After the Islamic Emirate banned older girls from education, many girls found alternative avenues to continue their studies, find intellectual stimulation – and even, as this Daily Hustle found out, make a living in the private education sector. AAN’s Rohullah Sorush hears from one young Afghan woman about how, even in the face of overwhelming setbacks and personal tragedy, she has managed not only to succeed in her learning endeavors but to thrive with the love and support of her family.
Every morning, after I drop my younger sister at school, I teach an online English class to a group of lively girls my own age. My students are intelligent and all are fast learners, except for two who are in grade six and younger than the others – it is a little difficult for them. But they work hard and, with some extra attention from me, mostly keep up with their classmates. After the class ends, I take a moment to think about the road I’ve travelled to get to this place. I thank God for the support I get from my family and for his blessings.
A life-changing tragedy
I was born in Kabul, near the famous Darulaman Palace, in 2007 to a middle-class family. My father is a shopkeeper. He couldn’t finish his education because he had to start working to support his mother and two sisters when he was in eighth grade after his father died. But my mother was a high school graduate. Her schooling was disrupted when she was in grade 10 and girls were banned from school during the first Emirate. But later, during the Republic, my father encouraged her to go back to school.
An NGO near our house ran a school for older girls and young women who had been left behind in education. In that school, my mother finished grades 11 and 12 and got her high school diploma.
A lifetime ago, we used to be a very happy family. Back then, my two younger sisters, my parents and my grandmother and I lived together. But like all families, we’d had our share of tragedies. My parents had lost two sons before I was born and then a daughter after I came along. Then, four years ago, I lost my mother and my little sister. They’d gone to Ghazni to spend the summer with family, but as they were driving into our village in Jaghatu, their car hit a landmine. My mother and little sister were killed in the blast. along with two other family members. And, then four months later, my grandmother died. It felt like my world had ended.
There were just the three of us left – my father, my sister and me. Our house, which was once filled with joy and laughter, became silent and gloomy and my father, who used to be lively and come home with chocolate and candy in his pockets for me and my siblings, sank into a dark mood. About a year after my mother died, my father remarried and, after that, things went from bad to worse. It didn’t take long for my stepmother to start quarrelling with my dad. She wasn’t too keen on having my sister and me living with them and demanded that my father send us off to live with my maternal grandparents, which my father refused to do. She even tried to get my father to marry me off, but my mother’s family interceded and told him I was too young to get married.
Family support makes all the difference
Education is a big thing in my family, for my father who couldn’t finish his own education and for my mother and her family who rank education above all riches. My maternal uncle, in particular, has always taken an interest in my education. He has encouraged me to keep my head down and be dedicated to my studies. When I turned 10, he arranged for me to start learning English in one of the private language institutes near our house. During the Covid-19 pandemic, when all the schools were closed, he made sure I kept up with my English language studies and that I had an online meeting with my teacher twice a week so that he could check my homework. After my mother died, it was my uncle who coaxed us out of our misery. He came around every afternoon to make sure my sister and I were keeping up with our schoolwork and brought us presents when we got good marks in our classes. He told us that learning was the greatest of all distractions and that a good education would be our ticket to a better life.
In August 2021, girls were banned from going to school, and like my mother before me, I had to stop going to school. Otherwise, I would be in grade 11 now. I kept up with my English classes and also took up a job at the language centre as a teaching assistant, helping the teacher with the younger kids in the lower grades. A year later, when I finished the course and graduated first in my class, the institute hired me as a teacher. My uncle, who used to be a teacher himself, helps me with my lesson plans and gives me books to read to improve my English and help me become a more proficient teacher.
With more knowledge comes more responsibility
This year, I was promoted to be a manager at the centre. I still teach two classes a day, but now I’m also responsible for overseeing the work of other teachers. I monitor their classes and have quarterly meetings with them on the progress of their classes. I make plans for new courses and prepare weekly reports for my superiors. There are separate classes, at different times, for boys and girls, but girls can only attend in-person classes up to grade 6. After that, we have online classes for them. We have male teachers for the boys and female teachers for the girls.
Once, the Taleban came to our institute to see if we were observing the rules. Back then, the older girls also came to classes at the centre. Although the classes were separate, they told the institute’s owner that the older girls weren’t allowed to come. After that, we started our online courses for the older girls because we didn’t want the Emirate to shut us down.
These days, I keep myself busy and try to stay out of my stepmother’s way. My father isn’t around much. He stays late at his shop and when he’s home there are endless arguments with my stepmother. There is no space or time for us to be together as a family anymore. The money I bring into the house helps keep my stepmother’s complaints about me and my sister down. It’s a lifeline that allows me to make sure my sister and I pay our own way and also contribute to household expenses.
Making dreams come true
Every morning, I get my younger sister ready and take her to school before I get behind my computer to teach the online class for the older students who cannot attend classes in person. After that, I go to the centre from 9 to 12 o’ clock to carry out my managerial responsibilities, before picking up my sister and taking her home. Then I have a quick lunch and go back to the centre for a class I teach to the younger girls. My afternoons, until 5pm are spent making sure everything is on track at the centre. On Fridays, when I’m not working, I take my sister to my grandparents’ house and spend the day with my mother’s family. This is my routine.
The hours are long and it’s a lot of responsibility for someone as young as I am, so I work hard every day to make sure I do my job well and show everyone that I’m up to the challenge.
I’m very unhappy that I can’t continue my education. But when I lose all hope, I remember my mother and how she was finally able to go back and finish high school. I hope one day, when this ban is removed, all girls can go to school and to university. I count my blessings every day. I am lucky to have this opportunity to work as a manager at the institute and also teach other girls. I am happy I can help girls and boys learn something. The girls who study in the centre all have dreams. I’d like to think that I’m playing a part in helping their dreams come true.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour
The Daily Hustle: “Helping the dreams of girls come true”
Afghanistan and Iran have been at loggerheads for much of this year over the Helmand River and its water. As the region grappled with a punishing drought for the third year running, the two neighbouring countries have been locked in a tense melee over shared transboundary rivers. While Iran seeks to assert its rights over water from the Helmand River based on the 1973 Afghan-Iranian Helmand River Water Treaty, Afghanistan maintains that there is simply not enough water to provide Iran with a greater amount. AAN guest author, Mohammad Assem Mayar, looks into what has driven the recent upsurge in the long-running dispute over water between these two countries and provides insights into how their ‘water relations’ might develop.You can preview the report online and download it by clicking the link below.
As drought continued to exact a heavy toll on the human and natural environment for the third year running, the dispute between Kabul and Tehran, now well into its second century, over water once again took centre stage in 2023. Iran complains that it has not been receiving its fair share of the Helmand water and has highlighted the damage done to its agricultural sector and the devastation wrought on the Hamun Wetlands. Conversely, Kabul argues that decades of inadequate water management under successive ineffective Afghan governments, with water flowing downstream unchecked, has meant that Iran has been getting more than its share. Now, after three years of punishing drought, according to Afghanistan, there is simply no more water for Iran to have.
Examines the geographic and environmental nature of the Helmand River Basin and its vital importance to communities on both sides of the border, before delving into the factors driving the most recent dispute between Afghanistan and Iran;
Traces the history of the water dispute between the neighbours back to the late 19th century when the border was first established and looks into the various attempts to settle the issue since that time;
Hones in on the existing legal frameworks, especially the Afghan-Iranian Helmand River Water Treaty (hereafter referred to as the Helmand Treaty), which is the only operative agreement defining how water should be shared and what Iran’s rights amount to;
Examines Afghanistan and Iran’s attempts to secure additional water from the Helmand River;
Looks at the divergent interpretations of the Helmand Treaty and why it has never been fully implemented in the half-century since it was signed.
Concludes that the current dispute may ease in the short term if winter rains fall heavily, as predicted. However, the climate crisis will bring more frequent droughts of increasing intensity to this region, putting more pressure on people and governments already struggling to balance water needs against diminishing water resources. This report presents some ideas as to how the impasse could be resolved, including some technological innovations and changes to water usage aimed at reducing demand.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour, Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark
* Dr Mohammad Assem Mayar is a water resources management expert and former lecturer at Kabul Polytechnic University in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) in Müncheberg, Germany. He posts on X as @assemmayar1.
You can preview the report online and download it by clicking the download button below.
Tensions over anti-Pakistan TTP terrorist group, expulsion of Afghan refugees will have implications for U.S. interests.
On November 8, in an unprecedented press conference, Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar offered a blistering critique of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. He announced that the Taliban leadership was supporting the anti-Pakistan insurgency of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and that had contributed to a major increase in violence in Pakistan — leading to 2,867 Pakistani fatalities since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021.Over the last two years, the Pakistani government had been careful in its characterization of Taliban-TTP ties despite evidence of the Taliban’s support to the TTP, popularly known as the Pakistani Taliban, through provision of a safe haven and other forms of material assistance. This time, Kakar broke from that diplomatic hedging, saying “in a few instances” there was “clear evidence of [the Taliban] enabling terrorism” by the TTP. A few days after Kakar spoke, Pakistan’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Asif Durrani, followed up on Kakar’s critique of the Taliban, noting that “peace in Afghanistan, in fact, has become a nightmare for Pakistan.”While Kakar is Pakistan’s “caretaker” prime minister until the country goes through an election (now rescheduled for early next year), he is believed to be close to Pakistan’s military. His statement also comes on the heels of Pakistan’s controversial decision to expel 1.7 million undocumented Afghan refugees from Pakistan — with over 327,000 refugees having already been forced to return to Afghanistan since the expulsion decision was announced. It was also preceded by significant attacks by the TTP, including an audacious attempt at the land grab of a border district in northern Pakistan. Thus, Kakar’s statement and its timing are significant. It indicates not just his views as the interim leader of the country but also the latest policy turn led by the military that Pakistan has had enough of the Taliban’s support for the TTP and wants to pressure the Taliban, at least until they revisit support for the TTP.
Under the new policy, Pakistan has set in place a broader pressure campaign to coerce the Taliban into reviewing and revoking its support for the TTP. Pakistan shares a long border with landlocked Afghanistan; it also supported and provided safe haven to the Taliban for nearly 20 years, all of which gives it unique leverage over the politics of Afghanistan. The main step to that end is Pakistan’s expulsion of refugees, which Kakar admitted is meant to pressure the Taliban. The other significant step Pakistan has taken is the scaling backing of economic and trade ties to impose economic pain on the Taliban. Pakistan has also announced that it will “not advocate the Afghan Taliban’s case at the international level,” which likely means Pakistan will not advocate for the formal recognition of the Taliban-led government and downgrade engagement with the Taliban as it has consistently done since August 2021.
The Taliban’s support for the TTP and Pakistan’s emerging pressure campaign sets the Taliban-Pakistan relationship on a path of long-term deterioration.
Taliban’s Calculus on the TTP and Pakistan
The Taliban leadership has deflected on Pakistani concerns on the TTP, calling it Pakistan’s internal problem. They have instead focused on the Pakistani decision to expel Afghan refugees — in recent weeks, they have broken from relative restraint in their public posture on Pakistan. This has ranged from a statement by the Taliban’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, expressing concern over the treatment of Afghan refugees to Taliban Prime Minister Hassan Akhund calling on Pakistan’s government and “military generals” to adhere to “Islamic principles.” Taliban Defense Minister Mohammad Yaqub has warned Pakistan that it should be mindful of the “consequences” of its decisions and that it will reap what it is sowing. Most significantly, Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani — a longstanding ally of Pakistan — has also condemned Pakistan, describing its decision to expel refugees as “unIslamic.”
These statements by Taliban leaders partly reflect the depth of anger among Afghans and within the Taliban over Pakistan’s expulsion of Afghan refugees. Taliban leaders also seem frustrated at Pakistan’s mounting pressure on them and unwillingness to negotiate with and make concessions to the TTP, in particular since the breakdown in Taliban-brokered talks between the TTP and Pakistan in late 2022. Yet the convergence of leaders representing different factions and groups within the Taliban on this issue is also instructive on Taliban internal politics, suggesting that they may be increasingly on the same page when it comes to Pakistan.
Since their return to power in 2021, as argued by USIP senior expert Andrew Watkins, the Taliban have indicated two distinct impulses: jihadism versus state-building. The jihadist camp champions the cause of foreign fighters. To that end, it seeks to not only protect them inside Afghanistan but also to support their jihadist campaigns. The state-builders have appeared more inward-focused, seeking to limit the activities of foreign fighters to improve relations with regional and Western countries for the end goal of stabilizing the country and economy. The push and pull between these two factions contributed to the Taliban’s dual policy over the last two years of supporting the TTP inside Afghanistan on the one hand and assurance to Pakistan on the other.
Over the last year, Taliban leaders with state-building instincts appear to have soured on Pakistan and see Pakistan’s refugee expulsion as a conspiracy to undermine the Taliban government. There are other grievances among state-builders toward Pakistan, including unmet expectations on economic and trade issues as well as questions about the level of autonomy of a Taliban-led government that Pakistan is willing to accept. Some are suggesting that Pakistan is bent on weakening the Taliban to keep them pliant. There is a possibility that the Taliban state-builders may be advocating use of hard-power leverage, perhaps through violence of the TTP, to counter Pakistan’s purported attempts to weaken them and realize their state-building agenda. If so, the divide between state-building and jihadism-inclined factions on the level of support for the TTP may be shrinking.
Still, some Taliban leaders with a state-building bent will be nervous about a hostile relationship with Pakistan. Irrespective of their public posturing, they are aware that Pakistan has made the more significant contribution to the downfall of multiple Afghan governments over the last four decades. Even if pragmatic leaders are overcome with anger for now, they will worry about the future of their regime if Pakistan remains opposed to them — and may adjust their positions, even realign themselves politically if hostilities persist.
What Next? Pakistan’s Options and Likelihood of Success
Pakistan appears to be ready to sustain and increase economic pressure to compel the Taliban to review its support for the TTP. Pakistan’s economic leverage is rooted partly in being landlocked Afghanistan’s main artery of transit trade and Taliban-led Afghanistan’s main export market — accounting for over 50 percent of exports. Border crossings with Pakistan contribute more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s customs revenues, which makes up nearly 60 percent of the Taliban’s total revenues. Pakistan has already tightened rules for transit trade, imposed stringent bank guarantee requirements on Afghan traders for imports, expanded a list of goods Afghanistan can’t import via Pakistan and slapped a 10 percent duty (referred to as processing fees) on select commodities imported by Afghanistan. Pakistan has also slowed down the movement of Afghanistan-bound containers arriving at Pakistani ports, as per the Taliban. These measures will have some impact on Pakistan’s economy, but it is far less reliant on the Afghan economy — at one point Pakistan was importing a large volume of Afghan coal, but as international coal prices have dropped, Pakistan’s coal imports from Afghanistan have decreased. Thus, overall, Pakistan’s measures will put more significant pressure on an isolated Taliban regime by cutting into its revenues and trade volumes. Pakistan retains other tools, like closure or disruption of border crossings to dry out Taliban revenues, to exert more economic pain.
If economic pressure fails, an escalatory step, which Pakistan’s military hinted at recently, can be a cross-border military action striking leaders and camps of the TTP in Afghanistan. The outcome of such an action is not clear. There is deep anger in Afghanistan toward Pakistan. Pakistani military action may increase support for the TTP in Afghanistan and also trigger retaliatory violence. Yet it is possible that cross-border action forces the Taliban to revisit its position, at least tactically. There is a precedent for this. In April 2022, Pakistan carried out cross-border airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan, soon after which the TTP, presumably at the insistence of the Taliban, agreed to a cease-fire against Pakistan.
Another more escalatory option for Pakistan is to support opposition to the Taliban, but it is not clear if Pakistan can work with the Taliban’s fragmented opposition. The opposition, dominated by political and military leaders of the former Afghan republic, has a history of poor ties with Pakistan, partly due to Pakistan’s support for the Taliban during the years of the insurgency. Pakistan has also struggled to forge ties with non-Pashtun political leaders — who are a key part of the Taliban’s opposition. Nevertheless, the region has seen strange bedfellow alliances emerge before — and the opposition is paying attention to the deterioration in Taliban-Pakistan ties and may be positioning to improve relations with Pakistan. For its part, Pakistan has helped forge opposition coalitions to balance against the government in Kabul in the past — and given its geographic position, arguably, can be effective at it.
Taliban’s Options and Likelihood of Success
The Taliban have some options of their own in a bid to blunt Pakistan’s pressure campaign and compel Pakistan to make political space for the TTP. For one, the Taliban can seek to improve ties with neighbors in Central Asia and Iran to weather economic pain and Pakistani coercion. The Taliban have already reached out to Iran recently — with Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar making a trip seeking more port access and trade concessions from Iran. Iranian access may help cushion the blow of losses from restricted transit trade with Pakistan, but it is unclear if it can be a full replacement.
