Afghanistan’s looming famine: will the West help the Taliban?

A pharmacist from one of the Afghan Red Crescent’s mobile health teams provides medicines during a community visit on December 15th. Photograph: Disasters Emergency Committee/PA Wire


Like millions of Afghans, Sibghatullah Ahmadi was happy about the end of 20 years of war in his country. Fighting had devastated his village in Kapisa, a province near Kabul. But four months after the Taliban seized power and the US pulled out, he has little to cheer.

Jobless and in debt, the 25-year-old now plans to leave his two-year-old child and pregnant wife to cross into Iran, where he will look for work on a construction site. Many like him opt to continue on a perilous overland journey to Europe. “I have to go,” he says, his surgical mask barely concealing the grimace. “It’s better than nothing. We have no money.”

Since the Taliban took the capital Kabul in August – following a rapid military offensive – the foreign funding that made up nearly half of the country’s $20 billion gross domestic product under former president Ashraf Ghani has stopped. Millions of Afghans who depended on the armed forces, bureaucracy or international organisations are now out of work or owed months of wages.

Sanctions, and the freezing of more than $9 billion in overseas central bank reserves by the US, have isolated the regime and further paralysed the economy.

International groups and economists say Afghanistan’s swift unravelling is unprecedented. The IMF expects the economy to contract 30 per cent in a matter of months. Already the poorest country in Asia, according to the UN Development Programme, millions of Afghans are now unable to afford food.

Unicef estimates that one million children are at risk of dying from hunger as the freezing winter depletes food supplies and cuts off rural communities. The UN’s World Food Programme estimates that 98 per cent of Afghans do not have enough food, with at least a quarter of the 40 million population approaching famine levels of food insecurity.

“Every day we are witnessing the gradual collapse of one system. The banking system, the health system ... education, water, sanitation – all of these systems are falling one after the other,” says Abdallah al-Dardari, the UNDP’s Afghanistan head.

“It can either implode with massive regional consequences, or something has to happen, but you cannot continue monitoring the collapse of each of these systems, with horrendous humanitarian consequences,” says al-Dardari. “People cannot just wait and see their children starving to death.”

Humanitarian crisis

The Taliban, lacking the resources and expertise to stop the economic disaster, call the asset freezes evidence of the West’s callousness. “Just give us our own money,” says Shafi Azam, a director in the foreign ministry. “The international community is making ordinary Afghans hostages to avenge their own political failures.”

The US and its allies defend the financial restrictions on Afghanistan as a response to the Taliban’s decision to conquer the country militarily – rather than reach a political settlement with the Ghani government – and its repressive practices towards women.

A Taliban patrol on Tuesday during a protest by Afghans outside the building of the former US embassy in Kabul, demanding that the US unfreeze Afghan assets. Photograph: EPA

But with Afghanistan on the brink of famine, there is growing popular and diplomatic pressure on the US, Europe and other countries to unfreeze the reserves and try and prevent what some fear will be a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

Although some nations are providing limited food assistance and other aid through bodies like the UN, broader support to the Taliban-controlled country remains a political red line in the West. Yet critics warn that without more substantive measures, vital public health and education services will collapse.

The US state department said on Monday that the US had provided $208 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan since August, more than any other country. “We all have a stake in an Afghanistan that is stable and secure,” it said, “but also a country where the humanitarian needs ... of the Afghan people are being addressed.”

Still, many Afghans direct their rage towards the US, Europe and their allies. Those individuals left behind in the chaotic evacuation feel betrayed, while analysts and foreign diplomats call the swift unravelling of the Afghan state an indictment of the deeply corrupt system the US and Nato spent 20 years fighting a brutal war to build.

“The whole state was run on corruption,” says one western official. “That’s why it fell apart.”

After taking over Afghanistan, the Taliban promised they would bring order, end violence – both from the conflict and street crime – and crack down on corruption.

Even many of their domestic critics concede some improvements on those counts, but whatever security now exists in Afghanistan is fragile and unevenly enjoyed. While the Taliban declared an “amnesty” for their former opponents, human rights groups have documented quiet campaigns of executions and “disappearances” of former police officers and others identified as rivals in provinces across the country.

The Taliban deny this, or attribute it to rogue fighters settling personal scores. But many Afghans are quietly terrified.

“They don’t chase us during the day,” says one former US military interpreter who is trying to leave, but “at night they’re different”.

Bomb attacks

The Taliban are also embroiled in their own counterinsurgency against the Islamic State Khorasan or Isis-K, an offshoot of the extremist group. The two sides have engaged in a vicious campaign of bomb attacks and executions that has killed hundreds of people since the summer.

Terrorist attacks, often targeting mosques and areas associated with the country’s Hazaras, a Shia Muslim minority, continue with regularity including in Kabul. Hazaras, themselves long persecuted by the Taliban, are now dependent on the group for protection from Isis.

“The Isis threat existed before. But with the coming of the Taliban, it is worse,” says Zaman, a 26-year-old Hazara student who is trying to leave Afghanistan. “We’re not hopeful for a better future.”

A Taliban fighter walks past people waiting to enter the passport office at a checkpoint in Kabul on Sunday, after Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities said they will resume issuing passports. Photograph: Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images

Much about the Taliban’s new order remains unclear – and many Afghans who remember their brutal rule between 1996 and 2001 are sceptical about whether the group can change.

Supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada remains so elusive that there are rumours he is dead, though these have been contradicted by recent reports of public appearances. Analysts and diplomats point to unresolved factionalism between the old guard of Kandahari leaders, such as deputy prime minister and Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the Haqqani group, whose power has surged since the takeover, represented by figures such as interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Taliban-run ministries have done little policymaking in the four months since taking power. Many of the fighters that make up their rank-and-file remain unpaid and are sometimes so poor they rely on non-Taliban assistance for food, housing and clothes.

One 27-year-old Taliban military officer, who arrived in Kabul over the summer after years of fierce fighting in Afghanistan’s provinces, admits to a degree of listlessness among himself and his men as they adjust from jihad to the daily reality of governing. Many, he says, “were happier in war than in victory. This was an ideological war and we were happy to be martyred”.

“They were insurgents who would engage in hit-and-run tactics and then melt into the population,” says Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “Now they have to man the police, the bureaucracy and do many mundane tasks.”

‘Shattering of dreams’

The Taliban’s repressive treatment of women is the biggest obstacle to its efforts to normalise relations with the world. When the group first ruled Afghanistan, women were not allowed to study or work or leave the house without a male guardian, and were subject to sadistic punishment including stoning for rule-breaking.

Nadia, aged 14, has not seen her best friends Zakira and Mariam since the Taliban arrived in Faizabad, a town in the foothills of northeastern Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains, in early August. Like many teenage girls across the country, she has not been allowed to return to school and now spends her days helping her mother bake bread, wash dishes and sweep the mud-walled compound where she and her six siblings live.

In Faizabad, as in much of Afghanistan, the Taliban have prevented girls above the age of 13 from studying. The group claims this is simply a temporary measure, but Nadia’s mother Mawia remembers when the Taliban were last in power, and does not believe such reassurances.

”Since they captured Faizabad, they’ve been saying that they’ll reopen schools. But my heart says that they’re lying,” she says. “We hope that Nadia studies and becomes something. I want her to become a professional, not like me.”

In some parts of the country at least, teenage girls are still allowed to study, women can continue working in certain jobs and they are not subject to blanket restrictions on their movement. The foreign ministry’s Azam says it’s only a matter of time before girls return to school nationally. He argues that the Taliban don’t want to push reform on deeply conservative rural communities, where girls were often not studying under the previous government either.

The Taliban also claim to have softened other policies since they last ruled. Music and smoking – punishable before – are tolerated. At a recent wedding in Kandahar, even Taliban foot soldiers listened enthusiastically to live music and smoked shisha pipes.

Yet foreign officials say the Taliban’s equivocation on girls’ education, despite intense international lobbying, points to the powerful resistance within the group. “They don’t want to look like they’re bargaining, especially on issues that are so integral to their identity,” one says.

There are no females in high-ranking positions within the Taliban, and the group have cracked down on sporadic women-led protests triggered by its takeover of power.

“Imagine the shattering of the dreams,” says Mary-Ellen McGroarty, Afghanistan director at the UN’s World Food Programme. “You had your hopes and dreams for your family, the next generation that was going to do better than you. And over the space of 24 hours that has all changed.”

“The Taliban have never given a fair deal to the women of Afghanistan,” says one 25-year-old woman in Kabul, an active participant in a women’s rights group that has continued to protest. “They’re trying to force us to quit our jobs and stay at home.”

The Taliban military officer dismisses the idea that women had a right to protest. “The only reason they protest is to leave [Afhanistan] ... so now I think it will be better to leave”.

End game

Afghanistan’s economy surged after the US and its allies first ousted the Taliban regime in 2001, with gross domestic product rising from around $4 billion in 2002 to $20 billion last year. But many of those gains – not only in growth but health, education and opportunity – are swiftly being lost.

Now, despite the limited humanitarian aid like food support, analysts say that more substantive funding is needed to protect the economy and public services from total collapse. The fate of billions of dollars worth of dams, mines and pipelines being built with western funds is also uncertain.

Critics argue more support is necessary to prevent regional instability, fresh outbreaks of violence and a migrant crisis.

Some countries, including the US, are talking to the Taliban through diplomatic channels in Qatar – which helped negotiate the peace deal between the two – while the EU and a handful of others plan to reopen missions in Kabul.

Rival powers have sought to fill the void left by western countries. Russia, Turkey and Pakistan – whose longstanding covert support for the Taliban many blame for its victory – have all looked to deepen ties with Afghanistan since the Taliban took over.

China has also expanded its presence, with business groups exploring the country’s vast reserves of minerals like lithium and striking deals to buy agricultural products. Khan Jan Alokzai, acting director of Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce, says that Chinese business activity in Kabul has swelled in recent months.

“The US has paid in blood and treasure and the Chinese will get the fruit, get the harvest,” says one western official.

Direct Chinese financial support to Afghanistan has been modest, providing around $30 million in humanitarian aid in September. Azam says that the Taliban will not let Afghanistan become a vassal state to foreign powers, an implicit criticism of the previous administration.

“The relationship with the US, Pakistan, India, China, Russia – it will be based on our policies,” he says. “If the US or India wants a government to become a puppet, that will never happen.”

Western officials question how long a Taliban government can last without foreign financial support, yet are slowly coalescing around an uncomfortable conclusion: its survival may be in their best interests.

“The collapse of this regime would be catastrophic,” says one of them. “It would be worse for everyone.”

* Some names have been anonymised to protect the identities of vulnerable sources – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021