WHEN the US withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, there was evidently little optimism that Washington and its European allies would have any appetite left for continuing to support the impoverished country, especially as it had been taken over by an enemy they had fought for two decades. Warnings by the UN and other aid agencies of a humanitarian catastrophe went largely unheeded, despite reports that famine and starvation were forcing parents to sell their babies or men were selling their kidneys to feed their near and dear ones. Pledges were made but very little aid arrived, certainly not enough to stave off hunger or feed malnourished babies.
Aid was conditional on the Afghan Taliban acquiescing in the international demand for a broad-based inclusive government, women’s education and respect for human rights. Given the Taliban’s intransigence, there was little hope of assistance but the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have shifted the focus entirely from Afghanistan. There is no denying that the war clouds hovering over Europe continue to darken ominously as the situation in Ukraine gets more desperate and more dangerous. This means that the reopening of public universities by the Taliban rulers in the first week of last month — one of the key demands of the international community — enabling boys and girls to return to their studies after six months went unnoticed. In late February, the Biden administration relaxed some of the sanctions that had led to the collapse of the Afghan economy and crippled the banking system, but the measures did not do much to counter America’s earlier action of seizing half of the frozen $7bn in Afghan assets, freeing the balance for humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan remains dire. It needs food, medical supplies and cash to pay the salaries of teachers and medical staff. Humanitarian assistance that has been given so far falls much below what the country needs. According to the UN’s Financial Tracking Service, less than $29m of the $4.4bn needed to save Afghanistan from disaster has come in so far.
There is another dimension of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict that might take a toll on Afghanistan: refugees. With more than a million Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war in their country and taking shelter in Europe, millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan will now receive little or no attention. There was already donor-fatigue for the Afghan refugees who are now largely dependent on Pakistan, which has its own set of economic problems. This will accentuate in the times to come. Afghanistan with its own economy in ruins, wouldn’t be able to take them in while Pakistan may find it difficult to look after them with the meagre resources it has at its disposal. With the new conflict emerging in the middle of Europe, Afghanistan, sadly, looks like a forgotten story now.
Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2022