The Taliban may also seek to backchannel with Pakistan. In the past, amid moments of tension with Pakistan, the Taliban have leaned on sympathetic Pakistani officials to de-escalate tensions. It is possible that some Taliban leaders (such as those from the state-building camp) may seek such help again. There are a handful of international actors as well who the Taliban can ask for help to de-escalate. The country best positioned and most accessible to the Taliban to play the role of a third-party mediator is Qatar, but it is unclear if the Qatari government, currently consumed by the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, has the bandwidth or even interest to mediate Pakistan-Taliban tensions. China can also try to mediate, but it has security concerns of its own regarding Afghanistan-based terrorist groups and may share Pakistan’s perspective on the rising insecurity in Pakistan.
Another option for the Taliban is to seek a thaw in ties with the Western world in general and the United States in particular in a bid to open up bilateral trade and economic ties as well as gain multilateral assistance. Taliban actions that are most likely to create greater Western openness to normal ties are reversing the restrictions on girls’ education and on women’s employment, though lesser actions like allowing women to work for nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations may also open some doors. The Taliban can also look to play on Pakistani paranoia by increasing engagement with Pakistan’s archrival India and offering India more diplomatic access in the country in exchange for economic assistance.
Perhaps the most obvious option on the table which the Taliban may believe gives them sufficient leverage is violence against Pakistan through proxies — a variant of a military strategy referred to as “escalate to de-escalate.” The Taliban may be drawn to it due to their successful violence-driven bargaining with the United States as an insurgency as well as Pakistan’s ongoing economic downturn and domestic political turmoil. For this purpose, the Taliban can relax limits on actions and activities of various militant allies against Pakistan. If so, the TTP will be the key ally for the Taliban — directly and through its cover organization which undertakes complex militant attacks, the Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan. The Taliban can also turn to other militant factions in Afghanistan with ongoing activity or a history of violence in Pakistan, such as al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent, Hafiz Gul Bahadur group and Lashkar-e-Islam. The Taliban are also providing haven to separatist Baloch insurgents, which plausibly gives the Taliban leverage over parts of Pakistan with significant Chinese interests.
Still, violence may not lead to the change the Taliban want to see in Pakistan’s behavior. As there is no Pakistani domestic political constituency calling for negotiations with the TTP, it is unlikely more attacks, even if they bring additional economic cost, will create pressure on Pakistani military leadership to revive negotiations with TTP. If anything, it may spur Pakistan into exerting more pressure on the Taliban.
Implications for U.S. Policies on Afghanistan and Pakistan
In an unusual turn of events, Pakistan has come to oppose the Taliban in a way that U.S. policymakers worked for two decades of the U.S. war in Afghanistan to bring about but ultimately failed. Taliban-Pakistan tensions will create feelings of schadenfreude within the U.S. policy community, but also challenge long-standing policy models and assumptions on how the United States should deal with both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the near term, there are three main implications for U.S. interests regarding Pakistan’s pressure campaign against the Taliban and the Taliban’s hardening on support for the TTP.
On the one hand, the shift in Pakistan’s policy improves the United States’ position to press the Taliban on issues of concern, such as human rights, political inclusion and perhaps even counterterrorism. A pressured Taliban regime’s pragmatic elements will see greater value in economic and assistance opportunities through the Western world — and that may create incentives for some Taliban leaders to offset Pakistan’s pressure by reconsidering U.S. demands and taking them up with hardliners in the movement, like Akhundzada. U.S. policymakers can leverage the Pakistani pressure to explore what the new trade space on human rights, political inclusion and counterterrorism looks like with the Taliban. If policymakers believe more pressure can lead to holistic change in the Taliban’s behavior, including that of hardline Taliban leaders, they can coordinate with Pakistan to amplify the pressure, though policymakers will be skeptical of a long-term convergence of interests with Pakistan over Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the Taliban’s strong support for the TTP despite Pakistan’s pressure suggests that the TTP’s threat to Pakistan will continue to grow, even metastasize. Not only does that raise concerns about risks to U.S. interests due to the TTP’s growing violence in Pakistan, for example by adding to Pakistan’s fragility and nuclear security concerns, but it is also instructive on how enduring the Taliban’s support for jihadist groups ultimately is. This points to the need for beefing up the U.S. counterterrorism posture in the region.
At the same time, a competing priority for the Biden administration is mitigating the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Some policymakers may worry that Pakistan’s decision to put economic pressure on the Taliban, especially at a time when international humanitarian assistance is going down, will disturb the already precarious equilibrium of the Afghan economy and aggravate the humanitarian situation — and they may seek to defuse Pakistan-Taliban tensions to save the Afghan economy. However, chances of the United States changing Pakistan’s mind on the pressure campaign are slim.
Beyond the immediate implications, the growing tensions also pose longer-term questions about U.S. policy in the region should Pakistan sustain pressure against the Taliban. U.S. policymakers will need to reckon with the implications of a weakened Taliban regime, including increased risks of renewed conflict inside Afghanistan, and whether mitigating such risks is worth trying to limit Pakistani pressure at some stage. While these questions are somewhat distant for now, the trajectory of Taliban-Pakistan ties over the last two years and the history of Afghanistan suggests they may come up sooner rather than later.
In a Major Rift, Pakistan Ramps Up Pressure on the Taliban
Despite some signs of stabilization, Afghanistan now faces renewed crisis as humanitarian aid dries up.
More than two years into Taliban rule, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world with some of the highest humanitarian needs. The situation has shown some signs of stabilizing over the last year — but many Afghan households are still struggling to procure basic needs, and many women have been driven from the workforce altogether. Unfortunately, financial troubles loom ahead, and the already beleaguered Afghan economy is now projected to decline. Combined with population growth and the influx of thousands of Afghans forced to return from neighboring Pakistan, this is a recipe for increased humanitarian need over the longer term in the absence of major structural and political reforms.
The Taliban have claimed progress in countering corruption and revenue collection, yet Afghanistan is also one of the largest recipients of humanitarian aid. What is the Afghan economy’s capacity to provide for the needs of its people?
Byrd: Two recent World Bank reports — which were launched at a USIP event last week — lay out the landscape of the Afghan economy and the situation of Afghan households. Despite some signs of economic stability over the past year, the economy remains weak and unable to generate the jobs and livelihoods needed to accommodate the growing population — hence unemployment and underemployment are widespread and increasing. Poverty remains very high, and large numbers of Afghans are still unable to meet their basic food and non-food needs.
Moreover, there are storm clouds ahead — some but not all of which are noted in the World Bank reports. International humanitarian aid in 2023 will likely only amount to around half of its 2022 level, which was roughly $3 billion. The Taliban’s opium ban will also reduce the earnings of rural households by more than $1 billion per year without an alternative livelihood program for farmers, which will only further aggravate poverty and deprivation.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s deportation of an estimated 400,000 Afghans (and counting) exacerbates the country’s financial woes at exactly the wrong time. Afghans should be working in other countries and sending back remittances. Instead, even more will now need to look for work in the already meager Afghan economy.
Macroeconomic factors are not promising either. Afghanistan is encountering disinflation, which the Taliban see as good news because it lowers prices. But in reality, this is bad news because it will shrink the value of the overall economy and lead to greater unemployment and lower government revenue.
Finally, Afghanistan’s export growth is weakening. Coal, for example, had exploded as an export good when Pakistan was facing a shortage and global prices were high in comparison. That seems to have plateaued now as the markets shift.
The Taliban’s ability to collect taxes effectively led to impressive revenue totals in the first two years of their rule. But this revenue growth will falter as long as the economy is stagnant.
How has women’s participation in the Afghan economy changed since the Taliban took over in 2021?
Ahmadi: During the Afghan Islamic Republic, government institutions put in place measures to encourage women to apply for vacant positions. While the environment was not always enabling — cultural norms, bad security caused by Taliban insurgency, and lower access to education often impeded female job applicants — women were willing to face these challenges to exercise their right to employment and to earn an income.
Both Afghan government policy and donor-funded programs were successful in building the female workforce of Afghanistan. More than 6,000 women served as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police and army personnel. Government data counted about 10,000 women among the country’s doctors, nurses and health professionals. Schools and universities were the largest employers of women, with more than 68,000 women teachers, including 800 university professors, working in private and public institutions.
Since 2021, the Taliban have issued over 140 decrees, 90 of which specifically restrict the rights and movement of women and girls. In a particular blow to women’s economic freedom, the Taliban blocked women from working in the government and replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and its related departments — which employed thousands of men and women — with the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
Women are still employed as teachers, nurses and doctors, but in fewer numbers and with lower wages. Overall, the professional workforce that was once a source of economic growth, family welfare and vital services for women has shrunk dramatically. Many professionals are now struggling to make ends meet with small, in-home enterprises like sewing and mending, which does little to replace both the income and the dignity of a salaried, professional position.
Women face fewer official restrictions from the Taliban in the private sector, but the Taliban’s overall social policies and a vastly shrunken economy mean that women are much worse off as entrepreneurs and private sector employees than they were under the Republic.
In 2020, the Afghan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industries reported that there were 2,471 licensed and 54,000 informal/unlicensed businesses owned and operated by women, employing more than 130,000 people.
While the Taliban have not issued a formal decree banning women altogether from the private sector, their targeted decrees concerning beauty parlors in the summer of 2023 alone have left some 60,000 women out of job. Women have also been banned from parks where women had kiosks selling food, snack and handicrafts. Women have been banned from public baths, some owned by women. Other general restrictions such as the enforcement of segregated offices and work stations and mandates that women be accompanied by a mahram while outside their homes have had an enormous effect in pushing women out of the workforce in the private sector. Many employers have opted for replacing their female employees with men altogether to avoid being harassed by the Taliban’s religious police.
What can be done to improve the Afghan economy and reduce its need for a shrinking supply of international humanitarian aid?
Worden: There are no quick fixes to the Afghan economy, and the World Bank’s recent reports show that demographic pressures from population growth and the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Pakistan will likely outpace economic growth in the short term.
When it comes to maintaining — let alone increasing — Western donor assistance and removing the formal and informal sanctions that have been hindering the Afghan economy, the Taliban would have to moderate their severe restrictions against female education and women working, which seems most unlikely to happen in the light of past experience.
While Afghanistan’s banking sector has been largely moribund since the Kabul Bank crisis of 2010-2011, things have gotten even worse since the Taliban takeover. The banking sector cannot be fixed in the short run, but it is important to ensure smooth payments to facilitate trade, aid and — not least — remittances from Afghans in other countries.
One priority is to arrange for third-party monitoring for anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism, which the Afghan Central Bank cannot handle — due both to loss of institutional capacity and to the potential conflicts of interest entailed by the Central Bank being currently led by sanctioned Taliban individuals.
Another potential option is to arrange for a portion of the $3.5 billion of Afghanistan’s frozen foreign exchange reserves funds that have been sequestered in the Swiss Afghanistan Fund to be returned to private sector commercial banks that had deposited extra amounts of their funds in the Central Bank, and then onward to private sector depositors in the commercial banks.
Increased agricultural production is key to improving livelihoods on a broad scale, but the opium ban increases the headwinds against the rural economy. Irrigation projects (one of which, Qush-teppe in northern Afghanistan, is currently underway) and expanding agricultural exports will be needed.
Over the medium term, increased regional trade could provide a boost to the Afghan economy if the Taliban are able to improve transportation infrastructure and manage Afghanistan’s borders in a way that gives neighbors greater confidence that refugees, terrorists and traffickers will not cross over from Afghanistan along with trade goods.
Ultimately, Afghanistan’s longer-term economic development will require political and policy choices the Taliban are unwilling to make. For example, no country can move up the scale of development as long as women and girls are categorically excluded from public life.
Afghanistan’s Economy Once Again Nears the Precipice
Two new reports, one from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and another by David Mansfield and Alcis, show that Afghan farmers have largely complied with the Islamic Emirate’s ban on opium cultivation. They chart a swingeing cut in cultivation in 2023 – just 10,000 to 30,000 hectares of land sown with opium poppy compared to more than two hundred thousand hectares the previous year. AAN’s Kate Clark and Jelena Bjelica have been assessing the consequences of the Emirate’s crackdown on the cultivation of such a highly significant cash crop for people, government and the national economy and also ask whether the ban is now being extended to the trade of opiates out of Afghanistan.A poppy farmer and a labourer by the farmer’s crop in Nad Ali district, Helmand Province in spring of 2015. Photo by Andrew Quilty, 2015.
In April 2022,the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) announced a ban on the cultivation and production of opium and the use, trade and transport of all illegal narcotics (see AAN reporting from April 2022 about the ban). Since the ban was announced at the beginning of harvest season, the IEA allowed farmers to harvest the opium crop that was already in the ground. However, they began to enforce the ban strictly in the autumn, when farmers normally sow the seeds for the next season (see AAN reporting about the Emirate’s counter-narcotics strategy from June 2023). But just how severely the Emirate did enforce the ban is now evident in the two newly released reports.Alcis and Mansfield found that, country-wide, the area under opium cultivation dropped by 86 per cent, from 219,744 hectares in 2022 to 31,088 hectares in 2023.The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated the reduction to be even higher, 95 per cent, from 233,000 hectares in 2022 to 10,800 hectares in 2023. Although the figures differ, the direction of travel does not. UNODC also calculated that the reduction in potential opium production was 95 per cent, with about 33 tons of fresh opium produced nationwide in 2023, compared to 6,200 tons in 2022.
Both reports agree on the potential momentous consequences for livelihoods and the national economy: the ban has deprived millions of people who would have grown poppy in 2023 of an income at a time when the rest of the economy is contracting (by 20.7 per cent in 2021 and 6.2 per cent in 2022, as reported by the World Bank, with AAN analysis here). Poppy income has always been so large that there are national implications of the ban: opiates have generally brought in the equivalent of around 10 to 15 per cent of Afghanistan’s licit Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the value of all the goods and services produced in the country in any one year. Not all of that was lost in 2023 as trade in opiates continued, but a continuation of the ban on cultivation into a second year and a clampdown on trade would cut into Afghanistan’s national income.
The ban and the now apparent sharp reduction in the cultivation of poppy raise any number of questions – which this report will try to address: What has been the impact on the household economies of farmers and others who get/used to get an income from opium poppy? Will the IEA extend the ban on cultivation into a second year, and will it extend it to traders? What are the political and economic consequences of this policy?
The significance of opium
Opium has been a critical part of the Afghan economy for many years. In the years between 2006 and 2022, Afghanistan produced between 3,300 and 7,400 metric tons of raw opium annually, according to UNODC’s annual estimates. The relative importance of the crop varied in any given year according to the area under cultivation, yield and price and the size of other sectors of the economy, but an indication of opium’s importance can be seen by comparing it to Afghanistan’s licit GDP. In 2015, UNODC valued the opiate economy, including domestic consumption and exports,as equivalent to about 16 per cent of licit GDP (valued at USD 19.2 billion by the World Bank). In 2021, UNODC valued it as equivalent to 9-14 per cent of licit GDP (valued at USD 14.94 billion by the World Bank). As for 2022, although UNODC did not give a figure, it calculated that the opiate economy likely represented an even greater share of the total economy, not surprising, given how severely licit GDP has contracted since the Taleban takeover. UNODC did say the value of opiates was equivalent to 29 per cent of the entire agricultural sector in 2022. However, in its latest report, UNODC estimated that the value of opiate exports dwindled to USD 190-260 million in 2023, a drop of 90 per cent from USD 1.4-2.7 billion in 2022.
The importance of this sector for income and jobs is also vast. One indicator is Mansfield and Alcis’ estimate that the ban on cultivating poppy has hit 6.9 million people. From a report they published in June 2023, they give other indicators: in the south, the landless typically earn up to a third of their annual income weeding and harvesting poppy. In Helmand alone, in 2022, they say the poppy crop provided almost 21 million days of work and USD 61 million in wages.
Yet, the ban has hit different people differently. Indeed, while many Afghans will have been thrown into economic distress as their income from poppy dried up, others have seen a windfall.
The variable impact of the ban on farmers and labourers
Anyone who had stocks of opium paste (which stores well and is used as a means of saving and borrowing in Afghanistan) – likely richer farmers and traders – will have benefited from the ban. This is because it triggered a hike in prices and initially, at least, trading was not affected.
Opium prices had been increasing since the re-establishment of the IEA in August 2021, but in August 2023, said UNDOC, they reached “a twenty-year peak,” surpassing even the price hike following the first IEA ban in 2000/2001. Opium prices had then peaked at USD 383 a kilogramme in 2003. This time round, twenty years later, in August 2023, they were as high as USD 408 a kilogramme. That meant that anyone possessing an inventory of opium paste who decided to sell it has seen bumper profits.
Poorer farmers, on the other hand, who borrow opium seeds ahead of the harvest, sharecroppers who are paid a portion of the harvest, or labourers who get seasonal work weeding and harvesting poppy fields will all have seen their income dry up or severely curtailed because of the ban. See the chart below from Mansfield and Alcis showing the differing impact of the ban on different farmers and workers.
In their June 2023 report, Mansfield and Alcis elaborated on different farmers’ strategies in the face of the 2022 ban:
The natural response to the prospect of a pending ban was for farmers to hoard what opium they could. Were a ban imposed, prices would inevitably rise providing a potential windfall for those that had the financial means to retain the crop that they had grown that year. In some cases, farmers would have sold other assets just so that they could retain all or part of their final yield: some livestock, or a motorbike – assets that would diminish in value – in order that they could keep their opium and gain from a future rise in prices.
