Six months after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, humanitarians fear a growing hunger crisis could kill more Afghans than the preceding 20 years of war.
“People are selling their organs. People are selling their children. They are desperate. They are hungry. And the situation is very, very dire,” U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan Ramiz Alakbarov told VOA from Kabul recently.
Nearly two-thirds of the population – about 23 million people – need humanitarian assistance. That’s up 30% from just one year ago.
And their need is urgent.
The World Food Program says 9 million Afghans are just one step from famine.
“It's just extraordinary, the speed and the degree to which the situation has affected everyone in the country,” WFP Regional Deputy Director Anthea Webb told VOA from the Afghan capital.
The country’s economy is in freefall. Billions in foreign assistance that propped up the national budget dried up when the Taliban seized power. The population is also suffering from the combined effects of years of conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic and successive severe droughts.
“So, it's really disaster on top of disaster, on top of disaster,” Webb said. She noted that acute hunger is not limited to remote parts of the country.
“This is the new face of hunger in Afghanistan; it is urban and educated,” she said.
Reaching the vulnerable
After the Taliban seized power on August 15 of last year, humanitarians worried they might not be allowed to continue working in the country. The Taliban have recognized that they need the international aid community and have allowed humanitarians to work largely unimpeded.
Groups say due to the end of active conflict, access has actually improved in some parts of the country.
“We have access to places where we could not reach before, because of constant crossfire, constant restrictions, due to the fighting,” said Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary-General Jan Egeland.
He told VOA that work has been smooth in urban centers, like Kabul, but that his staff can face challenges in more conservative regions where local Taliban commanders are more restrictive.
“The situation is not ideal everywhere – in some provinces the situation is better, in some provinces it's less,” agreed the U.N.’s Alakbarov.
“But we are able to work through the hurdles,” he added.
The United Nations has been scaling up its assistance over the past six months. In 2021, it reached about 19.6 million people, and since August 15, about 8 million people with food and medical assistance.
Getting food, supplies and staff to all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces is a Herculean task. Supplies for the U.N. and NGOs come by land and air through countries including Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Qatar and Uzbekistan.
WFP is moving about 100,000 tons of food per month. In January, the agency had more than 300 trucks a day on the road ferrying supplies. That number could go up to 500 as the response scales up.
“It's a major, major operation, and we cannot afford a day off the road,” WFP’s Webb said, adding that they would clear snow-blocked roads if necessary to get their cargo to its destinations.
WFP reached 8.5 million Afghans in January and hopes to nearly double that this month.
The contents of the food baskets are very basic. Webb said they contain about one cup of wheat flour, half a cup of beans, a tablespoon of cooking oil and a pinch of salt per person, per day.
But insufficient funding could see these meager rations shrink even further.
Webb said WFP is at real risk of running out of money in a few months’ time if donors do not step up. To make the supplies go further, Afghans who are suffering acute food insecurity may have to make do with three-quarter rations until funds are replenished.
In January, the U.N. made its largest appeal ever, for $4.4 billion – nearly a quarter of Afghanistan’s GDP – for the humanitarian response. So far, it is only 9% funded at about $420 million.
When the U.N. launched its appeal, humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said support is critical, or “next year we’ll be asking for $10 billion.”
Sanctions and economic impact
One of the main obstacles that humanitarians are trying to work around is the rapidly collapsing Afghan economy.
“We didn't leave,” Egeland says of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “Our 1,400 workers are on the ground, but they're working with their hands tied behind their back.”
Since the U.S. withdrawal, Washington stopped shipping dollars into the country, causing a cash crisis, which has affected both humanitarian organizations and ordinary Afghans.
“Our future is not bright because people live under the poverty line now,” Kabul resident Emran Frodali told VOA. “If the situation continues like this, the future is not bright. Many young people left the country, and they are in the process of leaving.”
Washington has also frozen about $9.5 billion in Afghan foreign reserves held in the United States to keep the Taliban from accessing it.
Seven billion of that money is held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Some relatives of 9/11 victims have sought to gain access to it since the Taliban takeover, to pay out compensation claims. On Friday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that will keep half of that money frozen for potential lawsuits and facilitate access to the other $3.5 billion to assist the Afghan people.
Even before Friday’s announcement, the Biden administration had taken steps to allow for humanitarian operations to continue, making changes to U.S. laws and following it up with a resolution at the U.N. Security Council.
“The U.S. strongly encourages both direct provision of humanitarian assistance as well as financial transactions that support those agencies that are providing humanitarian assistance,” a USAID official told VOA. “We have made it legal.”
But banks and businesses do not seem reassured. Still fearful of running afoul of U.S. sanctions, they are avoiding doing business in the country.
The World Bank is also sitting on $1.2 billion in its Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. In December, it released $280 million for the humanitarian response.
“The Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund that the World Bank has is there to be used, and it needs to be used in a way that supports the economy as well as delivers the pure humanitarian aid,” International Rescue Committee CEO David Miliband told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 9.
Miliband urged U.S. lawmakers to look at the relationship between the humanitarian response and broader economic support for the country. He emphasized that if the economy collapses, there is no way the humanitarian system will be able to cope.
“Both need to get going,” he urged. “And actually, if the private economy works well, we won’t be in situation in a year’s time where 22 million people are dependent on the WFP for food.”
The U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan agrees.
“Unless these are resolved, the humanitarian crisis will continue, and it will continue to deepen, and we won’t be able to resolve it with the current means we have at hand,” Alakbarov said.
While humanitarians note aid is not the long-term solution, for now it is the difference between life and death for millions of Afghans.
“The future is in the hand of God, but let’s hope that situation gets better for the people who are already suffering from poverty and hunger, Kabul taxi driver Bahram Ali told VOA. “If the Taliban government could cooperate with the international community and the world, we will have a good future. If not, God knows what will happen.”
Ayesha Tanzeem contributed to this story from Kabul.