A month after seizing Kabul, the Taliban is facing daunting problems as it seeks to convert its lightning military victory into a durable peacetime government.
After four decades of war and the deaths of tens of thousands of people, security has largely improved but Afghanistan’s economy is in ruins despite hundreds of billions of dollars in development spending over the past 20 years.
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Drought and famine are driving thousands from the country to the cities, and the World Food Programme fears its food supplies could start running out by the end of the month, pushing the 14 million food-insecure Afghans to the brink of starvation.
While much attention in the West has focused on whether the new Taliban government will keep its promises to protect women’s rights and to reject groups like al-Qaeda, for many Afghans the main priority is simple survival.
“Every Afghan, kids, they are hungry, they don’t have a single bag of flour or cooking oil,” said Kabul resident Abdullah.
On Tuesday, Rein Paulsen, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Office of Emergencies and Resilience, told reporters at the UN headquarters in a video briefing from Kabul that four million Afghans are facing “a food emergency”.
Paulsen said 70 percent of Afghans live in rural areas and there is a severe drought affecting 7.3 million Afghans in 25 of the country’s 34 provinces.
These vulnerable rural communities have also been hit by the pandemic, he said.
Paulsen said the winter wheat planting season – the most important in Afghanistan – is threatened by “challenges of the cash and banking system” as well as challenges to markets and agricultural items.
“More than half of Afghans’ daily calorific intake comes from wheat,” he said.
If agriculture collapses further, Paulson warned, it will drive up malnutrition, increase displacement and worsen the humanitarian situation.
Long lines still form outside banks, where weekly withdrawal limits of about 20,000 afghanis ($200) have been imposed to protect the country’s dwindling reserves.
Impromptu markets where people are selling their possessions have sprung up across Kabul, although buyers are in short supply.
International donors have pledged more than $1bn to prevent what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned could be “the collapse of an entire country”.
Even with billions of dollars in foreign aid, Afghanistan’s economy had been struggling, with growth failing to keep pace with the steady increase in population. Jobs are scarce and many government workers have been unpaid since at least July.
‘Every day, things get worse’
While most people appear to have welcomed the end of fighting, any relief has been tempered by the near-shutdown of the economy.
“Security is quite good at the moment but we aren’t earning anything,” said a butcher from the Bibi Mahro area of Kabul, who declined to give his name.
“Every day, things get worse for us, more bitter. It’s a really bad situation.”
Following the chaotic foreign evacuation of Kabul last month, the first aid flights have started to arrive as the airport reopens.
But world reaction to the government of Taliban veterans and hardliners announced last week has been cool, and there has been no sign of international recognition or moves to unblock more than $9bn in foreign reserves held outside Afghanistan.
Although Taliban officials have said they do not intend a repeat of the harsh rule of the previous government, toppled by a US-led campaign following the September 11, 2001, attacks, they have struggled to convince the outside world that they have really changed.
Widespread reports of civilians being killed and journalists and others being beaten, and doubts about whether the rights of women really will be respected under the Taliban’s hardline interpretation of Islamic law, have undermined confidence.
In addition, there has been deep mistrust of senior government figures, such as the new interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, designated by the US as a global terrorist with a $10m bounty on his head.
To make matters worse for the Taliban, the movement has had to fight speculation over deep internal splits in its own ranks, denying rumours that Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar had been killed in a shootout with Haqqani supporters.
Officials say the government is working to get services up and running again and that the streets are now safe but, as the war recedes, resolving the economic crisis is looming as a bigger problem.
“Thefts have disappeared. But bread has also disappeared,” said one shopkeeper.