KABUL: Dramatic scenes at the Kabul airport of Afghans desperate to leave the country, and horrific bombings there, captured the world’s attention in the weeks after the Taliban took power. The focus is now shifting to a much larger, multi-faceted humanitarian crisis throughout the country. Violence, displacement, drought and the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Afghan population with accelerating force in recent years, and the humanitarian disaster gathered pace in May as the final withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces began. Afghans teemed across borders seeking refuge after the government collapsed on 15 August.
The UN Security Council adopted a resolution on 30 August calling for “enhanced” humanitarian assistance. Making that happen will require an urgent increase in donor funding, easing of sanctions, regional cooperation on air bridges for aid delivery and – perhaps most difficult – persistent attention from Western governments that may prefer to move on from defeat in Afghanistan. Donors and aid organisations will be confronted with wrenching decisions in the coming weeks as they are called upon to answer the UN’s flash appeal while also being disquieted by the Taliban’s new de facto authority. In the interest of preventing a human catastrophe that reverberates throughout South and Central Asia, donors will need to set aside their concerns about the Taliban, at least for the narrow purpose of ensuring that aid reaches the Afghan population and refugees living nearby.
Violence, Displacement, Food Insecurity and Deteriorating Essential Services
Unprecedented numbers of civilians were killed and injured in the early months of 2021 and at least 560,000 people were displaced, including nearly 120,000 fleeing to Kabul as they sought refuge from Taliban advances. Those numbers represent the worst-ever period in what for some years has been the world’s deadliest conflict. The count of displaced people in Afghanistan over the last seven months was twice the monthly average in the last five years, and the figures are expected to grow as aid agencies’ accounting catches up with the scale of the crisis. Some 80 per cent of those fleeing violence since the end of May have been women and children. Thousands of displaced people in Kabul have been sleeping in the open air, and only a minuscule portion of them escaped during the international airlift that ended on 30 August.
The UN reports that hospitals are overflowing, medical supplies are dwindling and critical infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. Essential food supplies in many cities are running short. Pressures are especially acute in Kabul, where job losses and spiralling inflation have made it even more challenging for people to purchase food and other staples. The largest employer in the country, the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, has dissolved. Salaries for other state employees cannot be paid because of international asset freezes. Banks are running out of cash. City parks are filled with makeshift encampments. The prices of vegetables in Kabul’s bazaars have climbed 50 per cent in recent weeks, and fuel prices are up 75 per cent and rising. Kabul’s airport – crucial for bringing in humanitarian supplies and for enabling post-airlift departures for Afghans vulnerable to Taliban reprisals – was seriously damaged during the chaotic evacuation and has not yet begun operating again in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.
The Taliban’s violent sweep to power and resulting collapse of government functions is compounding a humanitarian crisis that was already dire and had worsened over the last few years. As reported by Crisis Group last year, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact: it is believed to have infected millions and it helped drive an increase in the poverty level from 38 per cent in 2011 to an estimated 47 per cent in 2020. At the beginning of 2021, as many as 14 million people could not obtain sufficient food, according to the UN, meaning that more than one third of the population of roughly 38 million was going hungry. Food insecurity is a result of repeated droughts over the last three years, and the recent disorder is expected to exacerbate the situation.
Afghans’ Limited Options and the Refugee Crisis
For decades, millions of Afghans have escaped crises by seeking refuge abroad – mostly in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. The latest disasters, however, have struck at a time when other countries are increasingly shutting their doors to Afghans. Regional and international actors have been improvising as they respond to the Taliban takeover, but the early signs suggest that many Afghan refugees will struggle to find new homes. The UN refugee agency has issued a call for countries to uphold their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, while recognising the burden on neighbouring countries, and has estimated that up to half a million Afghans may flee the country by the end of 2021.
Pakistan, which already shelters an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees, initially refused to allow entry to more refugees and has been working to complete a fence along its porous boundary with Afghanistan, although some gates have since reopened to uprooted Afghans. Iran, which hosts more than 2 million Afghan refugees, has been setting up makeshift camps but has urged repatriation as soon as possible. Even during the recent heights of the war, the two countries were repatriating large numbers of Afghans. In 2020 alone, more than one million Afghan migrants were returned or deported, largely from Iran and Pakistan, though some also from further away, including Western countries. Central Asian countries have also been reluctant to take Afghan refugees, even temporarily, in recent weeks. Only Tajikistan has so far indicated it is willing to host up to 100,000 Afghan refugees. Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have resisted requests to accept even small numbers.
The U.S.-led airlift at the Kabul airport flew out more than 120,000 Afghans and foreign citizens in August, some landing in countries such as Uganda and Albania for temporary processing of U.S. visas and others landing at U.S. military bases in various countries. The UK and Canada have announced that they will each admit up to 20,000 Afghan refugees over the coming years. Other Western countries, including Australia, France, Switzerland and Austria, have either refused to take in refugees or remained silent on the issue. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz reflected the views of many conservative European politicians when he announced that his country would not “voluntarily” accept more Afghan refugees.
Can the Taliban’s New Government Manage these Crises?
The Taliban’s technical capacity to address these challenges is questionable. A three-day meeting of Taliban leaders in Kandahar reportedly discussed social welfare issues but concluded on 31 August with no announcements about how to address the growing humanitarian problems including the risk of economic collapse. One of the Taliban’s first appointments to their de facto authority was a new central bank head, Mohammad Idris, but he arrives in the position with no known education or work experience in overseeing a modern economy. The Taliban’s rudimentary governance of areas under their control or influence during the last two decades did not extend to managing humanitarian and economic matters on anything remotely like the scale of what they are now facing.
