By Saeed Shah and Yaroslav Trofimov/Wall Street Journal
Kabul, September 9: Trying to forestall a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, the United Nations and aid organizations are looking for ways to help the Afghan people without bolstering the country’s new Taliban administration, many of whose leaders remain under international sanctions.
Even before the Taliban seized power on Aug. 15 and deposed the Western-backed Afghan government, half of the country’s roughly 40 million people already needed humanitarian aid, according to the U.N.
Aid workers warn that nearly the entire population could slide into poverty in the next few months. The country has been cut off from the international financial system and foreign aid since last month, with over $9 billion in the Afghan central bank’s assets frozen in the West.
In addition to the political upheaval, which caused more than 100,000 Afghans, representing predominantly the educated elites, to flee last month, the country has also been hit by drought, with over 40% of the wheat crop lost.
“What we’re seeing emerging is this imminent economic collapse,” said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, head of the U.N.-affiliated World Food Program in Afghanistan. “All these things are starting to have a knock-on effect on an already desperate, desperate situation.”
The Taliban say they want the resumption of foreign aid, but balk at the conditions made by the U.S. and other Western nations, such as guarantees of women’s rights and a more inclusive and representative government. The new administration of the Taliban’s reinstated Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, announced on Tuesday, is made up exclusively of hard-line leaders of the Islamist movement and doesn’t include any women or other political forces.
“Afghanistan needs help after 20 years of war,” said Zikrullah al-Hashemi, a Taliban aid official. “But this is my suggestion for the Western countries: The conditions will not work with the Afghan people. If you want to help us, do not put the conditions forward. If you put pressure, they will not accept.”
While the U.S. and other major donors to Afghanistan say they want to provide emergency aid, existing sanctions on the Taliban prevent them from working directly with Afghanistan’s new rulers. Funding from the World Bank, which had paid the salaries of doctors, nurses, teachers and civil servants, is also frozen. No nation in the world has recognized the Taliban as the country’s legitimate government, and all Western diplomatic missions in Kabul are closed.
This means that humanitarian organizations, led by the U.N., would have to expand their role, filling in for some of the government’s work and creating a parallel structure to the Taliban authorities to distribute funds. These aid agencies, however, have been depleted. Only eight nongovernment organizations kept expat country directors in Kabul and much of their skilled Afghan staff were evacuated from the country by the U.S.-led airlift last month.
At meetings with senior Taliban leaders on Sunday, the U.N.’s emergency-relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths, stressed that humanitarian agencies’ donors have their own expectations and warned that “any TV image of flogging, beating, reinforces the ‘old’ Taliban reputation,” according to a readout of the meetings viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Men and women must be employed to carry out humanitarian work, freedom to hire staff must be established, and security guarantees, including for women, must be provided, Mr. Griffiths added, according to the readout. “These requirements were well received and fully agreed” to by the Taliban, the document said.
Trying to bypass the new Taliban government won’t be easy. All of Afghanistan’s 2,500 hospitals and clinics that were previously funded by the World Bank with money coming from donors like the European Union and the U.S. have given notice to the Health Ministry that they can’t continue operations beyond Sept. 10, said Health Minister Wahid Majrooh.
An appointee of the previous government, Dr. Majrooh remains in a caretaker position because the Taliban administration created on Tuesday didn’t name a new health minister. “The ministry is completely left out and ignored by the international community during this transition. I thought they would see us as a neutral, technical, agency,” said Dr. Majrooh. “When you ignore government institutions, you will not have synergies.”
On Monday, the U.N. will launch an emergency appeal for $606 million, to cover the next four months of aid to Afghanistan. That includes providing food to nearly 11 million people and health services to more than three million people.
“The money that’s given is going to go straight to the people in need through humanitarian agencies,” Mr. Griffiths said.
More than 70% of the Afghan government’s nonmilitary budget came from international funding. Last year, the international community pledged to provide more than $3 billion a year in aid to Afghanistan until 2024.
Since the Taliban takeover, salaries of government employees haven’t been paid, while in the private sector many have lost their jobs. Day laborers can’t find work. Food prices are surging and banks have run out of cash. More than 570,000 Afghans fled their homes because of fighting this year, with internally displaced people crowding the Shahr-e-Naw park in central Kabul.
A 33-year-old assistant professor at Balkh University, in the north of the country, is the only breadwinner of his eight-member family. He said he hadn’t been paid for the second month in a row. He has halved his daily expenditure to $7 for the family and borrowed money from a friend to buy basic foodstuffs like rice, flour and cooking oil.
“Imagine what we are eating. We’re just trying to survive,” he said.
Jeanette Vogelaar, chief of education in Afghanistan for the children’s agency UNICEF, said the aim was to keep all 18,000 schools in the country running, with funding coming from donors but the overall management of the schools remaining with the government. There are 226,000 teachers, educating 9.5 million children. An interim teacher payment mechanism is being worked on, she said.
“Teachers’ salaries is a very serious issue, one that has been brought to our attention by the Taliban,” Ms. Vogelaar said. “If we are not able to get funding to pay the teachers’ salaries, there is a risk that all schools become nonfunctional and that children, the least responsible for this crisis, pay the highest price.”