Opinion: Starving Afghans must be reconnected to the world economy to survive

Between 2015 and 2020, Afghan exports almost doubled, from below $1 billion to almost two billion

Starving Afghans must be reconnected to the world economy to survive
Photo by Trent Inness, Shutterstock.com

By James Snell

It is hard to imagine being cut off from the global economy. To have little and less trade entering the country. To have entire industries shut down or operate on skeleton crews. To see few foreign goods. To be able to sell little or nothing to people abroad you previously worked with.

Western leaders might think they understand it – after the covid pandemic put the world in suspended animation. But they don’t. Not at all.

But that’s what many Afghans have experienced since August 2021 and the collapse of the Ghani government. With the coming of the Taliban, Afghanistan’s commercial relationships were in jeopardy. Many of them existed only on the understanding that the US-backed government remained in power. 

When things fell apart – far faster than many complacent foreigners had possibly imagined – everything else fell apart, too.

Most obviously, this was felt in the price and supply of food. At the start of this winter, a year and a half after the change of government, the United Nations estimated that six million Afghans were at risk of famine. As we know, this has sadly transpired.

A more recent estimate from the International Rescue Committee indicates that over 28 million Afghans need humanitarian assistance of some kind. 

This is a story of international isolation severing business relationships across borders – of capital not flowing from $3.5 billion of frozen Afghan assets abroad – and ordinary life grinding to a halt as a consequence.

It means people unable to work. It means poverty and all its accompanying evils. It means families going hungry. And it means illness and weakness caused by those things.

The prosperous world cannot understand – because it has never had to understand — what this is like. But now it must begin to do so.

We know that the time before the Taliban was no paradise. The country was not governed as well as it might have been. There was real corruption. It was very bad. There’s no need to downplay this reality. People suffered needlessly in poverty because their supposed leaders stole from them. The country fought a continual battle – often one it looked likely to lose – against corruption and clientism and the worst of how people can treat each other.

But progress was not impossible.

This is something the outside world sometimes did not understand – or pretended it could not get.

Americans long complained about how much their country spent in Afghanistan — $2 trillion is a popular number, although it does not bear much relation to reality. Not least because the vast majority of US spending in Afghanistan went not to Afghans but to Americans and American companies, who were paid to outsource the occupation.

Americas’ money went largely to Americans – as is always the way. And, after all, there were food problems before the Taliban took Kabul – some of them caused by the Taliban and the strains of the war.

But one thing was true then that is not true now. Afghanistan was beginning to be a part of the global economy. Slowly, more business was being done across borders. The days of relative isolation looked to be over. 

Between 2015 and 2020, Afghan exports almost doubled, from below $1 billion to almost two billion. Exports make a country richer, and the country was slowly getting richer because of it. There is no reason to believe this trend would not have continued.

People from far away were beginning to visit Kabul in large numbers as tourists. Tourists can be annoying, but they brought their money in exchange for their experiences. Good experiences in Afghanistan were contagious. People told their friends; they decided to invest and trade. All of these were good things.

But as you know, things did not get better. They were not allowed to. When the United States collapsed the Afghan government in 2021, it also collapsed the Afghan economy. All the assumptions of foreigners and some of the assumptions of Afghans were upended. 

As we know, the Taliban does not know any economics. 

When its fighters arrived in Kabul, flights into the country ended. No more tourist dollars coming in. No more exports heading out. 

It is impossible to explain to someone who has no experience of this economic isolation what it is like. To have two decades of economic progress come to an abrupt end. It’s demoralising as well as impoverishing.

The wider world these days pays sporadic attention to the Afghan economy. Its charities do good business claiming to solve Afghan food shortages. Some of its newspapers occasionally run campaigns. A few well-meaning politicians are trying to get Afghan bank deposits unfrozen in order that the billions might be used to begin to rebuild the economy.  

But all of this pales when compared to the pain of being cut off from the rest of the world.

James Snell is a Senior Advisor for Special Initiatives at the New Lines Institute. He is writing a book on the war in Afghanistan. He tweets at @James_P_Snell.