An Afghan boy reacts to the camera at a temporary camp set up near Kandahar city for the people who were internally displaced due to drought in the remote areas of Kandahar. Image Credit: AFP

Fourth months have passed since the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. With the Taliban taking total control after a short-lived resistance in the Panjshir Valley, the country has almost disappeared from international media attention. However, the despair and deprivation of war-devastated Afghan people refuses to go away.

The country’s economy has collapsed, and out of the 39 million population, at least 23 million face severe hunger. According to the World Food Programme, 98% of Afghans are not even consuming enough food.

In these winter months, seven out of ten Afghans borrow food from others to survive. At least a million children in the country are facing severe malnutrition. The food crisis is not new in Afghanistan, but it has become much worse after the departure of American troops and the Taliban taking control of the country.

Millions of internally displaced people

By the end of 2020, there were 3.5 million internally displaced people in Afghanistan. The war to control Kabul in 2021 has resulted in 570,000 more internally displaced, complicating the country’s humanitarian crisis further.

Joblessness and rising food prices push more and more people deeper into poverty. According to UNDP, the poverty rate in Afghanistan is expected to reach an unprecedented 97% this year. The health care system has collapsed all over the country, and even in the capital, Kabul, the hospitals have run out of essential drugs, other necessary medical supplies, and even diesel to produce oxygen for Covid-19 patients.

Recent op-eds by Prof Ashok Swain

Afghanistan is probably at present facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The situation is more critical than Yemen and Somalia. However, the present Taliban regime is not solely to be blamed for this. Rather, the US’s acts of omission and commission in the last two decades have pushed Afghanistan to this situation.

The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and at that time, the aim was to fight against terrorism and its support networks. However, after comprehensively defeating the Taliban by early 2002, the US didn’t leave. Instead, it stayed on in the name of ‘nation-building’ and lofty promise of creating a democratic modern Afghanistan with respect for the rule of law and protection of human rights.

A basket case

Afghanistan neither became democratic nor a country with respect for human rights and gender equality. Instead, it became a basket case. The aid for Afghanistan from the West increased from $1.3 billion in 2002 to $7.9 billion in 2018. More than three fourth of country’s budget was coming from its Western benefactors.

However, the large amount of foreign aid did not pull poor Afghans out of poverty; instead, it made a small group of elites corrupt and wealthy. The result was that while 34% of Afghans lived in poverty in 2007, under the US’s watchful eyes, that number increased to 90% (the daily income of $2) in 2020.

During its 20 years of presence, the US had spent 2.3 trillion dollars on Afghanistan. Though it lost 6000 of its troops and private security contractors, the loss of life in Afghanistan, on the other hand, was at least 300,000, with more than 2.5 million Afghans displaced.

When the US left, more than one-third of the population had no food, half had no access to drinking water, and two-thirds had no electricity. The 20 years of war has not only devastated country’s economic, human, and social capital but made Afghanistan dependent on foreign handouts.

War ended, US and its Nato allies left, and with it, the critical foreign assistance necessary for the heavily aid-dependent Afghan economy dried up. The IMF has denied the Taliban regime access to $460 million of funds, and the World Bank and ADB have also stopped funding the projects in the country. The cancellation of the EU aid has seriously affected Afghanistan’s health, agriculture, and law enforcement sectors.

The blocking of funds by US and its allies have devastated Afghanistan’s struggling economy. The US treasury has frozen an estimated $9.5 billion of assets held by Afghanistan’s Central Bank abroad.

That move has almost broken down Afghanistan’s banking system. Those working in public or private sectors have not been paid for months. Taliban plays down the trouble and that has not helped the Afghans.

For Afghanistan’s economy to revive and arrest the country’s complete collapse, the US needs to unfreeze Afghan Central Bank’s assets, and the IMF and others must fulfil their commitment to finance the development projects in the country. Biden administration’s approach that seeks to teach the Taliban a lesson has pushed 39 million Afghans to a serious humanitarian crisis.

The UN is desperately collecting money through flash appeals to provide essential support to avert the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Numerous appeals have led to a donor commitment of only $1.5 billion. This amount will not last long when millions of Afghans will need help soon.

It is important that Biden does the right thing in unfreezing Afghanistan’s assets. Whatever regressive the Taliban ideology and style of governance, the group at this time represents Afghanistan, and have the right over Afghanistan’s assets. US actions do not harm the Taliban. In the bitter winter, it pushes millions of ordinary Afghans to misery and death.