Survival and Stagnation: The State of the Afghan economy

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)[1] 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),[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.

Source: World Bank ‘Afghanistan Development Update: Uncertainty After Fleeting Stability’, October 2023

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.

Source: World Bank ‘Afghanistan Development Update: Uncertainty After Fleeting Stability’, October 2023

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.[10] 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.

Arezo Osmani (C), owner of Safe Path Prosperity Social Enterprise, inspects a fabric sanitary pad in her tailor workshop in Kabul. Photo: Wakil Kohsar, July 2023
Arezo Osmani (C), owner of Safe Path Prosperity Social Enterprise, inspects a fabric sanitary pad in her tailor workshop in Kabul. Photo: Wakil Kohsar, July 2023

Government revenue

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.[11] 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;[12] 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).

Government spending

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.[13]

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.

Source: Ministry of Defence accountability sessions, 2022 and 2023

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.[14]

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.[15]

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”).[16]

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.[17]

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.”[18] 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.[19]

Development Spending

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.[20] 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 reported their capacity to cover food and non-food expenses, from World Bank Welfare Monitoring Surveys
How households reported their capacity to cover food and non-food expenses, from World Bank Welfare Monitoring Surveys

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.[21] 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.

What next?

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


1 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
2 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
3 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.
4 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.
5 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.
6 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.
7 For more detail and discussion, see AAN’s March 2022 report, ‘A Pledging Conference for Afghanistan… But what about beyond the humanitarian?’.
8 2019 is the most reasonable year to compare, given that needs and assistance increased in 2020 and 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
9 See the author’s 2020 report, ‘The Cost of Support to Afghanistan: Considering inequality, poverty and lack of democracy through the ‘rentier state’ lens’ which looked at how the magnitude of unearned income flowing into Afghanistan distorted both the state/citizen relationship and the economy.
10 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.
11 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

12 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.
13 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).

14 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.

15 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.
16 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.”
17 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.”
18 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.
19 For more discussion on this, see the recently published ‘Aid Diversion in Afghanistan: Is it time for a candid conversation?’ by AAN guest author, Ashley Jackson, and Donors’ Dilemma: How to provide aid to a country whose government you do not recognise by AAN’s Roxanna Shapour, published in July 2022.
20 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.
21 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
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Pakistan carries out a mass expulsion

Analysis by

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.

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.”

Pakistan carries out a mass expulsion
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The Guardian view on Pakistan’s expulsion of Afghans: don’t send them back to the Taliban

The Guardian

6 Nov 2023

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
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Why Is Pakistan Expelling 1.7 Million Afghans?

Michael Kugelman
Foreign Policy

Islamabad’s policy of deporting all undocumented foreigners will have widespread repercussions.

On Wednesday, Pakistan began the process of expelling all undocumented foreigners, including 1.7 million Afghans—one of the country’s largest immigrant communities. Officials say the policy, which was first announced last month, will be implemented in phases, with migrants and refugees temporarily placed in holding centers before deportation.

Afghans in Pakistan have faced forced repatriations in the past but never on this scale. Islamabad claims the mass expulsion will protect public welfare and make Pakistan safer. But it’s likely that domestic politics and worsening relations with Taliban-led Afghanistan drove the government’s decision.

In recent weeks, Islamabad called on undocumented foreigners to leave voluntarily by Nov. 1. The government said on Monday that around 200,000 Afghan nationals had left over the past two months. Recent days have featured harrowing scenes of Afghan students hugging their Pakistani classmates goodbye and trucks lining up at the border piled high with Afghans’ belongings.

The potential repercussions of Pakistan’s draconian decision are devastating. Taliban-led Afghanistan is not prepared to accommodate masses of returnees, who will be greeted by a vast humanitarian crisis—15 million Afghans are acutely food insecure—exacerbated by drought, floods, and earthquakes. Afghanistan also faces severe global aid cuts and fewer international relief groups operating in its borders due to Taliban policies. Most returning girls and women won’t be able to attend school or work.

For decades, Pakistan has been a top destination for Afghans fleeing conflict, with several million entering the country since the 1970s, including at least 600,000 after the Taliban takeover in 2021. Pakistan prides itself on its ability to house so many Afghan refugees despite its constraints as a poor country. But human rights groups have documented Afghans facing years of discrimination at work, school, and at the hands of landlords and law enforcement. Some Pakistanis, including government officials, have accused Afghans of stealing jobs, dealing drugs, and participating in terrorism. Pakistani officials have previously ordered thousands of them to leave.

Likely for these reasons, many Afghans started to avoid Pakistan nearly a decade ago and instead fled to Europe via the Mediterranean. But for hundreds of thousands of Afghans desperate to escape their country in 2021, nearby Pakistan was the easiest option. They’re all vulnerable now—especially those who previously worked for the U.S. military and await approval to enter the United States on special immigration visas.

Islamabad insists its decision falls within applicable international norms—likely a reference to the many countries, including in the West, that deport undocumented immigrants. It emphasizes that the policy targets all undocumented foreigners, not just Afghans, and that legal immigrants aren’t affected (though reports emerged this week of some documented Afghans being deported, too). It is not clear whom, exactly, the policy will affect, but data in recent years suggests deportations may also impact migrants and refugees from Iran, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.

Indeed, it’s clear that Afghans have become scapegoats as Pakistan weathers both one of its worst economic crises in years and a major resurgence of terrorism by the Afghanistan-based Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Last month, interim Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti accused Afghans of being involved in organized crime and terrorism and indirectly accused them of hampering Pakistan’s economic recovery.

Some Pakistanis condemn the move and have staged protests against it in recent days, though there is no recent data suggesting how many might oppose it. At any rate, public opinion is unlikely to sway Islamabad. Pakistan is led by an apolitical caretaker government preparing the country for elections in January. 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.) But it’s letting the caretaker regime—which need not worry about political blowback—take any public flak.

Additionally, Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban have worsened because Islamabad thinks the group has not done enough to curb the presence of TTP fighters and bases in Afghanistan. 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.

, the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief and the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.

Why Is Pakistan Expelling 1.7 Million Afghans?
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Finding Business Opportunity after Conflict: Shopkeepers, civil servants and farmers in Andar district


For most of the last two decades, Andar district in Ghazni province was the site of intense battles. Its strategic location, lying on Highway One between Kabul and Kandahar and one of the ‘gateways’ to Ghazni city, as well as the fact that many Taleban fighters and leaders hail from Andar, made it a hotbed of the insurgency from its earliest days. AAN has studied this district comprehensively for many years, with reports on the conflict, economy, politics and culture. In 2015, it published, ‘Finding Business Opportunity in Conflict: Shopkeepers, Taleban and the political economy of Andar district’ which discovered how shopkeepers were trying not only to survive the conflict, but also manipulate frontlines and road closures to their benefit and their rivals’ disadvantage. This paper is a follow-up to the 2015 report and also comes up to date looking at how the district has fared since 2021.

