Starvation in Afghanistan: beyond the Taliban’s role

Emanuele GiordanaEmanuele Giordana, journalist, editor in chief of and president of the Italian network Afgana, which conducts research into and supports Afghan civil society.

United Against Inhumanity (UAI) is an NGO that focuses on the inhumanity of war and the erosion of asylum:

Afghanistan is one of the areas of focus for UAI. In March 2022, UAI launched a campaign to reverse policies imposed by the US and some European governments, to freeze the sovereign external reserves of Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), the country’s central bank. These assets belong to the Afghan people who had no say in the return of the Taliban to power two years ago. The arbitrary seizure of these assets was, and is, a key factor in the near collapse of the Afghan economy and its banking sector. As Emanuele Giordana, an Italian journalist with decades of experience in Afghanistan, explains in the article below, the consequences of such policies result in catastrophic levels of poverty and hunger with some two-thirds of the population now dependent on humanitarian support for survival. 

Taliban policies vis-à-vis girls, women and minorities are utterly reprehensible but this is no reason to impose further misery on the vast majority of the Afghan population that is struggling to survive. UAI calls for the immediate, internationally monitored, and phased release of the US$9.1 billion that belong to the Afghan people. In a recent statement UAI stresses that “Recapitalizing the DAB is the only ethical, moral, and realistic option to ensure the survival and the future of millions of at-risk Afghans.” Read the full statement here:

August marks two years since the end of the war. With an obscurantist government in place, we need to look at what we are doing to lift the country out of poverty and give Afghans the rights we in the West say we want to defend. First, allow them to eat.

Poverty, misery and hunger are devastating Afghanistan. These plagues go much deeper than the righteous claims of those who accuse the Taliban regime of banning freedom of the press and expression and denying the legitimate rights of women who are excluded from school and work.

This is hardly news, given that during the NATO-led occupation, a 2010 United Nations (UN) study found that 36% of the population lived in extreme poverty, noting that this was “neither accidental nor inevitable”. In 2018, 54% of the population lived below the poverty line. Today, this percentage is well over two-thirds of the population: in March 2022, Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), noted that: “We reported late last year that an estimated 97% of Afghans could be living in poverty by mid-2022, and regrettably, that number is being reached faster than anticipated…. with commodities prices skyrocketing globally, we know that people here cannot afford to meet their basic human needs like food, healthcare, and education. However, I have witnessed the determination of Afghans to get back on their feet and work for social stability.” According to UNDP, the Afghan economy shrank by 21% in 2021 alone. Indeed, according to the World Food Programme, out of a population of 41 million Afghans, over 15 million (over one-third) are “acutely food insecure” and almost 3 million are “emergency food insecure”. This means that almost half of Afghans go without enough to eat, and some face starvation.

This painful situation is partly due to a corrupt and irresponsible government, the marginalisation of women in society and the country’s inability to manage its own scarce resources. It must also be said that before August two years ago, when the Taliban regime came to power, the Afghan budget was largely supported by external funds provided by the NATO-led coalition countries, aid that is no longer available. Cooperation, whether bilateral or through the UN and NGOs, has also diminished (to date, less than 15% of the UN humanitarian appeal for 2023 has been funded).

But there is a third, mostly unspoken, factor: the freezing of the country’s sovereign reserves, by the US and its allies. This is a critical factor in the collapse of the economy and the banking sector. Just over US$9 billion that the Afghan Central Bank had deposited abroad is frozen in the US Federal Reserve and some European banks. Government money? No, it’s mainly Afghan citizens’ money, with which it was possible to support the stability of the local currency, to allow businesses to trade abroad, which is now practically impossible. The freeze has also resulted in a drastic reduction in the circulation of money: banknotes are falling apart and cannot even be replaced.

United Against Inhumanity raises the alarm

Only a few voices have been raised in recent years to denounce what has been called an “economic war”, and what we could perhaps call a cold-blooded revenge by the West for losing the Afghan War. Seven billion are stuck in the USA. The rest in European banks. Held by those who lost the war against a ragtag army in flip-flops and kalashnikovs who outwitted analysts, spies and soldiers from some of the most technologically advanced armies in the First World. United Against Inhumanity is a NGO that launched a major campaign in March 2022 to reverse the policy imposed by the United States and some European governments against the Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB): it demands the release of the US$9.1 billion that belong to the Central Bank of Afghanistan as a sovereign national treasure which are now frozen in the vaults of the banks of the countries that invaded Afghanistan 22 years ago.[1]

If Western policy is designed to undermine the Taliban regime, it is the impoverished and marginalised Afghans who pay the price. Women, of course, as well as their children and husbands: the very people we claim to be defending against a theocratic and radical regime. As UAI recently wrote: “Few raise the strategic importance and moral imperative of recapitalising the Da Afghanistan Bank… which needs access to its capital resources to fulfil its critical responsibilities as the country’s central bank.” The NGO calls for the urgent recapitalisation of DAB. Afghanistan’s sovereign foreign exchange reserves should be made available to it in a pragmatic and controlled manner that allows the country to operate in accordance with its charter and normal banking standards; because “reviving the economy is crucial to ending the suffering in Afghanistan”.

The NGO notes that on 14 September 2022, Washington and Bern announced the creation of a new US$3.5 billion Afghan fund in Switzerland, which was “cautiously acknowledged as a step in the right direction”. But ten months later, none of the money, supposedly to be made available “for the benefit of the Afghan people”, has been used to recapitalise the DAB or otherwise. You might call it a second freeze. The money stands still while malnutrition advances. Perhaps one could even argue that the extreme radicalisation of the Taliban emirate is also due to this state of patent injustice. If a cat is driven into a corner and fears for its life, it will blow and huff: it will no longer be tame. Whether this is true or not, the injustice remains, and it is the people who pay for it – men, women, the elderly and children – whom we have been claiming to defend for over twenty years.

Finally, there is another issue that needs to be addressed. It concerns the presence of diplomatic representations which, even without recognising the Taliban regime, could carry out an important engagement and negotiation function. After the Taliban took power, the European Union intended to open a representative office in Kabul but this never happened. There are sporadic contacts between some countries and the regime but, at the moment, there is no real channel of negotiation especially with Western countries. The US holds occasional meetings with the Taliban in Doha to discuss anti-terrorism and other issues but with no visible progress.  A channel for communication is necessary on the ground both for the defence of fundamental rights and for the needs of a country emerging from more than forty years of war. A war in which Western countries have a responsibility to the Afghan people, whatever the regime that governs them.

An earlier version of this article was published by Atlante Guerre on 18 July 2023. It is published here in an extended version by the author (August 2023), with the kind permission of Atlante Guerre.

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