In Afghanistan, decades of wars, internal conflicts and political instability has had a significant impact on the millions of Afghan families. Consequently, many face poverty and increased human suffering and vulnerabilities, eroded community resilience, and amplified human trafficking activities.
To mark World Humanitarian Day 2023, this blog has been extracted from Thi Hoang’s essay originally published in Afghanistan: Long War, Forgotten Peace. Here, the author surveys the impact of the new Taliban government since August 2021 – outlining contemporary trafficking changes and arguing for a pragmatic and prioritised approach to humanitarian responses in the country to avoid the crises worsening.
The essay, and others within the collection, are available to read and download for free on the LSE Press website via Open Access publishing.
The New Taliban Government and Contemporary Trafficking Challenges
When the new Taliban regime took control on 15 August 2021, they faced a huge list of problems in several dimensions. Even in the preceding years, Afghans were increasingly unable to feed themselves and their families, leading to rising rates of malnutrition, particularly among children. Women and children, often the breadwinners after decades of conflict, were critically affected by the sharp rise of unemployment. Access to food, water, health services and education, among other services, has fallen throughout the country and left an estimated 24 million Afghans in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Furthermore, the number of conflict-driven displacements has steadily increased and grown in scope, with greater displacement taking place both within and seeking to leave Afghanistan. Half a year after the Taliban’s takeover, an additional 700,000 Afghans are internally displaced, adding to the existing three million displaced by decades-long conflict. Forced returns are taking place on an unprecedented scale, with Pakistan and Iran sending thousands of Afghans back to the country daily.
The West has long been reluctant to follow a pragmatic, human rights-centred approach – placing human lives at its centre, thus prioritising humanitarian aid over diplomatic and political tensions.
An estimated 65% to 75% of Afghanistan’s budget had come from foreign aid. Essentially cut off from international markets, the government’s accounts were also frozen. Foreign investments, aid and external trade – a substantial source of Afghanistan’s public expenditures – came to a standstill. US sanctions blocked Afghanistan’s central bank from approximately $9.5 billion in assets frozen in US accounts. Without these funds, state capacities were spread extremely thin, funding was depleted, and government workers were left unpaid, which led to the widespread deterioration of basic services. There was scarce work available, while prices of food and fuel continued to rise.
The country’s education system, weakened by various socio-political developments, faces a drop in enrolments. Teachers are not being paid, markets are increasingly burdened, businesses have begun to shut down, and unemployment has risen. Approximately 3.7 million children are not enrolled, over 60% of whom are girls. The closure of multiple girls’ schools in areas such as Ghazni and North Fayab exacerbated those figures further – 2.2. million Afghan girls are out of school. The Taliban has prohibited Afghan women and girls from attending any form of schooling beyond primary level and the outlook for improvement remains bleak. Pervasive social and traditional norms in Afghanistan, which normalised child marriage and virginity tests, heightened women’s vulnerability to exploitation and harm.
Even before the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, the small number of civil society actors, NGOs, and humanitarian responders were reportedly overwhelmed, overburdened, hugely under-resourced, under-funded, and constantly under security, violence and even death threats in the country. For instance, 10 staff members of a UK–US charity were reportedly killed by gunmen in June 2021. As the US and allied countries withdrew their troops and the Taliban gradually took over the entire country, financial institutions and banks in the country were forced to close down and freeze their assets, making it difficult for NGOs to pay their staff and cover operating expenses. International organisations and UN agencies were said to have been able to use agents to transfer cash into the country, but local and national NGOs did not fare as well, since all or most of their bank accounts and funds were in Afghanistan.
Having no access to cash and banking has reportedly affected civil society’s capacity to respond to the population’s humanitarian needs, threatening a huge disruption to the delivery of basic services against the backdrop of one of the largest humanitarian crises worldwide. Fearing for the safety and lives of their own staff members, many foreign NGOs were obliged to evacuate their staff and halt their operations. However, this may have risked reinforcing the distorted view held by many Afghans that Western NGOs were the tools of the US military, regardless of their political and religious standpoints, subsequently making it harder for those international NGOs that remained to gain local people’s acceptance.