Not all farmers had opium stocks or assets to sell to buy opium. Richer farmers employing others in 2022, could typically buy back the opium they have given in wages to itinerant workers or sharecroppers at harvest time, when prices are at their lowest, and would then have been able to keep the whole crop to sell as prices rose in anticipation of the ban on cultivation being enforced.
Mansfield and Alcis said those best placed to profit were farmers with large landholdings [three to four hectares of land] in the south and southwest who “not only have sufficient land for food and other crops to meet their family’s needs but also plenty of land for poppy.” Much of this is new land in what was formerly desert brought under cultivation by using solar-powered pumps to bring up groundwater. By contrast, they say, landholdings are far smaller in the east and northeast: those with more than a hectare of irrigated land are considered land-rich and poppy is concentrated in areas where landholdings are much smaller. In that June report, Mansfield and Alcis pointed to “growing evidence” of heightened economic distress among households in Nangrahar province who have been compelled to abandon poppy, for example, selling productive assets such as farm equipment and land and jewellery to meet basic expenses and sending male family members abroad.
Income lost to the poor, they also point out, translates into savings in outgoings for the largest landowners who have not had to pay sharecroppers and travelling harvesters this year, but have still had opium stocks themselves to sell.
Farmers’ income from selling the 2023 opium harvest, in total, declined by more than 92 per cent from an estimated USD 1,360 million for the 2022 harvest to USD 110 million in 2023. However, those earnings will have been concentrated in the hands of farmers with stocks or farmers who did manage to cultivate poppy. Both reports found that the ban was not enforced/complied with evenly across the country. Mansfield and Alcis found that opium poppy cultivation is now limited to only 15 provinces, with just under half of Afghanistan’s total opium poppy cultivation concentrated in the northeastern province of Badakhshan.” It gave the following breakdown.
Helmand by far the largest cultivator of opium, saw, they said, a 99 per cent reduction in cultivation, Farah (5th largest) 95 per cent and Uruzgan (3rd largest) 88 per cent, but neighbouring Kandahar (2nd largest) only 65 per cent. The area of land under poppy in Nangrahar (6th largest) was 88 per cent reduced, but in Daikundi (7th largest) only 41 per cent. In Badakhshan (4th largest), farmers planted more opium: the area under opium cultivation there increased by 11.5 per cent in 2023 compared to 2022. Such variations, if allowed to continue, would seem inevitably to increase tension between those who are able and those unable to grow opium. Compounding any tension is the inadequacy of other annual crops to provide an equivalent source of income and demand for labour.
Ranking in 2022
% of change in area under cultivation
Change in area under poppy cultivation in the main poppy-growing province as percentage of 2022 provincial total. Data from David Mansfield and Alcis, ‘Uncharted Territory: Does the Taliban’s new edict signal a crackdown on the drugs trade is looming?’, 2 November 2023. Table by AAN.
The switch to wheat
According to UNODC, 68 per cent of fields that had previously been planted with poppy were planted with wheat in 2023. In Farah, Helmand, Kandahar and Nangrahar provinces, all major opium poppy cultivators — together, they made up 74 per cent of the country’s total opium cultivation in 2022 – UNODC recorded an overall increase of 160,000 hectares in cereal cultivation in 2023 compared to the previous year. However, that will have earned farmers a relative pittance – USD 770 per hectare for wheat, compared to USD 10,000 for poppy. The ban and the switch to wheat would have cost farmers in these four provinces, said UNODC, around one billion dollars in potential income.
UNODC said that:
Some farmers reported that the sudden implementation of the ban prevented them from transitioning to high-value pomegranate, almond, pistachio and hing (asafoetida), which can take years to fully mature. The availability of wheat seeds has been reported as a reason to choose wheat over other annual crops such as okra or peas.
Veteran agriculturist, Anthony Fitzherbert, was not convinced by this argument. He said:
Pomegranate, almond, pistachio, grape-vines etc … are all long term investment orchard crops and anyway do not usually occupy the same land as opium poppy, or have the same water and irrigation requirements.
As for asafoetida, the deep-rooted plant from the carrot (umbelliferous) family, which produces a pungent spice widely used especially in Pakistani and Indian cooking, a wild plant now increasingly cultivated, it also needs years to produce an income, says Fitzherbert: “The plant takes several years to mature before it is ready to be harvested. This is done by a process of tapping the roots to extract the gum. A process which usually kills the plant.” He points out that, like the orchard crops, asafoetida does not occupy the same ground as opium poppy. “Usually [it is] grown on rain-fed and otherwise waste land, so is not a direct competitor crop to opium poppy anyway.”
Wheat is the most important cereal crop in Afghanistan. The country produces on average 4.6 million tons of wheat annually (see US Department of Agriculture website). However, it is not self-sustainable in wheat and every year imports wheat and wheat flour. For most Afghan farmers, says Fitzherbert, wheat is grown as a subsistence staple, not a cash crop and in poppy-growing areas is traditionally grown in rotation with poppy, which is sown every other year or every third year. Significantly for those looking for an alternative to poppy is the fact that, unlike most other crops, wheat is also sown and harvested at the same time as poppy – both crops are sown around October/November in Afghanistan. It seems most likely the availability of wheat seeds and the concurrence of the sowing and harvesting cycles of wheat and poppy were the main factors behind the nationwide switch from poppy to wheat.
In locations where double cropping is possible (such as Helmand and Kandahar), says Fitzherbert, opium poppy has the advantage of having a shorter growing period before being harvested and therefore, requires fewer irrigations and less water. The opium crop is harvested earlier than wheat or any other possible alternatives, so that a second summer crop of maize, beans, mung, sunflowers or okra can be sown earlier.
Opium has been an important cash crop for Afghans for many decades and the ban on cultivation has already hit many farmers hard. However, both UNODC and Mansfield and Alcis noted something else already referred to in this report, that trade in opiates continued after the ban.
UNODC noted that traders have had “to rely on their potential opium inventories to make up for the income they lost during the 2023 harvest” and that “[d]ata on seizures in and around Afghanistan indicate that following the ban, opium inventories from past record harvests are being sold off…” In their June 2023 report, Mansfield and Alcis said:
There are few restrictions on trade. Opium grown prior to the imposition of Haibatullah’s ban continues to be sold and seizures by Afghanistan’s neighbours and further afield, suggest a continued supply of both opiates and methamphetamine. In March 2023, the Taliban even removed the formal tax they imposed on the export of opiates since coming to power, easing the transactions costs for the cross border trade.
One eyewitness visiting Helmand province at the end of September also said it was “business as usual” there. “After the issuance of the [April 2022] decree of Mullah Akhundzada,” he said, “there has been no change in the buying and selling of opium in any of the districts of Helmand province.” In their most recent, 2 November 2023 paper, however, they reported “growing evidence that the Taliban are ratcheting up the pressure on those involved in the opium trade.” They spoke of a decision in July 2023 to shut down catapults that had proliferated on the Afghan border with Iran following the Taleban takeover which had been used to get drugs across the border. They also noted:
Smuggling costs have also increased along the primary routes following the announcement of the new law. Of particular note is the recent closure of the route from Nangarhar to Peshawar via Durbaba and Tirah, and the claim that drugs are now being rerouted south. We have not seen these kinds of pressures before under Taliban rule. As yet, the only route that has not experienced a rise in smuggling costs is the journey via Bahramchar [sic] in Helmand province, possibly reflecting continued privileges afforded to those in Helmand. This is clearly a dynamic environment – and like the ban on cultivation – reflects the uneven nature of Taliban rule in which some groups are favoured over others.
However, Mansfield and Alcis cite a new law issued by the IEA on 1 October 2023 which may signal its intention to carry the ban on cultivation into a second year and, possibly, start hitting trade.
Tightening the knot
The new drugs law that Mansfield and Alcis say has been in the making since August 2023 prescribes penalties and punishments for the cultivation, trafficking, trade, collection, etc of drugs and other psychoactive substances, such as alcohol (see the text of the Pashto original and an English translation by Alcis). It is an elaboration of the succinct, two-paragraph-long, April 2022 ban. A maximum prison sentence prescribed is up to seven years for trafficking and trading different types of narcotics in the amounts defined by the law. It is noticeable that the new law was promulgated at a time when farmers were weighing up what to sow. Opium and cannabis farmers are also punishable by the new law (six months in prison for cultivating less than half a jerib of land, nine months for half a jerib and one year = for more than one jerib).
Mansfield and Alcis suggested that there is “evidence that the new drugs law is already having an effect, with many provincial authorities receiving a copy of the ordinance and a number disseminating news of the prescribed penalties through meetings with elders and in mosques.” It is not yet clear then how far the ban on cultivation will be enforced in its second year, or in the words of Mansfield and Alcis whether the authorities will “engage in a robust effort against the trade” and in particular, whether “they move against inventory and processing.”
The new law has pushed prices up even further, although with geographic variations, according to Mansfield and Alcis, by 40 per cent in the east, 20 per cent in the northeast, but only 10 per cent in the southwest, “possibly reflecting the high levels of inventory in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar.” As prices rise, the potential benefits of disobeying the ban mushroom. Yet, the new law also highlights the increased risk of growing poppy.
Already, the landless and land-poor have lost income. A second year of the ban on cultivation will be hard for many to bear. Any farmer who has sold his inventory will also start to see the ban biting into their household economies. If the authorities block trade, the damage to households would spread even to wealthier farmers and traders.
Any perceived geographic variation in how the IEA treats opium farmers and traders could be potentially destabilising. If, for example, the authorities allow Badakhshi farmers to benefit from high prices but continue to clamp down on farmers elsewhere or ignore the opium trade in Helmand while blocking other routes, there could be a political price to pay. In general, Afghans have learned to be wary of bans and eradication. In the past, they have often been used to consolidate the market, favouring those with more political influence to grow richer and more powerful as their weaker rivals are taken out.
There are other potential consequences to government income. The Ministry of Agriculture was taking ushr on opium, as on the harvest of other crops, and passing the proceeds to the office of the Supreme Leader who is in charge of its distribution. That is now lost, as is the tax on trade and exports, which also apparently never came to the Ministry of Finance, but was an informal income stream for the authorities. Income from opium poppy has also been valuable, nationally, for covering imports, significant because Afghanistan runs a trade deficit and many imports are essential – medicine, food and fuel. (For a recent in-depth look at the economy, including the balance of trade, see our recent publication, ‘Survival and Stagnation: The State of the Afghan economy’.)
Any tightening of the knot against Afghan opium cultivation and trade could also have regional and global consequences, but probably only eventually, if the ban on cultivation continues. According to UNDOC, it takes a couple of years for opiates produced in Afghanistan to reach their destination. Moreover, there are stockpiles of opiates everywhere, not just in Afghanistan. In other words, supply will outstrip demand for some time. However, if Europe’s supply dropped significantly, there would be pressure on old illicit opium producers like Turkey and North Macedonia to return to poppy cultivation. If Asian markets were left short of supply, another old producer, Myanmar, which is already seeing an increase in cultivation – a consequence of its internal instability – could also see more poppy cultivated. But if this were to happen, it would take years, maybe a decade of the IEA maintaining a strict drugs ban.
For now, the main consequences are in Afghanistan. We are now in the autumn sowing season when farmers in poppy-growing areas have to decide which crop to sow, and the authorities whether they take action against those who disobey the law. If farmers do choose to sow poppy, they risk seeing their crop eradicated and losing everything. If they do not, some may be unable to cover household expenses this year. For the authorities, eradication carries risks if people feel they are being unfairly targeted or that the government is forcing them into penury. And will the IEA really put a good portion of its rural, work-able population in prison? As the IEA’s policy on narcotics moves into its second year, it is clear that the consequences are not just economic, but could have repercussions for politics and social peace.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour
Alcis first reported in June 2023 (AAN analysis here) a significant drop in poppy cultivation in Helmand province, from more than 120,000 hectares in 2022 to less than 1,000 hectares in 2023. Helmand is Afghanistan’s leading poppy cultivator.
UNODC and Alcis both use satellite imagery to measure opium cultivation.
Alcis’ estimates, it says “are the result of analysis of satellite imagery collected across the whole of Afghanistan repeatedly throughout the winter cropping season. As such, it is a method that “reviews every field in Afghanistan multiple times through its growing cycle.” They say this method also estimates the amount of land “dedicated to wheat, orchards, vineyards, and other crops – the agricultural alternatives to poppy – and thereby insights into how enduring a ban will be, and how this varies by area.”
UNODC describes using 900 “very high-resolution satellite images on a field-by-field basis,” obtained as a particular province’s poppy is likely to be coming into bloom, a variation based on climate difference.
To put this in perspective. More than 15 million people globally, UNODC estimated in 2010, use opiates (opium, heroin and morphine), which means that in opium equivalents, they use approximately 3,700 tons of opium annually. See UNDOC’s World Drug Report from 2010. This is the most recent estimate of the number of opiates users globally, known to us.
Helmand dwarfs all other provinces in terms of hectares under opium poppy. In 2022, poppy was grown on almost 130,000 hectares of land. The next largest province, Kandahar, grew poppy on just over 164,000 hectares.
In the 2022/23 marketing year (July/June) are forecast at an above‑average level of 3.4 million tonnes, over 8 per cent less than in the previous year, the FAO reported.
UNODC reported a different motivation for the reported temporary lifting of the tax on opium exports: “The goal was reportedly to end the opium trade in Afghanistan by liquidating all remaining stocks and discouraging future poppy cultivation.”
The law was agreed upon in a meeting chaired by Mullah Hibatullah on 28 August 2023 with the head of the Supreme Court, five provincial governors and other members of the Taliban leadership in attendance, according to Alcis.
The official English translation of the April 2022 ban, taken from the Al-Emarah website, is:
As per the decree of the supreme leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), All Afghans are informed that from now on, the cultivation of poppies has been strictly prohibited across the country.
If anyone violates the decree, the crop will be destroyed immediately and the violator will be treated according to the Sharia law. In addition, usage, transportation, trade, export and import of all types of narcotics such as alcohol, heroin, tablet K, hashish and etc., including drug manufacturing factories in Afghanistan are strictly banned. Enforcement of this decree is mandatory. The violator will be prosecuted and punished by the judiciary.
Prosperity or Penury: The political and economic fallout of the opium ban in Afghanistan
The deportation campaign by Islamabad is cruel. Other countries have let down these refugees too
Human Rights Watch reports that refugees are now facing detentions, beatings and extortion by police. Others have been evicted by landlords or fired from jobs. The result is that Afghans believe they have no choice but to return to a country where they face a serious risk of harm. Iran, too, has repeated its threat to expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans. The UN high commissioner for refugees has repeatedly called for a bar on the forced return of Afghan nationals. It warns that minorities, journalists and women are at particular risk. “Due precautions,” says Pakistan’s foreign ministry, will be taken to ensure that those under greatest threat are not forced to return. But few have confidence given the abuses already taking place.
With a caretaker government in Islamabad, there is little political accountability for a decision thought to be driven largely by the country’s real rulers, the military. Afghans have become a scapegoat for Pakistan’s unquestionable economic woes. But the deterioration in bilateral relations is thought to be the primary cause of these expulsions. Islamabad wants to pressure the Taliban to act on surging cross-border terror attacks, and has also alleged that Afghan nationals in Pakistan have been involved in some of these attacks.
The acting interior minister, Sarfraz Bugti, is wrong to seek to justify this cruel policy, which saw the Taliban regime’s defence minister chide Pakistan with a proverb in Pashto: “As you sow, so shall you reap.” Mr Bugti has observed that the west should have done more to relocate Afghans if it is concerned about them. This might be a self-serving argument, but it is true. According to humanitarian groups, the $613m regional refugee response plan to support 7.3 million Afghans hosted in neighbouring countries is only 15% funded.
The failure of western countries to live up to their promises and their responsibilities is shameful. For hundreds of thousands of Afghans desperate to escape their country in 2021, nearby Pakistan was the only option. Yet EU states resettled just 271 Afghan refugees in 2022. Afghans had to move to a third country to apply for resettlement, but have been left vulnerable because their visas have expired during the lengthy process.
Astonishingly, around 3,000 Afghans who have been approved for refuge in Britain are stranded in UK-funded hotels in Islamabad, which Pakistani police have raided. Another 25,000 may reportedly be eligible for resettlement in the US. Other countries must press Pakistan to halt these removals; they have leverage since it needs international support to prop up its failing economy. But the rest of the world must make good on its promise to aid vulnerable Afghans.
The Guardian view on Pakistan’s expulsion of Afghans: don’t send them back to the Taliban
The earth has continued to shudder in Herat province ever since the first of a series of deadly earthquakes hit the province on Saturday 7 October around 11am local time. They have destroyed entire villages and killed and injured thousands of people. Since then, dozens more tremors, including three powerful earthquakes have caused additional havoc in the region, leaving survivors wondering if the ground beneath their feet will ever stop moving. Later, they searched for relatives and neighbours in the rubble, burying their dead in mass graves and grappling to make sense of the scale of the disaster. In this report, AAN’s Roxanna Shapour, with input from Thomas Ruttig, looks at the damage and the science behind the quakes, at what the response has been so far and what is needed to help the victims of this disaster rebuild their lives and cope with their loses.
