InternationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 5

Looming human and economic crisis in Afghanistan

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on August 15 and the simultaneous withdrawal of the United States and other foreign forces, the physical as well as human and economic security situation in Afghanistan has worsened and international agencies and organisations fear that there could be an unimaginable humanitarian crisis in the war-ravaged country next year. Moreover, if the situation is not managed by the new rulers in consultation with the international community every Afghan would suffer.

On October 8, a suicide bomber ripped through the attendants of Friday prayers in a Shiite community mosque in northern Afghan city of Kunduz, killing at least 80 people and injuring more than 100. No one claimed responsibility for the attack but it is believed that the terrorist Islamic State (IS), also known as Daesh-e-Khurasan or IS-Khurasan, had carried out the attack. Since the Taliban takeover, IS-K has also stepped up a campaign of attacks against the Taliban. On October 2, the group targeted a funeral prayer service attended by a number of senior Taliban leaders in Kabul, and there have been a spate of smaller attacks in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar, where IS previously had its strongholds. It seems that IS has expanded its network in Afghanistan, particularly to the north of the country. Although the Taliban claim to have arrested dozens of members of IS and believed to have killed others suspected of links to the group, they have also played down the threat IS poses. The Taliban have the capacity to counter IS-K and there may be fewer attacks in the months and weeks ahead but there are other reasons to worry about for the Taliban and people of Afghanistan.

According to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, Afghanistan’s 38 million people risk being plunged into near-universal poverty faced with a “catastrophic deterioration” of the country’s heavily aid-dependent economy. The report, while making several projections in one such scenario, fears that under the Taliban’s new hardline rule, a worst-case scenario could unfold where as many as 97% of Afghans would sink below the poverty line by next year – a staggering increase of 25%.

“We are facing a full-on development collapse on top of humanitarian and economic crises,” Kanni Wignaraja, the UN assistant secretary general, said of the report, which warned of the need to avert a “national implosion at all costs”. The report further reads: “Half of the population is already in need of humanitarian support. This analysis suggests that we are on course for rapid, catastrophic deterioration in the lives of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable people.”

If this scenario has to be averted and which ought to be averted there is a need of large-scale demonstration of flexibility and tactics by the ruling Taliban regime as well as the international community, which has been providing almost all the financial resources to the war-torn country since the Taliban were ousted by international coalition forces in the aftermath of September 9/11 terrorist attacks in mainland America.

Although the Taliban seem to have learnt a lot from their first extremely hardline stint in power in Afghanistan between September 2006 and November 2001, still old habits die hard. Consequently, the initial flexibility which the Taliban showed when they took over on August 15, has somewhat observably vanished. It does not augur well either for Afghanistan or the future of the Taliban regime. If the Taliban have to run Afghanistan as a normal state, they would have to behave like a normal government.

Nevertheless, the grim scenario would most likely push more Afghanis into internal and international displacement as Afghanistan is facing a financial crisis following the takeover, with much of the international aid that had propped up the economy frozen. As the prices of food are skyrocketing, an interruption in economic activities and essential services, food insecurity threats are looming large in Afghanistan. Although the UN has launched a $606 million emergency appeal to help nearly 11 million people in Afghanistan, almost one-third of the population is already in desperate need as a result of droughts, displacement, chronic poverty and a sharp increase in hostilities have pushed the country to the brink of economic collapse.

According to the UNDP assessment, a combination of factors could cause the baseline poverty rate – now at 72% – to reach gargantuan proportions by the middle of the next year. In addition to a prolonged drought and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Afghanistan is contending with the upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, collapsing public finances, increasing pressure on the banking system, and rising poverty.

The Taliban are not responsible for the worst economic situation of Afghanistan as even before the takeover, nearly half of the population needed some humanitarian aid and more than half of all children under the age of 5 were expected to face acute malnutrition, according to the UN report. However, it is now up to the Taliban how to tackle the situation. At least, as contended above, with the current modus operandi, it would be very difficult for the regime to put things in order. For instance, the economic challenges are steep. Most Afghans live on less than $2 a day, 80% of the country’s budget has been covered by international funds over the past 20 years, and no industries of note have emerged to provide employment to a mostly young population. Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled, most of them members of the educated elite.

Ironically, despite dependence on international support, the Taliban by forming an interim cabinet filled with radicals have laid bare the contours of their governance of the war-ravaged country. To address the issue the Taliban have at least a strategy. According to the government chief spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, “We are going to be working on our natural resources and our resources in order to revitalize our economy.” This is easier said than done. Afghanistan is facing an immediate threat of humanitarian and economic crisis while working on natural resources is a long-term plan. Moreover, it would require billions of dollars in funding, besides human expertise and technology, none of which is available in Afghanistan. Whereas, the international community, even sympathetic countries, like Pakistan, China and Russia, are hesitant to recognize the government of the Taliban, what to talk of providing large-scale financial and technological aid? In this situation an out-of-the-box strategy both on part of the Taliban and the international community is required to address the grave issues of Afghanistan. They need to address some of them so that to make Afghanistan a livable place, at least.