Given this dire situation confronting roughly half of the Afghan population, the international community had been hoping for a more collaborative and accommodating Taliban that would be willing to cooperate with NGOs and international organisations to deliver urgent humanitarian aid. However, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Taliban allegedly carried out house to house searches for former officials and civilians who had worked with the US military and companies; reportedly attacked and threatened UN personnel; and raided the offices and compounds of NGOs and civil society groups. Civil society actors and humanitarian responders remaining in the country therefore need to stay alert and be prepared to face potential hostility. Expectations of a ‘new’ or more progressive Taliban-led government may just be wishful thinking.
Given the various reports of the Taliban’s human trafficking practices to boost Taliban fighters’ morale and/or the status of leaders, or to attract new followers, or to deploy child soldiers, and/or to finance their operations, under the Taliban’s rule current human rights violations and human trafficking practices are likely to continue. In many cases, they may be amplified in the name of preserving traditional values and cultural norms. Furthermore, some practices which were to some extent prohibited under the previous Western-backed government, such as the forced marriage of women and girls as means of debt relief and dispute settlement, may well return.
Policy and Diplomatic Challenges
Western countries, especially the US, the EU and its member states, and international organisations such as the UN and the EU initially criticised the Taliban’s new era of rule on the grounds of its unconstitutional means of overthrowing the government, as well as human rights issues, especially the new regime’s lack of inclusivity and respect for the rights of women and girls.
Persuading a newly incumbent and long-insurgent regime to modify any of its cultural values, beliefs, and perspectives is a process that must always take time, and any such effort needs to be pursued with care and diligence. Any attempt to rush things would risk backfiring and meeting with stronger local resistance and disapproval. By failing to prioritise the dire economic and humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Western arguments for upholding the rights of women and girls, including to higher education, as well persistently pressuring the Taliban to become an inclusive governing authority, might be made in vain if millions of women and girls end up dying of starvation. To uphold the human rights centred on the respect for human life, the path needed is one that makes available the humanitarian aid, food and water urgently needed by nearly half of Afghanistan’s population.
Equally important is the provision of genuine help to the mass exodus of Afghan refugees and displaced people trying to flee the country, especially those most at risk under Taliban rule. These include persecuted groups (such as the Hazaras), human rights and women’s rights advocates in the 2001–21 period, those with ties to the former government or Western powers (having previously worked for Western governments, embassies and military groups, such as interpreters or security guards, or for international organisations), and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) people. Despite these groups’ heightened dangers and risks of persecution, many Western countries have reportedly been reluctant to give support and/or grant them the refugee status and the right to remain. Iran and Pakistan, the two largest host countries of Afghan migrants and refugees, have also repeatedly threatened them with mass deportation.
The main challenges [to humanitarianism] arguably do not lie in the lack of infrastructure or logistical obstacles, but rather in the relevant actors’ lack of political will.
Just six months after the fall of Kabul, Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, in the process arguably pushing Afghanistan’s humanitarian crises and challenging situations further down the international agenda. The stark contrast between how Western countries urgently responded to the needs of the Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war, compared to their Afghan counterparts, painted an unfortunate picture of ‘selective compassion’, which reflects the way that countries have prioritised and differentiated the suffering of different peoples. This contrast also shows that the main challenges arguably do not lie in the lack of infrastructure or logistical obstacles, but rather in the relevant actors’ lack of political will. In tackling Afghans’ heightened vulnerability to human trafficking and aggravated migrant smuggling, especially women and girls, the West has long been reluctant to follow a pragmatic, human rights-centred approach – placing human lives at its centre, thus prioritising humanitarian aid over diplomatic and political tensions. The longer this attitude endures, the more lives will be lost, with greater human suffering, and more Afghan refugees, IDPs, and victims of smuggling and trafficking.
This blog was originally published as an essay in Afghanistan: Long War, Forgotten Peace, edited by Michael Cox and published with LSE Press in 2022. The full collection is free to read and download via Open Access publishing.