One advantage the Taliban might bring to their economic stewardship is a reputation for being less corrupt than their predecessors, but even if they live up to this billing it is not likely to ameliorate the near-term crisis. Another asset will be the longstanding relationships between the Taliban and the businesses and aid agencies that have spent years operating in zones of Taliban control. For example, in the largest non-agricultural employment sector, telecommunications, Crisis Group has learned that early meetings with the Taliban have been constructive and worked toward resolving issues left over from the previous administration. In a country where little else is functional, the mobile phones are still working. Other big businesses are hedging their bets: Kam Air, the largest Afghan airline, is sheltering its aircraft nearby in Iran.
The Taliban will also be constrained by their finances. Under the previous government, 75 per cent of public spending was funded by donors, a resource stream that is now at least indefinitely suspended. Salaries for doctors, teachers and other workers are in jeopardy, as is the ability to finance imports (in a heavily import-dependent economy), after the U.S. froze nearly all the central bank’s $9.4 billion in reserves. Under pressure from the Biden administration, the International Monetary Fund followed suit by blocking access to emergency reserves of $460 million, and the World Bank suspended all projects. The European Union (EU) suspended €1.2 billion ($1.4 billion) in development assistance planned for Afghanistan over the next decade, pending talks with the Taliban.
Such measures are sending financial shock waves through the country. Even before the asset freeze, the price of food had been steadily on the rise, with prices of staples such as wheat, rice, sugar and cooking oil increasing by more than 50 per cent compared with pre-COVID-19 levels. Regular shipments of U.S. dollars to the central bank have stopped, leaving the value of the Afghan currency to slide downward. Western Union has halted transactions to Afghanistan, squeezing international remittances.
How Can Donor States and International Organisations Help?
The speed of the Taliban’s victory surprised the world, leaving a fledgling government in Kabul seeking international recognition from foreign capitals whose attention has so far been focused on evacuations and domestic political fallout. The lack of unanimous support for the minimalist language of the 30 August resolution at the UN Security Council (with China and Russia abstaining) highlights the profound disagreements within the international community over how to deal with the new Taliban regime. Issues of formal recognition, sanctions removal and conditionality for development assistance seem likely to remain mired in debate over the coming months.
It should be somewhat easier to rally the international community behind an immediate agenda of preventing humanitarian disaster. Regional actors want to avoid an utter collapse on their doorstep; European donors are concerned about waves of migrants; and the U.S. may wish to mitigate damage to its reputation after a chaotic exit. The UN is making a “flash appeal” to increase the funds for humanitarian agencies, which have received only 37 per cent of the $1.3 billion identified (before the Taliban takeover) as needed in 2021.
The UN has started taking the practical steps necessary to send additional aid. Taliban leaders met with the World Food Programme’s executive director on 26 August and emerged from the meeting offering “cooperation and security”. UN staff in Kabul had already been holding other meetings with Taliban officials. A UN air bridge from Pakistan started landing cargo planes in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif on 30 August, a supply route that is expected to expand with flights to Kabul.
As with other humanitarian operations, however, the UN requires implementing partners and sub-contractors in Afghanistan – and these organisations could be vulnerable to sanctions. The Taliban as a group and elements within it are still sanctioned by the UN, the U.S., and the EU and many of its member states. The UN sanctions regime contains restrictions on any assistance that may benefit the Taliban. At least some within the Group of Seven countries have been calling for further sanctions on the Taliban if the Taliban continue to foster ties with militant groups or violate human rights. Such restrictions could make trucking firms nervous about sending food into the country; sanctions could block Afghan banks from receiving money transfers; and even public utilities could struggle to keep the lights on, because Afghanistan purchases much of its electricity from abroad.
The simplest answer to the sanctions issue – technically, though perhaps not politically – would be delisting the Taliban on humanitarian grounds, following the example of the U.S. delisting of the Huthi rebels in northern Yemen earlier in 2021. Some UN humanitarian officials are hoping to model their response to the Taliban takeover on the effort in Yemen, treating the Taliban as “de facto authorities” and providing aid without conferring recognition. Western diplomats, however, have told Crisis Group that lifting sanctions could be difficult, so a more feasible option might involve “comfort letters” from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Any such measures encouraging humanitarian aid would help with unblocking assistance to the Afghan people.
Both the Taliban and outside powers need to act quickly to ameliorate the humanitarian emergency in Afghanistan, lest it become much worse than it is already. At the moment, the following steps are particularly pressing:
The Taliban must follow through on their promises of unrestricted access for humanitarian workers, without diverting assistance into their own coffers.
The U.S. and the EU, which have been the largest donors over the last twenty years, should make good on their promises of continuing to stand with the Afghan people by convening a virtual donors’ conference to fill the humanitarian assistance funding gaps identified by the UN.
Donors should empower the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan to negotiate with the Taliban on behalf of humanitarian actors, taking the lead on coordinating provision of aid with the de facto authorities.
Mechanisms for sanctions waivers, licences or other forms of relief must be established as a matter of urgency – in the short term at least as a way of facilitating aid shipments.
The international community should facilitate the establishment of humanitarian air bridges, and work to enable resumption of civilian air travel as soon as possible.