The U.N.’s Afghanistan Envoy Says the Country Is on the Brink of ‘Humanitarian Catastrophe’

UNITED NATIONS — Afghanistan is “on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe” and its collapsing economy is heightening the risk of extremism, the U.N.’s special representative for the country warned Wednesday.

Deborah Lyons said the United Nations predicts that 60% of Afghanistan’s 38 million people face crisis levels of hunger in a food emergency that will likely worsen over the winter. She said the country’s GDP is estimated to have contracted by 40%.

But she told the U.N. Security Council that a humanitarian catastrophe “is preventable,” saying the main cause is financial sanctions on the Taliban, who took over the country Aug. 15. Sanctions “have paralyzed the banking system, affecting every aspect of the economy,” Lyons said.
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The Afghanistan central bank’s $9 billion in reserves, most of which is held in the United States, were frozen after the collapse of the former government. Afghanistan was also slated to access about $450 million on Aug. 23 from the International Monetary Fund, but the IMF blocked the release because of a “lack of clarity” about a new government.

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Lyons said the “paralysis of the banking sector will push more of the financial system into unaccountable and unregulated informal money exchanges.” That, she said, “can only help facilitate terrorism, trafficking and further drug smuggling” that will first affect Afghanistan and then “infect the region.”

She said a “major negative development” has been the Taliban’s inability to stem the expansion of the Islamic State extremist group, which now seems to be present in nearly all provinces and is increasingly active. According to her, the number of IS attacks has increased dramatically from 60 last year and 334 this year.

Lyons urged the international community to find ways to provide financial support to the Afghan people, who she said “feel abandoned, forgotten and indeed punished by circumstances that are not their fault.” Abandoning them “would be a historic mistake,” she said.

“We must focus for the next three or four months on helping the most vulnerable Afghans during the winter,” Lyons said.

“The international community needs urgently to find a way to provide financial support to health care workers in state hospitals, staff in food security programs, and, yes, eventually to teachers provided that girls right to education is emphatically met,” she added.

HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty ImagesA Taliban soldier stands watch as women wait in line for a World Food Programme distribution of food in Kabul on November 6th 2021.

She assured council members that the U.N. will make every effort to ensure that funds will not be diverted to the Taliban — or by the Taliban.

China and Russia urged the unfreezing of Afghanistan’s reserves, but U.S. deputy ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis made no mention of sanctions.

The Taliban were criticized for not listening to international calls to peacefully resolve the Afghan conflict. Instead, he chose a victory on the battlefield. “And we are now seeing the terrible consequences of this choice unfold before our eyes,” he said.

“But the Afghan people should not have to pay twice for the Taliban decision,” DeLaurentis said, saying the United States is the largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan, with $474 million in aid provided in 2021, and urging other countries to step up their support.

Lyons stated that the Taliban must not be isolated and enter into a dialogue with the other Afghan parties and regional and international communities in order to preserve much of what has been achieved over the past 20 years. She said the goal should be to spell out a roadmap with concrete steps to establish “constructive relations between Afghanistan and the world at large.”

Lyons indicated that she is continuing to raise hard issues with Taliban. This includes calling for restoration of rights for women, girls, and ethnic minorities as well as for more inclusive government.

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The composition of Afghanistan’s Cabinet “remains entirely male, essentially Pashtun and almost all Taliban, at both the capital and provincial levels,” she said, and recent appointments continue “to appear designed more to rewarding fighters than promoting governance and inclusion.”

No country nor the United Nations has recognized the Taliban government. Afghanistan’s U.N. seat is still held by the representative of the previous government, Ambassador Ghulam Isaczai.

Isaczai told the council that Afghanistan is facing “a crisis of historic proportions.”

“The life and dignity of millions of Afghans are threatened by a failing economy, severe food insecurity and absence of security, basic rights and freedom,” he said. “If the current trends continue, Afghanistan will experience near universal poverty.”


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