“It is going to be hell on earth.” That’s how David Beasley, the director of the World Food Program, describes the catastrophe facing Afghanistan this winter. Twenty-three million people are at risk of starvation and the percentage of the population in poverty is expected to leap from just over half to 97 percent. Acute malnutrition will be widespread; 1 million children are expected to perish.
The proximate cause of the crisis is a drought that has ruined Afghanistan’s wheat crop and driven up the price of food across the board. This would be manageable, however, under different political conditions. In August, when U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban took control of the country, Washington declined to recognize the new government in Kabul. Instead, it froze Afghanistan’s assets, most of which are held in the United States. Because the Taliban has been designated a terrorist organization, the U.S. government placed sanctions on the new Afghan government as soon as it took power, making it nearly impossible for other countries or aid agencies to work with Taliban officials. Since then, international aid has come to an abrupt halt. This is devastating in a country where such aid constituted 75 percent of the economy. By threatening to withhold assistance from a fragile country, the United States hopes it can force the Taliban government to cooperate with U.S. counterterrorism efforts and improve its treatment of women and minorities.