It begins by briefly introducing the traditional economic structure of Andar as well as how it was transformed with the invasion of the United States and the installation of a new Republic government which received unprecedented amount of aid and military spending after 2001. It then details how the last years of the insurgency affected the local economy, a time when the conflict intensified and control of territory shifted in the Taleban’s favour. The final section explores the current economic state of affairs in Andar, at what has happened to the bazaars that were forced by conflict to close or move location, and at how in Andar, at least, the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) has brought security and economic and political dividends.

Andar district in Ghazni province. Map by Roger Helms, 2023












Historically, Andar had a largely subsistence economy, centred around agriculture and livestock, and to a far lesser extent, remittances from economic migrants. The main crops cultivated in the district have been wheat, beans, potatoes and grapes. People exchanged what they grew within local communities in order to meet their most basic needs. Only a small portion of the harvest was sold abroad, enabling the purchase of goods that were not locally available, such as fuel, clothing, and machinery, like water pumps, generators and radios. Livestock, as the second major economic pillar, provided other essential needs. Cows and sheep supplied food and wool, and their dried dung was used as a fuel, for cooking and warming homes during winter, and as a fertiliser. Donkeys and horses were the main means of transport. Economic migration to neighbouring countries, chiefly Pakistan and Iran, was a third, important economic strategy. Many families had someone working abroad who could send money back home so that the family could purchase necessary goods from the bazaar. For one community elder, life was then far more straightforward:

In the past, all we ate and used came from the community. Life was simple and we didn’t need most of the things that have now became a necessity in life. We didn’t go to Ghazni [city] for months. Even if we had important things we needed to buy, one man from the entire village would go and buy everything for everyone in the village. We didn’t know what oranges, okra or vegetables were. All we ate were potatoes, shkana [onion and potato soup] and natar [a dish of buttermilk and broken-up pieces of bread]. People also didn’t have the kinds of clothes people have nowadays. Unlike nowadays, people didn’t need to go to the doctor for treatment. We had our own, homemade treatments. There were no cars or motorcycles, and so we didn’t need to take them to the mechanic or fill them with fuel. Life wasn’t as complex as it is today.

This equilibrium really began to change in 2001 when Afghanistan drew global attention following the 9/11 attacks, the United States overthrew the Islamic Emirate and the Islamic Republic was established and an unprecedented amount of aid flowed into the country. The exceptionally high levels of development aid and military spending raised living standards and drove economic growth – although always with concerns that the growth was not sustainable. Roads, hospitals, schools and telecommunication services were established, connecting previously isolated and inaccessible rural areas to Afghanistan’s relatively modern and often culturally distinct urban centres, and the world beyond. Andar was no exception to these national trends.

The consumption of imported consumer goods soon became a well-entrenched norm. Local bazaars were the primary benefactors of this phenomenon, with merchants bringing in outside goods from major bazaars in cities such as Ghazni. These local bazaars grew in size and number and the imported goods they sold became more varied. This growing trade meant the bazaar business became a major source of income for people in the district. Hundreds of shops were newly established in the old bazaars and new bazaars were set up in different localities. Most villages saw one or two new shops.

The main beneficiaries of this new trade in Andar were the established bazaars of Mirai, Nanai and Chardiwal. Mirai bazaar is host to Andar’s district centre and government administration, while Nanai is located on Highway One that passes from Kabul through Andar to Kandahar and Chardiwal bazaar lies on the road between Gardez in Paktia and Ghazni highway.

Mirai Bazaar in 2013 when it was still partly functional. From 2017 onwards when the conflict intensified, almost all traders moved their shops to  Kamalkhil or Nazarwall. Photo: Fazal Muzhary, March 2013
Mirai Bazaar in Andar district, Ghazni, in 2013 when it was still partly functional. From 2017 onwards when the conflict intensified, almost all traders moved their shops to  Kamalkhil or Nazarwall. Photo: Fazal Muzhary, March 2013

Business in these bazaars flourished until the Taleban insurgency gained momentum in the area. The first blow to the bazaars of this growing insecurity was in 2009, when insurgents closed Mirai bazaar to prevent people from voting in the presidential elections. While the bazaar later reopened, it did not function properly after its first closure in 2009 during all the years of the insurgency (for more details see the 2015 AAN report).

With the conflict intensifying in the district, other bazaars also fell victim to it. Nanai was the site of vicious battles between the Taleban and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) as well as the US-led foreign forces when they were actively engaged in combat in the period up till 2014. The bazaar, though not formally closed until the end of the insurgency, was a frequent site for Taleban attacks, to the point where people did not dare visit it and it was de facto closed.

Chardiwal, while not host to any government administration, witnessed frequent attacks on passing ANSF convoys travelling to the Bandi Sardi military base and onto Paktika province. It also became too perilous for shopkeepers to do business and customers to visit.

One such businessman in Chardiwal was Anwar, who rented two large shops, selling chickens, vegetables, fresh fruit and beverages. He told the author that his shop was always crowded with customers as his prices were lower than the rest of the bazaar and he always made sure he had fresh fruit and vegetables in stock. Business was booming. Then in 2016, the Taleban planted a landmine in front of his shop in the middle of the night, which the next morning detonated beneath a passing Afghan National Army (ANA) convoy, killing and injuring one soldier and several civilians. Though Anwar survived, he was beaten in the aftermath of the attack by soldiers who blamed him for facilitating the attack.

A few months later, he said he received a phone call from a local Taleban commander who asked him to come to a mosque in a nearby village. When he went there, he was again beaten and imprisoned for a week, this time accused of helping the ANA. Anwar did not go into greater detail, but his story illustrates how vulnerable local businesses could be to the suspicions and allegations made by all of the warring parties.

The more the insurgency intensified, the more the bazaars suffered. However, around 2017, two of the three major bazaars, Mirai and Chardiwal, each received a severe blow. In October of that year, the Taleban besieged Mirai, Andar’s district centre, destroying dozens of shops that were hit by rockets and heavy machine gun fire, and causing the complete closure of the bazaar. Meanwhile, the Taleban also chose to destroy and seal the road connecting Ghazni to Paktika where Chardiwal bazaar is located. This led to Chardiwal’s complete closure as traders quickly vacated the bazaar and businesses collapsed. The ANA conducted several military operations to reopen the road, and also the bazaar, but faced intensive Taleban attack. Almost all operations failed. The entire bazaar was abandoned in the following year, leaving empty shops covered with bullet and rocket holes.

Anwar was one of those traders forced to abandon their shops. He left his thriving businesses and moved all the goods from his shops to his home. “When I calculated the loses [of abandoning the shops], it was over 200,000 kaldar [Pakistani rupees – roughly USD 1,800 at that time]. Most of the goods were wasted; others expired,” he told AAN.

