By Ishaan Tharoor
The West’s fixation on the war in Ukraine stands in contrast with its tacit disregard for the situation in Afghanistan. In Washington and various European capitals, there was fury at the Biden administration for its chaotic withdrawal and lamentations for the plight of Afghan women and girls, left once more in the draconian grip of a fundamentalist militia bent on curtailing their freedoms.
But that was about it, and in recent months, the wealthy nations of North America and Europe have instead focused their energies and a considerable amount of financial muscle on reinforcing the government in Kyiv.
All the while, though, conditions in Afghanistan have gone from bad to worse over the past eight months. The Taliban takeover came with a shuddering collapse of the Afghan economy.
The international funding that had long propped up the country’s frail government was cut off, while the US and its allies froze Afghanistan’s more than $7 billion of foreign reserves. Millions of Afghans are now unemployed, including a vast number of public sector workers. The banking system is no longer functional and cash is in short supply.
A UN report last month calculated that nearly half the country’s population is facing acute hunger, a problem exacerbated by an ongoing drought and the supply disruptions linked to the war in Ukraine. The UN’s World Food Programme now estimates that some 18 million people will be in need of urgent food assistance this month.
That number likely includes almost 10 million Afghan children, according to a May report from Save the Children. Mounting hunger and spiralling poverty have forced desperate families into unthinkable scenarios, including forcing families to put their young children to work and to seek dowries for girls as child brides.
According to one estimate by several aid agencies, more than 120 000 children have been bartered for some sort of financial incentive in the eight months since the Taliban captured Kabul. Aid agencies are clamouring for more funding to boost their faltering efforts in Afghanistan. But there are limitations to what they can do in a country whose de facto government is not recognises by the international community and seemingly intent on furthering its extremist agenda.
“We are essentially engaged in a form of co-operation without recognition and trying to make the best possible for an increasingly desperate Afghan population,” Achim Steiner, head of the UN Development Programme, told me at a panel discussion on the situation in Afghanistan that I moderated at the World Economic Forum recently.
He said the UN was “unequivocal about the fundamental human rights that we expect Afghanistan to uphold”, including the rights of girls to attend educational institutions. But, at the same time, international organisations are trying to help ordinary Afghans navigate “a highly informal survival economy” that has plunged the bulk of the country into destitution.
“We cannot abandon 40 million Afghans simply on the principle of moral outrage,” he said. In February, President Joe Biden signed an executive setting aside some $3.5bn of Afghan foreign reserves frozen by the US Treasury to help “the welfare of the people of Afghanistan”, while leaving the rest available to the families of 9/11 victims. But it is unclear exactly how that funding will be transferred to Afghanistan, with the Biden administration keen on it not reaching the Taliban.
Afghans have expressed outrage at the administration for exploiting Afghan reserves for its domestic political purposes. Steiner believes that sort of cash injection into the Afghan banking system would “without a doubt … have a major impact” on the Afghan economy and stabilise a perilous situation. That view was echoed by Hina Rabbani Khar, minister of state for foreign affairs in Pakistan’s new government.
“You want to ensure that the implosion doesn’t happen in a way that makes things worse,” she said during the same panel, criticising the Biden administration’s move.
“Spending $1trillion on a 20-year adventure and then freezing ($7bn) in reserves doesn’t sound very smart to me.” In a separate interview with the Financial Times, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani bemoaned the West’s “boycotting” of Afghanistan and suggested that early dialogue with the Taliban government may have dissuaded its leaders from pursuing their current approach. Without a change in the wider world’s engagement with the Taliban, he warned, things will get far worse.
“We will see maybe a rise of extremism. We will start to see an economic crisis, which has already started, and this will just drive the people to more radicalisation and conflict,” Mohammed said. “This is what we are trying to avoid.”