Starvation, poverty and all-round despair in Afghanistan on first anniversary of US withdrawal

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

In the midst of the first anniversary of America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, just consider this one statistic. According to the United Nations, 97 percent of Afghans could be living in poverty by end of this year. An entire country has been pauperized by decades of wars and occupations it did not necessarily provoke.

Afghanistan is also a shockingly starving country now with a collapsing economy and widespread drought depriving some 20 million people of food. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOHCA), “Hunger levels continue to stagnate at alarming levels. For nearly nine months, over 90 percent of the population have faced insufficient food consumption. Despite marginal improvements, coinciding with further humanitarian food assistance and the end of winter, Afghanistan still faces the highest prevalence of insufficient food consumption globally.”

At the time of the U.S. withdrawal, which was completed fully on August 30, President Joe Biden asked publicly, “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone?  We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as — as well as getting Osama bin Laden.  And we did.”

As it turned out, Al Qaeda had not quite gone as evident in the dramatic over-the-horizon drone strike on July 30 to kill its leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in Kabul. For the foreseeable future, it appears impossible for the U.S. to remain fully apathetic considering that the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), a mutation of the original ISIS, is emerging as the new threat from Afghan soil. It was ISIS-K that killed 13 American service members in August last year even as U.S. troops were scrambling to leave Kabul. According to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, ISIS-K was responsible for most of the 2,106 civilian deaths until June 2022. U.S. defense experts have warned that ISIS-K could develop the ability to strike America and its allies in a year or so.

Even as the Taliban government sharpens its societal and cultural stranglehold over Afghanistan despite its early promises of moderation, Washington has all but lost interest in the country after spending over $2.3 trillion in about two decades.

In a statement on August 20, last year about the fraught evacuations from Afghanistan, Biden had said, “The estimates of the cost of this war over the last 20 years ranged from a minimum of $1 trillion to a think tank at one of the universities saying $2 trillion.  That’s somewhere between $150 million a day and $300 million a day.”

Afghanistan’s post-withdrawal is a stunning example of what a sole superpower stomping over a country can do. To add to Afghans’ woes earlier this year, the Biden administration froze $7 billion belonging to the Afghan central bank, Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB). It also decided to split that amount, with half to be used as compensation for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Although the money would by default end up in the Taliban government’s control, which is problematic, it actually belongs to the people of Afghanistan now utterly desperate for money.

It is a measure of how serious, the liquidity crisis is in Afghanistan that a group of 70 international economists has written to Biden, urging him to release Afghan funds.

“The people of Afghanistan have been made to suffer doubly for a government they did not choose,” said the letter, adding, “In order to mitigate the humanitarian crisis and set the Afghan economy on a path toward recovery, we urge you to allow DAB to reclaim its international reserves.” Among the signatories is Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

Starvation, profound impoverishment, unemployment, drought, and an overwhelming sense of despair have gripped Afghans. All this while, the Taliban has been busy dismantling with characteristic viciousness the rights of the Afghan women. If the Taliban’s original purpose on taking over Kabul last year was to gradually gain some international recognition for what it calls the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, it now stands fully destroyed.

Until the Zawahiri killing the country had completely fallen off the U.S. headlines but the drone strike revived some interest in it. However, that barely lasted a couple of days.  With America confronting its own failed coup on January 6 by the then outgoing President Donald Trump and subsequent societal fractures it seems highly unlikely if Afghanistan, a country that America broke, will ever return to Washington’s list of priorities.