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The U.N. refugee agency this week began airlifting aid into Kabul for the first time since the Taliban overran the country, with a plane carrying 33 tons of supplies for displaced Afghans.
Two additional flights are scheduled this month, but U.N. refugee officials say far more is needed than they or their colleagues at the World Food Program (WFP) are able to supply.
"We are using land, sea and air routes to bring humanitarian relief into Afghanistan,” said spokesperson Shabia Mantoo. “Further relief supplies have also been prepositioned in Uzbekistan, ready to be trucked into Afghanistan as needed.”
The WFP also is ratcheting up with 170 trucks delivering assistance daily across Afghanistan.
U.N. officials say much more is needed, however, to prevent Afghanistan from plunging deeper into a humanitarian crisis that many fear will exceed the misery of war-torn Syria or Yemen.
Complicated by weather
Temperatures are dipping to minus 25⁰C, worsening the plight of impoverished Afghans, especially the 3.5 million estimated to have been displaced by conflict. U.N. officials say they have received only half of the $606 million they say is needed to help 11 million Afghans through the end of 2021.
More than half of the country’s 38 million people are likely to go hungry this winter unless more funds are forthcoming from rich countries, according to international relief agencies.
But analysts say Western governments have few good options in Afghanistan: They can either try to work with the Taliban, and in effect collude with human rights violations, or watch the worsening crisis from afar and see 20 years of development work reversed.
Last month, heads of government and foreign ministers from the world’s 20 leading economies — the G-20 — agreed at a special summit they must try to avert a state collapse in Afghanistan and to examine ways to inject funds into the country while ensuring they are not controlled by the Taliban. The European Union announced during its virtual summit a $1.15 billion aid package for Afghanistan “to avert a major humanitarian and socioeconomic collapse.”
“We believe that it's essential that we maintain our sanctions against the Taliban but at the same time find ways for legitimate humanitarian assistance to get to the Afghan people. That's exactly what we're doing,” U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told a U.S. Senate panel last month.
After the Taliban seized control in mid-August, billions of dollars of Afghanistan's overseas assets were frozen by the U.S. Federal Reserve and European central banks. Grants from foreign countries and international agencies, including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, also have dried up as a consequence of the withholding of international recognition of the Taliban government. International aid accounted for 43 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product before the Taliban seized control.
Foreign funding financed three-quarters of Afghanistan’s public expenditure.
But since the G-20 summit last month, which marked the first time the world’s richest nations had met to discuss the consequences of the Taliban takeover, the situation has worsened with a spiraling economic crisis, one that the country’s Taliban rulers appear to have no strategy to contain.
On Wednesday, the Taliban announced it was banning the use of foreign currencies in Afghanistan. “The economic situation and national interests in the country require that all Afghans use Afghani currency in their every trade,” the Taliban said in a statement.
The U.S. dollar is used widely in the country, and analysts say the move by the Taliban is likely to further disrupt the reeling economy, which also has been affected by a severe drought and the coronavirus pandemic. Afghans face a “tsunami of destitution” and need $200 million a month in aid, the U.N. warned last week.
Families are resorting to desperate measures to survive. Last month, CNN filmed in rural Afghanistan the harrowing scene of a poverty-stricken father selling off his 9-year-old daughter as a child bride for $2,200. The buyer was a 55-year-old. As the girl, Parwana, was traded, the father appealed to him: “You are responsible for her now, please don't beat her.”
The father, Abdul Malik, told CNN he had no option but to sell his 9-year-old. “We are eight family members. I have to sell to keep other family members alive,” he said.
U.N. officials say they fear similar scenes are being repeated across the country, with young girls being sold. “Utterly unacceptable that many people in Afghanistan will be dying of hunger in the next couple of months. Desperate households are resorting to dangerous practices, such as child labor and early marriage in order to survive,” tweeted Isabelle Moussard Carlsen of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The international community is caught in a dilemma. “To recognize the Taliban risks condemning tens of thousands of Afghan women, children and men to brutal repression, and for some, potential death, as well as mocking the human rights and rule of law that the U.S. and its allies sought to promote in Afghanistan, and globally, as cornerstones of values-based foreign policies,” Renata Dwan, a deputy director of Britain’s Chatham House, said in a commentary last month.
One fundamental challenge for Western powers is how they can deliver aid without assisting the Taliban or allowing the group to manipulate it to serve their political purposes or to channel assistance to loyalists and deny it to minorities or opponents.
Western leaders say the Taliban have done little to prove they moderated their views toward women or dissent since they ruled most of the county in the second half of the 1990s. The Taliban have resumed public executions and reduced girls’ access to education.
Human Rights Watch said last week that Taliban officials in Afghanistan’s provinces are imposing a harsher rule than even the abusive policies announced by their leaders in Kabul.
“The Taliban have tried to reassure the world that they respect human rights, including the rights of women and girls,” said Heather Barr at Human Rights Watch. “But the rules instructing their officials are a patchwork of abusive policies enforcing gender and LGBT discrimination, and harsh repression of autonomy and free expression.”