The invasion of Ukraine has, understandably, diverted much of the attention of the global media to eastern Europe, with the unfortunate consequence that other pressing issues such as the humanitarian crisis happening in Afghanistan, have received scant attention. The country has quietly receded into chaos since the Taliban returned to full control in late 2021. While the ‘de-facto’ leadership of Afghanistan has sought international legitimacy, it has missed every opportunity to demonstrate to the international community that it has reformed and transformed from its socially repressive policies, which were common practice between 1996 to the early 2000s. Consequently, there is a possibility the present situation could lead to more deaths in the coming months than was witnessed during the previous two decades of the Taliban’s rule.
Since the American and allied withdrawal of troops in August 2021, The Taliban has actively sought to roll back the relative freedoms women have enjoyed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. Plans were already in motion for example, to welcome girls back into the classroom in late March, after schooling was suspended when the Taliban returned to power. The occasion was meant to serve as a litmus test for Taliban regarding one of its most ruthless policies towards women and girls. Unfortunately, the Taliban failed this test when it decreed that girls across the country were to return home even before the first classes had commenced. The Taliban leadership’s justification was that the girls lacked appropriate uniforms, and that the teachers were not capable.
The scope for female suppression by the Taliban has continued to widen. A recent decree forces women to wear a Burka when outdoors and threatens to penalise their male ‘guardians’ in cases of infringement. This appears to shatter hopes of a more socially progressive Taliban.
The Taliban has closed down a number of progressive agencies and commissions, citing pressure from reduced public revenue as the reason. The Human Rights Commission, the Election Commission, the Higher Council for Reconciliation, the Ministries for Woman’s Affairs, Peace, and Parliamentary Affairs, have all been shut down by the Taliban. While fiscal restraint is arguably needed, it has been suggested that the move by the Taliban is opportunistic and only serves to help the government displace potential “obstacles” to the implementation of their vision for the country.
However construed, the above actions are a consequence of the decision by the UN National Security Council to label the de-facto government in Afghanistan as a “terrorist entity”, as well as the decision to impose severe financial sanctions on the country. A crucial move has been the confiscation of $7 billion USD in Afghanistan’s international reserves by the United States. These international asset freezes have led to internal restrictions on cash withdrawals, which has in turn hindered some NGO’s ability to pay their in-country employees – some of whom are carrying out vital work in Afghanistan.
It is estimated that a total of 80% of public spending was financed by the international community before the Taliban takeover, and combined with a weakened internal banking system, this has left civil servants such as teachers, healthcare workers, and other vital service providers unable to receive their wages. Crucial sectors of the economy such as these are nearing collapse as a result.
This has also left the country in a precarious position for the importation of vital goods, such as food and medicine. As a result, Afghanistan globally has the highest amount of people facing food insecurity. A staggering 95% of the Afghani population currently has insufficient food, 8.7 million are nearing famine, and more than a million children face severe acute malnutrition and even death in the next year. These are hard-hitting and worrying projections, which the world must address with immediacy.
Short of war, economic sanctions are the only tool in the arsenal of the international community for dissuading states from unacceptable behaviour. Their effectiveness is widely open to debate. In this case, the U.S.-led sanctions against Afghanistan appear to be more emotional than effective.
Admittedly, it makes moral sense to impose harsh economic sanctions against a regime capable of subverting half of its population to an existence of effective servitude to their male “superiors”, a government willingly destroying a UNESCO world heritage site, and overseeing the human catastrophe they are inflicting upon their own populations. There is also political merit in adopting a hard-line stance against the Taliban after 20 years, given the billions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost trying to defeat them. Nevertheless, these sanctions are blunt at best and counterproductive at worst, and are a major barrier to delivering humanitarian support to those in need.
Fundamentally, The Taliban’s aim is to mould Afghanistan into a violently conservative fundamentalist theocracy, an ambition that hardly requires the slightest glimpse of social prosperity or any hint of a functioning economy in order to be implemented.
In practice, therefore, these sanctions are disproportionately affecting the civilian population and doing little to threaten or dissuade, let alone topple the Taliban leadership or hinder its long-term ambitions for the country. Simply put, the Taliban’s intentions do not require money, they can achieve their social intentions for the country with relatively limited resources. In speaking to the U.S Senate, the head of the International Rescue Committee said, “The proximate cause of this starvation crisis is the international economic policy which has been adopted since August, and which has cut off financial flows not just to the public sector, but in the private sector in Afghanistan as well.”
In order to combat the rampant food insecurity in Afghanistan currently threatening millions, the scope of U.S. led sanctions must be narrowed. A consequence of this would be the easing of operating difficulties reported by some NGOs; which are currently struggling to deliver humanitarian aid to a population in dire need. International assets confiscated by the U.S. should also be deployed to the benefit of the people of Afghanistan, rather than sitting stagnant in an American bank. The horrendous scenes at Kabul airport in the final days of the U.S. withdrawal are evidence that the international community needs to provide further assistance through increased refugee resettlement programmes for Afghani people seeking to leave the country, and to strengthen international NGOs that seek to alleviate suffering in Afghanistan.