The first earthquake hit on 7 October at 11 in the morning, but there have been more earthquakes since. The earth hasn’t stopped moving for days. At first, people slept outside on the roadside, but then some people (whose houses were still standing) went back inside their homes. Unfortunately, another strong earthquake hit at night and they came rushing outside. Now, those who have tents are sleeping in them and those who don’t sleep in the open. People are panicked and afraid.
MASUMA JAMEH, A RESIDENT OF ZENDEJAN DISTRICT, 29 OCTOBER 2023.
Where were the earthquakes
The epicentre of the 7 October earthquake, which measured 6.3 in magnitude on the Richter scale, was in Zendejan district to the west of the provincial capital. About 30 minutes later, another 6.3 magnitude tremor hit the same area, followed by a third measuring 5.9. There have been no fewer than 35 aftershocks, all measuring 4 or above, as well as two more 6.3 magnitude earthquakes on 11 October and 15 October, according to data from the US Geological Survey (USGS). In other words, the ground beneath people’s feet in Herat shuddered some 39 times in the span of three weeks. The dots in Figure 1 below, which uses InSAR satellite data, show the epicentres of quakes as of 10 October 2023, while the rings show where there were particularly strong changes to the earth’s surface.
The Herat earthquakes happened on fault lines on the Eurasian Plate, The Indian Plate is pushing north-north-westwards at a rate of about 38mm a year, while the Arabian Plate pushes north at a speed of 23mm a year. The result, wrote Afghan seismologist Zakaria Shnizai with three colleagues, is that Afghanistan is “one of the most seismically active intercontinental regions in the world,” with active faulting distributed widely across it. The north is “cut through by numerous earthquake faults,” they wrote, while in eastern Afghanistan, active faults raised “the great mountain ranges of the Hindukush and Pamir.”
The epicentre of the October earthquakes in Herat was between the Siakhubulak Fault in the north and Herat Fault in the south, as well as a third hitherto unmapped fault line between these two, which was detected in satellite images, as reported by Earthquake Insights (see figure 3). The first two major quakes were in Zendejan district and the second two in Injil district, both about 30 km from Herat city.
The fact that these earthquakes were very shallow, about 10 km, is one of the reasons they had such devastating effects, according to the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, which also reported that a region measuring 20 km x 30 km around the epicentre had risen by about 40 cm (see here).
What astonished seismologists was that there were earthquakes in this location at all. On a geological timescale, wrote Afghan Seismologist Najibullah Kakar in the GFZ report cited above, the Herat Fault, which stretches across Afghanistan east to west, must have played an active role, but it had seen no earthquakes for a thousand years. Another seismologist, Jascha Polet, who is professor emeritus at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, told National Geographic, “When the first two very similar magnitude 6.3 earthquakes occurred, I already thought that this was a fairly unusual sequence,” adding: “When the sequence then produced a quadruplet of these events, I was very surprised” (see here).
To understand what caused this unexpected quartet of tremors, National Geographic spoke to several seismologists. Some, such as the director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington, Harold Tobin, have hypothesised that it was “most likely a domino effect”:
When the first quake struck on October 7, some of the stress from the geologic fault that slipped was transferred to another, already stressed fault. That caused it to rupture as well soon after –and this process happened twice more. This sort of transferal of stresses is seen all over the world, but in the case of these earthquakes, what’s unusual is that they have all been around the same magnitude and occurred in a very short period of time.
While most scientists agree with this theory, there are those who believe the earthquakes were a seismic event called a swarm, or a series of quakes of more or less the same magnitude happening around the same time and in the same region. Swarms of magnitude 6 or above are not common, Zachary Ross, a Geophysicist at the California Institute of Technology, told National Geographic, but he believes the ones in Herat were “fairly normal for earthquake swarms, in which we often see many earthquakes with similar magnitudes.”
Whatever natural phenomenon caused earthquakes, the absence of previous significant seismic activity in the region meant that residents, the government and humanitarian responders were caught off guard and were ill-prepared to deal with a disaster of this magnitude.
What do we know about the damage?
In its Herat Earthquake Response Plan (more on this later), which was released on 16 October 2023, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated:
Between 7 and 15 October, four powerful (6.3 magnitude) earthquakes struck Herat Province, affecting 1.6 million people with high intensity shaking (MMI 6+) and leaving at least 114,000 in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Preliminary assessments show that the first two earthquakes on 7 and 11 October left 1,480 people dead and 1,950 wounded, with available satellite imagery indicating that 289 villages were very highly (11), highly (110) or moderately (168) impacted. An estimated 30 new villages across two districts were affected by the 15 October earthquake, with assessments ongoing.
Preliminary reporting by humanitarian responders estimated that 7,165 families were affected by the quakes (more than 43,000 people, based on an average of six persons per family) in six districts – Gulran, Herat, Injil, Kohsan, Kushk/Rabat-e Sangi and Zendejan (see OCHA Flash Update #6).
A later update, published on 2 November, put the number of households that have been affected at 48,000 in nine districts, mostly in Injil and Zendejan. It reports that some 48,000 household have been affected, including 30,430 houses either severely damaged (20,430) or completely destroyed (10,000), according to UNOCHA (see Afghanistan: Herat Earthquake Response Situation Report No. 2 here). The report also said:
More than 175,000 people in nine districts have been directly affected by these recent seismic events, with Injil and Zinjadan districts suffering the most severe consequences. Injil witnessed the destruction and damage of over 15,000 homes.
UNOCHA has also reported that 21,3000 non-residential structures, including 21 schools and 40 health facilities serving approximately 580,000 people, had also been damaged (see UN reporting here, here and OCHA Flash Update #7). Those affected included 7,500 pregnant women, many of whom were also bereaved (see this UN report). The extensive scale of the disaster means these figures are still likely to be adjusted upward as humanitarian teams continue to assess the damage.
• Initial multi-sectoral rapid assessments (MSRAF) indicate that more than 48,000 households have been affected by the recent earthquakes in Herat Province, including approximately 10,000 homes which have been completely destroyed and 20,430 severely damaged.
AAN spoke to Masuma Jameh from Zendejan district, who stressed how women and children were the prime victims of the earthquakes, but also that some children are now orphans:
Most of the casualties were women and children. Everyone is afraid, there is increasing anxiety and panic especially among women and children. The children are frightened every time the earth shakes. Also, hundreds of children are left without a parent or guardian. Their families were martyred [killed in the earthquake]. They need places to grow up and people to take care of them and look after their wellbeing and education.
Reports from the UN and others confirm her eyewitness testimony: women and children accounted for about 90 per cent of fatalities (see UNICEF here). Preliminary assessments of 178 villages that had been assessed as of 17 October 2023 found that women accounted for 58 per cent of adults who had lost their lives, 60 per cent of the injured and 61 per cent of persons reported missing, according to a report published by the Gender in Humanitarian Action (GiHA) (see Gender Update #2: Earthquake in Herat Province here).
The reason lies not just in the fact that many men from the region have gone to Iran for work, UNFPA’s representative in Afghanistan Jamie Nadal told the Associated Press, but also the time of the quake, 11 in the morning: “At that time of the day, men were out in the field…. The women were at home doing the chores and looking after the children. They found themselves trapped under the rubble.” AP also heard from the Norwegian Refugee Council which said that, “Early reports from our teams are that many of those who lost their lives were small children who were crushed or suffocated after buildings collapsed on them.” Increasing the casualties, said head of UNICEF’s office in Herat Siddig Ibrahim was that, “When the first earthquake hit, people thought it was an explosion, and they ran into their homes.”
The Herat maternity hospital has also sustained significant damage, with cracks that make it unsafe to provide services inside. The UN has provided tents for pregnant women to receive medical care (see CNBC here). Herat’s exquisite blue mosque and the Citadel, which dates back to 330 BCE, also suffered (see Xinhua reporting here). Indeed, said the head of the province’s Department of Information and Culture Ahmadullah Muttaqi, “There are no historical monuments in this province that were not damaged by the earthquake” (see this Salam Watandar report and these photos posted on X, formerly Twitter).
The earthquakes damaged several reservoirs, which are important sources of water and also caused the water table to rise in some areas. There are anecdotal reports that in Herat it has risen by 10 to 15 metres, architect Jolyon Leslie, an architect working on the restoration of historic monuments and is a long-term resident of Afghanistan, told AAN on 2 November: “It’s not unusual for aquifers to open up and come to the surface after an earthquake when the plates adjust.” Managing director of the media organisation, The Killid Group, Shahir Zahine, who had just returned to Kabul from Herat on 1 November, also confirmed these reports and said that there were reports of streams and other surface waters in locations that would not ordinarily see water at this time of year. The photo below, sent to AAN by Zahine, shows a wadi near Siah Ab village in Zendejan district; the water has appeared unexpectedly and out of season.
In a crushing turn of events, on 12 October, a sandstorm in Zendejan, Kohsan and Kushk/Rabat-e Sangi districts, which lasted for 24 hours, destroyed several hundred tents where survivors had been sheltering, including 60 per cent of those at the Gazergah Transit Centre (GTC) (see OCHA Flash Update #5 and these photos on the Indian magazine Outlook’s website). The storm had another unlucky consequence: “People took refuge from the storm inside buildings,” said Masuma Jameh. “Unfortunately, another strong earthquake hit at the same time as the storm and many more people were killed and injured.” Rescue operations continued after the storm ended, as a local journalist, who asked not to be identified, told AAN on 28 October:
The tents that had been given to the people couldn’t withstand the storm and those who were providing aid had to stop working for a time. As soon as the storm stopped, people started helping again. Around this time, special tools arrived and rescue dogs came from Uzbekistan. They searched and pulled many people out from under the ground – alive or dead.
Satellite imagery analysed by the Geographical Information Services (GIS) organisation Alcis has provided a more comprehensive picture of the extent of the quakes and the complexities associated with the response (see Figures 5 and 6.) According to Alcis estimates, based on its analysis of satellite imagery, the number of people affected by the October earthquake could be significantly higher than preliminary estimates reported by UNOCHA and the Emirate. It estimates that as of the earthquake on 15 October (which Alcis counts as the third), a total of 512,992 compounds (residential dwellings) were affected. “Working on the assumption there are an average of 10 people per household,” it calculated that more than five million people – or about 12.5 per cent of the Afghan population – have been affected by the earthquakes. It also said that 160,706 of the household compounds were located more than four kilometres from a main road, meaning many communities had, at the time of the report, not yet been reached for assessment or assistance.
The level of destruction in Herat province, especially by earthquakes classed as ‘moderate’,) can be attributed, in part, to the nature of most structures in the area, according to seismologist Zakaria Shnizai speaking on the BBC’s Science in Action:
The houses [are] mostly of adobe construction with traditional building materials, flat or domed roofs made of dry mud which is supported by timber sitting on walls of mudbricks or stone blocks, cemented with dry mud…. [T]hese buildings are suited actually with Herat’s climate conditions including the cold winter and the hot summers…. The proximity of active faults when combined with traditional building styles make active villages very susceptible to even moderate earthquakes in the area.
The architect, Jolyon Leslie, acknowledges that traditional adobe constructions are more susceptible to earthquakes and that the dust from collapsed or damaged structures, which suffocates victims, has contributed to the high number of fatalities. Nevertheless, he argues that with proper reinforcement and the use of better fortifications, these structures remain the most appropriate options for housing in the area:
There’s a reason why the houses are built this way. Mud brick structures are cool in the summer and warm in winter, which is exactly what’s needed in this arid region. They do need to be better reinforced to withstand earthquakes, but I really think they’re the right structures instead of the modern prefabricated housing that is usually the default solution after natural disasters. Sure, they are easy solutions that are quickly delivered, but will people use them in the long term? With some support and technical assistance, people could build mud brick houses themselves and this could also create short-term jobs and put money back in the economy.
What has the response been?
Earthquakes are notoriously difficult to respond to. They happen suddenly and, most often, without any warning. They destroy homes and infrastructure, such as roads and disrupt communications, all of which hampers efforts by first responders and relief workers scrambling to get to the area. Rescuers are left working against the clock to pull survivors to safety from the rubble. Affected communities are devastated, shocked and stricken by grief, homeless and many with livelihoods also destroyed. All this was the case in Herat, as the local journalist described:
On the first day, there was little help for the people because Zendejan district is almost two hours away from Herat city by car. Most of the homes in the area were traditional mudbrick houses and none were left standing. No houses. The phone networks were down and it was difficult to get any information in or out. It was only on the second day, when news spread of the devastation, that members of the public and the local authorities started arriving. People were left to rescue family and neighbours in their own village and couldn’t go to the aid of people in other villages. And anyway, they were so consumed by the destruction in their own village that they couldn’t imagine that the same thing had also happened in other places.
In some villages, no one’s left alive and the living are either consumed by grief for their [lost] relatives or tending to injured family members. Most of the wounded have been taken to the hospital in Herat city. That first day, the public, the government and the institutions did not go to the rescue of the people. When help arrived the next day, [in many villages] there was no one left to guide [the rescuers] and because the houses were mostly destroyed, it wasn’t clear what was where and who was missing or needed help. The late arrival of assistance and the absence of locals to guide rescue teams contributed greatly to the high number of casualties.
In such times, it is often community members and ordinary citizens who rush to the aid of their neighbours. Local residents speaking to ToloNews told of how people from elsewhere in the province and further afield rushed to their villages to lend a helping hand (see ToloNews’ extended coverage here). Nearly everyone we spoke to told us about the extraordinary public response,) including the local journalist:
There have been a lot of donations. Everyone’s helped as much as they could. And a lot of help came from Herat city and other provinces as well as from the local administration. They’ve been providing food, tents and other necessities.
Jolyon Leslie also told us how labourers on a historic site that is being restored responded to a call for help:
The public response has been really impressive. This isn’t surprising in Afghanistan where people show up to help each other. This time, the general public and also the private sector have really mobilised to help. The next morning after the earthquake, local officials went door to door to all the NGOs and asked what they could do to help. They came to us too and 70 of the men working on the site volunteered to go. They helped find survivors and dig graves.
The Emirate was quick to respond to the disastrous events in Herat province by sending search and rescue teams and an official delegation to survey the damage. The morning after the first two earthquakes, the spokesman for the Ministry of State for Disaster Management, Janan Saiq, gave a detailed account of the Emirate’s immediate response at a press conference. 35 teams, made up of more than a thousand people, had “gone to the site to help those trapped in villages under the rubble,” he said (see ToloNews here and an interview with Saiq on the channel’s Farakhabar programme here). He also said that acting Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was already in the province, heading a delegation of officials who included the provincial governor and officials from the Ministries of Economy, Refugees and Repatriation and Disaster Management, tasked with “addressing the challenges of earthquake victims and monitoring the fair distribution of aid.”
Saiq initially put the number of fatalities at over 2,400, later revised down to 1,000, with more than 2,000 people injured (see this Reuters report). He also estimated that 1,320 houses had been totally destroyed.) A significant number of livestock were also lost in the earthquake, he added, but could not provide exact figures because the Emirate was focusing on rescue and relief efforts. These included providing water and sanitation, food and shelter. Acting Minister of Public Health, Qalandar Ebad, told ToloNews that nearly 60 health teams had been sent to the area, with “ambulances… and in every team of doctors, there are nurses and midwives who provide services for women.”
In an emergency cabinet meeting on 8 October, acting Prime Minister Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhund ordered 100 million afghanis (USD 1.35 million) to be allocated for cash distributions to earthquake victims and appointed a special cabinet-level commission to oversee relief efforts.
The commission, which is comprised of the ministries of rural reconstruction, defence, interior, public health, disaster management and the Afghan Red Crescent Society, is “responsible for ensuring that everyone gets the help it needs and that there is no corruption involved,” Emirate Spokesman member Zabiullah Mujahid told DW (see here).
The Emirate has also suspended the required administrative hurdles that are a requisite for NGO operations, an aid worker told the UAE’s English-language daily The National:
We don’t need any of the usual permits to do our relief work in the earthquake-affected areas…. Normally we face a lot of challenges and restrictions – getting permission can take up to four months. But the DFA [de facto authorities] recognises the seriousness of the situation. They have just asked us [international aid groups] to co-ordinate our activities with one another.
The only challenge we have faced is the DFA’s requirement that no female staff are allowed to work in the disaster area without a male escort. But we are very familiar with this restriction by now, so we were well prepared.
The Emirate is also building “2,146 modern houses in 20 affected villages,” which it hopes to complete before the onset of winter (see Tolonews here and BBC Pashto here). Shahir Zahine told AAN that he had seen some of the houses being constructed during his visit: “I’m not an expert in architecture, but they are building the houses quickly and the material being used seems to be of good quality.”
Zahine said he had travelled to the province to check on the well-being of the organisation’s staff –the building housing The Killid Group in Herat had been destroyed – and see what Killid could do to support the victims. It has now set up three mobile radio stations in the most affected districts (Gulrun, Rabat-e Sangi and Zendejan). During natural disasters, when means of communication are largely down, radio remains the most vital source for quickly disseminating up-to-date, accurate and lifesaving information to the public (see the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) here).
