By Lakhdar Brahimi Paris
As Afghanistan slides further into a devastating economic and humanitarian crisis, the United Nations is the one global actor that can help the country pull through. The international community must deliver aid where it is most needed, and support national reconciliation and peace processes for as long as necessary.
In August, the world watched in shock as the Western-backed Afghan government rapidly collapsed and the country spiralled into chaos, culminating in the Taliban’s takeover of the capital, Kabul, and return to power after nearly 20 years.
Since then, Afghanistan has faded from global view. But almost nine million Afghans are now at risk of famine, and a further 14 million are facing acute hunger, owing to a drought and an economic collapse triggered by the sudden suspension of foreign aid. The World Health Organisation warns that one million Afghan children are at risk of dying this winter.
In December, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution exempting humanitarian aid from sanctions against the Taliban. But that is just one piece of the puzzle in addressing the humanitarian and economic crisis in Afghanistan. The global community is facing an urgent challenge to prevent mass starvation and avoid a complete collapse of basic services.
The Council on State Fragility, of which I am a member alongside prominent global leaders, is calling on the international community not to abandon the people of Afghanistan, and to act now to head off imminent famine. Specifically, we urge world leaders to focus on three key imperatives.
First, as Afghanistan slides further into a devastating economic and humanitarian crisis, the UN – the one global actor that can help the country pull through – can still support Afghans, even as its member states continue to debate whether to recognise the Taliban government. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, acting with the full backing of the Security Council, should strengthen the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and send a special envoy to be based in Kabul with UN agencies’ staff. Furthermore, Guterres should task the UNAMA with maintaining clear and consistent communication channels with the Taliban leadership and ensuring an integrated approach to humanitarian, development, and peace efforts.
The UN and its agencies are not new to such challenges. Similarly strong and coordinated UN responses have had a clear impact in other difficult contexts, including in North Korea, Yemen, and Sudan. In Afghanistan, UN agencies have excellent local staff: well-trained, experienced, and devoted men and women, many of whom successfully delivered aid programs under the Taliban’s previous regime in the 1990s. They have done the same in Taliban-controlled areas in the recent past.
Second, inclusivity is essential to a stable, lasting peace. An inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan remains as necessary today as it was before the Taliban retook control of the country. Rather than writing off the Afghan peace process as dead in the water, the international community should view it as a multi-year, adaptive, and ongoing process of bringing all sides together to build bridges and reach a common understanding regarding the country’s future.
The winner-takes-all politics that has long plagued Afghanistan must be avoided at all costs, because exclusion will only fuel endless cycles of conflict. National consensus-building mechanisms, chief among them a well-prepared and well-led Loya Jirga – a traditional gathering of ethnic, tribal, and religious leaders – can help to foster agreement among the country’s communities and lead to the patient construction of the new dispensation Afghanistan needs.
Lastly, Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and near-neighbours – primarily Iran, Pakistan, China, and India, as well as key regional actors such as Qatar and Turkey – have a critical role to play in stabilising the country. The international community should urge these countries to contribute to peace efforts in Afghanistan, and support existing constructive engagement by regional players, such as Qatar, that have established a track record as trusted interlocutors between the Taliban and the outside world.
The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is severe, and millions of lives are at stake this winter. The international community, with strong UN leadership, can and should step up to support Afghans at this challenging time. The world must deliver aid where it is most needed, and support national reconciliation and peace processes for as long as necessary. — Project Syndicate
•Lakhdar Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria, is a former United Nations special representative in Afghanistan.
Hunger and poverty crisis in numbers
With Afghanistan fast becoming the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, UN agencies asked donors on Tuesday for $4.4bn in humanitarian aid for 2022, the largest appeal ever sought for a single country.
Millions of Afghans are at risk of famine as one of the country’s worst droughts in decades is compounded by an economic meltdown following the Taliban’s sudden return to power last year. Governments responded to the militant group’s takeover in mid-August by freezing billions of dollars of Afghan assets overseas and halting most international funding to the aid-reliant nation of about 40 million people.
Here are some facts about the crisis:
•A record 23 million Afghans — more than half the population — face acute hunger, with nearly 9 million one step from famine, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).
•Up to 1 million children under five are at risk of dying from malnutrition.
•Four-fifths of the country is experiencing severe or serious drought. About 70% of Afghans live in rural areas, and 85% derive income from agriculture.
•About 3.5 million Afghans have been internally displaced by violence, drought and other disasters, including 700,000 last year.
•The UNDP has warned that 97% could fall below the poverty line by mid-2022. About half of the population lived in poverty before the Taliban takeover.
•Annual per capita income was $508 in 2020, down from $650 in 2012. It is expected to fall to $350 this year.
•Economists predict it could take $2 billion to lift all people in extreme poverty up to the poverty line.
•Before the Taliban takeover, international aid contributed as much as 40% of GDP, and about three-quarters of government spending, paying for everything from electricity imports to healthcare and teachers’ salaries.
•Following the takeover, the IMF predicted Afghanistan’s economy could contract by up to 30% in 2021.
•Restricting female employment — as the Taliban have done — could inflict an immediate economic loss of between $600mn and $1bn (3-5% of GDP).
•Annual development assistance, which was suspended after the Taliban’s takeover, was $4.2bn in 2019 — down from a high of $6.7bn in 2011, according to World Bank data.
•Humanitarian aid, a smaller portion of overall past assistance, has continued since the takeover, amounting to $1.72bn in 2021 — up from $733mn in 2020 and $585mn in 2019.
•The UN-appeal launched on Tuesday aims to shore up basic services, ensuring health workers and others are paid directly without funds going to the Taliban.
•Another $623mn is needed to support Afghan refugees and host communities in five neighbouring countries, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said.
(Sources: UNDP, WFP, UNFAO, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Bank, International Crisis Group)
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