The United Nations' stockpiles of food in Afghanistan could run out this month, a senior official warned on Wednesday, threatening to add a hunger crisis to the challenges facing the country's new Taliban rulers as they try to restore stability after decades of war.
About one third of the country's population of 38 million doesn't know if they will have a meal every day, according to Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN's humanitarian chief in Afghanistan.
The UN's World Food Program 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 USD 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 which the World Food Program has in the country will be out,” Alakbarov told reporters at a virtual news conference. “We will not be able to provide those essential food items because we'll be out of stocks.”
Earlier, UN officials said that of the USD 1.3 billion needed for overall aid efforts, only 39 per cent has been received.
The Taliban, who seized control of the country ahead of the withdrawal of American forces this week, now must govern a nation that relies heavily on international aid and is in the midst of a worsening economic crisis.
In addition to the concerns about food supplies, civil servants haven't been paid in months and the local currency is losing value. Most of Afghanistan's foreign reserves are held abroad and currently frozen.
Khalid Payenda, Afghanistan's former acting finance minister, on Wednesday detailed a country existing in a dangerously fragile state.
Speaking at Georgetown University in Washington, Payenda said the Afghan currency had yet to crash because money exchanges had been shuttered. But its value could plunge by more than 100 per cent, said Payenda, who described former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as withdrawn and paranoid ahead of the Taliban takeover.
“I think the war had a toll on his psyche and he saw everything with suspicion,” Payenda said.
Part of the chaos reflects the speed at which the Taliban took control of the country, with Payenda saying he thought the prior 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 quickly,” Payenda said. “Nobody actually did.”
Mohammad Sharif, a shopkeeper in the capital of Kabul, said shops and markets there have supplies, but a major concern is rising food prices.
“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 pullout, 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, though Taliban officials have 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 required in the past.
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 US.
Many Afghans fear the Taliban won't 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 as a result in a harrowing airlift.
But thousands who had worked with the US and its allies, as well as up to 200 Americans, remained in the country after the efforts ended with the last US troops flying out of Kabul international airport just before midnight Monday.
President Joe Biden later defended his handling of the chaotic withdrawal and evacuation efforts, which saw spasms 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 from two decades of war would be difficult.
Biden said he remains committed to getting the Americans left behind out if they want. The Taliban have said they will allow people with legal documents to travel freely, but it remains to be seen whether any commercial airlines will be willing to offer service.
Bilal Karimi, an official member in the Taliban spokesman's office, said Wednesday that a team of Turkish and Qatari technicians arrived in Kabul to help get the airport up and running again. Alakbarov, the UN humanitarian official, said the United Nations is asking for access to the airport so it can deliver food and other supplies directly to the capital.
The Taliban also have to contend with the threat from the Islamic State group, which is far more radical and claimed responsibility for the bombing at the airport. The Taliban have pledged they won't allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for attacks on other countries — a key US demand since the militants once harboured the al-Qaida leaders who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.
In the wake of last week's bombing, American officials said drone strikes targeted the Islamic State group's affiliate in Afghanistan, and Biden vowed to keep up airstrikes.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday it was “possible” that the US will have to coordinate with the Taliban on any counter-terrorism strikes in Afghanistan in the future.