As ordinary Afghans face death and devastation Biden makes a small gesture

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

The Biden administration’s extraordinary step of splitting the Afghan national bank’s $7 billion frozen in the U.S. and spending half of that on the beleaguered country is unlikely to significantly improve multiple existential threats some 38 million Afghans face.

As part of a remarkable executive order that President Joe Bide signed on Friday, Washington plans to split half of the frozen funds for the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the other half on assistance to Afghans directly bypassing the Taliban government in Kabul.

The executive order says that Biden finds that “the widespread humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan — including the urgent needs of the people of Afghanistan for food security, livelihoods support, water, sanitation, health, hygiene, shelter and settlement assistance, and COVID-19-related assistance, among other basic human needs — and the potential for a deepening economic collapse in Afghanistan constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” He declared a national emergency to deal with that threat.

The $7 billion in funds and assets were held by Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB) at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. Although allocating $3.5 billion for the welfare  ordinary Afghans is a start, it is nowhere close to addressing the incapacitating crises faced by their country. The Biden moves essentially rejects the Taliban’s demand to access the $7 billion.

Meanwhile, six months after the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, daily life for Afghans, has been powerfully described by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres had become “frozen hell.”

In a speech on January 26, 2022 delivered to the U.N. Security Council on Afghanistan Guterres said, “Six months after the takeover by the Taliban, Afghanistan is hanging by a thread.  They’re in the grips of another brutal winter of blistering wind, cold and snow.   Families huddle in makeshift tents under plastic sheets – even burning their possessions to keep warm.  Clinics are overcrowded – and under-resourced.  Ambulances and hospital power generators are running dry because of skyrocketing fuel prices.  Afghans are stalked not only by COVID-19, but by deadly preventable diseases like measles, diarrhea and even polio.”

“Education and social services are on the brink of collapse.  Millions of children – critically, girls – are out of school, and 70 per cent of teachers are not getting paid,” he said.

In a stunning disclosure he also said, “Over half of all Afghans face extreme levels of hunger. The country is facing its worst drought in two decades, pushing nine million people closer to famine.”

Washington is reported to have spent $2 trillion on the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan stretched close to 20 years until Biden decided to withdraw all troops from there. That withdrawal immediately exposed Afghanistan and Afghans to a terrible state of affairs at every level of society. As Guterres pointed out, “More than 80 percent of the population relies on contaminated drinking water.”

It is a measure of the utter desperation for ordinary Afghans that Guterres pointed out this: “And some families are selling their babies to purchase food.”

“The Afghan economy is enduring a bitter winter of its own. 

 There is a danger that the currency could go into freefall, and the country could lose 30 percent of its GDP within the year. 

Liquidity has evaporated. 

Sanctions and mistrust by the global banking system have frozen nearly $9 billion in central bank assets. 

Vital systems are starved of needed funds.

Lack of liquidity – particularly in local currency – is limiting capacity to reach Afghans in need. 

As the economy spirals downward, human rights are also losing ground. 

Women and girls are once again being shut-out of offices and classrooms.  

They lost their country overnight. 

Years of steady progress gone in the blink of an eye. 

I am deeply concerned by recent reports of arbitrary arrests and abductions of women activists. 

Terrorism remains a constant threat – not only to the security of Afghanistan, but to the entire world. 

When it comes to complex humanitarian emergencies, Afghanistan is as bad as it gets. 

That is why we launched an appeal two weeks ago – the largest in the UN’s history for a single country, more than $4.4 billion for this year. 

We’re ramping-up lifesaving support around health, shelter, nutrition, protection and emergency education – as well as cash transfers to help families make ends meet.  

Last year, the UN and our partners reached 18 million people across the country. 

And our teams are working at scaled-up capacity to reach even more people this year, and keep the country’s food, health and education systems from collapse. 

The appeal also contains vital support for refugee-hosting countries. 

First and most urgently, we need to scale-up our humanitarian operations to save lives. 

This goes far beyond our humanitarian appeal itself. 

We need to suspend the rules and conditions that constrict not only Afghanistan’s economy, but our lifesaving operations. 

At this moment of maximum need, these rules must be seriously reviewed. 

International funding must be allowed to pay the salaries of public-sector workers.  

From surgeons and nurses, to teachers, sanitation workers and electricians – all are vital to keeping systems up-and-running. 

And they’re critical to Afghanistan’s future. 

We need to give them a reason to stay in the country. 

We need to give financial institutions and commercial partners legal assurance that they can work with humanitarian operators without fear of breaching sanctions. 

And standing with the people of Afghanistan also includes a strong role for the United Nations.

This includes the One-UN Transitional Engagement Framework for Afghanistan, which is being launched today – a plan to extend and accelerate humanitarian and development support to the Afghan people, while sustaining and strengthening essential services and systems throughout this critical period of transition.  

 

And it includes recommendations for a new mandate for the UN’s Special Political Mission in Afghanistan to support security, progress and human rights, contained in my upcoming report. 

I urge this Council to consider these recommendations as this country enters a new chapter in its history. 

Second – and deeply connected to the first – we need to jump-start Afghanistan’s economy through increased liquidity. 

We must pull the economy back from the brink.  

This means finding ways to free-up frozen currency reserves and re-engage  Afghanistan’s Central Bank. 

And it means exploring other ways to rapidly inject liquidity into the economy. 

The World Bank’s reconstruction trust fund for Afghanistan transferred $280 million to UNICEF and the World Food Programme.  We need the remaining $1.2 billion to be freed-up urgently, to help Afghanistan’s people survive the winter. 

A collapse of the Afghan economy could lead to a massive exodus of people fleeing the country.  

If we do not act and help Afghans weather this storm, the region and the world will pay a heavy price. 

Illicit drug flows, and criminal and terrorist networks, will increase. 

Without food, without jobs, without their rights protected, we will see more Afghans fleeing their homes in search of a better life.

In the depths of a frigid Afghan winter, renewal and hope can seem distant. 

For decades – even centuries – Afghanistan has been unfairly used as a platform for political agendas, geopolitical advantage, ideological dominance, and brutal conflicts and terrorism. 

As a matter of moral responsibility – and regional and global security and prosperity – we cannot abandon the people of Afghanistan.”

Until Biden’s executive order Afghanistan as a country had practically disappeared from the national discourse. Given his many domestic foreign policy challenges, it is anybody’s guess how much attention he and his administration can spare for a country repeatedly devastated as part of Western imperial games since the early 20th century.

With Washington now focused on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly provocative moves against Ukraine and China flexing its muscles against Taiwan, Afghanistan will find it next to impossible to garner any attention. This is even as there reports that famine, drought and starvation could claim up to a million Afghan lives.