By 2018, no major bazaar was fully functioning in Andar. Nanai remained technically open, although the clashes between the Taleban and Republic’s security forces meant a virtual shutdown. While business people had lost their trading centres they, along with the local population, did not give up, but found new ways to do business.

The bazaars of Andar district, Ghazni: the old ones, now re-established, are shown with larger circles, the ‘conflict bazaars’ where shopkeepers and customers fled are shown with smaller circles. Also shown are military bases. Basemap by Open Street Map. Graphics by Roger Helms for AAN, 2023.


War also creates bazaars

Andar was not a district where the conflict triggered major displacements. Aside from periods when there were major clashes between the Taleban and short-lived ‘uprising’ or local resistance forces, or sieges of the district centre, the vast majority of people, particularly in areas controlled by the Taleban continued to live in their homes (see an AAN report on the uprisings in Andar here).

When Mirai and Chardiwal bazaars closed, the local population could no longer meet their needs inside the district, so their only option was to travel to nearby Ghazni City. However, that journey was both costly and risky, as one shopkeeper described:

When the bazaars closed, people would go to Ghazni for their needs. They’d need more time and money to go there. Those who had cars were spending an extra 500 afghanis to fuel their cars. Those who didn’t were spending 200 afghanis on the bus fare. Importantly, it took an extra half-hour to get to Ghazni and then another half-hour to return. So, it was far away and difficult to get to. Clashes were routine on the road [to Ghazni] and passengers were often stuck in firefights.  

Another interviewee also recounted the importance of local bazaars and the impact of their closure:

In the past, when we needed to repair a water pump or a car, we’d bring it to the mechanics in Chardiwal. Reaching there was easy and took less time than going to Ghazni. But when they closed, we’d travel to Ghazni just to purchase something or repair a machine or a car. [Traveling to Ghazni] was an additional burden on us.

Shopkeepers with businesses in the closed bazaars had to find ways to re-open them. It was their sole source of income and they wanted to respond to the needs of local people. They were also under pressure from the Taleban movement, which pushed shopkeepers to re-establish or move their businesses into the areas it controlled. This was in the Taleban’s interest for a number of reasons: it helped them win people over from the Islamic Republic, painting a good picture of their own then shadow government, as well as meeting their practical needs. The Taleban needed to purchase fuel, use mechanical services for their cars and motorcycles, have private clinics open for their wounded fighters and obtain raw materials for making IEDs and suicide bombs. These bazaars also served as hubs for the movement to gather, plan, drum up support and recruit.

As a result, a number of new bazaars were established in Taleban-controlled areas. In fact, the new bazaars were effectively the same old Chardiwal, Nanai and Mirai bazaars, only relocated to safe areas and splintered into pieces.

Mirai bazaar was steadily moved, from 2017 onwards, to a nearby village named Kamalkhil where a small bazaar had already existed. Another portion of it was established in Nazarwal, another nearby village. Almost everything that was available in Mirai moved to Kamalkhil or Nazarwall – from mechanics, doctors, and tailors, to photocopiers, clothes and mobiles.

The Chardiwal bazaar, for its part, had a similar fate. Initially, it was divided into two major and several minor parts. A substantial portion of it moved to Ibrahimzi, already a small bazaar and known for being the Taleban’s shadow district centre. At the same time, the Taleban re-routed the Ghazni-Paktika highway, away from the paved road and switching to a small, dirt track that passed through Taleban-controlled villages near Ibrahimzi. This, along with competition and the lack of space in Ibrahimzi led some shopkeepers to create a new bazaar, just three kilometres away from Ibrahimzi, along the now Ghazni-Paktika highway dirt track. The new bazaar was called Dilbar.

Anwar said his friends, after several months’ effort, managed to convince him to restart his business in Ibrahimzi. “I didn’t want to re-establish my shop because Ibrahimzi is so far from Chardiwal that I didn’t think I’d get enough customers there,” he said. Though the cost of relocation to a new place was heavy, he said his decision soon paid off and his shop again attracted enough customers in Ibrahimzi.

A short while after that, shopkeepers from the eastern parts of Andar also decided to set up a new bazaar, to meet the needs of the large population in those areas that did not have a replacement for the abandoned Chardiwal bazaar. The new bazaar was located in Shast village, only two kilometres from the paved road, and from Chardiwal. This was created after the Taleban cleared the remaining ANA and Afghan Local Police (ALP) bases from the road, leaving the area almost totally under their control. Shast bazaar quickly became well-known, attracting customers with its newly built shops and ample space, as well as its proximity to Chardiwal. Most of those shopkeepers from Chardiwal who had abandoned their businesses re-established them in Shast bazaar. It also attracted new businesses.

This was not an easy period for shopkeepers or customers and the disruption was sorely felt. Mirai bazaar in the district centre had enjoyed an easily accessible location, with a paved road, mobile networks and government administrations delivering official services. This was in sharp contrast with the new substitutes, KamalKhil and Nazarwall, which had none of these advantages. People living in the northern corner of the district, with its unpaved roads and long distances felt no longer served by anyone. Competition added further complications. The newly established Dilbar bazaar, for instance, became an alternative to the slightly less recently established Ibrahimzi bazaar, and attracted customers from the southern villages of Andar, who had previously had to travel to Chardiwal or Ibrahimzi. As a result, shopkeepers from Ibrahimzi tried to make trouble for the new Dilbar bazaar. According to one resident, they even complained to the Taleban about why the movement had given permission to establish a new bazaar.

By the end of 2018, most parts of Andar, including the district centre, had come under Taleban control. Andar district centre fell to the Taleban in October 2018 which resulted in the reopening of Mirai bazaar. As the fear of conflict abated, Mirai eventually grew back to what it had been, shopkeepers returned and new businesses opened. The situation in Nanai, however, did not improve. The attacks on the highway persisted; the bazaar suffered. The fate of Chardiwal, due to the proximity of two besieged ANA bases, also remained the same.

The new bazaars such as those in Kamalkhil, Ibrahimzi, Dilbar, Kalakhil, and Shast were flourishing, thanks in large part to the relative stability of Taleban control. As the conflict became restricted to only a handful of bases and checkposts, and the bazaars located far from government’s reach in the heart of Taleban areas, security was unprecedented for customers and the shopkeepers who had resettled from Chardiwal, Mirai and Nanai. The bazaars remained open till midnight. For customers, living in uncontested areas, life was relatively peaceful, so long as they did not wish to travel too far.

