Afghanistan – The Humanitarian Crisis we choose to ignore

With the escalation of the war in Ukraine, the international community’s attention has been diverted away from another humanitarian crisis that threatens the lives of millions.

In January earlier this year, Sky News shared reports about Afghan men selling their kidneys to save their families from starvation. This harrowing story perfectly exemplifies a crisis that at one stage saw 8.7 million people (nearly a quarter of the Afghan population) at risk of starvation. But with the Ukraine war grabbing the monopoly of media attention, this country, which has commanded headlines for years, now appears abandoned and forgotten. Besides the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the Taliban government continues to commit numerous human rights violations and atrocities, with Wednesday seeing a reversal of an earlier promise to allow girls to return to secondary schools. Exeter’s own Weeda Mehran highlights the links between this U-turn and the Taliban’s desire for international recognition, with the school issue supposedly used as a “bargaining chip” for recognition. However, even if the Taliban reverse their position, the education crisis seems set to continue due to the major shortage of teachers in the country, with around 70% of current staff also working without pay!

Due to these ongoing crises, many analysts have started to raise serious questions about whether the international community needs to do more to engage with the Taliban Government. Deborah Lyons, the Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), recently told the UN Security Council that serious cooperation is needed with the new regime in order to avoid total economic collapse. Likewise, former PM Gordon Brown argues the international community’s prioritisation of sanctions over foreign aid, which used to fund 75% of the Afghan budget during the Occupation period, goes against the very “liberal” principles it used to justify the occupation in the first place. Brown further highlights how even the aid the US has sent through humanitarian agencies remains limited, suggesting a level of international disregard for the fate of Afghans that goes beyond fears of aid getting into the hands of the Taliban.

However, resistance amongst many in the international community remains strong, as demonstrated through America’s freezing of $3.5 billion in reserves in the Afghan Central Bank just last month, with the money’s return likely to condition on the Central Bank becoming independent of the Taliban. Many Western leaders continue to believe that by withholding aid and international recognition from the Afghan Government, the Taliban will be forced into adopting more liberal values.

Yet critics dispute this view, pointing to the Taliban’s decentralised structure as a barrier that prevents it from truly reforming, even in response to tremendous international pressure, with the positions of some conservative elites arguably a factor in the Taliban’s U-turn on girls’ schooling. What’s more, such critics highlight the risks of an escalation in the humanitarian crisis if the international community continues to withhold foreign aid from the Taliban in the context of the Ukraine war generating a global shortage in wheat supplies.

The truth is, with the war in Ukraine distracting from the crisis in Afghanistan, the positions held by the US and other global powers will seemingly remain uncontested and unchallenged by the masses. And yet, at the same time, the Taliban’s actions on Wednesday arguably demonstrate their unwillingness to be easily swayed by international pressures. Unfortunately then, in the short term at least, Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis seems set to escalate further, with the international community and the Taliban unable to cooperate.

Image: Tina Hester

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