Sitting in a classroom in district 17 on the north-western outskirts of Kabul, four young women from a group dedicated to helping children displaced by war pulled out tissues from a box and silently wiped away tears.
The conversation had turned to the youngest of the women’s prospects in light of the Taliban’s return to power in August last year.
The 19-year-old explained how she had been stopped at the door of the university where she was studying engineering and told she must wear a burqa to enter.
“I had never been asked to do it before,” she said. “They have been to my brothers and father and told them I must comply. I am being banned from the field trips that the boys go on. I am losing hope.”
Her eyes welling with tears, she said she was resigned to wearing the burqa in order to complete her education.
The testimony prompted the other women to open up. One admitted to having suicidal thoughts. Another said: “We exist, but it is not a life.” Then the fourth stood up and said: “Everyone knows there is active fighting in Ukraine, but here people are dying, especially women. Should we have some hope or not?”
The woman said she had gone three months without being paid her $100 a month salary, and that her husband was sick. “Two or three generations [of Afghan women] have suffered,” she said. “Will another generation suffer? Should we have hope or is it just hopeless?”
Listening to the women was David Lammy, the British shadow foreign secretary, who visited Kabul last week. “What I have heard from you today is tremendous strength and courage,” Lammy said. “I have been lucky to have been to many places in the world and talked to many people, but this meeting – and I mean this from the bottom of my heart – will stay with me for a very long time.”
A few miles away, in district 13, hundreds of men queued under the baking sun for their monthly food handout at a UN World Food Programme distribution centre. Next to them was another queue of men, each pushing a wheelbarrow and hoping to earn some money helping to transport the food to homes or a taxi.
Inside the distribution centre, 100 or so women, many of them widows, waited for their turn. In total about 8,000 families would receive food and cooking oil over the course of the day. More stories of desperation poured out.
Zenab, 36, explained she had trained as a midwife and wanted to work in rural areas, but was unable to because the Taliban had imposed mahram, the requirement placed on women to be escorted by a male in public. Zenab said this was not possible for her, and that she would be beaten if she disobeyed the rules. Trained to meet a desperately required need, she instead spent her days sitting at home. Asked what her greatest ambition was, she said to build a hospital. Her pain was tangible.
Nazifa, a 40-year-old widow living in a house with three other families, said she was so desperate for money that she had considered selling her kidneys on the black market.
“The prices go up, and the Taliban have stopped my pension,” she said. “I do not know how else to give my children what they need”.
Afghanistan’s dire food crisis is complex. At one level, Kabul’s dusty markets look full with potatoes, tomatoes, ubiquitous watermelons and mangoes. Moreover, the Taliban’s return to power means the UN can reach areas of the country that were formerly out of bounds, ironically because they were Taliban strongholds.
But the surface impression is deceptive, said Hsiao-Wei Lee, the WFP’s deputy director in Afghanistan. The collapse in the economy means few people have jobs, and the poor simply cannot afford what is on display in the markets. Three-quarters of Afghan income is spent on food and 82% are in debt. “It’s is about maxing out the calories and so tomatoes and potatoes are not right. Traders say they are having to throw away more food,” Lee said.
“Donors stepped up late last autumn so we could avoid the worst of the predicted winter crisis, and we are prepositioning food for next winter, but lack of funds means we are now having to scale back.” Only $1.2m (£960,000) of the $4.2m sought by the UN appeal for this year was offered. There have been five droughts in three years, and it normally takes three years for an area to recover from such an episode.
As usual in Afghanistan, it is women who are bearing the brunt. “In traditional areas, women eat last after the men and boys, but now they simply do not eat because there is not enough for the last round of eaters,” said Billie Alemayehu from the UN humanitarian organisation the OCHA.
Alemayehu says that when baby boys are born, families pause having children because the boy is considered an asset to the household and needs breast-feeding. But this is not the case with girls. “In the south of the country, 90% of those presenting for malnutrition are young girls,” she said. “It is shocking.”
Compounding the problem, many of the health clinics trying to help underfed children have lost their World Bank funding.
