By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Over the past few decades, a multiplicity of wounds have been afflicted on Afghanistan by war, terrorism, rising poverty and now the coronavirus. According to the Watson Institute of Brown University in the US, over 157,000 people have been killed in the Afghan war since 2001. More than 43,000 of these have been civilians.
Recently, 24 people, mostly pregnant women, were killed when unidentified terrorists attacked the maternity ward of a leading hospital in Kabul. Thirty two mourners were killed by a terrorist attack on a funeral of a pro-government para-military commander in Nangarhar.
While the main rebel group, the Taliban, are working towards joining the democratic mainstream following a deal with the US, the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Al Qaida are not. It is possible that the latter groups had carried out these attacks.
The US thinks that the Taliban is not behind the attacks. The US State Department’s statement said: “We note the Taliban have denied any responsibility and condemned both attacks as heinous. The Taliban and the Afghan government should cooperate to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Meanwhile the IS claimed that it was behind a spate of attacks on Monday in Kabul when four bombs, one placed under a garbage bin and the other three by the roadside, went off wounding four civilians, including a child. The Afghan intelligence service said in a statement that it had arrested an IS regional leader Zia-ul Haq, aka Shaikh Abu Omer Al-Khorasani
The elected Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani however considers the Taliban as the culprit and has put the government military on an “offensive mode” against the Taliban. The Afghan government has stopped the release of Taliban prisoners which it had begun earlier as part of an US-Taliban peace deal. Ghani is under pressure to go against the Taliban. Mohammad Ismail Khan, a prominent member of the Jamiat-e-Islami party and ex-Afghan Mujahideen leader, on Wednesday strongly criticized President Ghani for not pursuing the Taliban militarily as the Taliban “never denounced violence”.
Now, the coronavirus is adding to the casualties in Afghanistan. On May 14, there were 5226 confirmed cases and 132 deaths.
Poverty and Hunger
However, a problem which is equally acute but which is not adequately recognized and addressed is poverty and hunger which are both byproducts of the long war and terrorist violence.
According to “The New Humanitarian”, more than half of the 37 million people in Afghanistan live under the poverty line. Even before the coronavirus pandemic escalated, the UN projected 14 million people could be in crisis or face emergency levels of food insecurity.
Prices have shot through the roof. According to reports from Afghanistan, a kilo of lemons now sells for 400 Afghani (more than US$ 5). Low supplies due to the coronavirus-triggered lockdowns have pushed prices up. The price of wheat has gone up by 15 to 20% in many places. Across eight major markets, the average price of cooking oil increased by 9%, and rice and pulses by 2 to 4%. A resident of Kabul said that only the rich can buy food these days. Others will have to make do with dry bread and dried fruits, local told agency reporters.
Border closure by Pakistan and Central Asian countries and export restrictions in supplier countries have cut supply lines and pushed up food prices in Afghanistan. “If this continues for a prolonged period, the World Food Program (WFP) expects a serious impact on its international supply chain of vegetable oil, pulses, and specialized nutritious foods,” said Parvathy Ramaswami, the World Food Programme’s deputy country director. Speaking to “New Humanitarian”, she urged countries to open the borders to allow transport of commercial and humanitarian food supplies.
But Afghans complain that the aid that is coming from abroad or distributed by the Afghan government is being embezzled and spent on luxuries instead of delivering it to the people in need of help. A few days ago, six people including two policemen, were killed and more than a dozen were injured, in what was described as unfair and unequal food distribution. A spokesman of the Ministry of Interior said that protestors clashed with police in Ghor province that led to police firing.
Complaining about unfair practices, the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission Chairperson Shaharzad Akbar said the ones getting food are not the ones most deserving but the ones having good connections with local officials.
Plight of Children
On May 1, Save the Children said in a report that more than seven million children in Afghanistan are at risk of hunger as food prices soar. “At a time when Afghan children need adequate daily nutrition to help strengthen their immune systems to fight the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the price of basic foods is rising under the lockdown, making it harder for families to feed themselves,” the report said.
A third of the population – including 7.3 million children – will face food shortages in April and May due to the current pandemic, the report added. Many Afghans work as daily laborers. With cities going into lockdown, many people will be forced to choose between staying home hungry or venturing outside to find work, risking infection.
A Pakistani defense and security analyst Ikram Sehgal has written that the international community that has for years sent soldiers, weapons and explosives to Afghanistan should now send wheat, meat and other food items. “But that will not be easy to organize because even when money is available the surrounding countries might not be able to sell much of their own supplies because they have to feed their own population first. With food shortages and hunger riots likely another wave of refugees going into Pakistan or Iran must be prevented at all cost,” Sehgal said.
Displaced And Returnees
Farshid Farzam, Deputy Head of Programs at the German aid agency, Welthungerhilfe, says that food insecurity among returnees and internally displaced people was already rampant before the pandemic. Afghanistan is experiencing a high number of returnees. More than 138,000 people returned from Iran and Pakistan between January and March 2020. A million had returned earlier.
Most displaced and returnees depend on cash or food aid or for market prices to remain affordably low. Unhygienic and crowded living spaces increase the threat of the coronavirus spreading, aid groups have warned.
“One of the humanitarian implications for IDPs, who already are a vulnerable group with limited coping mechanisms, will be that they are disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” said Elias Hatimi, World Vision’s Afghanistan communications manager. Most IDPs have limited food reserves and almost no savings, which make humanitarian assistance even more necessary, Hatimi added.
However, Afghanistan’s farmers hope for a good harvest this year in May. With heavy snow, followed by rain replenishing water reserves, hopes of ending the food shortage have risen.