UNOCHA launched an appeal on 16 October on behalf of UN agencies and NGOs, requesting 93.6 million USD to support some 114,000 people. The plan will focus on supporting those whose homes were severely damaged or destroyed for six months (October 2023 – March 2024). It clarifies that the emergency appeal’s activities and requirements are a sub-set of the 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan.
As Figure 7 shows, according to the Plan, over the next six months, aid organisations will work with local and national government officials to support the most vulnerable people in affected communities on a whole range of needs: “emergency shelter and basic household items; provision of trauma care, referrals to the medical facilities, provision of the medical kits/supplies and equipment, as well as mental health and psychosocial support services; therapeutic and supplementary feeding for those acutely malnourished, as well as malnutrition screenings; dignity kits; water trucking, latrine construction and hygiene kits; as well as food commodities and cash packages” (for a detailed breakdown by sector, see the Herat Earthquake Response Plan).
In the days following the earthquakes, several UN agencies launched separate appeals to mobilise funds for the victims of the Herat earthquakes in support of their earthquake response activities, including WFP (USD 19 million), UNHCR (USD 14.4 million), UNFPA (USD 11.6 million) and UNICEF (USD 20 million). Several national and international NGOs have also launched appeals to raise funds for their planned responses to the earthquake. However, as Figure 8 shows, the response has, so far, fallen significantly short of the appeal, only USD 30 million (USD 15 million from donors and another USD 15 million from humanitarian pooled funds) or about 33 per cent of the amount needed to support survivors for the next six months (see the table below for a breakdown of pledges made and assistance provided so far).
The view from the ground is that assistance to the victims of Herat’s October 2023 earthquakes is, as yet, not nearly enough.
Aid has been distributed, Including tents, food, hygiene and other necessary items, but it’s not enough. Many people have lost their entire family and their houses have been razed to the ground. They have lost everything. Entire villages have been turned into dust. Most of the aid is from businessmen and from people from different provinces, Afghans living abroad and also some charities. Most of the work is being done by civil activists, especially women. From time to time, there are aid distributions from members of the public, but assistance from the government and international institutions has been slow to arrive.
MASUMA JAMEH, A RESIDENT OF ZENDEJAN DISTRICT
The local journalist we spoke to said the most pressing concern was the weather: “It’s getting colder every day and those who’ve lost their homes need shelter. They can’t go on living outdoors for very much longer.” Winters are harsh in this semi-arid region of Afghanistan, with overnight temperatures regularly falling to below freezing. Last year, Afghanistan witnessed the harshest winter in nearly 30 years, with temperatures falling in this area to below minus 25 degrees Celsius, according to UNOCHA (see here).
There are numerous photos and videos in news reports and on social media showing tents among the rubble heaps that were once villages. Matters are especially bleak in Herat city where many survivors, with nothing left in their home villages, have gone in search of shelter and other support. The provincial capital is now “a tent city: families are sleeping in open spaces in parks in small tents,” wrote the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a post on X on 16 October. The local journalist also described the scene to AAN:
The parks and streets of Herat city are filled with people who’ve arrived from the districts and also [the city’s] local residents. Those who have houses go home every day, but people aren’t spending the night there. They sleep on the street outside their houses or in parks or on pavements. Since the day of the earthquake, many people have been leaving Herat for Kabul and other provinces, but there is a shortage of cars [for hire], so it’s not easy to secure transport. The situation is very worrying because it’s so cold. Some people have tents, but most don’t and are forced to sleep in the open air in the cold. There are no tents for sale in the market, but some people have managed to find tarpaulin and plastic sheeting. Women and children are sleeping outside in the open during these cold nights. Many of them, especially the children, are sick with colds and more serious chest infections.
While there are plans underfoot by the Emirate to build over 2,000 permanent homes for Herat’s earthquake victims, aid workers are doubtful that such a massive undertaking will be completed in time to protect them from this winter’s freeze. They point to their previous experience in other disaster zones and argue for urgent distributions of winterised tents and assistance to help victims either rent housing or find shelter with host families.
The psychological fallout from the disaster is also significant. Not only have people lost their friends and families, their homes and their livelihoods, but the ground has been moving under their feet for the better part of a month. Many people whose homes have remained undamaged are fearful of being indoors when the next earthquake hits:
People are afraid to sleep indoors. They’re afraid of what might happen if a quake hits when they’re sleeping. So even those whose homes are still standing sleep outside. It’s remarkable to see how the number of tents swells up in the evenings. All open spaces – parks, the courtyards of mosques, even highways – fill up with tents. Families who don’t have proper tents use makeshift ones made of mosquito netting. In the morning, those who still have a house, take down their tents and go home – only the ones who have come [to Herat] from the districts or have lost their house stay.
SHAHIR ZAHINE, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF KILLID GROUP
It is not just the damage and loss of life from the earthquake that is a big worry. Money is also an ongoing concern. After the dead have been buried and the injured tended to, after survivors have been provided with adequate shelter and basic services such as health care and education, after provision has been made for the children who have lost their family, after all that, the government and aid organisations must turn their attention to making sure affected communities have appropriate support to rebuild their lives and get back on their feet. Local communities who have lost not only their homes and families but also farms, livestock, jobs and businesses need help to rebuild their lives, rehabilitate their farms, find jobs and restore at least some of what they lost in the disaster.
Edited by Kate Clark
According to the Richter Scale that measures earthquakes, those measuring 6.0 to 6.9 are considered ‘strong’ and 5.0 to 5.9 ‘moderate’ quakes. A 6.3 earthquake like the ones in Herat is capable of causing considerable damage to “ordinary substantial buildings with partial collapse” and “great damage in poorly built structures poorly,” according to this explainer on the Puerto Rico Seismic Network. Most well-built structures can withstand a 5.9 magnitude tremor, it says, but poorly built, weaker structures can sustain considerable damage.
In reporting the number of quakes and aftershocks, we are using data from the US Geological Survey (USGS) (see here). There are conflicting reports about the number of earthquakes with many, including the United Nations, reporting that four earthquakes took place. However, the region experienced 28 magnitude 4.1 or above aftershocks, which means that there were a total of 32 tremors in 7-19 October.
InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar) is a technique for mapping ground deformation using radar images of the Earth’s surface that are collected from orbiting satellites (see USGS here).
The Earth’s rigid outer shell is fractured into seven or eight major plates and many ‘platelets’ which all slowly move.) the world’s third largest tectonic plate (67,800,000 km2) which spans Europe and most of Asia and sits between the North American and African Plates to the north and west, as well as many smaller ‘platelets’ (see figure 2). All of them are slowly moving. Afghanistan lies on “a southward-projecting, relatively stable promontory of the Eurasian tectonic plate,” wrote Boyd, Mueller and Boyd, but is surrounded by “active plate boundaries” to the west, south and east.(( Oliver S Boyd, Charles S Mueller and Kenneth S Boyd, ‘Preliminary probabilistic seismic hazard map for Afghanistan’, 2007, US Geological Survey Open-File Report 2007-1137.
There have been there have been ten magnitude 6.0 or greater earthquakes in Iran’s Khorasan province bordering Herat (see Wikipedia for a list of earthquakes in Iran), including the 7.3 magnitude Qayen earthquake in May 1997 (see USGS here) and the 7.1 tremor in September 1978 (see USGS here), which claimed some 15,000-25,000 lives (an estimated 80 per cent of the local population) and all but destroyed the historic city of Tabas and 90 surrounding villages (see ‘The 1978 Tabas, Iran, earthquake: An interpretation of the strong motion records,’ Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 1988, 78 (1), 142–171.
The Modified Mercalli intensity scale (MMI) measures the effects of an earthquake at a specific site using “key responses such as people awakening, movement of furniture, damage to chimneys, and finally – total destruction…. [It is considered to be] more meaningful measure of severity to the nonscientist than the magnitude because intensity refers to the effects actually experienced at that place” (see USG here).
A wadi is a valley or ravine that is dry except in the rainy season.
See footnote 1.
In addition to the numerous media reports and videos on social media also show members of the public helping with the rescue, there are also reports of Afghans inside the country and abroad responding with cash and in-kind donations (see for example ToloNews here and here, as well as this Deutsche Welle report). The private sector and celebrities have pledged support for the earthquake victims. For example, Afghanistan’s star cricketer, Rashid Khan, donated all his earnings from the 2023 Cricket World Cup and has launched a campaign to raise additional funds (see his post on X, formerly Twitter here).
While this figure is considerably lower than the numbers reported by other sources, including the UN, such inconsistencies are not unusual, especially in the days immediately after a natural disaster. It is often in the days and even weeks afterwards that a full picture emerges of the extent of the damage.
WFP’s USD19 million appeal will assist earthquake victims with food and cash-based transfers for three to seven months. Earlier this year, WFP was forced to reduce the amount of food families receive and to cut 10 million people in Afghanistan from life-saving food assistance due to a funding shortfall (see here). UNHCR has also launched an urgent appeal for USD 14.4 million to support some 8,100 earthquake-affected families, including refugees and IDP returnees, with tents, cash assistance, psychosocial and cash support and other relief items. UNHCR also plans to support orphaned, separated or unaccompanied children and persons with special needs, such as the disabled and the elderly (see here). UNFPA has asked for USD 11.6 million to support women and girls in the earthquake zone with maternal, reproductive health and psychological services; life-saving adolescent sexual and reproductive health services; and emergency supplies, including health, mother and child, dignity and menstrual kits as well as non-food items such as blankets and tarpaulin sheets for women and girls (see here). UNICEF has also launched an appeal asking for USD 20 million to support 200,000 beneficiaries, including 96,000 children with health, psychological and hygiene services, water and sanitation, cash assistance for 1,400 families and temporary learning spaces for children (see here).
According to media reports the Emirate declined an offer of assistance from Pakistan (see Khaama Press here and VoA here).
Joe Biden has quietly begun to soften Washington’s stance on the Taliban as a sponsor of terrorism, despite an authoritative report by United Nations experts in June 2023 noting the “strong and symbiotic” links between the Taliban, the Haqqani network, al-Qaida and other terror groups. Ongoing U.S. consultation with Taliban authorities at a technical level, based on the reality of the group’s physical control of Afghanistan, is necessary to advance specific and urgent interests, such as the release of U.S. hostages and out-migration of Afghans processed for U.S. residency. But additional and relatively senior overtures to Taliban leadership would require a shift in the policy landscape.
That may explain some actions taken by the Biden administration, such as proposing in September that the Taliban be removed as potential targets from congressional Authorizations for Use of Military Force legislation, or AUMFs. Other moves that would signal serious policy shifts are under consideration would be any efforts to water down U.N. sanctions targeting the Taliban when they are renewed in December 2023; reopening a U.S. diplomatic mission in Kabul; and delisting the Taliban as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity and the Haqqani network as a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.
One rationale for improving relations with the Taliban, paradoxically, is to try to recover counterterrorism capabilities the U.S. lost after its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, including military and intelligence bases in a country bordering Iran, China, Pakistan and three nations of Central Asia. Administration officials who testified to Congress about removing the Taliban from the AUMFs argued that the Taliban regime is not a threat to the U.S. and might even be a potential partner against the Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K, the ISIS-affiliated group that operates within Afghanistan.
This rationale is shortsighted, however. First, any battlefield losses the U.S. could help the Taliban inflict on IS-K are relatively insignificant and would come at the cost of legitimating the Taliban’s consolidation of power. It would also offer encouragement to other extremist groups in the region and worldwide, including Hamas, whose leadership congratulated the Taliban in August 2021 for having seized power militarily, instead of falling for “flashy words such as democracy and elections.” Second, although Biden made it clear in 2021 that human rights are not a “vital U.S. national interest” in Afghanistan, promoting human rights and fighting extremism are inextricably linked. The U.S. should safeguard international norms of human rights and sanctions enforcement, not undermine them, since these tools are crucial to U.S. national security policymaking.
Despite these costs, the signs that Washington is preparing to soften its stance on the Taliban are evident to anyone familiar with the techniques the U.S. government routinely uses in similar situations. These include:
Changing the narrative. The Haqqani network, a designated terrorist organization guilty of murdering U.S. citizens, is an integral element of the Taliban regime, but this fact is carefully elided in U.S. official communication. The U.S. State Department still lists Sirajuddin Haqqani as a terrorist, with a $10 million reward for any information about his “whereabouts” leading to his capture; the FBI, which has similarly offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Haqqani’s capture, considers him a most-wanted criminal who “is thought to live in Pakistan.” In fact, Haqqani lives openly and freely in Kabul as Afghanistan’s de facto interior minister. And when the U.S. killed Ayman al-Zawahiri with a drone strike in July 2022, the leader of al-Qaida was staying in a Haqqani-owned residence, leading to speculation about whether the Haqqani network leadership would be “next” on the list of U.S. targets. Yet after the most recent meeting between representatives of the U.S. and the Taliban in July, the State Department’s readout puzzlingly stated that “U.S. officials took note of the Taliban’s continuing commitment to not allow the territory of Afghanistan to be used by anyone to threaten the United States and its allies.”
Denigrating trusted experts. U.N. experts’ reports are frequently used as a basis for U.S. policy actions and adopted by consensus, which includes the U.S. mission. But after the U.N. sanctions committee released its June 2023 report, which stated that the Taliban and al-Qaida maintained a strong working relationship and that al-Qaida operatives held senior positions training Taliban fighters, various “unnamed U.S. government sources” cited by the media claimed that the report was “wildly out of whack” with U.S. assessments. However, those sources declined to explain how and why their assessments diverged from that of the U.N.’s team.
The signs that Washington is preparing to soften its stance on the Taliban are evident to anyone familiar with the techniques the U.S. government routinely uses in similar situations.
Enlisting high-level cover. Judging by Biden’s unguarded statement to the press in June 2023 that the U.S. is “getting help from the Taliban” in the fight against al-Qaida, he had been briefed about the evolving U.S. security relationship with the regime in Kabul. He clearly was not supposed to mention it out loud, however; in a subsequent clarification of Biden’s remarks, national security adviser Jake Sullivan stated only that the U.S. was “holding the Taliban to account” on its commitment as part of the Doha Agreement not to allow Afghan territory to be used for terrorist groups threatening the U.S. and its allies. That would not amount to the kind of “help” Biden suggested, but Biden’s remarks should be seen as much as an attempt to soften public views of the Taliban as a gaffe or misrepresentation.
Launching expert-level trial balloons. In a May 2023 opinion piece in “Foreign Policy,” former CIA operations officer Douglas London and former Afghan diplomat Javid Ahmad laid out a case for recognizing the Taliban as a way to both achieve a U.S. presence in Afghanistan to fight ISIS and develop working ties with the Taliban’s so-called pragmatists. The Middle East Institute later hosted a roundtable in July with these authors, where the same ideas—as well as fiercely opposing perspectives—were discussed.
Reordering priorities. The U.S. readout after meeting with the Taliban in July 2023 also praised the Taliban’s counternarcotics efforts, including their ban on poppy cultivation as well as the production and trafficking of opium and heroin. In September, members of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce traveled to Kabul, where they praised the Taliban government for what they called its astute handling of the Afghan economy, eliciting no public disavowal by the U.S. government.
Launching a mainstream media trial balloon. One unmistakable signal of an upcoming administration policy change is often an article by an influential columnist in a paper of record filled with insider leaks. In this case, that took the form of Washington Post columnist David Ignatius’ mid-September opinion piece that again featured unnamed intelligence officials as well as an unnamed National Security Council official. The NSC official conveniently provided a declassified version of a brand-new CIA assessment, not otherwise made public, pushing back on the U.N. report’s assessment of al-Qaida’s strength and relationship with the Taliban. The article also claimed that some members of the Taliban “probably” knew that Zawahiri was hiding in Kabul at the time of his killing, and that he was “likely sheltered by members of the extremist Haqqani faction,” once again eliding the fact that the leader of the Haqqani faction is Afghanistan’s interior minister.
Despite all these signals, however, a policy shift is not necessarily guaranteed. Trial balloons can and do get shot down by those paying attention, in this case the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has cautioned the State Department several times on the matter. In a July 2023 letter, for instance, Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul warned U.S. officials against potentially visiting Kabul. In early October, McCaul and other committee members reacted strongly to statements made by Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland at an earlier committee hearing. McCaul publicly expressed his opposition to what he described as the administration’s desire to “normalize” relations with the Taliban. He cited the decision to remove the group from the AUMF and Nuland’s assertion that there was no evidence of systematic Taliban retribution against former Afghan government or military officials, despite multiple reports to the contrary.
Whether this opposition will be enough to prevent such a policy shift remains to be seen. Should the Biden administration go through with it, the wider implications would go beyond damaging the already shaky efforts by Afghan opposition groups and human rights defenders to maintain international support for their cause. Although that is important enough, there is more at stake. Undermining U.N. experts’ reports on sanctions undercuts a key U.S. policy tool often used to hold Russia, North Korea, Iran and other U.S. adversaries accountable. The argument that the Taliban are no threat to the U.S. ignores the fact that their impact extends beyond Afghanistan’s borders, serving as an inspiration to other extremist movements. Normalizing relations with the Taliban as a realpolitik recognition of their hold on power undercuts important U.S. policies on condemning coups and promoting democracy. And the idea that the U.S. should “work with bad guys to fight worse ones” is a dangerous illusion in the long run, even when it offers temporary success.