The end of the war and the economy of Andar today

The Taleban victory in 2021 brought deep relief to the residents of Andar. The burdens the war had placed on them and their economy had been severe throughout the insurgency, but particularly so after 2009. Although Andar like the rest of Afghanistan had seen general economic growth and development because of foreign funds coming into the country, still, local businesses in the district had suffered from the violence and upheavals, the atmosphere of suspicion and resulting harassment from both the Taleban and Republic’s forces. Many shopkeepers were forced to relocate, the cost of which was inevitably passed on to their customers. Others had their shops hit and burned during the violence.

Violence in Andar ended in July 2021, almost a month before the Taleban completed their grip over Afghanistan on 15 August, after the last two military bases in Andar surrendered to the Taleban. The Ghazni-Paktika highway and the road to Mirai were immediately reopened.

When the Emirate was re-established, international aid to Afghanistan immediately dried up, leaving the aid-dependent country’s economy in disarray. After a while, donors again started channelling humanitarian aid to Afghanistan to tackle the dire economic situation. The new authorities, for their part, also took some steps to stabilise the country’s economy (see this AAN dossier on Afghanistan’s economy). The dramatic economic decline after August 2021 has bottomed out, but the economy remains fragile, with service, agricultural and industrial sectors continuing to contract and many families in dire poverty (see here for the World Bank’s annual development update, published this month, and its latest welfare monitoring survey).

However, the contraction of the economy since August 2021 has not affected Afghanistan’s different regions with equal magnitude. Some areas, such as Andar, which were badly affected by the war, have run contrary to the wider economic decline. The re-establishment of the Emirate and the end to conflict, fragmentation and instability in this district appears to have brought growth and new opportunities. While there are no official statistics to prove this, there are still ways to gauge the economic progress in Andar, or at least stability. One is to look at what has happened to the bazaars. They show an economy where people want to invest, where rents have increased and there are customers, indicating a possible increase in disposable income.

With the war over, roads across Andar reopened and the old bazaars came back to life. Mirai bazaar fully re-opened, having been only partly functioning since 2019 because of the broader insecurity and the closure of the paved road. Chardiwal also steadily started to reopen. The highway shifted back to the paved road that passed directly through Chardiwal. Local residents and shopkeepers more assuredly started to re-establish the damaged shops in Chardiwal as the prospects for the ANA and of the fight returning faded. Nanai bazaar also became secure as the Republic’s military base and passing convoys were no longer targets.

The three major bazaars in Andar once again grew larger in size. Businessmen and residents endeavoured to reap the benefits of the new business opportunities and moved their shops back to their original locations. The insurgency-era bazaars have all been abandoned, with the exception of Ibrahimzi and Kamalkhil, which still function, but are greatly reduced. Shop rents mirror the changing demand: in Chardiwalrent for a shop was roughly 50,000 Pakistani kaldar before August 2021, but almost tripled afterwards. For many, such as this shopkeeper in Chardiwal bazaar, they had first to invest before they could reopen:

The door of my shop was hit by an RPG during a clash. It was completely destroyed, along with many of the goods inside. I don’t exactly know whom, but one of the warring sides had entered my shop and looted whatever they could get themselves. The shops of my neighbours were completely burned when hit by mortarsor airstrikes. Shopkeepers suffered a lot of financial losses in these battles. When the war ended, I rebuilt my shop and bought a new door. The repairs cost me 150,000 kaldar [roughly 600 USD at that time].

In both Chardiwal and Mirai, there was also a demand for big new shops. The land surrounding the bazaar in both places belongs to the government and the new IEA administration decided to rent it to people who wanted to establish shops, markets and other businesses. They started giving official permission to rent out plots of land based on a fixed annual rate. This, in turn, created large-scale competition between businessmen. “Everyone was trying to get more land,” said a shopkeeper from Chardiwal. “People were using their personal connections with district [officials]. Some even sold their permission on to others.” The owner of a newly built market in Mirai, explained how he had decided to invest:

Anwar, the shopkeeper who relocated his business from Chardiwal to Ibrahimzi has also moved back. His old shops had been destroyed in the conflict and he had to rent new shops and build his business up again from scratch. Although rents are now twice as high as he paid earlier, he was not complaining: “I am grateful to Allah that now, no one beats me, no one imprisons me and the clashes are gone.”

Chardiwal bazaar in Andar, Ghazni, in satellite images from 15 August 2021 and 23 September 2023, new construction highlighted.  Image from 2021 from Maxar Technologies. Image from 2023 from the European Space Agency’s Pleiades satellites. Graphics by Roger Helms for AAN, 2023.

The single major contributor to the growth of bazaars in Andar has been the end of the war. One resident of the district described how improved security had changed the dynamics of visiting Mirai bazaar in the district centre:

When I was going to the bazaar during the war, I’d try to do my shopping as quickly as possible. At specific times, known to be the patrol times of the ANA, the shops closed and people evacuated the bazaar just to avoid getting stuck in firefights. In particular, we’d go home before darkness, as the police checkposts were harassing people or they, themselves, were attacked. Now, in contrast, I come here whenever I want. Last week, we had a health emergency and I had to bring the patient to the doctor at midnight; so I went to Mirai. There were three doctors on duty. They checked her, gave her medicines and we returned at two in the morning. This would have been impossible two years ago.

Another resident recounts how different a visit to Nanai bazaar now is:

During the war, when we were going to Nanai, we weren’t sure whether we’d come back alive or not. On the one hand, there was a [government] checkpost near the bazaar, and the Taleban used to attack it, without care for the bazaar. On the other hand, checkpost soldiers were making problems for us, checking our mobiles, accusing peoples from our areas of being Taleban and Taleban supporters. They detained whomever they wanted on charges of being a Taleb or a Taleban tarasudchi [spy]. Now, you can go day and night and purchase whatever you want. No one asks you where you come from or where you’re going.

For shopkeepers, the new security environment means they can do business without fear, as one described below:

During the war, we had many problems. The Taleban were beating shopkeepers for selling things to army soldiers. Government forces were detaining shopkeepers for helping the Taleban plant landmines or passing on information about coming tanks, not to mention the arbaki [ALP] who were freely taking whatever shopkeepers had in their shops. Now, praise be to Allah, all this has ended. No one bothers you. No one labels and harasses you for being a Taleb or an arbaki.

Moreover, businessmen who brought goods from Ghazni City to the local bazaars, as one interviewee recalled, were compelled “to pay bribes to several police check posts” along the highway, which also ended with the end of conflict. He explained it below:

The bribes were too high and irregular. If there was a problem with the checkpost, they’d demand a big sum and if you didn’t pay it, you’d have been beaten and even shot. It led many tijaran [merchants] to stop importing goods because the harassment and its effects on businesses were unbearable.

