Devastating Situation in Afghanistan: Hunger, blocked national wealth, sanctions

by Eva-Maria Föllmer-Müller

In January already, high-ranking representatives from Paris, London, Berlin and Washington, among others, met with high-ranking representatives of the Afghan government in Oslo. This was the first official invitation to Europe since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan. Humanitarian aid and human rights were on the agenda. Subsequently, a conference was held in Geneva from 7-11 February at the invitation of the NGO “Geneva Call” with eleven representatives of the Afghan government, who had come with a request for humanitarian aid. The agenda was the same as in Oslo.
  Official Switzerland also held talks within the conference. As a spokesman for the Fedeal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) told SRF on request before the meeting, the FDFA delegation was made up of “representatives from the SDC, the Peace and Human Rights Department and the Asia and Pacific Political Department”. Ambassador Raphael Nägeli emphasised the importance of speaking to those who are currently in power in Afghanistan. However, he also stated that this was “neither a legitimation nor an acknowledgment of the Taliban as agents of the Afghan government”. The head of the Asia and Pacific department in the State Secretariat FDFA in Bern said in an interview with SRF: “The interlocutors asked us to provide more humanitarian aid. They described the situation in Afghanistan in a drastic way – they admitted very openly that the situation in the hospitals is dramatic. That’s why they’re asking for more support.”

Afghanistan is in a desolate situation: 24.4 million people, more than half of the total population, are dependent on humanitarian aid.
  The UN-Afghanistan Humanitarian Aid Plan 2022 earmarks $4.4 billion to help 22 million people. It is only 9 % funded.1
  An updated analysis of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC)2 shows that in the first quarter of 2022, 23 million people, or 55 per cent of the population, are expected to be affected by a food insecurity crisis or emergency (IPC 3 and 4). 8.7 million people are expected to be in IPC 4 – the highest number worldwide. The IPC report concludes that the “current and projected food situation in Afghanistan is extremely worrying”.
  The main risk factors include the financial freeze. The IPC report: “Sanctions are curtailing the private sector and leading to urban unemployment. A scenario of prolonged financial disruption would lead to a protracted economic crisis. A resumption in payments would allow businesses to resume operations and unemployment to ease.”
  US President Joe Biden’s announcement on 11 February that he would withhold half of Afghanistan’s frozen foreign currency reserves, i. e., Afghanistan’s national assets of around seven billion dollars, for lawsuits by relatives of victims of terrorist attacks such as those of 11 September 2001, caused a great deal of protest. The other half was to be made available for humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. With good reason former politicians, academics and representatives of the current Afghan government outraged and accused the US of theft; numerous people in Afghanistan protested. Afghan political scientist Mohsin Amin commented on the decision on 13 February: “This is an oppressive and tyrannical move to dismantle Afghanistan’s economy and inflict harm on 38 million Afghans. The US has spent over $2 trillion on the war in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. But ordinary Afghans have seen little of it other than in the form of tens of thousands of bombs raining on them or ill-planned and executed, and ultimately, failed reconstruction efforts. Nearly a quarter of a million people have died as a direct result of the war, not including death by disease, poverty, and other factors related to the invasion.” Former President Hamid Karzai condemned the decision as an “atrocity against the Afghan people”. Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s designated representative to the UN, called for the entire amount to be unfrozen and kept under control of the Afghan central bank. “The reserve is the property of Da Afghanistan Bank and by extension, the property of the people of Afghanistan,” Shaheen told Reuters. Senior Taliban spokesman Al-Hanafi Wardak told Newsweek magazine: “President Biden’s unjust decision was a revenge on all Afghans for America’s military defeat and a blow to Afghanistan’s economic system, which shows America’s lowest human and moral decline […]. I have to say that this money is the right of Afghans and this money does not depend on the system and the government.” And further: “It is clear that if this money does not have a negative impact on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, it will have a negative impact on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, a humanitarian situation of which the world is clearly concerned […] But behind the scenes, the world has indirectly played a role in perpetuating this deplorable humanitarian situation in Afghanistan by remaining silent in the face of these brutal US decisions.”
  A number of Afghan interest groups abroad have also reacted negatively to the Biden administration’s decision.
  By the way, women who are desperately struggling to save their children from dying of hunger and cold have other concerns than their “gender equality”. The human right to life and food is being most brutally denied to Afghan women, men and children today. The right to life and to food applies to all human beings, including all Afghans.  •