The U.S. has important interests at stake in Afghanistan, but these should be advanced on the basis of ensuring the Taliban’s respect for human rights and its verifiable rejection of terrorist groups, not appeasement.
Annie Pforzheimer served as deputy chief of mission in Kabul and acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan during her 30-year career as a U.S. diplomat. She is currently a volunteer advocate on Afghanistan human rights issues, a policy expert with the Center for a New American Security and Center for Strategic and International Studies, and an adjunct professor of international relations at the City University of New York and Pace University.
Biden Could Be Preparing to Upgrade Ties With the Taliban
This paper is an attempt to give an overview of the Afghan economy in light of two new World Bank reports, one on the economy, two years on from the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), and a second on the welfare of households. The Emirate has not published budgets for this year or last, which makes the wealth of detail and analysis provided by these reports, both at the macro level and for families and businesses, important. This paper also draws on presentations by ministers and senior officials at televised ‘accountability sessions’ held over the summer in which the economy was a strong theme. The presentations were generally upbeat, portraying a picture of progress, but the larger general picture appears much bleaker, finds AAN’s Kate Clark.Figures on the state of the Afghan economy are scarce. The IEA has not published its budget for 2022/1401 or 2023/1402 (only an early mini-budget for the last quarter of 1400 (21 December 2021 – 20 March 2022) and the Ministry of Finance made no appearance at the accountability sessions. This makes the publication of ‘Afghanistan Development Update: Uncertainty After Fleeting Stability’ by the World Bank especially important. With access to government data not available to the general public, including from the Ministry of Finance’s Financial Management Information System (AFMIS), the report covers a range of indicators – the size of the economy (GDP), inflation, imports and exports, government revenues and spending priorities – as well as looking at the situation for businesses and households. Also published at the start of October was the third round of the Bank’s ‘Afghanistan Welfare Monitoring Survey’ which asked a representative sample of Afghan households from across the country about work, earnings, food security, access to aid, access to health services and school attendance.
This paper also weaves in information presented in the 43 accountability sessions held over July and August in which ministries and other bodies outlined their achievements for the year in front of journalists and television cameras. The sessions were generally confident and optimistic in tone. Senior officials provided a plethora of statistics – mines surveyed, roads built, licenses and permits issued, rubbish collected, trees planted, trials held, drug addicts treated, books published, training sessions held and so on – presenting an active government working well to serve the people. Some ministers also spoke about the Emirate’s hoped-for direction in the economic sphere, such as in trade, mining and infrastructure projects. However, data on budgets and staffing was patchy and varied from one institution to another, which makes comparisons difficult both between ministries and over time. Those presentations which mentioned changes to staffing, revenue or budgets were the most illuminating.
This report also draws on earlier work by AAN on taxation and spending by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) and on household economies (see our dossier published earlier this year, bringing these reports together).
Background to the current state of the economy
The collapse of the Islamic Republic and re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate brought both costs and benefits to the Afghan economy. On the one hand, the fact that the Republic disintegrated so precipitously resulted in minimal damage to government infrastructure. The Taleban were able to take over a functioning government apparatus, including public finance, and despite the exodus of many technically able Afghans, they still inherited a better-trained and educated workforce than they left in 2001.
The end to active conflict has also meant that it is now generally safer to travel, farm and indeed live without fear of airstrikes, bombs or fighting. How that looks at its best can be seen in a recent AAN report on Andar district in Ghazni which had been embroiled in the conflict for almost two decades: its economy is now booming thanks to the bazaars re-opening, farmers being able to tend their fields unhindered by fighting, a high level of remittances and the fact that many men in this Taleban-loyal district have found jobs in the government.
However, the Taleban’s capture of power also prompted the economy into free fall, as donor countries abruptly cut off aid, international financial transitions were blocked, the banking system virtually collapsed, and United Nations and United States sanctions hampered trade and remittances. After the UN’s largest appeal for a single country in January 2022, aimed at supporting half of the population assessed to be at “immediate and catastrophic levels of need,” civilian aid did return to similar levels as during the Republic. Even so, the total amount of money coming into Afghanistan remains far smaller than before because spending by the foreign armies and military assistance to the Republic’s armed forces always dwarfed civilian aid. While all three sources of income had declined during the second decade of this century, as countries scaled back their deployments and reduced assistance, even so, in 2019, the Afghan government still received 4.7 billion USD in military support and about 4 billion USD in civilian aid, the latter equally split between on and off-budget support. In 2022, Afghanistan received about 3.5 to 4 billion USD in civilian aid, all off-budget and most of it (70 per cent) humanitarian (all World Bank figures).
During the Republic, the massive amounts of unearned foreign income provided jobs, boosted living standards, supported the afghani and paid for imports, but this ‘bubble economy’ could not survive the sudden removal of the funds in 2021. The magnitude of the foreign income was ultimately damaging to Afghanistan’s economy and to democracy and accountability, as the author explored in an earlier report. However, the money should have tapered off, giving the economy time to adjust. Its sudden disappearance overnight in August 2021 pushed the economy into a catastrophic contraction, with devastating consequences for households, as AAN detailed in a series of reports.
The return of substantial amounts of civilian aid has helped to stabilise the Afghan economy. It has provided not only life-saving assistance but also jobs. The money coming into the economy has supported the domestic currency, the afghani, brought down inflation and stimulated demand. However, donors, who are reluctant to support the Emirate, have mainly funded humanitarian aid. This is meant to be a temporary measure aimed at saving lives until the government or other actors can step in with long-term sustainable plans. It is not intended to act as a long-term solution to address, let alone resolve, a complex humanitarian crisis like Afghanistan’s. It is especially problematic, warned United States Institute for Peace (USIP) William Byrd, when such aid is “a primary source of external financial support propping up the economy.” Moreover, that money and the support it gives to the Afghan economy is shrinking: the UN appeal for aid in 2023 has brought in far less than last year – 1.3 billion USD of reported funding, as compared to 3.9 billion USD in 2022 (see UNOCHA’s Financial Tracking Service).
In winter 2021/22, along with the return of civilian aid to Afghanistan came, not a lifting of US and UN sanctions, as the Emirate has continued to demand, but multiple, wide-ranging waivers to the sanction regimes. Even so, Afghan banks and their customers – business and personal – still do not have the access they used to have to easy international transactions, largely because of the unease felt by foreign corresponding banks in doing business in Afghanistan.
A final major difference in the economy pre and post-August 2021 is the Emirate’s focus on collecting revenue. Less fragmented and less corrupt than the Republic, it has appeared able to channel most revenue into the treasury (rather than much of it going into the pockets of officials and politicians or the insurgency, as previously). Without access to foreign budgetary support, this has become a necessity to keep the government afloat.
All in all, after the traumas of 2021, the economy has stabilised, albeit at a much lower level. This narrative of stabilisation, and even progress, is what the Emirate seeks to portray. Acting deputy Minister of the Economy Ali Latif Nazari, speaking at his ministry’s accountability session in the summer, said that in year one of its rule, the IEA had focussed solely on preventing economic collapse, but in year two, they had worked on boosting the economy: they formulated a development plan, sought to control inflation, collect tax transparently, monitor the ports and custom posts, keep the afghani stable and control fuel and other prices.
Nazari insisted that the Emirate does not consider itself dependent on foreign aid, but rather wants to use and take support from the potential that is inside Afghanistan. At the same time, the Emirate narrative is one of Afghanistan surviving hostile action from the Western states – sanctions, freezing the country’s reserves, banning leaders from travelling and so on. Nazari described the Emirate responding to this with “economic diplomacy,” based on what he called the “self-sufficiency theory.” In an anarchic world that is not unipolar and where national self-interest rules, Afghanistan can thrive: even if it had political tensions with particular countries, he said, they could still be friends economically because of shared economic interests. He spoke about the importance of trade, as did acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Amir Khan Muttaqi when he described Afghanistan’s “economy-oriented politics” which gave Afghanistan “the opportunity to maintain its political status in the region.”
Nazari made clear that economic growth is vital to the Emirate, as it was one of the ways a government gains political legitimacy; economic development – improving people’s livelihoods – reduces the distance between people and government. The Bank would agree, but warns that Afghanistan currently “lacks a self-sustaining indigenous growth engine for recovery.”
How the economy is faring now, two years on from the fall of the Republic and re-establishment of the Emirate, is the subject of the rest of this report. The first section looks at indicators like GDP, prices, the strength of the currency and imports and exports. It is followed by a scrutiny of government revenues and spending and finally an assessment of what all this means for households and businesses.
How the Afghan economy is faring now
The size of Afghanistan’s economy, measured by its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – the total value of all the goods produced and services provided during a year – is smaller than it was before the Taleban takeover. Moreover, the contraction has only slowed, not reversed. GDP, reports the World Bank, contracted by 20.7 per cent in 2021 and the decline has continued into 2022, albeit at a slower rate, by a further 6.2 per cent. The sector contributing most to GDP, services (45 per cent), shrank by 6.5 per cent, but with a considerable variation within that: wholesale trade (-8.9 per cent), health (-5.9 per cent), finance and insurance (-6.6 per cent), real estate (-5.2 per cent), dining and lodging (-4.2 per cent), and telecommunications (-4.7 per cent).
Agriculture, which contributes 36 per cent of GDP, shrank by 6.6 per cent, mainly because of bad weather causing poor harvests and problems for livestock. While the drought continued into 2023, better rain and snow is forecast this winter and spring, so there is hope that Afghanistan’s farmers will fare better in 2024.
Industry suffered an overall 5.7 per cent decline in 2022, again with substantial variation between sectors. There was a 10 per cent fall in manufacturing (including food and beverages and non-food), a 0.8 per cent fall in construction but growth of 4.1 per cent in mining and quarrying. “Dampened demand remains the top business constraint,” said the Bank, “followed by uncertainty about the future and limited banking system functionality.” It highlighted the Emirate’s restrictions on women’s work and education as only adding to the economy’s sluggishness.
Inflation peaked in July 2022 at 18.3 per cent, but prices are now falling by 9.1 per cent overall. Measured year-on-year since July 2022, the Bank says food is 12.6 per cent and non-food items 5 per cent cheaper. What economists call ‘core inflation’, ie when food and fuel are stripped away, stands at -4.7 per cent. Some of the falling prices, says the Bank, can be explained by better supply of goods and the strengthening of the domestic currency, the afghani, which reduces the cost of imports. However, it warns that falling prices also “likely stem from the economy adjusting to a structurally lower aggregate demand level.” In other words, total demand for all finished goods and services produced by the economy is less than it used to be. Spending by households is down, as is investment by businesses. Anecdotally, it said, this could be attributed to “depleted savings, reduced public spending, and shocks to farmer income from poppy cultivation bans.”
The strength of the currency has been remarkable. This year, up to 24 August 2023, the afghani had appreciated against the US dollar by 7.3 per cent, said the Bank. With 83.1 afghanis buying one dollar, the value was 3.7 per cent higher than on 15 August 2021. In the last few months, however, the afghani has only continued to appreciate. As this report was published, just 72.9 afghanis were needed to buy one dollar. That strengthening is partly due to government actions.
It has banned the use of foreign currency for domestic transactions, including, a money exchanger told AAN, insisting that afghanis not dollars be used to buy houses and land, cash distributions by NGOs and when they buy staple goods, and when government departments purchase materials. Provinces where Pakistani rupees or Iranian riyals are commonly used for everyday purchases have been warned to stop doing so or face the law (see, for example, reporting on 13 September by the national broadcaster, Radio Television Afghanistan). A shopkeeper in Spin Boldak in Kandahar province described to AAN a public meeting in October in which government officials told people to stop using Pakistani rupees “on the order of the Amir,” a message repeated by loudspeaker to the townspeople. The shopkeeper said a mullah had come into his shop and tried to pay for something in rupees. When he refused, the mullah praised him and the shopkeeper realised if he had accepted the rupees, the authorities would have shut his shop, as they have done several other outlets which disobeyed the order.
The government has also banned the export of cash; an example of one high-profile arrest can be seen, on an Emirate website from 6 November 2023). As there has been only limited printing of afghani notes since August 2021, demand for the currency is boosted, and said money changers, the Central Bank is managing the currency well by selling dollars, as needed. Other reasons for the strong currency are external – the dollars brought in by the United Nations to pay for civilian assistance, as well as higher remittances. However, the Bank says that all this still does not fully explain the strength of the currency. Here, the Bank looks to Afghanistan’s recent puzzling import/export figures.
For years, Afghanistan has run a deep trade deficit, funded until 2021 by money coming into the country in the form of spending by foreign armies, military support and civilian aid. In 2020, for example, Afghanistan was importing goods at a value 7.6 times greater than the value of its exports. The precipitous contraction of the economy in 2021 shrank the demand for imported goods, and at the same time Afghanistan’s exports grew. In 2022, Afghanistan imported goods valued at 3.3 times more than the value of its exports.
Exports, those legally exported rather than smuggled out, have benefited from the change of government. 2022 was a record year, said the Bank: Afghanistan exported 1.9 billion USD worth of goods, far higher than the five-year-average, 2016-21, which was just 0.8 billion USD. There is strong foreign demand for certain Afghan goods, such as coal, precious gems, gold and other minerals, fresh and dried fruit and other agricultural produce. Additionally, in 2022, demands for Afghan exports was driven by Pakistani demand for Afghan coal, which is cheap by global standards, and food, following the devastating floods in that country. However, even more important perhaps, as David Mansfield and Alcis mapped, the Emirate, unlike the Republic, pursued stronger border controls, adopted and rigorously enforced Republic-era regulatory frameworks and border management systems and closed smuggling routes.
However, exports are now weakening. The Bank reports that while, overall, in the first seven months of 2023, exports increased by three per cent, since February, they have been falling, with coal exports – down by 12 per cent – especially hard hit. Food comprises the largest type of export, with Pakistan and India as the main customers. With food exports to Pakistan declining in 2023, the Bank said India has become the biggest customer. It also says that “new (albeit small) markets are opening for Afghanistan’s food exports, including the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and Iraq.”
Remarkably, however, given the contraction to the economy and reduced aggregate demand, imports have grown. In 2022, they amounted to US$6.3 billion and, in the first seven months of 2023, had already reached US$4.4 billion. That figure, which excludes humanitarian imports, represents a growth of 32 per cent, year-on-year. How can that be possible, given the shrinking economy and Afghans’ much reduced spending power? Increased remittances cover the cost of some of those imports – the estimated 1-1.2 billion USD Afghans abroad sent home in the first seven months of 2023 (a doubling in the amount of money sent compared to 2019). Some could be covered by the regular shipments of cash coming in via the UN to pay for humanitarian aid and support to basic services (1.8 billion USD in 2022 and around 1.12 billion USD in 2023). However, the World Bank calculates this would still leave a projected and unexplained gap of 1 billion USD for January-July 2023.
Moreover, despite all the economic problems, the afghani has been steadily appreciating against major trading currencies since the start of 2023. “Official data and economic theory can’t offer a clear explanation” for how this could happen, the Bank observes drily. It also stresses that the “foreign exchange market seems in balance, as there is no evidence of a parallel exchange market.” The answer to this improbable negative correlation between a contracting GDP, increasing imports and a strengthening currency lies, it says, in an “inflow of foreign currency not shown in any official record.” In other words, there is an informal income stream covering the trade deficit and supporting the afghani.
The nature of that income stream becomes clearer when the types of imports are detailed: high-end consumption goods and industrial raw materials, including prepared food, vehicles, spare parts, stone, glassware, chemicals and iron and steel. Imports of these goods in 2022-23 nearly doubled compared to the 2016-2020 average. Why would an economy whose industrial output has declined by 26 per cent since 2020 need a substantial increase in imports of industrial inputs like base metals and chemicals, the Bank asks and “Furthermore, importing high-end consumption goods… does not match the current situation in Afghanistan, where two-thirds of households experience significant deprivation and businesses operate below capacity due to low demand.”
Rather, it suggests that 1 to 1.5 billion USD of goods were, “according to sources and market insiders,” imported into Afghanistan, but “ended up in the Pakistani market instead of being consumed domestically.” These goods were not paid for out of Afghanistan’s foreign currency. The Bank also notes that as the afghani appreciated, the Pakistani rupee has depreciated, in roughly equal measure, further proof of what is happening. The Bank surmises that, following Pakistan’s decision in 2022 to take steps to reduce imports because of a balance of payments crisis, including limiting letters of credit for importers, demand for illegal imports via Afghanistan surged.
Importing goods into Afghanistan through Pakistan and immediately smuggling them back into Pakistan is incentivised by Afghanistan not having to pay Pakistani customs on goods destined for domestic consumption – allowed because it is a landlocked country. Famously, during the first Islamic Emirate, Afghanistan imported (and re-exported) large quantities of goods that were banned, for example, television sets and video recorders. What is called the Afghan Transit Trade never went away under the Republic. However, its magnitude appears to have increased significantly since Pakistan’s attempts to curb imports.
