Aid cut-off may kill more Afghans than war

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Stopping devastating hunger in Afghanistan requires immediate action by the international community.

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Three months after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, a humanitarian disaster is approaching our eyes. Poverty and malnutrition are increasing at an unprecedented pace. Without prompt, practical action from the international community, more people will starve to death in 2022 alone than from violence during the last 20 years of conflict.

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The dire situation is further aggravated by decisions taken far away from Afghanistan. After the takeover by the Taliban, international funding to the Afghan state was immediately stopped. This was done in compliance with US and UN Security Council sanctions targeting the Taliban, who are now the de facto government. About $10 billion worth of Afghan central bank reserves were blocked by the US. In addition, donors deposited development assistance.

About 75 percent of Afghanistan’s government spending, including health care, was previously funded directly by international aid. The sudden cut off forced hundreds of thousands of public sector employees out of pay.

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Many more millions who depended on that income were immediately pushed into acute poverty. The blow to the private sector and business has been devastating, and the public health system is almost non-functional.

Today the economy and the banking system are on the verge of collapse. Global banking institutions will not deal directly with Afghanistan’s central bank. Afghan banks are isolated from the international monetary system, mainly due to US and UN sanctions that the European Union adheres to. With few exceptions, they cannot receive money from abroad.

The US Treasury has allowed some limited exemptions. A “general license” from the US Treasury allows the United Nations and some international NGOs to conduct transactions for specific humanitarian activities. However, international banks are extremely cautious to avoid the risk of being penalized by the US.

Apart from the financial meltdown, a severe drought is brewing. According to the World Food Program, about 40 percent of the crop this year has been ruined. According to UN agencies, nearly half the population, some 20 million people, are unable to feed on a daily basis – and that number is expected to rise. An estimated 3.2 million children under the age of five are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of the year. Of them, at least one million children are at risk of dying if they do not receive immediate treatment.

Some citizens, who have money in their accounts, stand in line outside banks for several days. Fighting breaks out when desperate people are told that cash is not available. Their families are starving. Aid organizations struggle to use their funds to pay the salaries of doctors and teachers, or even buy medicines or firewood to heat maternity wards.

The Taliban’s human rights record, particularly in relation to women and ethnic minorities, reflects the reluctance of the international community to legitimize the regime and the funding of the Afghan state. No one wants to fund the Taliban regime. But banks’ current over-compliance with sanctions is killing civilian Afghans at a rate far higher than the Taliban, Islamic State, warlords, former governments and international military forces in Khorasan province have combined in the past 20 years.

The Afghan people should not be denied vital health care and left without food as the international community sees economic starvation as the only available tool to influence the Taliban regime. The international community is effectively punishing Afghan citizens for actions of the regime brought on them by force.

For women, institutionalized discrimination under the Taliban is less likely than the effects of the crumbling economy that threatened the right to health care and education decades ago. The humanitarian crisis we have just begun will affect the Afghan people for generations to come. As women’s rights advocate Jameela Afghani said in conversation with the Swedish committee: “We are not supporting Afghan women by starving them.”

We represent European NGOs reaching out to millions of people on the ground. We welcome the recent commitments of governments to humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. But if UN agencies, NGOs and the people of Afghanistan cannot access the banking system, then these pledges will not be of much use.

Studies of sanctions show that they affect the civilian population the most while having practically no effect on the living conditions of the political elite. The US and the EU, along with the UN Security Council, should immediately review sanctions and take action to facilitate the availability of liquidity and cash to alleviate human suffering.

The international community, which 20 years ago pledged to support Afghans in their pursuit of peace, prosperity and human rights, has a moral obligation to prevent their emancipation from starvation and death. And now is the time to act.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.

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