The Guardian view on Afghanistan: aid is not enough

Show caption Children pictured in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood of Kabul this week. ‘The appalling human toll in Afghanistan will rise steeply.’ Photograph: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images Opinion The Guardian view on Afghanistan: aid is not enough Editorial The dire conditions endured in the wake of the Taliban’s seizure of power are worsening. Humanitarian relief alone won’t suffice Tue 11 Jan 2022 19.05 GMT Share on Facebook

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It is the United Nations’ biggest ever appeal for a single country. But the $5bn (£3.7bn) sought to stave off catastrophe in Afghanistan is dwarfed both by the trillions that were poured into the war, and by the level of current need. The Disasters Emergency Committee says that 95% of Afghans do not have enough to eat, and one million children are at risk of dying from malnutrition this winter. Women and other vulnerable people are especially hard-hit.

The money is merely a stopgap, as the UN itself points out. Even if the appeal is fully funded – as it must be – the desperation will grow. Conditions will only worsen as winter intensifies, remaining possessions are sold and flimsy social safety nets break: even the relatively lucky are struggling, leaving them less able to help family and friends.

The Taliban’s seizure of power last August brought economic collapse, and drought has exacerbated the crisis. One UN expert believes that no modern economy has experienced such an abrupt shock, with the overnight loss of foreign aid amounting to 43% of GDP. Work and salaries disappeared. The price of essential imports such as wheat surged. Asset freezes and sanctions have deepened the crisis. The Taliban’s repression has left women jobless: “While we are living under the poverty line, the statements of [the]Islamic Emirate are about women’s hair and faces,” complained protesters in Parwan province last week. No one wanted the Taliban to take power, and no one wishes to reward a group who are immiserating and punishing their compatriots and dismantling democratic institutions, even as they demand foreign assistance. But while western governments ask themselves if they can deal with the Taliban, Afghans have no such choice.

Humanitarian relief is essential but wholly inadequate. In late December, the US extended and clarified its waivers for aid, including development funding. This must be given too, but carefully. Though international donors have very limited leverage, strict monitoring and conditionality – such as ensuring that only services accessible to women are funded – is necessary. This will not be about grand deals, but the grind of daily negotiations.

European nations have gone further than the US in a “humanitarian plus” approach, but Afghanistan cannot get off its knees without a functioning financial system. Unfreezing the assets of the central bank remains a highly controversial option, for obvious reasons, and it is unclear that the Taliban are capable of handling it anyway. Among the alternatives mooted are the creation of a private central bank or credit swaps, perhaps the quickest fix.

Without a serious effort to shore up the economy, others will feel the consequences too: there is a significant risk that Islamic State could gain ground and that the production of narcotics will increase sharply. More people will be forced to flee into grim conditions. Above all, the appalling human toll in Afghanistan will rise steeply. Judging the best path ahead is extremely difficult. What is striking is how little serious effort is being put into it. A greater sense of responsibility by the US, and of urgency across the international community, is desperately needed.