Publication:

The Guardian Weekly - 2021-11-26

Data:

Afghanistan is hurtling towards disaster. It’s no time to abandon its people

Opinion

The global attention has dissipated, but the crisis is intensifying. The bleak year that Afghans have endured is turning to a still bleaker winter. The UN’s World Food Programme predicts that almost 23 million people – more than half the population – will face emergency levels of acute food insecurity before spring: the highest ever recorded. The UN envoy to Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, warned that it is on the brink of catastrophe. This year, the WFP’s operations in Afghanistan are expected to cost $510m; it predicts that it will need almost five times that amount in 2022. The economy shrank by 40% after the Taliban seized power in August, on top of the devastation wrought by long-running conflict, the pandemic and a severe drought. An economy heavily dependent on foreign cash has had the tap turned off. Food and fuel prices have reportedly soared by up to 75%. Women have been especially hard hit. The problem is how to prevent the Afghan people from starving while minimising benefits to a brutal and repressive leadership who have never met the needs of those they rule. Yet the alternative is a collapse that would also offer opportunities to Islamic State, with repercussions beyond Afghanistan. It is already resurgent; attacks attributed to the group have reportedly risen from 60 in 2020 to 334 this year. The first priority must be for governments – particularly the US and its allies – to actually pay the UN the money they have promised. Humanitarian aid has resumed, with the US issuing licences to ease provision without removing sanctions. But with the implosion of the banking system, organisations are struggling to pay staff on the ground. Some argue that it is time to unfreeze the $9bn in frozen foreign exchange reserves and resume access to International Monetary Fund resources. But that would only partially address the banking crisis; and it is far from clear whether the unqualified officials chosen by the Taliban are capable of managing those funds. One option might be to establish a humanitarian financial corridor, possibly through a private central bank. Emergency aid is not enough. Development funding is needed to get the economy off its knees. In some areas, there may be room for manoeuvre. Funders cannot support schools when girls are prevented from attending. But they could pay teachers in provinces where older girls are able to study. Meanwhile, those most at risk must be helped to begin again elsewhere. Western countries that encouraged women to work in sectors such as policing are being disgracefully slow to offer them a home now their professions have put them at risk. Shamefully, the west is less likely to be stirred to action by the desperation of Afghans than by the fear that it may drive them to migrate and by domestic security concerns. When Ms Lyons warned of the dangers facing Afghanistan, she also observed that its people feel abandoned. It is hard to disagree with their assessment •

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