harsh economic situation persists, then Naqeeb Ullah will have no choice but to close down his hotel too as the cost of maintaining the upkeep of the place with no incoming money, may be impossible.

Twenty-one-year-old university student and local radio’s presenter in Laghman province of Afghanistan, Usman Khan, used earn about AFN 8,000 per month from the radio station but for the last three months he has working without a salary. Up until recently, between him and his brother’s salary, they were able to run a 12-member family household. However, they have now had to resort to selling two of their three cows just to meet basic home expenses.

Currently, Usman is a studying Pashto literature however, he says that the current financial issues may force him to move illegally either to Iran or Turkey to earn a livelihood for his family. A number of men he knows, have already done so. Echoing the sentiments of most of the other residents of Afghanistan he says, “During the previous government, inflation was not so high and people had jobs and opportunities to work in different sectors but now the situation is the opposite. In Ghani’s government, inflation was somehow controlled but now the prices of various items have risen many folds.”

“Vegetables’ prices are still about the same as they are produced locally but prices of other items, which are imported have increased. During the previous government, the price of 50kg flour was almost AFN 1,500 but now its has jumped to about AFN 2,300. A packet of seven kg of sugar used to be AFN 250 but now it’s about AFN 500. 1 kg gas price used to be AFN 40 but for the same quantity, gas is on now about AFN 80 to 90.”

Burhanuddin Nizami, former employee of the Election Commission of Afghanistan in Kabul says that as a result of the fall of Kabul he lost his job, adding that the Taliban government refused to keep him employed because he was part of the previous system. For the last three months, he has been unable to pay his house rent and utility bills and his savings are about to finish and remains fearful about the financial uncertainty could mean for his and family’s future. “When I visit Kabul Bazaar in the morning, I see people who have displayed their homes’ appliances on road sides including carpets, cleaning equipment, washing machines and other necessary items, which are used in daily life at homes just to buy food for their families,” he said.

Nizami says that his friend was forced to sell items worth AFN 400,000 for the price of AFN 70,000, out of sheer desperation to keep his family alive during this difficult time.

On the brink of disaster


More than half of Afghanistan’s 38 million population are expected to face a similar financial crisis in the upcoming months. In the four months since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s subsequent seizing of power, the country is on the brink of a major humanitarian crisis.

The country’s economy was previously supported by billions in international aid, which was frozen US-led forces withdrew from the country. The aid used to represent 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP and financed 80 per cent of its budget.

Inflation and unemployment have both surged in Afghanistan, and the country’s banking sector has all but collapsed since the Taliban takeover. The financial crisis was aggravated when Washington froze about $10 billion of assets held in its reserve for Kabul and deteriorated further after the World Bank and International Monetary Fund ceased Afghanistan’s access to funding.

According to a United Nations Development Programme’s Socio-Economic Outlook 2021-2022’ report on Afghanistan, which was released recently, the country is looking to suffer an economic contraction of around 20 per cent of GDP within a year. This decline is further expected to reach 30 per cent in the following years.

The report further warned that depriving Afghan women of paid work could also lead to a further GRP drop of upto five per cent – a loss of wealth of $600 million to $1 billion.

Moreover, there is also a decline in consumer activity. Women who no longer work will also no longer buy as much, which could reach a loss of upto $500 million per year.

According to UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch, people in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan people are affected and displaced by war and drought. He added that currently 3.5 million people are internally displaced because of armed conflicts and war, while 1.5 million of those are are displaced due to drought in the country. He said that people are living in different parts of the country with host families.

About the hunger situation in the country, Baloch said that before August 15th, about 18 million people depended on humanitarian assistance and currently 24 million population of the country needs the assistance from humanitarian agencies and most people in that population are those who are suffering from acute food insecurity.

He says according to humanitarian estimates in those 24 million people, more than nine million are those who are facing starvation. He further said that in these 9 million people, three million children are those who are malnourished. Among those children, one million are those who are in danger of losing their lives because of acute malnutrition. “Humanitarian assistance of Afghan people is crucial as the country is facing severe starvation. Hunger and the worst economic situation is ahead if foreign assistance is not provided to the country in this crucial environment as even its public services including health facilities are near to collapse,” he said.

A number of hospitals also don’t have medicines for patients and medical staff are working without salaries. In Herat, Kandahar and other provinces, three to four children are currently being treated on a single bed in the children’s ward.

