Afghanistan’s economy – one of the world’s poorest and most dysfunctional – is perilously close to collapse, and could be completely incapacitated within months if the United States escalates its sanctions regime, top international officials have warned.
The extraordinary warning from Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, came on Monday as the United States threatened to increase pressure on Afghanistan after it resumed military aid to insurgents and tightened restrictions on merchandise shipped from the country.
The prospect of further American sanctions, adding to the already tenuous state of the economy, was caused by an initial certification by the Trump administration that its new South Asia policy – launched with huge fanfare last August – was effective.
Afghanistan was designated a global “state sponsor of terrorism” by the United States in January 2012. A Reuters investigation last week revealed that this designation had real consequences.
The authorisation meant that Afghan trucks carrying humanitarian aid to besieged Afghan villages carrying as little as $3 were stopped at the border with Pakistan. Previously, such convoys would have entered Afghanistan freely from Pakistani ports through Quetta, located in the southern part of the country, and cut across the landmines-infested Khyber Pass, into Afghanistan.
The Trump administration’s action angered the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who launched his bid for a second term on Monday – but only after a break of nearly two months, which came after a recent crisis between his allies and the central government in Kabul.
Last week, according to Reuters, the US Embassy in Kabul was blocking humanitarian aid. The blockade is believed to be in response to an Afghan government request to tighten security on the city’s border with Pakistan, amid an apparent row between the Kabul government and US officials over military aid to the Afghan Taliban.
On Monday, as news of further possible US sanctions spread, Afghanistan’s government scrambled to find other countries to carry out relief aid.
It was unclear how much aid and humanitarian assistance could ultimately be prevented because of the US classification. Some Afghan humanitarian organizations, who operate illegally without the express permission of the Afghan government, have continued to bring aid into the country through Pakistan.
UK Unesco Ambassador Peter Tomlin said Afghan universities and hospitals were virtually shut down. The country’s markets, he said, had been left empty.
“I fear very much that the Taliban has somehow managed to shift the balance of power in the economy by preventing any government investment in the country,” Tomlin said.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington backed a civil war that culminated in the fall of the pro-Soviet government in 1992. A 1992 United Nations Commission on Afghanistan report listed the country as the poorest on the planet.
The Taliban government was toppled in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, and was replaced by a transitional government led by the current Ghani.
Over the past decade and a half, thousands of Afghans have died in a conflict that increasingly pits the United States and its Afghan allies against the Taliban and allied insurgents.
The Afghan government has produced only lukewarm growth figures, an astonishing collapse of the economy at a time when the need for food is greatest. Last year, the World Bank estimated that the country’s GDP had dropped by almost half, from almost $8bn to $4.5bn in 2008. Afghanistan is currently estimated to be the world’s 12th poorest country.
Part of the tragedy of Afghanistan’s economic stagnation, say humanitarian and policy experts, is the havoc caused by past decades of conflict. The Taliban, whose aim is to create a sharia-governed state in Afghanistan, have blown up mines in the country’s largest minefields, once world-beating and inimical to the country’s agriculture industry. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, including poor families whose farmland and crops have been wiped out.