1 António Guterres on Twitter on 10 February, 2022

“For Afghans, daily life has become a frozen hell”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Security Council meeting on 26 January 2022

Mr President, Excellencies,

Six months after the takeover by the Taliban, Afghanistan is hanging by a thread. For Afghans, daily life has become a frozen hell. They’re in the grips of another brutal winter of blistering wind, cold and snow. Families huddle in makeshift tents under plastic sheets – even burning their possessions to keep warm.
  Clinics are overcrowded – and under-resourced. Ambulances and hospital power generators are running dry because of skyrocketing fuel prices. Afghans are stalked not only by COVID-19, but by deadly preventable diseases like measles, diarrhoea and even polio.
  Education and social services are on the brink of collapse. Millions of children – critically, girls – are out of school, and 70 per cent of teachers are not getting paid.
  Over half of all Afghans face extreme levels of hunger. The country is facing its worst drought in two decades, pushing 9 million people closer to famine. More than 80 per cent of the population relies on contaminated drinking water, and some families are selling their babies to purchase food.
  The Afghan economy is enduring a bitter winter of its own. There is a danger that the currency could go into freefall and the country could lose 30 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) within the year. Liquidity has evaporated. Sanctions and mistrust by the global banking system have frozen nearly $9 billion in central bank assets.  Vital systems are starved of needed funds. Lack of – particularly in local currency – is limiting capacity to reach Afghans in need.
  As the economy spirals downward, human rights are also losing ground.  Women and girls are once again being shut out of offices and classrooms. They lost their country overnight. Years of steady progress gone in the blink of an eye.
  I am deeply concerned by recent reports of arbitrary arrests and abductions of women activists. I strongly appeal for their release.
  Meanwhile, terrorism remains a constant threat – not only to the security of Afghanistan, but to the entire world.