There have been mutterings about all this in Pakistan, with calls to ease restrictions on imports to eliminate the demand for smuggled imported goods (see recent reporting in The Nation) and moves to clamp down on smuggling from Afghanistan into Pakistan (see reporting from Pajhwok). If the Pakistani authorities do manage to prevent or even limit the scam, there would be a knock-on impact on Afghan government revenue – currently, it collects customs duties on those imports – and on the strength of the afghani and so the price of imported goods. Many of these are household necessities – food, fuel and medicine.
The Bank does not mention income coming into the country from trade in counter-narcotics. This has always been considerable. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) calculated that the total Afghan opiate economy in 2021, including domestic consumption and exports, stood at between 1.8 billion and 2.7 billion USD, equivalent to 9-14 per cent of the country’s licit GDP. Since then, in April 2022, the Emirate has banned opium poppy cultivation, processing and trade. It became clear in the autumn of that year, when poppy would have been sown, that the ban was largely enforced. Prices soared, meaning anyone with opium stocks has benefited because, according to Alcis and Mansfield writing in June 2023, trade, including cross-border, was not clamped down on (see also AAN reporting here).
In a new report, Alcis and Mansfield have given figures for the number of people “denied the ability to earn an income from growing poppy in 2023” – an estimated 6.9 million – and say it looks like the ban on cultivation will be maintained into a second year. They report growing evidence that households compelled to abandon poppy in Nangrahar are in economic distress – a pattern also emerging elsewhere, citing “[t]he sale of long-term productive assets, including farm equipment, jewellery, and land to meet basic expenses and send male family members abroad.” Their report also details how traders are now targeted, although not everywhere to the same extent: “The only route that has not experienced a rise in smuggling costs,” it says, “is the journey via Bahramchah in Helmand province, possibly reflecting continued privileges afforded to those in Helmand.” The economic impact of the bans on opium, hashish and methamphetamines is not yet settled; much will depend on how seriously and comprehensively they are enforced in future years. However, income from narcotics has been a significant part of the Afghan economy for many years – helping support the afghani, paying for imports and providing seasonal work and income to millions. Take that away and the repercussions will be severe.
Raising revenue domestically is of fundamental importance to the Emirate. With the Taleban victory in 2021, Afghanistan lost huge amounts of foreign budgetary support and the ability to borrow. As we reported in summer 2022, the Emirate has proved far better at collecting revenue, both taxes and customs, than the Republic had been. At that time, in summer 2022, customs were generally holding up, as were non-tax revenues (this category covers a variety of income sources, including profits from state-owned enterprises, royalties, concessions and fines). Revenues from mining have proved particularly important. Taxes on individuals and businesses were less than under the Republic, presumably because taxable income had fallen. More data has now come in via the World Bank: it said that in 2022, customs were 136 per cent of their 2019 level, while domestic revenues (tax and non-tax) were 67 per cent. As a share of total revenue, customs have also become more significant: in 2019, they were 38.2 per cent of total income, in 2022, 55.7 per cent.
Although the accountability sessions gave no indication of overall revenue generated, many ministries and other government agencies did provide reports of the revenue they had earned in 1401/2022: the Railway Authority said it collected 3.1 billion afghanis, up by 25 per cent on the previous year, and the Standards Authority 2.2 billion afghanis, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that its revenue was greater by 32 per cent than the target set by the finance ministry. Breshna, the state electricity supply company, said it had raised 33.1 billion afghanis from private customers and 3.5 billion from government agencies and had pursued old unpaid bills and customers who had fiddled their electricity meters. It said that 180 million dollars of unpaid bills were still outstanding, owed by politicians and powerbrokers, many, presumably, not in the country. The sum is emblematic of the petty pilfering that characterised the Republic – the rich not paying for what they used. More than 500 cases, Breshna said, are now with the courts.
However, the Bank said that in 2023, the IEA’s revenue collection has not been so strong; domestic revenues have “struggle[d] due to the weak economy” and the first five months of the year saw “a mere 0.9 percent uptick year-on-year.” Non-tax revenues, it said, “underperformed,” falling to 34 per cent below target, mainly “due to weak collection by the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, a significant [non-tax revenue] contributor.” Where revenues were more buoyant, as in 2022, were in taxes taken at the border, customs duties and Business Receipt taxes; they rose by 13 per cent compared to the first five months of 2022. Customs now account for about 60 per cent of total revenues, mainly from crossings with Iran and Pakistan.
The accountability sessions (but not the World Bank reports) also gave information about two taxes which are not collected by the Ministry of Finance: zakat and ushr, the ‘Islamic taxes’ on the harvest and livestock that were introduced by the Emirate nationwide when it came to power. Acting Minister of Agriculture Mawlawi Attaullah Omari reported that in 1401/2022, his ministry had raised one billion dollars from these taxes. That represents a huge new transfer of resources from rural households to the state. The ministry’s assistant head of finance and administration, Mawlawi Fazal Bari Fazli said contributions were voluntary – although this was often not the experience of interviewees speaking to AAN for its special report on taxation published in September 2022. They described the collection of zakat and ushr as similar in nature to general tax collection and in some cases as it being imposed as a collective tax on a village. Fazli said the money went to the office of Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, who then ordered its distribution. He insisted that money was only given to “vulnerable people such as orphans, the disabled and the poverty-stricken” and “no other activity was carried out with this money” (see also reporting by Pajhwok).
Because the Emirate has to rely on revenues, the contrast with budgets under the Republic is extreme. The 2019 budget, bolstered by on-budget aid, was 424.3 billion afghanis. In 2022, said the Bank, the budget was 195.2 billion, just 46 per cent of what it had been. In 2022, the Bank also reported that the Ministry of Finance had used reserves of 1.3 billion afghanis to meet a shortfall in revenue, compared to spending.
Given these constraints, the Emirate has had to prioritise where it spends money. In general, operational needs come first (94.5 per cent of total spending), far outstripping development (5.5 per cent). Out of that operational budget, a handful of ministries and bodies take the lion’s share, said the Bank. The biggest spenders in 2022 were the Ministries of Interior (23 per cent of total operational spending), Defence (21 per cent) and Education and Higher Education (19 per cent). The other major security agency, the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), took eight per cent of operating expenditure.
The scale of the money needed to pay the salaries of government employees and armed forces can be seen in some of the statistics on staffing given in the accountability sessions. The Ministry of Interior said it employs 161,000 people (including 1,955 women), a sharp decrease from the 200,000-strong workforce it reported last year (no explanation was given for this discrepancy). The Ministry of Defence, however, continues to grow.
As to the other big spender, the Ministry of Education, while giving no numbers for the size of its school teaching staff, officials did say they had created 100,000 new positions in madrasas across the country.
Among the lowest recipients of money was the Ministry of Public Health. The Bank (with access to data from the Ministry of Finance) reported it was allocated just two billion afghanis, or one per cent of total operational spending in 1401/2022. The ministry, at its accountability session, gave roughly similar figures: its 1401/2022 budget had been 4.2 billion afghanis (3.6 billion for operating and 576 million for development) and it had spent 54 per cent of that. This sum seems very low considering the size of the reported workforce – 111,109, with approval for 500 new posts.
During the accountability sessions, acting minister Dr Qalandar Ebad said that foreign funding represented just ten per cent of the total budget. (He was answering a question from a journalist who cited a warning on 18 August 2023 by the World Health Organisation about “critical underfunding” to the sector and a decision by the International Committee of the Red Cross, reported the previous day, for example, by Reuters that it was to stop paying salaries and running costs for 25 hospitals. It had stepped in with temporary funding to keep them open in 2021, but has now returned “the full responsibilities of the health services to the Ministry of Public Health”).
However, according to the UN, 457 million USD of aid was spent on the health sector in 2022 (see its Financial Tracking Service), equivalent to 38 billion afghanis. Not all that money would have been spent in Afghanistan, but what did arrive was significant. Moreover, cooperation with the Emirate in this sector is explicit. UNICEF, for example, a large recipient of health sector funding, says it works, “under the leadership of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health… with partners to improve services and ensure quality reproductive maternal newborn child and adolescent health care, as well as expanded programme on immunization services for children and women.” This spending thus looks to dwarf the entire Public Health budget of the Emirate. Also worth noting is the World Bank’s citing “recent unconfirmed reports” suggesting that the Emirate had covered the shortfall in the hospital budget by “reallocate[ing] part of its contingency budget allocations” – funds set aside for expenditure that was not anticipated when the national budget was approved.
One interesting point in the accountability sessions was Breshna reporting that it had paid off its debts. It said that in 1444 (according to the Islamic lunar calendar, equivalent to 1401 and 2022; see footnote 7), it paid off outstanding foreign debts to Uzbekistan (102 million USD), Tajikistan (80 million USD), Turkmenistan (56 million USD) and Iran (65 million USD). It also paid off outstanding debts totalling more than 20 million USD to various domestic electricity production companies.
Helping pay Breshna’s debts was considered in 2021 as a way of helping Afghanistan out of its economic crisis. Although it did not make it into the Humanitarian Response Plan, UNDP did float the idea in its 2021-22 Economic Outlook, published in December 2021, arguing that “An interruption of electricity imports might leave over 10 million people, a quarter of the population, in the dark. International humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan should ensure that electricity imports are not cut, but that, if they are, whatever little energy is produced internally will continue and therefore ease the stark everyday energy poverty of ordinary households.” It appears that the Emirate has managed to pay these debts without such support.
Most Emirate spending is on operating costs, unsurprising given that money is tight. However, within that, there are choices of what to spend money on. The World Bank summed these priorities up:
[T]he ITA [interim Taleban administration] is utilizing available resources largely to pay for security, teachers’ salaries, and core civil and administrative functions while leaving donors to finance healthcare, food security, broader education needs, and the agri-food system.
For donors, this is a political concern, given that their aid to certain sectors frees up the IEA to sustain large, and indeed in the army, growing numbers of men in uniform. Since August 2021, this dilemma has hung in the air.
Financing for development from any source has been minimal since August 2021, given donors’ reluctance to go beyond humanitarian and basic services funding and Emirate revenue constraints. In 2022, according to the Bank, the Emirate initially set aside 10.8 billion afghanis for 66 projects, with 20 more added at a cost of 1.39 billion afghanis, financed from contingency funds. 51 per cent of total development spending in 2022 went on the Qush Tepe Canal (5.46 billion afghanis), a major project to divert water for irrigation from the Amu Darya from Balkh province through Jowzjan to Faryab province.
Where the Emirate does have development funds, it has concentrated them on major infrastructure projects especially those providing irrigation. As well as the Qush Tepa Canal, which is overseen by the state-owned National Development Corporation, the Ministry of Water and Power mentioned several other water projects. The gap between what needs to be done and what can be afforded was nowhere clearer than in the presentation by Breshna. It listed various achievements in the last year: fitting a new transmission cable and thereby tripling the electricity carried from the Kajaki hydroelectric dam to Kandahar (30 to 85 kilowatts) at a cost of just 3.5m USD (compared to a ‘foreign company’s bid of 20m USD); separating the supply of electricity to residential and business customers on industrial parks in Kabul and Nangrahar and improving supply to the latter and; the – soon to be inaugurated – first complete substation designed by Breshna engineers in Chimtal at a cost of 600k USD (compared to a foreign bid of 2.5m USD). It also mentioned some ambitious plans – to finish fitting a cable from Turghondi to Herat to improve the electricity supply to Herat city and another from Arghandi to Ghazni. However, it also lamented the loss of support it used to receive from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, USAID, GIZ and other donors. In the past two years, it said it had received no assistance, and although the company had not collapsed, thanks to its employees and leadership, there was much it could not do.
The accountability session of the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum was also important for any discussion of the Afghan economy. This sector is a major earner for the government and has the potential to push growth. Acting minister Shahabuddin Delawar detailed numerous projects – contracts to prospect for minerals or to mine, already signed or out to tender. However, he also warned that exploiting a mine is time-consuming, with exploration taking at least three to seven years before extraction can start. In other words, the benefits accruing from not yet exploited minerals will take time to realise. Moreover, existing mines depend on market demand; if that falls, for example from Pakistan for Afghan coal this year, revenues will also fall.
However, Delawar was proud of the revenue that mines whose extraction was already underway under the old government were bringing in. His ministry, he said, pays “the salaries and expenses of the national army, the Ministry of Interior, the intelligence agency, and millions of government employees.” He also described how roadbuilding was paid for by mineral extraction. The ministry allocates a specific mine’s revenue for the construction of a specific road, with the ministry paying the Ministry of Public Works a share of the road-building cost. Acting technical Deputy Minister of Public Works Mawlawi Abdul Karim Fateh pointed to several roads, including Kandahar to Uruzgan, Salang to Parwan and sections of the Kabul to Kandahar highway as paid for in this way.
One of the themes running through the accountability sessions was the importance of trade to the Afghan economy, including a trope familiar from the time of the Republic, of Afghanistan as a future regional trading hub. Some of the actions needed to facilitate trade are political. Acting Foreign Minister Muttaqi, for example, highlighted how Foreign Ministry efforts to maintain good relationships with all our six neighbouring countries meant border crossings for goods had been kept open in the last year (for reporting on how damaging closed crossings are to farmers, see this April 2022 report from AAN). He also ascribed the success of the transit trade, with more than fifty-thousand vehicles moving goods across Afghanistan, linking south and Central Asia in the last 12 months, to their economy-oriented policy. However, other actions need money.
For example, acting deputy economy minister Nazari mentioned two large-scale energy projects, TAPI and CASA-1000, which are planned to cross Afghanistan and, he said, had prompted ‘recent’ regional level meetings. Both, however, are stalled. CASA-1000 is a project designed to transmit electricity generated from renewable energy sources in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and onwards to Pakistan (website here). Administered by the World Bank with funding from the Islamic Development Bank, US, UK and Australia, work in Afghanistan has halted since the 2021 Taleban takeover. TAPI, a project to deliver natural gas by pipeline to Afghanistan and on through to Pakistan and India, is also stalled; on 13 October, Afghanistan said it was ready to cover the costs of the Afghan sections (see ToloNews reporting), but disagreements between Pakistan and Turkmenistan over tariffs and costs remain (reporting from the summer in the Pakistan media here).
In summary, despite the Emirate talking up its progress and laying out plans for the future, the Afghan economy is contracting, showing weak demand, deflation and limited public spending, with much of it concentrated on operating costs for the security services. The consequences of all this for households and businesses are the subject of the final section of this report.
How households and businesses are faring
There has been a slight improvement in household welfare since the Bank conducted its last Welfare Monitoring Survey in summer 2022, albeit from very low levels. 62 per cent of households now report that they do not have enough income to pay for food or enough only for food but not other basic needs. That compares to 70 per cent in June-August 2022 and 64 per cent in October-December 2021 (for methodology, see footnote 3). Those figures indicate some recovery following the surge in the number of Afghans living in poverty caused by the collapse of the economy in 2021. However, that still translates into over half the Afghan population living in poverty, a level that is “similar in magnitude,” said the Bank, to what was observed before the regime change, at a time in which the intensity of conflict in Afghanistan was at its all-time high.” Poverty rates are highest in urban areas, the Bank said, although in the countryside, families are vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather, exacerbated now by the climate crisis.
Source: World Bank Afghanistan Welfare Monitoring Surveys: Round 1 (Oct-Dec 2021), Round 2 (Jun-Aug 2022), Round 3 (April-June 2023).
The Bank attributed this slight improvement in welfare to remittances having doubled since 2019, the inflow of humanitarian aid and some recovery in wage rates following their sharp fall in 2021. However, it also said, chillingly: “Recent gains in welfare have come at the cost of possibly exhausting all coping strategies and household resources.” In other words, many households have survived until now only at the loss of any resilience in the face of future economic shocks. That could be savings spent, debts incurred, belongings or land sold, young men sent away to work and boys taken out of school to work. Daughters may also have been married, either at a younger age or to unsuitable men (at the most extreme end, this involves child marriage (see AAN reporting here).
The Bank details how extra labour is being mobilised by women doing paid work – three times as many as in 2020 – primarily working at home producing textiles and garments and processing food to sell. The change is especially noticeable in rural areas, it said, where the share of women working in manufacturing increased from 15 per cent in April-June 2020 to 39 per cent in the same months in 2023. This is at the expense, it says, of women’s share of employment in agriculture. For Afghan women, almost all work in manufacturing – 96 per cent – is done at home. At the same time, population growth means the workforce is expanding faster than the economy can provide jobs: one in three young men, the Bank says, are currently unemployed.
The strengthening of the afghani has reduced the cost of imported goods, one factor causing prices to fall. This, in turn, translates into higher real wages for those in work, ie their wages can now buy more. However, while deflation has brought short-term relief, there is a danger of damaging longer-term consequences, says the Bank. When prices are falling, there is an incentive to delay purchasing until prices fall further. Reduced demand can lead to the private sector hesitating to invest, while a deflationary spiral could cause lay-offs. The Bank warns that “recent firm surveys already report a drop in demand as [their] most significant constraint.”