A Doctors Without Borders (MSF)-run facility in Herat has had to increase its 45-bed capacity to 75 beds and has received nearly 60 patients every week. According to UNICEF, about 3.2 million Afghan children under the age of five will suffer from malnutrition this winter. In the absence of intervention, about a million of them could die, it estimates.

“If the rest of the world does not prepare a mechanism on time for assistance then there will be more human suffering in various parts of Afghanistan as winter has approached and current temperature is recorded from -1C to -6C in some parts of the country and it will cross -20C in coming days in some provinces,” said Baloch.

The price of haste

According to Dr Talat Wizarat, senior foreign policy expert and former chairperson of the International Relations Department at the University of Karachi, the US’s role throughout its occupation and their hasty departure are key reasons responsible for the current crisis in Afghanistan. “First of all, I would blame the Americans because they claim to have spent $1 trillion or something like that in Afghanistan during their two-decade long occupation. When you look at Afghanistan, it doesn't seem anyone spent anything. My hunch is that actually they made money out of Afghanistan and took many natural resources out of the country,” she said.

The second category is the former Afghan government. They're reported to have taken billions of dollars out of the country. It's shocking for me how did they accumulate those billions of dollars. There was definitely a lot of corruption on the American watch. So that is the second category. Then the civil war like situation in Afghanistan is another important reason for lack of development in the country. State department reports show there was no development at all. There's a long list of reasons that explain Afghanistan’s current situation but I believe the US is to be blamed for much of it, including the ongoing humanitarian crisis that has the potential of turning into a major disaster,” she said.

According to Wizarat, if things don't stabilize in Afghanistan, this misery of the Afghan people may get worse. “Another change which is scary, is that India said that they want to send tons of weak wheat to Afghanistan, Pakistan accepted that on humanitarian grounds. But that raises a security issue and still we agreed to let them reach Afghanistan through our territory. The only requirement was that Pakistani trucks should take that to Afghanistan. India is not adhering to it,” she said.

“There have also been reports which are again, very scary that Indian wheat suffers from some kind of disease, a botanical problem and India wants to donate that. I think other countries might be doing similar things,” she added.

According to Wizarat the solution is that the United States should be unfreeze the Afghan financial resources as it belongs to Afghanistan. Those funds should be released and should be given back to Afghanistan right away,” she said.

Moreover, she emphasised that NGOs, which are safe and are towing to the urgent needs of the Afghan people and not any state’s agenda should be allowed to provide relief. Pakistan has also sent some relief, but I don't think that would be enough to feed the Afghans for a very long time. Although it's a substantial amount. And I think China can do a lot. Russia can do something. But before all that, Afghanistan's resources have to be unfrozen. I think the situation will not be bleak if that’s done immediately. I think the Afghans will be able to overcome some of these problems. But then in future that country needs peace and the world needs to concentrate on its development and work consistently towards that end for a long time.

According to Wizarat the problem lies with the current American policy: “The problem with the American policy is that they believe that countries in the region — primarily America’s adversaries: China, Russia, and Iran would benefit greatly from a stable Afghanistan, as will Pakistan. So, to keep their adversaries busy they prefer leaving Afghanistan in its current state of instability.”

India and United States will not gain directly from peace in Afghanistan. Hence, it is of no interest to the policy makers in Washington. In my opinion this policy or approach is very short sighted. This zero sum perception will not work. And I think this can harm United States and can harm these country regarded to be rivals of the United States, but it can have very detrimental impact on United States and European powers as well.

According to Wizarat, there could be grave consequences of this for Pakistan too. “If Afghanistan doesn't get support at this juncture, there might be continuation of conflict or even maybe an uncontrollable civil war. Such a situation will have a spillover in Pakistan and Central Asian republics. In fact, destabilising Afghanistan has been part of US policy — unofficially if not officially.

A senior US general has made the claims about a possible spillover into Pakistan and Iran. So, I hope they're not able to implement their plans in this region. If it goes through, the consequences would be far reaching and dangerous,” she added.

The Taliban co-founder and now Prime Minster of Afghanistan Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund in an audio speech broadcasted on state television last week, also urged international charities to continue offering aid to the country. In the address he said, “We assure all the countries that we will not interfere in their internal affairs and we want to have good economic relations with them.”

“We are drowned in our own problems and we are trying to get the strength to bring our people out of miseries and hardships with God’s help,” he added.

The speech came ahead of meeting between the United States and the Taliban in Doha. During the talks held on November 29th and 30th, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West and with Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, where the Taliban delegation urged the unfreezing of Afghan reserves and ending of sanctions and blacklists.