Abdullah Azzam, member of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar, argues against the collective punishment of Afghans via financial sanctions.
The collapse of the previous Afghan administration, headed by Ashraf Ghani, was chaotic. The Taliban inherited, in its aftermath, the governance of a war torn country of forty-three years. Basic services are largely suspended. Eighty percent of the population, according to the World Food Program’s (WFP) estimate, currently don’t have enough food to eat. Above all, a harsh drought has added only more difficulty to the lives of Afghans.
It is imperative that the international community does not collectively punish Afghans further.
As things stand, the majority of Afghans live under the poverty line, with breadwinners often unable to provide basic necessities for their families like food, clothing or even medical care, let alone life’s other luxuries. A 2020 SIGAR report estimated that the poverty level in Afghanistan was 72%. In a report released by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) this month, the poverty rate was projected to increase by 25% by 2022, dragging a staggering 97% of Afghanistan’s population decisively below the poverty line.
Large building projects have been suspended. In the process, thousands of labourers have been deprived of their livelihoods, whilst others are now unable to get themselves hired. Construction workers, tools in hand, spend increasingly shorter days at home without having earnt a single Afghani, as the bitterly cold Afghan winter draws closer and threatens to exact a greater toll on the country.
In recent weeks, a growing and common sight has been that of urban residents carrying their household equipment to local markets, ranging from hand-woven rugs to sofas and even their cutlery, in a desperate attempt at selling these, sometimes at even half the real value. A friend of mine, Ahmad, told me that he had bought sofas for the entirety of a three storeyed house for only two hundred thousand Afghanis, now only about 2,300 dollars. The Afghani continues to plummet in value.
In the early morning of 22nd September, a man in Kunar province was seen near taking his two children, a girl and a boy, to a bazar to sell them for 10,000 and 20,000 Afghanis, respectively. When quizzed as to why, he answered blankly that he was no longer able to provide for them due to the worsening economic condition. “It is okay for me to stay hungry, but I can’t see my children starving,” he added, self-defeated.
Billions of dollars of international aid over the last two decades were funnelled to the country under the previous administration. As we can see, relatively little was achieved. Much of it was siphoned off by the corrupt officials installed in government by the occupation, including those who plunged the country into its current limbo by fleeing abroad. Vast sums also re-entered the donor countries via contractors. Civil workers and soldiers were often left hungry and without pay for months, and civilians were, needless to say, not a priority. It wasn’t uncommon for even low level government officials to struggle to provide for their families, often having to supplant their irregular income by working second and third jobs, assuming they were fortunate enough to find as such.
The entire edifice of what was a ponzy scheme economy of two decades was dealt a lethal blow with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which the previous administration’s officials handled poorly. The final blow came with with the freezing of Afghan assets in international banks by the US and its affiliated international organs after the Taliban’s takeover. The fact that the previous administration collapsed by fleeing a situation of its own doing necessitated the takeover of Kabul by the Islamic Emirate; looters and gangsters threatened to plunge the city into chaos.
Still, it was irrelevant. The decision to freeze what is supposed to be the funds of the sovereign people of Afghanistan was taken, worsening an already precarious economic situation already deteriorating under the previous administration. In addition to securing the capital and facilitating the US’ evacuation from our main international airport which had to remain closed as a result, the Islamic Emirate had to contend with another reality. As an emergency measure, due to the lack of cash in the treasury, the new government restricted cash withdrawals across the country’s banks to only two hundred dollars per week.
In a corruption and conflict ridden country with a worsening economy like Afghanistan, two hundred dollars is barely enough to buy food merely for a family of five, in a country with typically large families. This decision is crushing Afghans under the increasing weight of a poverty caused by a war imposed on them from abroad.
Where could the current crisis lead to?
If the plight of Afghans were not enough, there are other factors to take into account. The ramifications of these will not be shouldered by Afghans alone. If sanctions and the escalating rate of poverty persist, things will be exacerbated regionally and globally. As people become more desperate, it would be natural that crime, such as theft, kidnappings and extortion would surge. More importantly for observers abroad, others would flee the country in desperation for a better economic life, complicating already precarious regional dynamics. Who could blame them? Crushing poverty too would only further incentive the drug trade, as poppy offers the one way out, with its lucrative and global demand. Needless to say, the impact of this would be international.
Moreover, it is likely that the lack of cash and unemployment would force people not just migrate, but to do so illegally. The effects of this would not be problematic for regional dynamics alone, but internationally. The migration waves of the last years and its difficult implications for much of Western Europe are by now well-known. By punishing Afghans collectively, and for little reason, Europe and North America would once again grapple with the recurrence of an old problem.
The likelihood of such nightmares is higher as UNDP’s resident representative in Afghanistan, Abdullah Al Dardari put it, “There would be multiple crises: internal displacement, migration, people fleeing the country, people joining illicit businesses,” Al Dardari told Al Jazeera. “I think the opium trade will flourish, much more than it is today – simply because there are no other jobs. Domestic violence will increase, too. Our duty is to step in now.”
The suspicions and remaining issues between the Islamic Emirate and the international community that have resulted in sanctions are not, however, unresolvable. Far from it. Much in the same way as larger differences and points of contention were bridged through negotiations in Doha were, I am sure that the existing gap too between us could be bridged by dialogue.
The international community should evaluate the dire financial predicament in Afghanistan. Even under the previous administration imposed from abroad, many Afghans were driven to sell their kidneys out of desperation. Others fled to Europe across perilous land and see journeys, in their hundreds of thousands. Afghans demand the US specifically and the international community to unfreeze the nation’s funds in International Banks. We urge countries and charitable organizations to support Afghans in a time of desperate need.
Political differences must not define humanitarian exchange, and civilians should not be punished because of their governments. This would be in flagrant contradiction of the humanitarian ideals internationally held by those now driving Afghans to starvation. It is enough that Yemen and Syria have both, in recent times, been gripped by their own humanitarian crises. Such a situation in Afghanistan is not far away. That situation is preventable, providing that the world acts now. It must act before it is too late.
If Afghanistan is poor today, it is because of war. In the aftermath of that war, just as it is the Islamic Emirate’s duty to facilitate reconstruction and govern effectively, so too it is the duty of the United States and its allies to partake in that reconstruction. If not, the very least the United States and its allies could do is not freeze funds belonging to the Afghan people, handicapping them from once more standing on their own feet.