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Saving Afghanistan

Saving Afghanistan

Sunday, 16 January, 2022 - 06:00
Peter Maurer and Martin Griffiths
Peter Maurer (President of the International Committee of the Red Cross) Martin Griffiths (Undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations)

Afghanistan is in free fall. Since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the economy has imploded and people are being crushed in the collapse.


Cash for basic transactions has dried up, the Afghani currency is plummeting, and trade is wrecked by lack of confidence in the financial sector. A projected 30 percent of gross domestic product could be lost within a year accompanied by universal abject poverty.


Humanitarian workers are in a race against time to help Afghan families through a harsh winter. What they witness is alarming: Twenty-three million people are already facing hunger, health facilities are overflowing with malnourished children, some 70 per cent of teachers are not getting paid and millions of children – Afghanistan’s future – are out of school.


The emergency aid delivered is vital - but far from sufficient. Without bolder international support to maintain the indispensable social functions of the state, and inject liquidity in the economy, it will not be possible to prevent death in Afghanistan this winter.


Support can be provided on purely humanitarian grounds and without upsetting other international objectives of maintaining targeted sanctions, promoting human rights and fighting terrorism. The distinction to keep in mind is that the Taliban and the Afghan state is not the same thing.


Afghanistan is a country historically shored up by external aid but political positions have hardened against the new de-facto rulers in Kabul. Previous channels of support have been shut down. This has hit key public sector workers — doctors, nurses and teachers — whose salaries have not been paid in months. Health facilities have no means to pay for fuel to run generators or ambulances. Basic service delivery is collapsing, and the people who depend on these services are the unintended victims.


The current crisis has been festering for decades, compounded by the worst drought in 20 years. Two-thirds of the population will depend on food assistance in 2022 and without a much higher level of international support, more children will succumb to high levels of malnutrition. With no health clinics to go to, more women will die giving birth. And this winter, families will face freezing winter temperatures without electricity or clean water.


In the end, Afghans may lose all hope and leave the country leading to unmanaged waves of migration that no-one except human traffickers want. To reverse this grim prospect, urgent action is required.


First, donors must continue to give generously to the lifesaving humanitarian response, as they have done since August. This year, Afghanistan’s humanitarian plan, at US$4.44 billion, will be the largest ever country appeal. UN agencies and humanitarian partners aim to reach a staggering 22 million people with food, water, health, protection, shelter, education and other forms of vital support. The plan depends on donor support.

We welcome the decision by the World Bank's Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund to transfer $280 million to UNICEF and the World Food Program. This step should be followed by reprogramming of the whole fund to support the Afghan people this winter.


We also welcome the Security Council's adoption of a humanitarian exception in the UN sanctions regime for Afghanistan. This will give legal assurances to the financial institutions and commercial actors that they do not breach sanctions when they engage with humanitarian operators.


Second, there must be greater flexibility in what donor funding can be used for, including salaries for public sector workers and support to structures delivering basic services such as health, education and assistance to support citizens’ livelihoods. This will provide an incentive for people to remain in Afghanistan and imagine a future for their families in their own country.


It is important to be clear that supporting these structures does not mean financing Taliban cadres. Public administration in Afghanistan is managed by public sector workers, almost all of whom were in these jobs before the Taliban takeover. The structures they maintain are essential and cannot be effectively maintained or replaced by humanitarian programs. Relief is a necessary stopgap measure to save lives here and now but the crisis in Afghanistan is already beyond humanitarian proportions.


Third, international engagement needs to establish a carefully calibrated dialogue with the Afghan de facto authorities. This could include the relaxing of, or relief from, some economic sanctions or a phased reintroduction of longer-term development assistance in response to progress on issues of international concern such as women’s and girls’ rights.


The current international engagement with Afghanistan is not fit for purpose. The world sits back waiting for the Taliban to make progress on a series of international norms without clearly defining what is expected. The Taliban, on the other hand, is either unwilling to meet these expectations or unclear about their intentions.


A business-as-usual approach virtually guarantees international failure. Instead, the international community has a responsibility to be much more decisive, more demanding, and more engaged than is currently the case in a wary diplomatic process.


This is a moment of exceptional gravity for the people of Afghanistan. We have the advantage of being forewarned of the fate that awaits them if we do not act. We have the responsibility from being forewarned, knowing that if we do not act with urgency and with a collective will, then there will be a terrible reckoning.


We cannot fail to do what we know is right, and what we know is possible.


Peter Maurer is president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Martin Griffiths is United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.


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