Fundamentally, the problem is not the result of one under-funded UN appeal. Rather, the entire economy has been eviscerated since the Taliban takeover by the withdrawal of overseas aid, which provided 78% of the government budget, and by the imposition of sanctions and the freezing of Afghan central bank assets. As Isis Sunwoo, the OCHA head of strategy and coordination in Afghanistan, put it: “A humanitarian system … cannot uphold an entire state.”
To some eyes, the west is pursuing a policy that equates to threatening to starve innocent Afghans in the unrealistic belief that it will somehow get leverage over the Taliban. Others say it is impossible to meet the country’s needs without legitimising a government that has effectively tried to erase women from public life.
An unsustainable compromise exists. Sanctions on the Taliban leadership remain in force, but broadly humanitarian – as opposed to development – aid is permitted. The assets of the Afghan central bank, of which £7bn is controlled by the US, has been frozen, and $3.5bn of this has been confiscated in a populist move by Joe Biden to provide compensation to the victims of 9/11.
In the meantime, from Kabul to Herat, Afghanistan is turning into a bankrupt society.
“There is a certain irreversibility about this contraction of demand,” one World Bank official warned. “Once these businesses go bust, you are not going to revive them again. This collective bankruptcy is a big problem, and it is appearing on the banks’ balance sheets. Between 65% to 85% of micro credit loans are non-performing. Everyone is accumulating debt, but do not have a flow of income to pay it off.”
The signs are everywhere. Construction, once the motor of the private economy, is moribund. On the outskirts of Kabul there are giant parks of disused JCVs and cranes.
The US Treasury has tried to ease banks’ fears of falling foul of sanctions by issuing licences permitting banks to finance humanitarian as opposed to development aid. But that leaves grey areas. In what category does women’s capacity building and health projects fall? As the World Bank official put it: “We have a problem of over-compliance. A western bank makes little money out of a transfer to and from an Afghan correspondent bank, yet if it is seen to be doing something related to the Taliban, it could face a massive fine, so the risk reward does not stack up.”
To circumvent the sanctions, the UN, at great expense, is flying in $100,000-worth of dollar bills in physical cash. “That is helping and hindering,” the official said. “It is helping because it keeps the humanitarian process afloat, but it is hindering because it is dollarising the economy and still leaving it very difficult for legitimate enterprises to trade, except in cash.”
World Bank officials visiting Kabul last week were trying to construct a complex humanitarian exchange system to inject money into the economy. But it was proving difficult to find a compromise that the central bank and Citibank, the main western bank, would both accept.
In the absence of any diplomatic representation from the west, it has been left to the World Bank, the UN and the accumulated sensitive knowledge of the NGOs on the ground such as the International Rescue Committee to try to persuade the Taliban not to continue down the path of exclusionary politics.
Both the UN and many NGOs would probably argue that heavy threats about isolating the Taliban economically unless it becomes more inclusive are counter-productive, but with the Taliban divided, opinions differ on the best approach.
Some, including in the UK Foreign Office, believe that other Islamic voices could persuade the Taliban that the Koran provides no justification for the subjugation of women. There is talk of a conference of religious elders inside Afghanistan to discuss the issue.
Others say the discrimination does not stem from a misreading of Islam but instead a particular southern Pashtun culture largely emanating from Kandahar. The Taliban have recently defended their policy by saying it is in line not just with Islam but custom.
Lammy warned that an already dire situation could yet get worse. “I think we have to get past this binary argument of whether you recognise the Taliban or not and get into the politics of engagement,” he said. “It is only by engagement that you get into the complexity of the Taliban, the differences of opinion both within and across the country, between ethnicities, ages groups and provinces.”
He also urged the UK to return to Kabul, saying: “If we are not here, we are not actors.”
The IRC has a big presence in Afghanistan, with more staff than all the UN agencies put together. Its director, Vicki Aken, said: “My first and biggest fight with the Taliban has been the protection of our female staff presence, because without women in our organisation, you can’t reach women in need.”
The IRC makes a point of going to meetings with the Taliban with female officials. It is at the least trying to hold to its principles, while fulfilling the task of providing aid.
But Aken admitted: “It has been death by a thousand cuts as decree after decree removes women from the public space. A recent decree said women and children cannot be mentioned in health education materials. About 70% of women in Afghanistan are illiterate. How are you going to show them how to breastfeed? Are you going to have a picture of a man with a goat suckling it?”