As Afghanistan struggles to manage the manifold social and economic crises resulting from decades of war and subsequent Western sanctions, the Canadian government is still preventing charities from delivering much-needed shipments of food and medical aid to the country’s suffering population.
Earlier in 2022, the Biden administration seized $7 billion from the Afghan central bank, depriving Kabul of the funds it needs to manage a number of urgent crises in food supply and healthcare. By March 15, the United Nations reported:
[a] staggering 95 per cent of Afghans are not getting enough to eat, with that number rising to almost 100 percent in female-headed households… [the humanitarian coordinator] painted a picture of hospital wards filled with malnourished children, many weighing at age one what an infant of six months would weigh in a developed country, with some ‘so weak they are unable to move.’
Alongside the seizure of Afghanistan’s central bank funds, the price of food rose dramatically in 2022. The International Committee of the Red Cross found that between June 2021 and July 2022, the cost of wheat flour and cooking oil in Afghanistan more than doubled. The economic deprivation is so severe that many families have sold their daughters into marriage in order to collect dowry payments, the only available source of income that can guarantee them a near-term supply of basic necessities. Others have been forced to sell their organs in the black market.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research has reported that these sanctions may kill more people in Afghanistan than the last twenty years of war.
The Biden administration promised that half the funds seized from the Afghan central bank would be used for humanitarian purposes in Afghanistan, but almost one year later, this appears to have been a lie. After taking the assets, the US government transferred $3.5 billion in seized funds to a private foundation trusteed by four people which would supposedly “be used for the benefit of the people of Afghanistan.” However, In These Times recently interviewed two of the four trustees and learned that no funds have been distributed to help the Afghan people and there are no policies in place to allow them to do so.
In September, the U.S. created a foundation that was supposed to unfreeze Afghanistan’s central bank assets. Yet, interviews with trustees reveal, in three months, no funds have been disbursed—or concrete plans made—to help the Afghan people. My latest. https://t.co/7IxvWTBW07— Sarah Lazare (@sarahlazare) December 19, 2022
At the same time, Afghanistan is facing a bleak outlook when it comes to the mitigation of climate change-related disasters. According to the UN, Afghanistan is one of the countries “least prepared against climate shocks.” Decades of war, military occupation, and economic underdevelopment, followed by total diplomatic shunning after the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, have deprived Kabul of the ability to secure sufficient stores of food and medicine for its population, let alone manage climate crises. Additionally, Afghanistan was excluded from the COP27 summit on climate change in Egypt, preventing people in the country from making their voices heard on this issue.
On November 6, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan released a statement that explained:
The Afghan people stand on the precipice of devastating climate projections… Afghanistan is already prone to frequent natural disasters that cause loss and damage to lives, livelihoods, homes and infrastructure. These existing threats coupled with Afghans’ high dependence on agricultural livelihoods, Afghanistan’s fragile ecosystem, acute environmental degradation, poor socio-economic development and the impact of more than four decades of war have laid the foundation for extreme climate vulnerability. Droughts in many parts of the country are becoming the norm, and episodic heavy precipitation result in flash floods and landslides. The consequences we are witnessing are severe for not only Afghan lives, but for economic development, food insecurity and migration.
Dr. Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan, said: “It is ordinary Afghans who suffer the most when these [climate] shocks occur… It is devastating to see the most vulnerable Afghans bear the brunt of environmental disasters, and it is increasingly challenging to build long term resilience and adaptation when we are constantly managing short term crises and in the absence of sufficient adaptation funding.”
Additionally, Alakbarov noted that climate disaster in the country will not be limited to Afghanistan. It will affect surrounding South and Central Asian countries too, through issues like mass migration and ecological deterioration.
In an interview with journalist Ruchi Kumar in Al Jazeera, Mohammad Assem Mayar, a water management expert at Kabul Polytechnic University, said: “Isolating Afghanistan will mean punishing its people, which is not fair… Climate change isn’t going to stop, and without adaptation support, it is akin to gradually pushing the Afghan people towards a death sentence.”
Even in the face of these tragedies, Canada is still blocking much-needed food and medicine deliveries from entering the country. In August of this year, the Canada-based charity World Vision was forced to cancel a shipment of food that would have fed 1,800 children because of a federal law that bans Canadians from supplying “terrorist organizations” (Ottawa recognizes the Taliban as such) with property or finances. Anyone who breaks this law, including by delivering food to starving Afghans, can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
On October 12, Global News reported: “Aid groups say Canadian officials have warned them that buying supplies or paying a driver to deliver food in Afghanistan would incur taxes for the Taliban, which could contravene anti-terrorism laws” and result in penalties. As CTV News admits, “[t]hat advice was given despite a cascade of humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, from a collapsing health-care system to soaring rates of child malnutrition.” Meanwhile, humanitarian groups have informed the Senate human rights committee that they are sitting on warehouses full of expiring goods they cannot deliver and midwives they are not allowed to send into rural Afghanistan to help women at risk.
While some countries have an exemption mechanism in their anti-terrorism laws when it comes to “the provision of life-saving humanitarian aid,” Canada does not. Despite lobbying by aid groups, the Trudeau government chose not to act throughout most of 2022, refusing to even offer a timeline for unblocking aid to Afghanistan through this or any other mechanism.
On December 14, the Senate human rights committee released a statement calling for the government to issue an immediate waiver for the delivery of “legitimate humanitarian aid” to Afghanistan. The committee also noted that several government ministers who promised to attend the hearings about aid deliveries to Afghanistan did not show up, and that “[t]he absence of all of these officials was at odds with the assurance from the department officials who did appear… that this issue is a priority for the government.”
Following the committee’s recommendations, somebody in the Trudeau cabinet finally promised action. On December 14, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan revealed that the federal government is looking into amending Canada’s anti-terrorism laws to allow the delivery of aid to Afghanistan—however, he claims it will take at least a year.
“We need to do this well; we can’t rush this,” Sajjan said. In an apparent reference to the continuation of sanctions, he also noted that the Trudeau government is “not going to let go of our expectation for the Taliban to allow girls to go to school; this is something that has to be met. And so we will keep very strong on this…”
Despite public statements, both the Canadian and US governments are actively preventing aid deliveries from entering Afghanistan, and as such, they are complicit in the worsening of the humanitarian crisis in that country. As Basir Bita, an Afghan activist who works with the refugee community in Canada, told In These Times: “Who pays the price for the US freezing the funds? The public. The people who live in Afghanistan.”
Similarly, it is the people in Afghanistan who suffer while the Trudeau government makes the decision, every single day, to continue criminalizing those who simply want to alleviate the suffering of Afghans.
Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.