Furthermore, with the cessation of hostilities, people from every sector of society now dare to freely travel to bazaars. During the insurgency, a large portion of people simply avoided traveling to certain areas and bazaars: those who lived under the Taleban were at risk of being labelled as pro-Taleban and harassed by the government side, which controlled the district’s main bazaars until as late as 2017. Then, after 2018, when control of most bazaars in the district fell to the Taleban, those seen as affiliated with the government found their freedom of movement was curtailed. These restrictions fragmented and harmed the district’s economy. Now, the bazaars are bustling, as one interviewee in Mirai described:

Look how many people are here. They are perhaps in the hundreds. Consider me, I’m not rich but come [to Mirai] thrice a week and every time I come, I buy something. Everyone does so. People eat [potato] chips and ice cream, their cars consume fuel. Some come here for the internet, and use credit cards. They buy bindai [okra] and vegetables. You see few people who don’t spend money while visiting bazaars. In fact, those who don’t have money don’t come. Yet, the bazaar is still overcrowded. I think in the next two years it will be difficult to handle the traffic without traffic police.

The economic basis for Andar’s recovery

At the start of this report, we looked at the three traditional pillars of Andar’s economy – crops, livestock and remittances. In Andar, as elsewhere, in certain areas, land could not be cultivated due to the risk of firefights. Several interviewees indicated their harvests had been burned, despite local Taleban ceasefires during harvest, because of clashes between the warring sides. These losses, of crops, homes and lives, are no longer happening.

When I saw people desperately searching for shops, I thought, well, now the war is over, people in Andar are rich, and rents have already soared, so why not invest here more than anywhere else? It doesn’t require much money, and when one sees the rush of people, it seems that things might work out well. I went to the district municipality, and asked permission to build a two-storey market. I started last summer [early 2022] and the work is half done. My estimation was correct: even before my market was completed, many people have asked to have one, two or three shops rented to them.

The persistent problem of drought has harmed the sector, but not so badly as it has in other provinces, including neighbouring ones. Whereas traditionalwatering systems (mainly karizes, or underground tunnels)[1] vanished long ago, most farmers now rely on solar-powered irrigation pumps, which also offer some protection from inflated fuel prices. The running costs are minimal. However, groundwater is declining, so along with the need to dig ever deeper wells and buy an additional solar panel each year to continue to reach the groundwater, there is the looming threat that it may run out or become too deep to access in the future.

However, one of the main reasons that Andar’s economy is functioning well is the other economic ‘pillar’ – remittances. These have probably replaced agriculture as the main sources of household income in the district. There has been a growth in economic migration to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran and the majority of families, according to the estimates of several community elders, have at least one member working abroad who sends money back home. This has kept the economy running, sheltering it from the worst impact of economic travails inside Afghanistan.

For Andar, there has been another new source of income, post-2021. It was long a base of Taleban support and has been rewarded by the new order. As well as supplying ordinary fighters and commanders, scores of fighters from the district were recruited to the Taleban’s Red Units (special units) and deployed during the insurgency against the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Nangrahar. Andar has another advantage. It hosts a grand madrasa, Nur al-Madaris, which is among the most highly respected and oldest religious institutions in Afghanistan, and is famous nationwide among Taleban.

Since the re-establishment of the Emirate, a significant number of residents from Andar have been appointed to senior government jobs. They include the Minister of Urban Development and Housing Hamdullah Nomani, the commander of the Khalid bin Walid Army corps (one of the eight corps) Abu Dujana, the former minister of education Shiekh Nurullah Munir, the Director-General of Dawat wa Irshad[2] Mawlawi Hashim Shahidwror and the Deputy Minister of Education Mawlawi Abdul Khaliq, as well as more than a dozen other mid-ranking officials.

The estimate from multiple Taleban officials and former commanders and fighters in conversation with the author is that thousands of men from the district, who were fighting or working with the movement, or who indirectly supported the insurgency, now hold government jobs. One interviewee, in his 60s, said that, as long as he could remember, “this is the first time so many people [from Andar] hold jobs in government.” Similarly, Andar residents whom the Taleban had previously prohibited from taking up jobs in the NGO sector, with the exception of the health and education fields where they were allowed to work, are now not only allowed, but actively favoured by the Emirate for these positions. The author has come across several incidents where Taleban introduced Andar residents for positions in NGOs operating in Ghazni province, thanks to their past loyalty to the Taleban.

International aid, which was difficult to deliver during the insurgency because of the violence, has also contributed a significant amount to the new economic stability in Andar. Humanitarian aid is delivered to the most underprivileged segment of society that lacks alternative sources of income, lifting the burden of those in direst need, as community leader in his 40s explained:

In Andar, those who have a musafir [someone who has migrated], or land or a job in government or an NGO have a good economic position. But what is good is that those who have none of these, now benefit from aid [mrasty]. The Taleban are bringing NGOs here and helping the poor regularly. They’ve got cards [proving their eligibility for suppor], and get food and cash from various NGOs.

Finally, there are also the costs associated with war and the old regime that no longer apply. Feeding and funding the Taleban used to be a daily burden for Andar residents. Locals were also bound to allocate a certain portion of their crops to the Taleban (ushr) and, in recent years, a tax on some of their assets (zakat). At the same time, they faced demands for bribes from the Republic’s security forces, often at each police and ALP checkpoint along the highway, and from officials in government offices.

The Taleban still collect taxes, but this time as the government, the majority of interviewees agree it is at a lower rate and is less of an annoyance than the illegal bribes they had to pay to the Republic’s security forces and officials. One interviewee recounted: “In the past, we paid taxes three times: first the official tax to the government, second, huge bribes to the police, and lastly, to the Taleban at checkpoints in their areas. Now, only the Taleban take a specific amount of money as tax.”

Before and after the fall: satellite images of Mirai bazaar on 15 August 2021 (from Maxar Technologies) and 23 September 2023 (from the European Space Agency’s Pleiades satellites), with new construction highlighted. Graphics by Roger Helms for AAN, 2023.

The end of the war – what has changed?

The cessation of violence had brought the people of Andar deep relief. Farming and trading can go on undisturbed, businesses have been re-established and the district’s affiliation with the Taleban has brought hundreds of jobs. Alongside all that, remittances have continued to flow. Overall, the economy in Andar is relatively stable, with some signs even that it is flourishing. One interviewee, for example, gave an unusual illustration of Andar’s relative wealth:

Since last winter, the number of beggars sitting on the Ghazni-Andar road has been increasing day by day. I’ve talked to many of them and most aren’t from Andar, but come from Ghazni city. Their numbers are growing because they collect a good amount of money – the people of Andar are wealthy and help the poor to a large extent. These beggars do a good business; otherwise, if they weren’t collecting good money, you wouldn’t have seen even one in that area.

Andar’s economy has countered the overall economic decline, at least in comparison with other areas in Afghanistan. So long as remittances keep coming in and there are funds to pay those working in governments and NGOs, the district should be fine – excepting the threat hanging over Afghanistan as a whole, of the climate crisis with its protracted and ever more frequent droughts and the fear that eventually, the solar-powered pumps will not be able to reach water. For now however, the battering this frontline district took for so long is over. Andar has weathered the political and economic turmoil of almost twenty years of war and its residents, whether shopkeepers, farmers or newly-appointed government employees, are enjoying the calm.