Many businesses are struggling to operate at full capacity. In the third round of the World Bank’s Private Sector Rapid Survey (March-April 2023), it found only just over half of the firms surveyed were fully operational, with another third operating below capacity. Small firms and firms owned by women were disproportionately affected, with only one-third fully operational, compared to 74 per cent of large firms and 58 per cent of firms owned by men. The biggest constraint firms reported was dampened demand, followed by uncertainty about the future and limited banking system functionality. For firms owned by women, they reported that their main constraints were struggling with Emirate restrictions on women’s economic activities and the limited availability of cash and liquidity. Companies also reported a less efficient payment system, the increased cost of doing business, poor availability of imported inputs and difficulty securing loans. Businesses continue to suffer from the strain on the Afghan banking system caused by the reluctance of foreign banks to authorise payments to and from Afghan bank customers – despite all the waivers to United States sanctions exempting most transactions (and making them, for foreign banks, legal under US law).
More positively, nearly half of the firms surveyed by the Bank reported an improvement in the security environment, although female owners were twice as likely to report a deterioration in security since the previous survey compared to their male counterparts. Many firms also reported that their businesses “did not have to pay any unofficial payments or bribes” when paying taxes, clearing customs, participating in public procurement, or requesting government services.
As to what firms are doing to survive the contracting economy, the Bank said that “dialogue with the [interim Taleban authority] to address potential issues was the tactic most employed by male-owned businesses to lessen potential revenue effects” (not to take so much tax?), although fewer than half said they had managed to resolve their difficulties and less than ten per cent reported a “satisfactory resolution.” Women who owned firms, it said, had “more difficulty” engaging with the authorities and their primary coping strategy has been to allow female staff to work from home. Firms in general, it said, also described ‘survival strategies’ – laying off employees, shrinking investments and using hawala agents for making payments, especially for import-export, rather than banks. Those first two strategies – laying workers off and limiting investment – are profoundly worrying since they lay the path toward further shrinking demand and inhibitions on economic growth.
The Afghan economy has now contracted for two successive years. The current apparent stability feels very fragile in the light of multiple potential threats – from climate change, further reduction in aid, Pakistan clamping down on the import-export scam, prolonged deflation, large numbers of Afghans being forcibly returned from Pakistan and the shock of the ban on opium cultivation to the household income of multiple small and large farmers and landless labourers, and to the national economy. High population growth already outstrips any hope of the Afghan economy providing enough jobs. Then there is the self-inflicted wound of restricting women’s access to paid work and the decision not to educate girls beyond primary schooling, which says the Bank “further lower Afghanistan’s growth prospects.”
Growth is needed, as the Emirate recognises, but it is difficult to see where it might come from. Mining might eventually provide it. Better rain and snow this winter and spring should bring bigger harvests and grazing for livestock in 2024 than has been the case in recent years, but climate predictions are for more frequent droughts. Out-migration, which reduces pressure on employment and services and should boost remittances, is harder than ever for Afghans to undertake. Indeed, many living in Pakistan are threatened with forced repatriation. Major infrastructure projects, which could provide energy, irrigation and better connectivity, are difficult for poor countries to fund without international development aid, which is currently unavailable because of the political choices of both the Emirate and the major donors. Constraints on revenue also limit what the Emirate itself can do, even on a smaller scale, to boost development, although some might question its spending choices; half of government spending going to the security services at a time of peace may keep supporters loyal, but hardly helps the economy.
Deploying development aid, lifting sanctions and recognising the Emirate would all help free up the Afghan economy. For that to happen, there would need to be movement, by the Emirate and/or foreign powers, on a whole range of issues, from IEA policy on girls and women and the make-up of its government to its relations with international jihadist groups. The prospect of either side backing down on these issues seems, for the moment, small. Yet, without some break to the impasse, it is difficult to see how the economy can escape what the Bank has forecast – at best, stagnation and at worst, further contraction.
Edited by Martine van Bijlert
The Emirate has moved Afghanistan’s financial year back to the Afghan hijri shamsi (Islamic solar) calendar, with every year starting on the Spring Equinox (21 March) and year 1 dated to the Prophet Muhammad’s flight to Medina. For simplicity’s sake, the World Bank has continued to map the Western calendar onto this, so that, for example, it terms the current year, 1402 (21 March 2023 to 20 March 2024), as 2023. Occasionally, in the accountability sessions, officials also referred to the Islamic lunar calendar (hijri qamari), which starts from the same year, but counts a year as 12 lunar months
As well as AFMIS, the Bank’s monthly Afghanistan Economic Monitors cite ASYCUDA, the computer programme which tracks customs data and the Ministry of Finance, official statistics on prices and trade from the National Statistics and Information Authority (NSIA) and data on exchange rates collected and reported by the Afghan Central Bank. The Monitors also cite prices and wage data from all provinces collected by the World Food Programme and data on the availability of foreign exchange and cash from 22 provinces collected by the World Bank’s Third Party Monitoring Agent
The first two rounds of the survey took place in October-December 2021 and June-August 2022. The latest survey, conducted April-June 2023, included new information on “a limited set of consumption items and assets used to estimate monetary poverty.” The Bank said it had reinterviewed households previously contacted by the Income, Expenditure, and Labour Force Survey, which was run by the Republic-era National Statistics Information Authority in 2019-20 and 2021. For that survey, 12,811 unique telephone numbers were collected from 318 districts out of 339. About half of the original households could be recontacted; failure was usually because the phone was not working or not active. See pp 25-33 of the Bank’s latest Welfare Survey for more information about methodology.
The accountability initiative was pioneered by the second Ashraf Ghani administration, with the first sessions of its Government Accountability to the Nation Programme held in 2020 and then again in 2021. All the sessions, from both the Emirate and Republic, can be viewed on the Government Media and Information (GMIC) YouTube channel.
The figures and details quoted in this report from the various accountability sessions were communicated verbally and taken from video transcripts and may contain unintentional inaccuracies.
There are notable exceptions: Hazaras continue to be targeted in sectarian attacks, most recently in the bombing by ISKP of a sports club in the Dasht-e Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul, which killed four people and injured seven (see reporting by France 24 here). It is also now more difficult for unaccompanied women to travel because of IEA restrictions.
In January-July 2023, exports consisted of vegetable and fruit products (55 per cent of total), coal (22 per cent) and textiles (16 per cent). While coal exports fell by 12 per cent compared to the same period in 2022, exports of textiles increased by 49 per cent and food exports by 2 per cent. See pages 27-8 of the Bank’s report for greater detail on exports and imports.
Revenue collection during 1402, as reported by ministries and government bodies during the accountability sessions of August 2023:
Breshna: 33.12 billion afghanis from private customers and 3.5 billion afghanis from government customers, including past debts. It also reported it had paid debts of 303 million USD to neighbours and 23 million to domestic companies.
Ministry of Defence: 13 million afghanis net (127 million Afs gross)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs: 32 per cent more revenue than the target set by the Ministry of Finance.
Ministry of Higher Education: 207 million afghanis
Kabul Municipality: 4.2 billion afghanis in the last 11 months, “far more” than previous years and with a plan to increase these revenues.
Railway Authority: 3.1 billion afghanis, up by 25 per cent
Standards Authority: 2.2 billion afghanis
Ministry of Transport and Aviation: more than 8.9 billion afghanis
Ministry of Water and Energy: 3.7 billion dollars for specific projects
The business receipt tax is an inland tax but collected on imports through a withholding mechanism at the border. Firms can later file for adjustments, but generally nobody does; rather, it is subsumed into the business as a cost.
A few ministries and bodies gave figures for their budgets during the accountability sessions, including:
Ministry of Hajj and Awqaf
1402 operating budget 1.4 billion afghanis
Ministry of Martyrs and Disabled
1402 budget 12 billion afghanis
1401 budget: 13.5 billion afghanis (9.5 billion used/4 billion remained and taken back by Ministry of Finance; it said it had reached 75 per cent of beneficiaries).
Other ministries and bodies reporting increases in staff during the accountability sessions were:
Ministry of Hajj and Awqaf
1402: 9,870 staff, of whom 7,736 were religious workers – khatibs, imams, muezzins, mosque cleaners; this
includes 2,200 new religious employees and 370 new non-religious employees and contractors.
Ministry of Martyrs and Disabled
1402: 883 posts added (as of the accountability session, 555 had been hired), which would equal 1,969 (in 1401, staff was reported to have increased from 638 to 1,086).
Ministry of Public Works
1402: 2,637 staff, compared to 2,185 staff reported for 1401.
Transport and Aviation
1402: 4,450 staff, compared to 2,339 staff reported for 1401.
Academy of Sciences
1402: 521 staff (304 scientific, 118 administrative, professional or technical, 99 service staff), this includes 50 new posts.
The following ministries and bodies mentioned their current staffing levels during the accountability sessions:
Land-grabbing commission: 510 staff;
Ministry of Economy: 964 staff;
Ministry of Mines: 2,425 staff plus 818 at Afghan Coal Enterprise and 900 at Afghan Gas;
Environmental Protection Agency 1402 staff: 700; and
Supreme Court: 14,024 staff (2,917 judges, 1,785 administrative, 1,394 service jobs, 830 in the Law Department; 7,098 general security and executive posts related to the courts). It said the tashkil (authorised workforce) was complete and would not increase.
If the Bank’s figures for the operational budgets for Interior, Defence and Public Health are divided by the number of staff given for each ministry at the accountability sessions (a reasonable metric, given that salaries are the main part of operational spending), Health is a clear outlier: Interior is spending an average of 262k afghanis per person, Defence 231k per person and Health just 33k.
The ICRC’s Hospital Resilience Project supported 33 hospitals with a total capacity of 7,057 beds, reaching about 26 million people. The support included “paying the salaries of nearly 10,500 health workers (of whom around one-third are women) and buying medical supplies to limit the disruption of treatment of patients. It also includes cash assistance to buy fuel to run ambulances, ensure power continuity, provide food for patients and carry out necessary maintenance work.”
According to the Bank, a quarter of the entire 2022 budget was allocated to contingency codes, amounting to one-fifth of the total operating budget and one-third of the total development budget. They were concentrated in three ministries: Education, Interior and Defence. Contingency funds can be controversial because spending them is discretionary and whoever controls them can spend them as they wish, with little oversight or transparency. During the Republic, when contingency codes took up between about 6 and 11 per cent of the budget, there was condemnation of the power they gave the president, the lack of parliamentary oversight of how they were spent, and some scandalous examples uncovered by the media of where the money actually went. See, for example, this 7 December 2020 Etilaat-e Roz report alleging spending on ‘personal purposes’ such as “hundreds of millions of Afs from [the contingency code, 91 that] have been spent on buying and renting houses, armoured vehicles, apartments, [air] tickets, medical expenses, cash benefits [to senior officials] and other personal expenses.”
This risk of interrupted electricity imports was also cited fleetingly in the UN’s Transitional Engagement Framework (page 5), published on 26 January 2022, which it called “the overarching strategic planning document for the UN system’s assistance in 2022.” Some foreign donors liked the idea of assistance via the conduit of paying money to Afghanistan’s neighbours rather than getting ‘embroiled’ in the, to them, more messy policy decisions of sending aid to Afghanistan, given their reluctance to help the Emirate.
Head of the Minister of Water and Power’s Office Qari Muhammad Abdul Aziz mentioned work on the Kamal Khan Dam in Nimruz province; the Kajaki Dam in Helmand; tunnels for the Bakhsh Abad Dam in Farah; Shah wa Arus Dam in Kabul province; Tori Dam in Zabul and; Pashdan Dam in Herat.
In round 1 of the Private Sector Rapid Survey, conducted October-November 2021, 19 per cent of respondents were women. By the second round (May-June 2022), that had fallen to just under 14 per cent. Round 3 (March-April 2023) appears not yet to have been published.
Survival and Stagnation: The State of the Afghan economy
As global attention centered on Gaza and the compounding upheavals and traumas triggered by Israel’s war on Hamas, another population is in crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees are being forced to leave Pakistan as the country implements an order from its interim government to remove undocumented people from within its borders. Of the roughly 4 million Afghans living in Pakistan, about 1.7 million people are thought to be in the crosshairs of this “repatriation” plan.
The Pakistani government set a Nov. 1 deadline for when people without legal documents — primarily Afghans, but also potentially asylum seekers from persecuted groups such as China’s Uyghurs and Myanmar’s Rohingya — to remain in the country must leave, or otherwise face arrest and deportation. A network of “holding centers” for detained migrants has been set up in Pakistan’s provinces, and locals report a surge in police harassment and abuse of Afghans living in the country. Close to 200,000 Afghan refugees have already returned to a homeland some do not even know, with the numbers rising.
Sarfraz Bugti, Pakistan’s caretaker interior minister, has framed the decision as one shaped by security imperatives, claiming that 14 out of 24 major terrorist attacks carried out this year within Pakistan have been by Afghan nationals. Pakistan is struggling to rein in the Pakistani Taliban outfits operating within the country; these factions have loose connections to the Taliban government next door in Afghanistan, which has denounced Pakistan’s planned expulsion of its nationals.
Many of the Afghans who have joined this exodus were born in Pakistan or fled to the country decades ago as children. “I was born in Pakistan, I’ve lived here for 42 years, I went to school in Pakistan,” a man identified as Nasim, who had traveled to the Torkham border crossing from the northern city Peshawar, told CNN. “I’ve never been to Afghanistan.”Post)
Now, their lives are subsumed in uncertainty and fear. More than 50 years of chaos and strife in Afghanistan have sent waves of refugees to neighboring Pakistan and Iran. The latest flow came after the Taliban’s 2021 takeover in Kabul, but many Afghans have resided in Pakistan since the days of the Soviet invasion. Reporters at border crossings detail tragic stories of Afghan families fleeing police extortion, vigilante violence and losing their businesses and property.
“Pakistan’s announced deadline for Afghans to return has led to detentions, beatings, and extortion, leaving thousands of Afghans in fear over their future,” Fereshta Abbasi, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week. “The situation in Afghanistan remains dangerous for many who fled, and deportation will expose them to significant security risks, including threats to their lives and well-being.”
According to the United Nations, 1.3 million Afghans are registered refugees in Pakistan and 880,000 more have legal status to remain. But a huge population of undocumented Afghans live in the country and are now being collectively punished for the actions of a handful of militants. “The large majority of such people are vulnerable Afghan refugees and stateless persons for whom Pakistan has been home for several generations,” wrote the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan last month in the wake of the government’s order.
“It is unacceptable to hold them to account for the wrongs of a select few,” it added. “They have a moral right to seek refuge in this country and to be treated with dignity and empathy.”
Western governments and international agencies also expressed alarm, warning of a new humanitarian crisis in a country like Afghanistan that is already crippled by a collapsed economy and the pariah status of its political leadership. Some returning refugees face persecution at the hands of the Taliban authorities. Others lament the inability to enroll their girls in schools, given the draconian edicts of the extremists in charge in Kabul. Many fear homelessness and destitution.
“I lived in Pakistan for more than a decade,” a man identified as Mohmand told Al Jazeera at a border crossing. “I have three children and a large, extended family, who are being pushed back after the government did not fulfill its promise of providing us proper documentation. I have no money, no roof. Where do I go back to?”
Unmoved, Pakistan’s caretaker government, guided by the country’s domineering military, is pressing ahead as it also prepares for elections scheduled Feb. 8. “The military, which exerts heavy influence over the caretaker regime, is likely driving the policy. (The army chief publicly endorsed the move and attended the meeting finalizing the plan.),” noted Michael Kugelman, South Asia director at the Wilson Center. “But it’s letting the caretaker regime — which need not worry about political blowback — take any public flak.”
Kugelman, writing in Foreign Policy, added that Pakistan may be trying to use the situation in its wrangling with Kabul: “Islamabad may be using the expulsion policy in part to compel the Taliban — which have condemned the move — to help more on counterterrorism. Sadly, vulnerable Afghans — from young new arrivals to older and established residents who embrace Pakistan as their only home — are becoming casualties of broader geopolitical machinations.”
Pakistan has a long, fraught history with the Taliban. The Islamist extremist organization received direct support and succor from Pakistan’s military establishment, and various wings of its leadership were allowed sanctuary in Pakistani cities. For years, the U.S.-backed government in Kabul blamed Pakistan for helping incubate the Taliban and enabling its militancy.
The tables have somewhat turned now, with Pakistani authorities frustrated with the inability of the Taliban in Kabul to check the infiltration and plots of the Pakistani Taliban. Those include separate attacks over the weekend on a police convoy and at an air force base. “The attacks have occurred as Pakistan carries out its repatriation plan for Afghans, which has been met with anger in Kabul,” noted a Sunday editorial in Pakistani daily Dawn. “Our security apparatus will need to remain extra vigilant and flush out not just the militants but also their facilitators.”
In a video statement, the Taliban’s acting prime minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund said that “if the current military and civilian rulers of Pakistan, or specifically the generals, have any problems with the Afghan government, they should solve them through negotiations. Come and talk face to face with us; don’t mistreat refugees for that.”
Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, the Taliban regime’s defense minister, called on Pakistani officials not to treat Afghan refugees with “cruelty” and to protect their property and possessions. He issued an ominous warning to Islamabad: “As you sow, so shall you reap.”