Afghanistan faces hunger crisis as the Taliban try to restore stability

About a third of the 38 million people in the war-torn nation may soon not have a meal every day

Afghan families gather to receive food on the outskirts of Chaman, a border town in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province.  Dozens of Afghan families have crossed into Pakistan. Photo: AP
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Afghanistan faces a food shortage as the UN's stockpiles could run out this month, adding to the challenges facing the country’s new Taliban rulers.

About a third of the 38 million people in the war-torn nation may not have a meal every day, Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN’s humanitarian chief in the country, told AP.

The UN’s World Food Programme has brought in food and distributed it to tens of thousands of people in recent weeks, but with winter approaching and a drought ongoing, at least $200 million is needed urgently to be able to continue to feed the most vulnerable Afghans, he said.

“By the end of September, the stocks that the World Food Programme has in the country will be out,” Mr Alakbarov said. “We will not be able to provide those essential food items because we’ll be out of stock.”

Earlier, UN officials said that of the $1.3 billion needed for overall aid efforts, only 39 per cent had been received.

The Taliban, who seized control of the country before the withdrawal of American forces this week, must now govern a nation that relies heavily on international aid and is in the middle of a worsening economic crisis. In addition to the concerns about food supplies, civil servants have not been paid in months and the local currency is losing value. Most of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves are held abroad and are currently frozen.

Khalid Payenda, Afghanistan’s former acting finance minister, on Wednesday described a country existing in a dangerously fragile state.

Speaking at Georgetown University in Washington, Mr Payenda said the Afghan currency had yet to crash because money exchanges were closed. But its value could plunge by more than 100 per cent, said Mr Payenda, who described former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani as withdrawn and paranoid before the Taliban takeover.

“I think the war had a toll on his psyche and he saw everything with suspicion,” Mr Payenda said.

Recent chaotic scenes in the capital reflect the speed at which the Taliban took control of the country, with Mr Payenda saying he thought the previous government could have been sustained for two or three more years because of commitments by international donors.

“I did not expect it to be this quick,” Mr Payenda said. “Nobody actually did.”

Mohammad Sharif, a shopkeeper in the capital Kabul, said shops and markets there have supplies, but that rising food prices are a major concern.

“If the situation continues like this and there is no government to control the prices, that will cause so many problems for local people,” he said.

In the wake of the US pull-out, many Afghans are anxiously waiting to see how the Taliban will rule. When they were last in power, before being driven out by the US-led invasion in 2001, they imposed draconian restrictions, refusing to allow girls to go to school, largely confining women to their homes and banning television, music and even photography.

But more recently, their leaders have sought to project a more moderate image. Schools have reopened to boys and girls, although Taliban officials said they will study separately. Women are out on the streets wearing Islamic headscarves – as they always have – rather than the all-encompassing burqa the Taliban demanded in the past.

The president of the UN Security Council said on Wednesday that “the real litmus test” for the new Taliban government will be how it treats women and girls. Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason of Ireland, which holds the council’s rotating presidency, said the protection and promotion of human rights for women “must be at the very heart of our collective response to the crisis”.

The challenges the Taliban face in reviving the economy could give western nations leverage as they push the group to fulfil a pledge to form an inclusive government and guarantee women’s rights. The Taliban say they want to have good relations with other countries, including the United States.

Many Afghans fear the Taliban will not make good on those pledges and are concerned that the nation’s economic situation holds little opportunity. Tens of thousands sought to flee the country, resulting in a harrowing airlift.

But thousands who had worked with the US and its allies, as well as up to 200 Americans, were still in the country after the evacuation effort ended with the last US troops flying out of Kabul international airport just before midnight on Monday.

US President Joe Biden later defended his handling of the chaotic withdrawal and evacuation efforts, which produced outbreaks of violence, including a suicide bombing last week that killed 13 American service members and 169 Afghans. He said it was inevitable that the final departure after two decades of war would be difficult.

He said he is committed to getting out the Americans left behind, if they want to leave. The Taliban have said they will allow people with legal documents to travel freely, but it is not clear whether any commercial airlines will be willing to offer service.

Bilal Karimi, an official in the Taliban spokesman’s office, said on Wednesday that a team of Turkish and Qatari technicians arrived in Kabul to help get the airport up and running again. The UN is asking for access to the airport so it can deliver food and other supplies directly to the capital, Mr Alakbarov said.

The Taliban also have to contend with the threat from ISIS, which is far more radical and claimed responsibility for the bombing at the airport. The Taliban promised to not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for attacks on other countries – a key US demand since the militants once harboured the Al Qaeda leaders who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.

In the wake of last week’s bombing, American officials said drone strikes targeted the ISIS's affiliate in Afghanistan, and Mr Biden vowed to keep up air strikes.

Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Wednesday it was possible that the US will have to co-ordinate with the Taliban on any counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan in the future.

Updated: September 02, 2021, 7:18 AM