The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which the West refers to as the Taliban, have announced their long-feared ordinance on the mandatory covering of women in public with either a hijab or a burqa.
The announcement was made in a plan that will be implemented through “encouragement and punishment,” involves a three-strikes rule, and that engages both “guardians” (brothers, fathers,) and a woman’s workplace.
U.S. Ambassador at the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said she believes the ruling is “unconscionable,” while US special envoy Thomas West tweeted his “deep concern”. European Union Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Tomas Niklasson also brought up the EU’s “concern” over the face-coverings law, which also included the encouragement to create public encouragement to keep women at home, where “their best place” is.
Worryingly, the united western concerns come at a time when food insecurity in the country is reaching levels which the UN described in their recent report released yesterday as “catastrophic”.
47% of the population are in a food “crisis” or worse.
“High acute food insecurity persists across Afghanistan, as a combination of a collapsing economy and drought is depriving nearly 20 million Afghans of food,” the executive summary of the report reveals, with nearly 6 million Afghans in a food “catastrophe,” which is referred to as famine-like elsewhere in the report.
Famine-like, but never famine
The word “famine” in international politics is a little like “genocide,” with the relation being that it has a particular connotation that very few people believe is almost ever met, and that the reputational harm of using it is unusually high.
Very rarely does the UN, who relentlessly campaign on food security grounds for an end to the Saudi/US blockade of Yemen, claim the country is experiencing a famine.
For example, in 2016, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen Jamie McGoldrick, said “this is one of the worst crises in the world and is continuing to get worse,” about Yemen food insecurity. Citing the same method of reporting used yesterday on Afghanistan, the World Food Program stated that “over half the country’s population is living in “crisis” or “emergency” levels of food insecurity”. Neither of these organizations used the word “famine” once in their documents, despite the fact that 90% of all food was imported.
Nothing has changed since then, and today, the World Food Program still won’t use the word “famine” in their online information on Yemen, despite risks earlier in the war that hundreds of thousands were at risk of starving to death without help. Afghanistan has almost as many people living in conditions which the UN and WFP consider “famine-like” as Yemen: 31,000, in Yemen compared to 20,000 in Afghanistan.
This reluctance to use the word famine in reports on the potential for the situation to worsen in Afghanistan, which is currently receiving less international food support than Yemen, is strange, as it could potentially alter course of international aid and discourse.
Purse strings and grain sacks
There are 20,000 people living in conditions which are as close as international policy experts will come to calling a famine. A famine of 20,000 Afghans. More than 6 million are living one step away from being considered in famine-like conditions, though David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, told BBC it was 9 million.
Avoiding the UN’s designation, the WFP reports that 37 million of 40 million Afghans aren’t eating enough, and 38% of of children under 5 are experiencing chronic malnutrition.
“Humanitarian assistance remains desperately important, as do the needs to rebuild shattered agricultural livelihoods and re-connect farmers and rural communities to struggling rural and urban markets across the country,” said Afghanistan’s FAO representative, Richard Trenchard, in response to the analysis. “Unless these happen, there will be no way out of this crisis”.
What is the situation of humanitarian aid to the country? Fairly grim. To start, the Biden Administration froze $7 billion in money held by the previous government, tried to steal half of it, and then announced that maybe half of it could be used, if the Taliban behaved, to try and repair the shattered economy, before finally giving $1 billion over to the World Bank for use.
Many western countries, as the Taliban were taking power, stated that aid conditions would be subject to future observations on human rights, positions which are now seriously tested as the country spirals towards famine.
By February, the UN had raised $1.6 billion for an aid appeal, with the USleading the way with $250 million, a paltry fraction of the money it’s already confiscated, and a drop in the bucket compared to the $150 billion in aid spent during the entirety of the US occupation. It’s 250% more than the largest-ever funding appeal from UNICEF, launched recently to try and protect the children of the country now that famine seems unavoidable.
Alexander Matheou, the Asia Pacific director of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, wrote recently in The Diplomat, that many non-state donors are extremely hesitant to insert money anywhere into Afghan society for fear it will be used by the Taliban. Instead they rely on a small number of international institutions with the logistics capable of getting aid into the country.
If funding continues like this, groups are going to have to start calling it a famine – there’ll be no other word available. The Taliban’s insistence on the facial coverings of Sharia Law could further complicate matters, taking what little share of the attention Afghanistan receives in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and drawing it into a conversation about women’s rights, and not about the famine.
Andrew Corbley is founder and editor of World at Large, an independent news outlet. He is a loyal listener of Antiwar radio and of the Scott Horton Show. Reprinted with permission from World at Large.