In Brief

How Afghanistan is hurtling towards famine and ruin

The UN estimates that about 23 million Afghans are facing acute hunger

Afghanistan is teetering on the brink of a “catastrophic famine”, said Salman Rafi Sheikh in Asia Times (Hong Kong). Before the Taliban seized power in August, foreign aid and grants accounted for 43% of GDP and 75% of public spending; but foreign aid has dried up, and the US has refused to unfreeze $9.5bn of Afghan reserves held in its banks.

The Islamist group raised funds in areas it controlled by taxing opium production and legal and illegal border trade; now, “most of this taxation has reduced to a trickle” and the economy has ground to a halt. With Afghanistan’s own banking system close to collapse and a harsh winter setting in, the country is now hurtling towards ruin.

The IMF warns that its economy could contract by up to 30% this year; and the UN estimates about 23 million people – more than half the population – face acute hunger. In desperation, farmers are turning to poppy cultivation – winning a free pass from a regime that lacks “any coherent economic plan” beyond taxing the opium trade.

No one is immune from this misery, said Marc Drewello in Der Stern (Hamburg). “Even families that previously belonged to the middle class have slipped into poverty and are threatened with hunger.” And those who were struggling before the Taliban came to power are taking unthinkable steps to avoid starvation.

Child marriage has long been a “sad tradition in Afghanistan”. Now, desperate parents are being driven to arrange marriages for their daughters earlier on: children as young as eight are increasingly being sold into marriage for as little as $2,000.

Other Afghans are fleeing abroad, said the Kabul Times; many who stay have resorted to touting for work along roadsides. If our country is to stand a chance of avoiding economic disaster and an upsurge in militancy, the World Bank must resume the flow of direct aid – fast.

It might already be too late to avoid a rise in militancy, said Susannah George in The Washington Post. Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch has been more active since the Taliban came in, expanding its presence “to nearly every Afghan province” and launching a wave of deadly attacks. The Taliban’s brutal response – it has sent thousands of fighters to Isis strongholds, hanging the bodies of suspected collaborators along roads – only seems to have increased its violence.

There are, of course, “straightforward” arguments for withholding foreign aid, said Sulaiman Hakemy in The National (Abu Dhabi). Why should donors prop up the Taliban, which fought “a 20-year campaign of brutality and war crimes”? In a few short months it has shown itself “incapable of governing a state that can function in the modern world”.

Shouldn’t the money be used as a “carrot” in negotiations for change? Unfortunately, the Taliban is very unlikely to offer concessions on, say, women’s rights; and even if it were to agree to such demands, it is in “too much disarray to meet them”. Yet for all that, the alternative may be worse. The humanitarian case for releasing aid to Afghans is undeniable: they are on the brink of starvation. “The Taliban doesn’t deserve anyone’s money, but Afghans do.”

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