Briefing

Afghanistan's misery

Under Taliban rule, Afghans are suffering from widespread hunger, desperate poverty, and brutal oppression.

Under Taliban rule, Afghans are suffering from widespread hunger, desperate poverty, and brutal oppression. Here's everything you need to know: 

How has life changed?

Afghanistan has deteriorated dramatically since President Biden ordered the U.S. military to complete its withdrawal in August. When the Taliban returned to power, women's rights advocates took to the streets demanding to keep advances made during the U.S. occupation, such as education for girls. Many of those protesters were beaten and detained, while activists fled or went into hiding. In March, the Taliban announced that girls could only attend school up to the sixth grade. Last month, the hard-line government announced that Muslim women must be covered from head to toe while in public, with only their eyes exposed, and ordered woman TV broadcasters to cover their faces. Now women have started vanishing from the workforce. "What I am worried about," said Khatera Ahmadi, a news presenter at ToloNews, "is that next they will ban us from coming to work completely."

How is Afghanistan's economy doing?

It has virtually collapsed. Afghanistan's economy was heavily dependent on foreign aid, which made up nearly 80 percent of the government's budget before the Taliban took over. Foreign aid has been reduced to a trickle, as countries reduce or even suspend assistance to the Taliban-led government because of its human rights abuses. The United States plans to use $3.5 billion of frozen Afghanistan central bank assets to pay judgment debts to the families of 9/11 victims — money the Afghan people say belongs to them and is sorely needed. Nearly 1 million Afghans have lost their jobs since the Taliban takeover. Restrictions on women's employment have led to up to $1 billion of economic loss, or about 5 percent of Afghanistan's GDP, said U.N. Women executive director Sima Bahous. "There is almost universal poverty in the country," she said. In extreme situations, people desperate for money are selling their daughters into marriage or selling their own organs, which is illegal yet commonplace. Goul Mohamed, a laborer in Herat, received $4,500 for his 15-year-old son's kidney to pay off his debts. Unable to find a job, he's recently started borrowing money again.

What's causing the food crisis?

Many Afghans have little or no income to buy food for their families; meanwhile, prices keep rising due to inflation, supply chain woes, and higher customs fees. Afghanistan has also experienced extreme drought conditions for several years, and the damaged crops are producing low yields. The Russian war in Ukraine has raised fuel prices and caused global wheat shortages, putting Afghanistan on the brink of famine: The United Nations estimates that 95 percent of Afghans do not have enough food, and half the population of 39 million is suffering from acute hunger. The U.N. has asked for $4.4 billion in aid to prevent a food-and-water crisis that could kill more Afghans than 20 years of war. "Farmers have told me that, through decades of war, they have never had to stand in line for humanitarian assistance until now," said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the World Food Program's country director for Afghanistan. "It's all just imploded for them."

What's the security situation?

After being quiet for months, Afghanistan's Islamic State affiliate, known as Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K, has carried out a string of deadly attacks targeting minorities. Formed in 2015 by disillusioned Pakistani Taliban fighters, ISIS-K seeks to "purify" the country through destabilizing mass-casualty attacks. "ISIS-K wants to show its breadth and reach beyond Afghanistan," said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace. In April, a spate of attacks throughout the country killed at least 77 people; at least four of them were carried out by ISIS-K. The attacks included a blast at a Kabul public high school targeting the minority Shiite Hazara community, and an explosion at a Sufi mosque in northern Kunduz province that killed more than 30 worshippers. 

How is the world responding?

The U.S. and other Western countries have sought to provide humanitarian aid while not letting money flow to the Taliban, but that's easier said than done. The World Food Program has set up food distribution centers, and China and India have also sent food aid. Along with the money set aside for 9/11 families, the U.S. has also frozen an additional $3.5 billion in Afghanistan central bank assets, which it intends to move to a trust fund benefiting the Afghan people. But legal red tape could tie up that money for years. Meanwhile, a group of Democratic senators has noted the Biden administration is on pace to resettle just 10 percent of the 125,000 Afghan refugees Biden promised to welcome. There's a clear difference in treatment between Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, whom the U.S. has embraced, said Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts. "My question is why this approach is reserved for a select few," he said, "when refugees from Afghanistan and around the world facing persecution, instability, and violence face barriers to entry that Ukrainians get to bypass."

Divisions in the Taliban

When the Taliban's hard-line leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, decreed in March that girls could not go to school after the sixth grade, he faced scrutiny not only from women activists but also from within the Taliban itself. Other Taliban leaders lodged a last-minute push to block the decree, worried it might prevent the country from receiving foreign aid. The moderates also argued that ideological crusades will distract the government from addressing its serious domestic problems, such as the economy and ISIS-K. But Akhundzada and ultraconservative Taliban hard-liners won that power struggle, and have instituted other retrograde policies targeting women, including warning them not to leave their homes without men accompanying them. The hard-liners include bands of young Islamist radicals and leaders of the Haqqani network, an internationally designated terrorist group, who jointly seek to intimidate the population into complying with sharia law. For now, Taliban elders have "decided to put up with each other," said former government adviser Torek Farhadi. "They all know that if they don't keep it together, everything might fall apart."

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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