At the end of last year, Afghanistan still loomed large in the media. CNN reported on the new Taliban government’s restrictions on women’s rights, and the New York Times was writing about the struggles of Afghan refugees. Direst of all, economic sanctions placed on Afghanistan by the United States looked likely to trigger mass starvation in the Middle Eastern country.
Then news began to trickle down about the Russian forces amassed on the state’s border with Ukraine. When the amount of coverage of the potential crisis in Ukraine seemed like it could grow no larger, Russia declared war. Although Afghanistan’s issues were drowned by the coverage of the Russian invasion, they have not been erased. The country still faces an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe, one that has been exacerbated by the war between Russia and Ukraine, two of the world’s major food-producing nations.
The precarious food situation in Afghanistan is partially the result of droughts and societal turmoil. When the Taliban overthrew the ruling government in August of 2021, the country’s food situation was already poor. The severe lack of rainfall had been affecting two-thirds of the country’s provinces, and according to the United Nations (UN), wheat production was significantly impacted. Despite the critical situation, the Taliban did not have the capacity to interact with international markets. Forced into inaction, farmers lost potential revenue as non-edible cash crops could not be sold.
Famine in the country is rooted in diplomatic turmoil. The failure of the Taliban to engage with international markets has been the result of a coordinated series of sanctions and asset freezes by foreign states. And in this will to sanction, the United States has been at the forefront. Their view of the Taliban government as illegitimate has pushed them to deny access to the country’s assets and cash reserves abroad. As a result, the Afghan government can neither regulate its own currency nor pay its own workers, collapsing the economy and causing corruption.
Food became simply too expensive to buy for many Afghans – and is still currently. Though the US has tried to pull back on some of the sanctions to allow for aid to flow in, the country’s economy cannot recover as quickly as it collapsed, especially when many of the financial restrictions remain only partially lifted.
It was in this context that negotiations occurred in Oslo this past January between the Taliban and diplomats from a bevy of Western countries, as well as the European Union (EU). Further talks were held in Qatar in February. But right as it seemed that progress was being made in favor of the Afghan population, Russia invaded Ukraine.
As far as foreign policy goes, the Biden administration is seemingly totally focused on Ukraine, and Afghanistan has been completely forgotten about. With the United Nations (UN) warning that as much as 25 percent more Afghans could fall below the poverty line by mid-2022—leading to a potential total of 97 percent of Afghans in poverty—that lack of attention is proving deadly.
However, the Ukraine crisis also poses further issues for Afghanistan because both Russia and Ukraine are major food producers. More specifically, the two countries are the breadbasket of Europe, making up about 25 percent of global wheat and corn exports. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, their foodstuffs actually make up about 12 percent of the calories traded globally each year. It goes without saying that this war will be disastrous for food prices then; food price inflation could even increase by up to 22 percent next year according to the UN. In fact, the UN World Food Program is warning that this conflict could especially impact Afghanistan, which is currently heavily reliant on wheat imports as a result of the aforementioned droughts. As a result of famine, an economic crisis spurred by the United States, and a war in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan stands to uniquely suffer this year. Overshadowed as the state may be, Western governments need to realize that their officials are capable of multitasking. Afghanistan is a country with nearly 40 million people. One dead child is a tragedy—tens of thousands is an unconscionable moral failure.
Edited by Lucie Taieb.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.