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‘The Worst Humanitarian Crisis on Earth’

The Signal
What’s happening in Afghanistan? Benjamin Hopkins on why a humanitarian disaster is imminent and how the country was set up to fail over and over again.
As winter comes to Afghanistan, more than half the population of will likely face extreme hunger, and, according to a recent UN report, almost 9 million people will be at risk of famine. The World Food Program calls the situation “the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth.” After the Taliban retook control of the country in August, the economy fell apart; workers in both the private and public sectors haven’t been paid in months, and inflation has driven up the prices of basic goods. A severe, years-long drought ruined most of the wheat crop, and wells are running dry. Clinics are filled with malnourished children, but health facilities can’t pay for fuel to remain open. As things get worse, and media attention fades, U.S. sanctions have made it extremely difficult to transfer money into Afghanistan through legal banking, and Washington has cut off financial aid and blocked Afghan assets in international banks. Where is this all headed?
According to Benjamin Hopkins—an associate professor of history at the George Washington University and the author of a history of Afghanistan—a complex range of factors, some of which go back to the formation of the country in the 19th century, are conspiring to drive it to catastrophe now. Above all, the Taliban’s highest leadership doesn’t really want or know how to govern the country, and the United States has decided not to engage with the Taliban or the country as a whole. Ultimately, Hopkins says, Afghanistan struggles with the long and crippling legacy of its original creation by self-interested great powers. Since then, it’s remained dependent on foreign subsidies to survive, while the foreign interventions of the last century have left the country unable to take care of itself when events turn against it.
Michael Bluhm: What’s going on in Afghanistan right now?
Benjamin Hopkins: We have an economic collapse. Money is in short supply. Inflation’s high, making goods very difficult to access. We’re seeing a lot of shortages. The structures of economic activity are breaking down. Food is increasingly an issue, with very little international aid coming through. The drought is continuing to immiserate people. And as we head into winter, it’s not only the drought but a lack of access to heating sources. It’s a very bleak picture.
In some ways, life in Kabul and other urban centers has returned to a semblance of normalcy. There are major departures from that, as with women no longer going to work or school. Yet you can move around Kabul. The internet’s working; WhatsApp is working.
At the airports, people are getting out. If you have the resources, and you’re not on the Taliban’s list for anything, their attitude is they don’t particularly want you to leave, but they’ll let you. They figure it’s better if you leave and nothing bad happens to you than if you stay and something bad does happen, and the Taliban gets blamed. They don’t want to lose the human capital, or the related financial capital, but they feel powerless to do anything about it.
Bluhm: As long as U.S. troops were in the country, the Taliban’s goal had been to force them out. Now that the Taliban has accomplished this and are running the country again, what are their goals and priorities?
Hopkins: This is the key question for the Taliban as they move from an insurgency to a government.
History is like the stock market, in that past performance is a bad predictor of future returns. And my approach would be to say, The world’s a different place than it was in the ‘90s, and the Taliban is a different Taliban. But one thing I’ve been surprised by is the continuity between Taliban rule in the 1990s and Taliban rule today.
They struggled with this transition from insurgency to government in the ‘90s, and they’re struggling with that again. They’re better at the day-to-day management of government now than they were then, but frankly, I just don’t think these people want to exercise government. I don’t think that’s what they’re in business for.
You can see this in the relationship between the caretaker government and the Taliban leadership. The government is playing a subservient role under the Taliban leadership. Members of the leadership who haven’t entered government really don’t think governing is their responsibility.
The Taliban is very good at outwardly concealing their internal divisions, but they have factions. Among them are religious hardliners uninterested in the practicalities of governance, who also see very little need for international accommodation, because, in their view, they defeated the last remaining global superpower. There’s also a more “moderate” faction represented by the prime minister, but the prime minister is very powerless. For the moment, the religious hardliners have the upper hand, but it’s a dynamic situation. It’s an open question where it will all end up.
More from Benjamin Hopkins at The Signal:
The economy is essentially in free fall, and it’s not clear where the bottom will be. There’s no money. The United States has sequestered somewhere between $8 billion and $9 billion of Afghan government assets. The World Bank and the international banking system have essentially frozen Afghanistan out. Along with that, you’ve had this significant loss of human capital, draining assets out of the country. Afghanistan has hemorrhaged people and money.”
What we’re seeing now is a multi-dimensional humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan: There’s the peace-and-security crisis. Then there’s the food crisis, which is looming and just going to get worse—particularly with the impending winter. Which in turn means heating is going to become an issue as well; people are going to freeze to death. And then there’s Covid. Afghanistan has almost no coronavirus testing, no vaccines. The last I saw, there had been 77,000 tests given across the country, and 33,000 had come back positive. That gives you a sense of how widespread the pandemic will be in Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan was never created to deliver peace and security to its people. It was created to contain insecurity within its borders so that it wouldn’t become a threat to international players—particularly the British in India. The United States and its global allies often have a similar attitude today. There’s a cold-hearted, realpolitik argument that says, As long as that’s accomplished, whatever else happens, happens.
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