Explained | Why is Afghanistan staring at a humanitarian disaster?

What does this mean for the war-torn country?

The story so far: For Afghanistan, 2021 was one of the watershed years in its history. After 20 years of war, the U.S. pulled back its troops from Afghanistan, which led to the return of the Taliban to power. While the Taliban now has the whole country under their control, they seem clueless on how to address a looming humanitarian crisis. As several countries have suspended or substantially cut aid to Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, the country is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

How bad is the humanitarian situation?

Almost 80% of the fallen Afghan Government’s budget came from international development assistance. After the Taliban took over Kabul on August 15, most of the donors suspended government aid. The U.S. has also frozen nearly $9.5 billion of Afghan central bank assets, mainly held in New York Fed and American financial institutions. The Taliban remain on the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions list. According to the UN World Food Programme, the situation could become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. UN agencies estimate that about 23 million of Afghanistan’s nearly 40 million people are facing acute food shortages. Other countries, including the U.S., European nations and India, have sent humanitarian aid to ameliorate the situation. As most commercial flights to Kabul are still suspended, aid is being sent by road to the landlocked country, mainly through Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. But the UN says that’s not enough. The humanitarian crisis “threatens the most basic human rights” of the Afghan people, Nada Al-Nashif, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a briefing to the UNHRC recently. Amid growing calls for international action to address the situation, the UN Security Council, on December 22, unanimously adopted a resolution that facilitates humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. But all the international sanctions on the Taliban are still in place.

How are the Taliban ruling?

While the Taliban have said the new regime would be different from the old one of Mullah Omar, there’s little evidence on the ground suggesting any real change — at least not yet. Reportedly, there are two different factions within the Taliban — one dominated by the Haqqanis, who have close ties with al-Qaeda and the Pakistani intelligence establishment, and the other by a relatively moderate wing, comprising Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is currently the deputy Prime Minister. The selection of a Pashtun-men-only Cabinet and decisions such as keeping girls out of primary education suggest that the hardliners have an upper hand in decision making. Despite a general amnesty that the Taliban announced after they seized power, extrajudicial killings continued. According to a recent Human Rights Commission (HRC) report, at least 72 executions were attributed to the Taliban since mid-August and in several cases bodies were publicly displayed. Some 4.2 million young Afghans are out of school, 60% of them girls, says the HRC report.

Does the Taliban regime have international recognition?

No country has formally recognised the Taliban regime this time. But several countries, including Pakistan, China, Russia and Central Asian republics, have kept their diplomatic missions open in Kabul. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has held direct talks with Taliban delegations. In September, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan told the UN General Assembly that the only way forward for Afghanistan is to “strengthen and stabilise the current government”. Qatar, which hosted the Taliban-U.S. talks that led to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, poses itself as a conduit between the West and the Taliban. The UAE recently reached out to the Taliban by opening embassy operations. According to a Taliban spokesperson, the UAE assured the Taliban that it would not allow former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has taken refuge in the Emirates, to engage in political activities. All these developments suggest that a larger group of countries are ready to engage the Taliban this time. It’s possible that these countries will recognise the Taliban regime once it gets legitimacy from the UN.

Is the war over?

While fighting has receded, Afghanistan is far from reaching peace and stability. Unlike in the 1990s, the Taliban have taken control of almost all of the country, including Panjshir Valley in the north which defied both the Soviets and the Taliban earlier. But the Panjshir guerrillas were not defeated; they retreated to the mountains. Their commander Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary Panjshir warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, is reportedly in Tajikistan, along with Amrullah Saleh, former Vice-President. They may be waiting for an opportunity to strike back, like the Taliban did after they were ousted in 2001. The immediate security challenge the Taliban face, however, is from the Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan wing of the IS. The IS-K has carried out multiple bombings since the Taliban takeover. Stuck between a humanitarian disaster and the Taliban’s Islamist totalitarianism, the people of Afghanistan are also being hunted down by terrorists of the Islamic State.

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