Race against time to avert Afghan catastrophe

The lives of ordinary Afghans are at the mercy of a regime that has neither the knowledge nor skills to effectively manage public services

  
An Afghan demonstrator holds a national flag during a protest against the Taliban and in support of the Afghan people, in Paris, France, September 5, 2021. Image used for illustrative purpose.

An Afghan demonstrator holds a national flag during a protest against the Taliban and in support of the Afghan people, in Paris, France, September 5, 2021. Image used for illustrative purpose.

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Afghanistan is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. The end of the 20-year war may have silenced the guns for a while, but the war-torn country is at serious risk of imploding due to the worsening conditions it faces. This could have grave consequences for regional stability and international security in the form of mass migration and refugee influx, as well as a renewed proxy war and transnational terrorism.

The current humanitarian crisis was in the making before the Taliban takeover in August. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, about 18.4 million people, nearly half of the population, were already in need of humanitarian and protection assistance in 2021. A third of Afghans were facing acute food insecurity and more than half of all under-fives were expected to face acute malnutrition. Moreover, violence had displaced half a million Afghans.

However, with the Taliban in power, humanitarian relief efforts suffered a setback, as the staff of UN agencies and other organizations were evacuated. The World Bank stopped its developmental activities. Under US pressure, the International Monetary Fund also suspended Afghanistan’s access to $440 million of emergency aid allocated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Consequently, on Aug. 31, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that “a humanitarian catastrophe looms” in Afghanistan and urged donor governments to “dig deep” to fund an emergency appeal. The UN needed $606 million to provide relief to 11 million suffering Afghans by the end of 2021. Donor nations responded beyond expectations by pledging $1.2 billion at an Afghan aid conference in Geneva last month.

However, almost a month later, only a third of the requested amount has been handed over to the UN. Of the $300 million sought by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, for instance, only 18 percent has been received, with its chief Filippo Grandi warning again on Friday of a “potential humanitarian catastrophe owing to delay in the disbursement of UN-sought funds for Afghanistan.”

The evidence of such a catastrophe lies in the staggering scale of the food, health and displacement crisis in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The World Food Program says only 5 percent of households in the country now have enough to eat, and the country may face “universal poverty” in 2022 if the international community does not come to its rescue.

According to the World Health Organization, the Afghan healthcare system is “on the brink of collapse,” as lack of funding has left thousands of health facilities struggling to buy medical supplies and pay staff. It forecasts that Afghanistan’s coronavirus and poliovirus response will also suffer.

The number of internally displaced persons in Afghanistan since August has also risen significantly. The UNHCR anticipates that 750,000 people will be internally displaced due to conflict and insecurity throughout 2021, an increase of 250,000 from the year-start projections.

Moreover, the number of Afghans deported by Pakistan and Iran during this year may top the 1 million mark. Iran is particularly hard in repatriating Afghan refugees, despite having a lower refugee population than Pakistan. Tajikistan is the only Afghan neighbor that has agreed to accommodate 100,000 refugees. As for the stance adopted by the rest of the world on the Afghan refugee issue, the less said the better.

Thus, the chance that people of the landlocked state will escape the impending misery has significantly eroded. The least they can expect from the neighborhood is the limited supply of staple food items through various border crossings. Pakistan has established an air corridor for the purpose, in addition to acting as a hub for humanitarian supplies from UN agencies or some countries that have pledged humanitarian assistance, including China and Russia.

However, it is a race against time, with winter fast approaching. This means that if the donor nations, especially the US and European countries, fail to follow up on their respective pledges for the UN humanitarian relief effort, the food, health and displacement crisis in this hapless nation is likely to worsen until next spring.

Drought, coupled with the pandemic, will also play its part in the process, unless the World Bank resumes its developmental operations and the IMF restores Afghan access to its emergency assistance.

Before the Taliban takeover, almost two-thirds of development assistance for Afghanistan came from outside sources, amounting to between $4 billion and $6 billion annually. In 2012, the NATO summit in Chicago and the donor conference in Tokyo also pledged to provide security and economic assistance to Afghanistan during the transition decade, from 2014 through 2024.

The erosion of these international commitments, largely due to the US defeat, has put the lives of ordinary Afghans at the mercy of a regime that has neither the knowledge nor skills to effectively manage public services. The UN and nongovernmental organizations have managed to resume operations, but they cannot make a difference on the ground due to limited international funding.

Two other constraints include America’s unwillingness to unfreeze $9.4 billion of Afghan foreign exchange reserves, as well as the lack of consensus among the permanent five members of the UN Security Council on lifting UN sanctions on the Taliban. These constraints have persisted largely due to the refusal of the Taliban regime to heed international concerns regarding human rights and inclusive government. Hence, it is again the ordinary Afghans who are on the receiving end of the current deadlock between the militants and the international community.

In the face of this impasse, the current crisis will most likely turn into a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe, with devastating consequences, first and foremost, for the people of Afghanistan. This is the worst-case scenario, where we can expect the revival of Afghan civil war, and the accompanying mass migration and refugee outflow, as well as the renewed proxy war among regional rivals, especially India and Pakistan. In such an eventuality, the wider world will also face a growing security threat as turmoil-ridden Afghanistan may once again become a haven for Al-Qaeda or Daesh.

Given all this, the best possible outcome of the latest extraordinary meeting of the G20 nations will be in the form of a consensual global approach, whereby the issue of humanitarian relief in Afghanistan is separated from international concerns regarding the nature of political dispensation under the Taliban or their conduct regarding women’s rights, education and work. These concerns can, at best, be linked to the provision of development assistance to the Taliban regime and the unfreezing of Afghan foreign reserves by the US Treasury.

The international community also has to urgently find an amicable way to lift UN sanctions on the Taliban, as these also subvert the humanitarian task. Ultimately, recognition or no recognition, the world has no other option but to deal with the Taliban. Food, health and displacement are life-and-death issues for the Afghan people, who have already paid a great price in blood and tears. At least for their sake, the world should come together.

  • Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist, who has subsequently served as the Vice Chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and the Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.
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