“Hell on Earth” is how David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP), described the situation in Afghanistan at the end of 2021. Since the Taliban took power in August, the shootings, bombs and fighting has given way. However, the think tank Brussels-based International Crisis Group fears that “starvation and famine following the Taliban takeover could kill more Afghans than the bombs and bullets of the last two decades.”
Nora Hassanien, Afghanistan director of the humanitarian organization Save the Children, told DW about “desperate families” resorting to increasingly “extreme and harmful” survival strategies, including “selling their own children, and other things that, otherwise, they never would.”
The statistics are as dramatic as the individual stories behind them: according to the WFP, some 20 million, half the population, are in dire need of food assistance. However, there is not enough money, stresses the organization’s country director, Mary-Ellen McGroarty.
At an online conference in July, she reported that decisions on who to give food to are based on an individual’s current nutritional status or particular vulnerability: it’s an “extremely difficult and often heartbreaking” decision-making process. .
Samira Sayed Rahman of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) reports that the Afghan health sector is also collapsing. During a visit to a hospital in the southern province of Paktia, she found that there are not enough doctors and nurses.
“The doctors we spoke to had not been paid in the last six months. The wards are full of women with malnourished children on their laps. In the neonatal unit, three babies had to share an incubator.”
Afghans have been grappling with serial crises. In addition to the devastation resulting from decades of war and a brutal devaluation of its currency, climate change has been causing drought in vast areas for three years, in others it has caused unseasonal flooding or snow in mid-June; and in 2022 the country suffered another major earthquake.
But the biggest challenge, according to Rahman, is the suspension of payments from abroad. For 20 years the West has been deeply involved in Afghanistan, in the military, political and development cooperation aspects. An abundance of infrastructure projects resulted in the construction and maintenance of roads, schools and hospitals. After the Taliban took power, however, the flow of funds was stopped overnight.
“There are about 400,000 unemployed in the public sector, plus 200,000 in the security sector,” reports IRC’s Rahman. “Many of these jobs have disappeared, the unemployment level is the highest it has ever been, as is inflation.”
Sanctions contribute to chaos
The Taliban were the US interlocutors in peace talks that soon turned into withdrawal negotiations. However, the government they formed is isolated and not internationally recognized, which has resulted in the interruption of the flow of funds. In addition, sanctions targeting Islamic terrorists are now also affecting the Taliban-led government apparatus and thus the entire country.
The director of the NGO Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, points out that aid is not enough without a functioning banking system that is not constrained by sanctions. There are two types of them: The United Nations and the European Union have imposed measures against specific Talibans, including members of the “de facto government”, in the terminology of the German Foreign Ministry.
Furthermore, starting in 1999, the United States unilaterally enacted sanctions, listing the Taliban as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist Organization” (SGDT). The goal of these punitive measures is to isolate Afghanistan economically, explains Conrad Schetter of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (Bicc).
“All economic opportunities are being cut off, everything other than humanitarian aid has been suspended, all development projects.” Thus, Afghanistan was completely decoupled from economic and financial markets, and “the Afghans were catapulted back to the subsistence economy”, summarizes the conflict expert.
Another determining factor was Washington’s decision to freeze the country’s central bank assets, totaling around $7.2 billion, and to withhold half of the amount as possible compensation for the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. .
This is a legally questionable step, notes the UN special rapporteur for unilateral coercive measures, Alena Douhan, because “from the perspective of international law, the capital of a central bank does not belong to the government, but to the country”.
Without access to its international reserves, the role that the Afghan central bank can play in the national economy is very limited. Sanctions and the lack of foreign currency make it almost impossible to carry out transfers to the country.
In theory, special permits can be used for humanitarian purposes; in practice, however, they are very difficult to obtain. This also applies to German aid to the Asian country. A spokesman for the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) describes the “non-operational banking sector, which makes it difficult to even get money to reach Afghanistan”, as “a major challenge for the implementation of the plans”.
In between hawala and the end of isolation
Thus, humanitarian groups have to adopt unconventional methods. Elke Gottschalk, regional director for Asia at the German humanitarian organization Welthungerhilfe, says that financial remittances need to be processed through alternative channels, so-called hawala” (“transfer” or “trust” in Arabic).
The NGO transfers the amount to the mediator’s account, the hawaladar, in a third country and “this agent ensures that the money arrives in Kabul, in cash”, explains Gottschalk. “We count it, and it can be used.”
IRC is also system dependent hawala, confirms Samira Sayed Rahman. However, it is not “a reliable or sustainable method”. As for the Afghan food catastrophe, she is convinced: “This crisis is man-made, it was caused by the international community.”
Nora Hassanien of Save the Children shares the assessment, adding: “No amount of humanitarian aid is really going to solve the problem here. It needs a broader solution.”
This is also the point of view of the think tank International Crisis Group (ICG). In June, after a visit to Kabul, his expert on Afghan affairs, Graeme Smith, wrote: “Backing off the precipice of a deeper disaster will require ending the country’s isolation, attracting development aid, and persuading the West and regional governments to help with the economic recovery.”
The dilemma remains that this is only possible by collaborating with a regime that massively violates human rights, especially those of minorities, women and girls. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in May, the administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Achim Steiner, made his position explicit: “We cannot abandon 40 million Afghans simply on the principle of moral indignation.”