when it comes to complex humanitarian emergencies, Afghanistan is as bad as it gets. That is why we launched an appeal two weeks ago – the largest in the United Nations history for a single country, more than $4.4 billion for this year.
  We’re ramping-up life-saving support around health, shelter, nutrition, protection and emergency education – as well as cash transfers to help families make ends meet. Last year, the United Nations and our partners reached 18 million people across the country.  And our teams are working at scaled-up capacity to reach even more people this year, and keep the country’s food, health and education systems from collapse.
  The appeal also contains vital support for refugee-hosting countries. I will never forget the generosity of countries like Pakistan and Iran, which – for decades – have hosted millions of Afghans in need.
  At this moment, we need the global community – and this Council – to put their hands on the wheel of progress, provide resources and prevent Afghanistan from spiralling any further.
  First and most urgently, we need to scale-up our humanitarian operations to save lives. This goes far beyond our humanitarian appeal itself. We need to suspend the rules and conditions that constrict not only Afghanistan’s economy, but our life-saving operations.
  At this moment of maximum need, these rules must be seriously reviewed.  International funding must be allowed to pay the salaries of public-sector workers. From surgeons and nurses, to teachers, sanitation workers and electricians – all are vital to keeping systems up-and-running. And they’re critical to Afghanistan’s future. We need to give them a reason to stay in the country.
  I welcome this Council’s adoption of a humanitarian exemption to the United Nations sanctions regime for Afghanistan. I repeat my call to issue general licenses covering transactions necessary to all humanitarian activities. We need to give financial institutions and commercial partners legal assurance that they can work with humanitarian operators without fear of breaching sanctions.
  And standing with the people of Afghanistan also includes a strong role for the United Nations. This includes the One-United Nations Transitional Engagement Framework for Afghanistan, which is being launched today – a plan to extend and accelerate humanitarian and development support to the Afghan people, while sustaining and strengthening essential services and systems throughout this critical period of transition.  And it includes recommendations for a new mandate for the United Nations special political mission in Afghanistan to support security, progress and human rights, contained in my upcoming report. I urge this Council to consider these recommendations as this country enters a new chapter in its history.
  Second – and deeply connected to the first – we need to jump-start Afghanistan’s economy through increased liquidity. We must pull the economy back from the brink. This means finding ways to free-up frozen currency reserves and re-engage Afghanistan’s Central Bank, and it means exploring other ways to rapidly inject liquidity into the economy.
  The World Bank’s reconstruction trust fund for Afghanistan transferred $280 million to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme last month.  We need the remaining $1.2 billion to be freed-up urgently, to help Afghanistan’s people survive the winter.
  Time is of the essence. Without action, lives will be lost, and despair and extremism will grow. A collapse of the Afghan economy could lead to a massive exodus of people fleeing the country.
  Our team in Afghanistan stands ready to work with Member States and others to establish accountable systems to ensure that funds go to the Afghan people most in need and are not diverted.
  Third – now is the time for the Taliban to expand opportunity and security for its people and demonstrate a real commitment to be a part of the global community. The window for trust-building is open, but this trust must be earned.
  Inside Afghanistan, Afghan and international female aid workers are hard at work implementing projects, supporting programmes and even leading country operations across the country. They’re making a difference on-the-ground – clearly demonstrating the contribution that women can make when given the opportunity to do so.
  Unfettered humanitarian access to all regions of the country is vital. At the same time, every effort must be made to build inclusive government institutions in which all Afghans feel represented.
  Promoting security and fighting terrorism are also crucial. For far too long, the country has been a fertile breeding ground for terrorist groups. If we do not act and help Afghans weather this storm, the region and the world will pay a heavy price. Illicit drug flows, and criminal and terrorist networks, will increase. Without food, without jobs, without their rights protected, we will see more Afghans fleeing their homes in search of a better life.
  I urge the Taliban to work closely with the global community – and this Council – to suppress the global terrorist threat in Afghanistan and build institutions that promote security. We must prevent the expansion of all terrorist organizations in the country.
  And just as I appeal to the international community to step up support for the people of Afghanistan, I make an equally urgent plea to the Taliban leadership to recognize and protect the fundamental human rights that every person shares.
  A stable, prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan is an inclusive Afghanistan – one in which all people can contribute to its future. This must include the rights of women and girls, who are once again being denied their rights to education, employment and equal justice.
  This is a tragedy for those women and girls who grew up believing that any dream was within reach, and now helplessly watching those dreams slip away. But it is also a collective waste of talents and skills Afghanistan needs as it navigates a precarious future. As a moral imperative – and a practical one – all doors must be kept open for women and girls: in schools, in the workplace, in the halls of justice, and across all aspects of public life.
  Opportunities for a new beginning are rare. We urge the Taliban to seize this moment and garner international trust and goodwill by recognizing – and upholding – the basic human rights that belong to every girl and woman.
  In the depths of a frigid Afghan winter, renewal and hope can seem distant. For decades – even centuries – Afghanistan has been unfairly used as a platform for political agendas, geopolitical advantage, ideological dominance, and brutal conflicts and terrorism.
  As a matter of moral responsibility – and regional and global security and prosperity – we cannot abandon the people of Afghanistan. They need peace. They need hope. They need help. And they need it now.


Final statement of the delegation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) (excerpt)

At the end of the conference, the IEA signed a conference statement and declared:

  • To facilitate principled humanitarian action in Afghanistan and to ensure the protection of humanitarian workers and aid;
  • To promote the full respect and protection of health care facilities, transports and staff, including female workers;
  • To cooperate in and undertake stockpile destruction, mine clearance, victim assistance and mine risk awareness;
  • To promote the protection of the environment and cultural heritage through public campaigns and other activities;
  • To protect all Afghans, including by providing, protecting and facilitating the continuation of their education.


David Miliband's testimony of 9 February 2022 (excerpt)

“The crisis is affecting every aspect of life for virtually all 40 million Afghans and sending humanitarian needs spiraling. The entire population faces the prospect of poverty, while half face hunger. Even Afghans that were spared previous periods of conflict and crisis – those in urban areas, the upper middle class and the well-educated – are now affected. Only 2 % of Afghans have enough food to eat today. Almost 9 million people are one step before famine conditions. This is the highest figure ever recorded in Afghanistan and the largest in the world today. Food is still available in markets, yet the threat of famine looms as people have no access to cash to buy the food. In places like Herat, our staff even hear reports of people resorting to selling organs. Others are leaving for Iran through informal and illegal routes because they cannot meet their most basic needs inside Afghanistan.”

Source: David Miliband’s Testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Afghanistan,
New York, 9 February 2022

David Miliband is the president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in New York

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