* Sabawoon Samim is a Kabul-based researcher whose work focuses on the Islamic Emirate, local governance and rural society.

Edited by Rachel Reid and Kate Clark


1 Karezes are gently sloping underground channels or tunnels built to lead groundwater from the interior of a hill to a village below for people to irrigate their crops. However, the groundwater level in Andar has fallen and the karezes dried up decades ago.

Certain parts of the district were also provided with water from the Band-e Sardi Dam. However, the ongoing drought has also resulted in the depletion of water in the dam.

2 This is a large directorate with a ministry-equivalent taskhkil (authorised personnel) and budget, which is tasked with ensuring the implementation of sharia within government institutions.


Finding Business Opportunity after Conflict: Shopkeepers, civil servants and farmers in Andar district
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A Shift Toward More Engagement with the Taliban?

For the United States, greater engagement with Afghanistan’s de facto authorities is the least bad policy option.
Since the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the United States has found itself in a vexing dilemma — wanting to condemn and hold accountable the Taliban regime for persecuting women and girls, harboring terrorists and failing to govern inclusively, but also wanting Afghanistan to avoid famine and civil war, and achieve some economic and political stability. U.S. policymakers have thus tried to balance principle and pragmatism. To exert pressure on the Taliban, the United States has withheld diplomatic recognition and traditional development aid, frozen Afghan Central Bank assets and maintained sanctions on Taliban leaders. Yet it has also been the largest donor of humanitarian assistance, has not supported armed opposition to the Taliban and has effectively loosened sanctions to enable aid delivery and encourage economic activity.
This U.S. policy approach holds internal contradictions. Humanitarian aid is saving lives, while punitive policies simultaneously hamstring the Afghan economy and perpetuate poverty. Such inconsistencies in policy are unsurprising for a superpower with complex interests, and have featured in U.S. foreign policy for decades. But as the Taliban’s consolidation of power — and the limits of international leverage — become painfully clear, the United States and its partners appear to be moving toward a policy of more engagement with the regime.A shift toward more engagement is the least bad policy option; it affords more opportunities for progress over time, especially on the economy and livelihoods, than does disengagement or isolation. The international community can seek cooperation from the Taliban on issues of mutual interest, while keeping up pressure and withholding recognition until key demands on rights, governance and security are met.Outside actors should remain clear-eyed that expanded engagement — just like isolation — might not succeed in changing the Taliban’s reprehensible social policies. There are no easy or right answers here. Nevertheless, a coherent, longer-term strategy for engagement with the de facto Taliban authorities can help mitigate harm to the Afghan people and enable the United States to better address its security, humanitarian and rights interests in Afghanistan.

What Does ‘Engagement’ Mean, and What Is Driving Calls for More?

The word “engagement” is used frequently and loosely in discussions on Afghanistan, muddying the debate around policy choices. It can be defined as not only official meetings and communication, but also the concrete forms of collaboration that such dialogue facilitates, for instance on humanitarian and development aid, macroeconomic management, security, rights and governance, and regional and climate issues. To this author and as others have stressed, engagement does not mean diplomatic recognition of or fully normalized relations with the Taliban regime, but it does connote a relationship that maintains a two-way channel for communication and negotiation.

Despite the Taliban’s worsening record on human rights, especially those of women and girls, several factors are pushing the United States and its allies toward more engagement with the Taliban: 1) the depth of ongoing humanitarian need and Afghans’ depletion of safety nets; 2) the 2023 funding gap for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, and growing interest in resuming development assistance; 3) the Taliban’s steady consolidation of political power; 4) the international community’s failure thus far to pressure the Taliban to reverse its policies of gender persecution; 5) regional states’ increasingly active diplomacy with the Taliban; and 6) the Taliban’s continued willingness to engage with the West, alongside some evidence that they have cooperated on certain issues.

As of August, the 2023 Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan had received only 26.8 percent of the overall $3.2 billion required (an amount that was itself revised down in June from the initial request of $4.6 billion). For the past year, amid other global needs, donors’ generosity has been giving way to an urgency to not create dependency on humanitarian aid, to improve efficiency and to focus more on livelihoods and the underlying economic crisis. Thus far, the Taliban’s human rights violations have been the main obstacle to such a move. Donor capitals have very limited, if any, political space to provide traditional development aid to a pariah regime.

But two years in, there is an increasing sense that Taliban rule is the reality that international actors must deal with — like it or not. Punitive tools, such as sanctions and suspending dialogue in response to egregious policies being announced, have not worked to moderate or reverse restrictions against women and girls. Further, regional states are intensifying their engagement with the Taliban, even signaling that they might break the consensus on nonrecognition that has held thus far. This puts pressure on the West to remain engaged in order to preserve what degree of influence it has. A more dire Afghan economic collapse could intensify existing cross-border threats — a concern deeply felt by the region. But Russia and China are not willing or able to commit the level of resources that the West can bring to bear. Without access to Western financial markets and resources, Afghanistan will likely remain mired in deep poverty, buffeted by climate-related crises and a source of insecurity.

Finally, not lost on policymakers is the perhaps surprising fact that the Taliban are a willing interlocutor. The Taliban are reportedly wary of falling prey to China’s model of foreign investment, and want a relationship with the West. That very desire, even if it exists unevenly among Taliban leadership, suggests that the United States and its allies do have leverage. This leverage is only exercised, however, through engagement. Further, the Taliban are not a monolith; internal differences have been on public display. While Kabul-based officials are not driving decision-making in Kandahar, they and others in the provinces influence policy implementation. Last spring, senior Taliban officials who publicly criticized the emirate’s policies and are known to support girls’ education chose loyalty to the emir over resignation from their posts. But these intra-Taliban debates suggest that at some point moderation of policies might be possible. On security issues, in periodic meetings between U.S. and Taliban officials, by all appearances the two sides are discussing counterterrorism and detainee issues.

This window of opportunity for engagement may not be open forever. Policymakers should seek to avoid going down a path that mirrors North Korea, Iran or Cuba. Decades of punitive policies and withheld engagement have failed to incentivize those regimes to change their behavior, and meanwhile have unintentionally perpetuated the poverty and suffering of these populations.

Arguments for and Against Engagement

All this adds up to an argument for more consistent engagement with the Taliban. The logic is that by pursuing regular dialogue and confidence-building measures on multiple tracks, the United States and its partners can better help the Afghan people and protect their own security interests. This logic holds that some form of relationship with the Taliban might achieve incremental wins on mutual interests, while conversely, isolation (or the status quo of limited, drifting engagement) is unlikely to change Taliban behavior. Moreover, isolation may well strengthen Taliban hardliners — as it appeared to do in the late 1990s — and weaken those who are open to cooperation with the West. It bears acknowledgment that some Afghans inside the country have called for more, not less, U.S. and Western engagement with the Taliban.

