With banks closed for weeks and ATMs out of cash, even those Afghans with savings haven’t been able to take out their money. Many are trying to sell their clothes and household goods on the street in order to provide food for their family.
London: ‘Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true”. It’s unlikely that any member of the Taliban leadership is aware of these famous words from Aesop’s Fables, written centuries before Islam; but they are likely to be its latest upshot. The Taliban’s wish has certainly come true, perhaps more quickly than many expected. At the blink of an eye, Taliban leaders have gained control of a collapsed state, leaving them a power vacuum to fill in their transition from insurgent group to governing power. The “interim” government of mostly hard-line religious mullahs, with limited experience of running a country, will quickly learn that insurgency is far easier than governing.
As their members went from door to door robbing homes and assaulting those whom they deemed a threat, in order to obtain information about former government employees and those who worked for the UN, among others, it suddenly dawned on Taliban leaders that the crackdown was decimating the number of trained administrators and those with the skills and experience to run the country. It now remains unclear whether this rag-tag militant group can restore even basic services across a country that has changed beyond all recognition since they were last in power 20 years ago.
Almost two thirds of all Afghans are under the age of 25 and will have no recollection of the harsh medieval regime in place during the last Taliban rule. Over 70% of Afghans now have cell phones, and a third are on social media platforms, where they connect to the world and know how democratic and free their contemporaries are. It will be almost impossible for the Taliban, no matter how brutal they can be, to change the hearts and minds of those who see a better world beyond their borders.
Under the previous Taliban rule there were almost no girls in school, whereas in 2020 there were more than 3.5 million. There is now a huge cohort of women who began kindergarten in the early 2000s, went through high school, then university and are now experienced in a wide range of activities, including government. Women now play a huge role in the Afghan economy and if hard line Salafism takes hold in Afghanistan and women are again subjugated, unable to work, the effect on Afghan economy will be dire.
The new masters of Kabul had an early taste of female emancipation last week when the Taliban fired live warning shots to disperse the crowd of mostly women at a large protest in the Afghan capital. “We demand freedom of speech and democracy” the women shouted, “we’re not afraid of death”. The tolerance of the startled gun-toting Taliban was short-lived, however, and after severe beatings the crowd numbers gradually diminished during the week. Protest, particularly by women, is not allowed—the return of the reviled Ministry of Vice and Virtue will see to that.
Over the past 20 years a well-functioning and rudimentary banking system was developed in low-income Afghanistan. But, in a sign of things to come, Afghanistan’s central bank governor resigned and fled the country after the Taliban captured key custom posts and further deprived the government of its revenues. The value of its currency, the Afghani, is plummeting, while the US decides whether or not to unfreeze Afghanistan’s $9.5 billion of assets. The International Monetary Fund has likewise halted dispersal of hundreds of millions of dollars of loans and other aid allocated to the cash-strapped country.
With no access to reserves, liquidity is a major issue for Afghanistan’s banking system, which is now in a state of collapse. With banks closed for weeks and ATMs out of cash, even those Afghans with savings haven’t been able to take out their money. Many are trying to sell their clothes and household goods on the street in order to provide food for their family. On the side of the road it looks as if entire homes have been emptied on the asphalt, where household goods, cushions, books and teddy bears have been hastily laid out for sale. The level of hardship is clearly visible.
“I want to express my grave concern at the deepening humanitarian and economic crisis in the country and the threat of basic services collapsing completely”, said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week. The UN has calculated that almost half the population of Afghanistan, 18 million people, need immediate humanitarian assistance to survive, and another 18 million could quickly join them. One in three Afghans do not know where their next meal will come from. More than half of all children under five are expected to become acutely malnourished in the next year, as the country faces a looming humanitarian catastrophe.
This presents a terrible dilemma for the United Nations, which has been present in Afghanistan since 1948. Directives sending staff back into harm’s way mirror internal debates which other human rights and aid organisations are having, as they assess their future footprint in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—risk their own staff’s lives by staying in the country or risk exacerbating a calamitous humanitarian crisis by pulling out. Even before the collapse of the government, the security situation in Afghanistan was extremely tenuous, being one of the top three most dangerous environments in the world for aid workers where, prior to the collapse, the UN had around 300 international staff and more than 3,000 national staff.
International aid has for many years been a huge factor in the Afghan economy—currently 80% of its budget and funded by international donors. In the past 20 years, some $65 billion in aid has been provided to Afghanistan, with many donors making their commitment conditional on seeing improvements in the country’s governance and human rights record. During the second round of the Doha peace talks, beginning in 2018, Taliban representatives suggested a willingness to moderate their stance on issues such as girl’s education and allowing NGOs to continue their work, but already their words are not being followed by their deeds. In some parts of Helmand Province, for example, the Taliban has already closed schools for girls, and other schools have been subjected to deadly attacks.
On Thursday, the UN Development Programme released a report forecasting that unless the country’s political and economic crisis is quickly addressed, about 97% of Afghanistan’s population may sink below the poverty line, with many at imminent risk of starvation and freezing to death in the upcoming winter. Will the Taliban government ministers take note and put action where their mouths are and moderate the hard-liners, a move that would allow vital aid to flow? Or will the hardliners prevail, stopping aid and creating an epic humanitarian crisis, greater even than that in Syria and Iraq?
The omens are not good. This week’s announcement of the “caretaker government” awarded top posts to veteran jihadists, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, wanted by the US for his close ties with Al Qaeda and an alleged assassination attempt on former Afghan President Karzai in 2008, as Interior Minister; and UN-sanctioned Mohammad Hassan Akhund, who was a senior minister in the Taliban’s brutal and oppressive rule in the 1990s, as interim Prime Minister. Four top members of the government are former Guantanamo Bay prisoners who were freed by the Obama administration in a prisoner exchange for army deserter Bowe Berdahl, captured by the infamous Haqqani network in 2014. The Taliban spin doctors promised an “inclusive” government that represents Afghanistan’s complex ethnic make-up. As with so many Taliban promises, this has turned out to be a lie. This is government by the old guard; 90% are Pashtuns, with just a single Tajik and one Hazara, both of whom are Talibs.
A dark cloud has descended over this long-troubled country. As the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate takes precedence in this new land of Islamic governance with strict Sharia law, will misgivings about human rights and governance be set aside by aid agencies as the humanitarian crisis deepens? Will the failed promise of an inclusive government result in a civil war with those powerful tribal heads and warlords who feel left out? Will the Taliban’s former associates, Al Qaeda, re-establish a power base in the country? Will the ultra-extremist Islamic State group suck the blood of the less-extremist Taliban and establish a safe haven for terrorists, creating a threat to peace in the region and the whole world? Is the new government even aware of the epic humanitarian catastrophe looming in Afghanistan? So many questions and no current answers. Unless the new regime develops workable plans in super-quick time, its chances of survival are small. Be careful what you wish for.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.