There are compelling concerns about the risks of engagement as well. Some voices urge less engagement and more stringent conditions on the Taliban before using any lever of Western influence. They argue that more engagement lends legitimacy to the regime. Political scientist Dipali Mukhopadhyay points out that “[f]oreign aid and engagement often end up insulating the regimes that receive them from the hard domestic work of accommodating political rivals, bargaining over power and resources, and offering rights and concessions to citizens.” Questions around engaging the Taliban have created a rift among civil society and rights activists.

Indeed, a critical question is where human rights fit in a framework that favors greater engagement. More engagement would mean delivering consistent messaging on human rights at various levels of government, keeping rights on the agenda and enabling the United States to track developments more closely. A more distant goal of engagement would be to influence Taliban leaders toward reversal or moderation of policies violating Afghans’ human rights, especially those of women and girls; or to work with those within the movement who already support moderating such policies. It would require months or years to assess the outcomes of this approach.

A recent Foreign Affairs poll asked more than 50 prominent U.S., Afghan and international experts on Afghanistan, “Should the United States normalize relations with the Taliban?” Responses overwhelmingly advised against normalization, but embedded in the answers was the more nuanced debate about ill-defined “engagement.” Many of the experts arguing strenuously against normalization wrote that some level of engagement — in the form of humanitarian aid, targeted development efforts and counterterrorism cooperation — is needed.

Most observers seem to agree on two key principles: 1) that the human and financial costs of supporting armed opposition against the Taliban would be too great and 2) that total isolation is not acceptable, as it risks an even deeper humanitarian crisis and precludes discussions on terrorist threats. There is, in fact, marked consensus on the need for outcome-oriented engagement that includes some degree of conditionality.

The core debate, then, is not whether to engage, but rather how and when. What are the optics of engagement, what policy tools should be used and should engagement be sustained despite the Taliban’s grave violations of human rights?

What Should More Engagement Look Like?

A longer-term strategy for actions to address Afghanistan’s enduring problems is sorely needed. This is why the United Nations (U.N.) secretary-general appointed Special Coordinator Feridun Sinirlioğlu of Turkey to lead an independent assessment that will provide “recommendations for an integrated and coherent approach” vis-à-vis Afghanistan by the international community.

We can expect that the assessment, due out in November, will make the case for greater engagement with the Taliban. U.S. policymakers should be looking for recommendations along these lines:

  • A multifaceted, international structure or process for regular engagement with the Taliban de facto authorities — one that can build confidence and trust among all sides, and enable measurable progress on certain tracks, while still applying pressure on the Taliban.
  • Greater clarity around what steps the Taliban need to take in order to fulfill Afghanistan’s international obligations and to obtain what the Taliban want, such as lifting of U.N. sanctions and a seat at the U.N.

In parallel, the United States needs to work out an approach to U.S. bilateral engagement with the Taliban. An effective framework would help the parties move past the policy incoherence that has caused confusion on the Taliban side in terms of what they think the United States wants. It would also enable modest wins in areas of mutual interest, while keeping up pressure on the Taliban on rights and counterterrorism. Elements of such a framework could include:

  • Numerous tracks for technical-level meetings on a range of issues, such as: macroeconomic management and the international financial system; the humanitarian response; agriculture, water and climate-related impacts; counternarcotics and drug treatment efforts; health and nutrition; border security and counterterrorism.
  • Raising human rights and governance issues consistently, at national and subnational levels of the Taliban de facto government. This could help U.S. officials identify where openings for progress exist across different sectors — whether on treatment and release of political prisoners, support for women in the private sector, girls’ education or media freedom — or where conditions are deteriorating.
  • More clarity on what the Taliban must do before the United States is willing to consider recognition, lifting of sanctions or other major steps toward normalization of relations. This kind of dialogue may be months or years away, but U.S. policymakers must think through the details of these steps in advance.

Talking to the Taliban does not preclude broader U.S. work on human rights and political freedoms. The United States should maintain support in whatever forms possible — advocacy, psychosocial support, online learning, documentation and investigation of human rights violations and in international courts — for individuals and organizations working on these issues in Afghanistan, like U.N. Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett. The biggest challenge for the United States and like-minded countries will continue to be helping the Afghan people achieve what most Afghans want for their country, while holding accountable the Taliban government for its repressive behavior.

A Shift Toward More Engagement with the Taliban?
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Pakistan must not collectively punish Afghan refugees

Obaidullah Baheer

Al Jazeera

On October 3, Pakistan’s interim government announced it was giving “illegal immigrants” 28 days to leave the country. Those who do not do so would be forcefully deported starting on November 1.

This unprecedented measure is directed specifically at the 1.73 million Afghans who have fled to Pakistan and who have not been able to attain formal refugee status.

The announcement was made after the Pakistani government alleged that 14 out of 24 suicide bombings this year had been carried out by individuals holding Afghan citizenship. It has not put forward any evidence to support this claim yet.

The threat of deportation has been condemned by multiple international organisations and governments.

I, and many other Afghans, would attest to the warm hospitality Pakistan has shown Afghan people through the years. Afghans have had significantly better opportunities to study, live and work in Pakistan compared with other countries in the region.

This long history of friendship should not be poisoned by short-sighted and reactionary decisions. The treatment of Afghan refugees has already deteriorated significantly in Pakistan in recent years as they have been persistently blamed for security failures within the country.

Over the past few years, the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, has ramped up its attacks on security personnel and civilians. The Pakistani security apparatus and army have struggled to contain its terrorist activities, and government officials have repeatedly accused the Afghan Taliban of harbouring the group.

It is important to put these developments in context. Pakistan played a key role in creating and bringing to power the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. During the 20-year US occupation of Afghanistan, the Pakistani establishment gave refuge to the group. The TTP is a byproduct of this relationship. The leaders of the TTP all trained and developed bonds with the leaders of the Taliban during their time in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

But the TTP was formed in Pakistan and has operated for most of its existence from within the country. Even if one were to accept the claim that today the Afghan Taliban allows the TTP’s leadership to operate from eastern Afghanistan, let us remember that the Afghan people did not choose the Taliban to rule them and they should not be punished for its decisions.

Let us also recall that the elected Pakistani government was among the first to congratulate the Taliban on taking over Kabul and then-Prime Minister Imran Khan even called it “breaking the chains of slavery”.

It is important to note that the Afghan Taliban has made concrete progress in fighting terrorist groups, which has been acknowledged by the United States, China, Russia and countries in Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood. It has systematically attacked cells of the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, which claimed a deadly suicide bombing in July in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Then in August, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, issued a decree forbidding cross-border attacks. In late September, Taliban government forces detained about 200 TTP fighters on Afghan territory.

Against the backdrop of all these events, it is unfortunate that the Pakistani government decided to ignore the potential for meaningful security cooperation and take a populist and inhumane decision to expel Afghans.

Pakistan is a nation born during the biggest migration of people in modern history. Its people know what seeking safe haven means. They also know the trauma of collective punishment.

Today as Pakistanis are standing up to denounce Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians, they should not close their eyes and stay silent about the decision to expel an Afghan population almost as large as that of Gaza.

African American poet Maya Angelou once said: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” Pakistanis should not let those who need kindness the most become the victims of ill-conceived foreign policies. If carried out, this cruel act of deportation would negatively affect relations between both countries for years to come.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Pakistan must not collectively punish Afghan refugees
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The Daily Hustle: Selling traditional Afghan clothes on Facebook

How to support your family when you have just lost your job during hard economic times? That was the question one journalist asked himself after his newspaper laid him off during the calamitous contraction of the economy in 2021 when the amount of international money coming into Afghanistan suddenly diminished. The journalist’s response surprised even himself – he started a business in an area he knew nothing about – clothing. He has used modern technology to help create a business that supports himself and dozens of others. AAN’s Sayed Asadullah Sadat has spoken to the former journalist about how he came to set up his online business selling beautiful traditional Afghan clothes via Facebook.

Some of the beaded work and embroidery on sale by the business. Photo: Ismail Sadeqi/Facebook, 2023.
I used to work as a reporter for a local newspaper covering social and economic stories, but after the Republic fell, the paper I worked for downsized because there was not enough money coming in from advertisers, and I lost my job. I had a bit of savings and we thought that if we tightened our belts and economised, the savings would tide us over until I found another job. But everyone was in the same boat as me; hundreds of journalists on the unemployment line were competing for the same jobs, which were few and far between.
As I watched my savings dwindle, the weeks turned to months, and I finally had to admit that I wasn’t going to get another job in my profession. I had to find a way to support my family, pay for the household, my children’s schooling and my parent’s medical bills. I started looking round for other jobs until one day, a little over a year ago, my wife told me that one of our relatives, who was a seamstress, was looking around for someone to help her market her products.

The next day, I called our relative and we went to her house to discuss the idea with her. She told us she was getting a lot of orders for traditional handmade clothes and thought this was a growing market and worth exploring. She told me that traditional clothes had fallen out of favour during the Republic because affordable imported clothes were readily available, but now they were making a comeback.

Keeping Afghanistan’s cultural heritage alive

The idea of reviving traditional Afghan clothes appealed to me. The idealist in me thought about how the business would keep a part of our cultural heritage from disappearing. I thought about the times when I covered handicraft markets as a journalist. These used to be regularly organised by the government or NGOs who had projects supporting widows or female heads of household. I had interviewed artisans from all over the country about the particulars of the clothes from their region. Back then, they would tell me about how long it took to create each piece, how difficult it was to sell their work at a profit and how, when the projects ended, they would be left with their unsold stock, struggling to find customers. So we agreed to focus on traditional Afghan clothes, such as gand-e Afghani (traditional Afghan wedding dress), and other handmade Afghan accessories we could make in my business partner’s small home-based workshop.

Traditional Afghan wedding dress. Photo: Ismail Sadeqi/Facebook, 2023. 

We spent a couple of weeks talking about how we should proceed. We didn’t have enough money to open a shop. From my work as a journalist, I knew that young Afghans are heavy social media users and that e-commerce is a growing sector in the economy, and setting up a Facebook page was free. So, we decided to focus on online sales.

This is how I came to open an online shop selling traditional Afghan clothes.

Growing an online business in Afghanistan 

It was hard going at first. We didn’t have much money to invest in a business and I knew nothing about clothes – sewing or selling. But I was desperate to find a way to support my family and my business partner, the tailor, had a good reputation for making top-quality clothes. We used some of my savings, about 50,000 Afs (USD 550), to make some samples and I started exhibiting our work through photos that I posted and promoted on Facebook.

The orders came in slowly – only a few from people who knew my business partner’s work, and there were times when I almost gave up on the whole thing. But my wife kept urging me to stay the course and I’m so happy I listened to her. Our reputation for quality workmanship grew and more orders started coming in. Nowadays, customers from all over Afghanistan place orders with us using our Facebook page. We’ve even had a few orders from overseas, but sending things abroad from Afghanistan is difficult. It’s a market we’d like to grow, but with all the banking restrictions, doing trade outside Afghanistan seems like an impossible dream.

It’s hard to believe that the business is only over a year old. In this short time, we have grown a solid customer base and have had to hire more people to keep up with incoming orders. We’ve gone from our humble start to employing 23 people, including 16 women who work from home as seamstresses and artisans who do the beadwork and leatherwork. Our product line has grown to include a variety of Afghan clothes and accessories, which are both machine-made and handmade and feature traditional embroidery techniques such as gulbatun (silk thread), zartar (golden thread) and the chirmadozi (double-knotted). We’ve also expanded into leather works such as sandals and purses. Our most popular items include Kuchi-style clothes, Afghan shawls and hand-beaded purses.

We even have a designer who works with our customers to design bespoke pieces for them. We don’t have enough working capital to have a stock of raw materials on hand, so after the customer agrees to the design, we buy the fabric and other materials from the market and deliver them to the home of one of the seamstresses/artisans who will then create the pieces. Once the item is finished, we deliver it to the customer by courier and they pay us cash on delivery.

But as successful as online sales are, people still have a hard time trusting a business that is not bricks and mortar. So eight months ago, after we got our business licence from the Emirate, we rented a small storefront and opened a showroom. Having an address has helped give us more legitimacy and has increased customer confidence. Thank God we are making good money. There is even a bit of a profit, about 20,000 Afs (USD 230) a month, after expenses. I’m putting the money away for a rainy day, or maybe we could use it to expand the business. But the most gratifying thing is that in addition to my own and my partner’s families, our business supports the families of the 23 people who work for us. They each provide for eight or ten family members.

Creating jobs for women 

Handicraft work in Afghanistan is mostly done by women, who often have expertise in sewing, weaving, beadwork, embroidery and other traditional crafts, which means it can be an important source of income for them, especially in these hard economic times. I’m happy that I’ve been able to provide women with jobs. These days, many women are staying at home and struggling to find jobs. Now, some of them are working. I’ve bought sewing machines for them with my own money so that they can work at home. They can do housework and they can also sew. This way, they can support their families financially. These days, many women are training as seamstresses and artisans, hoping to make a living. Word has gotten around that I hire women who sew well and I get tons of calls every day from women looking for work.

Planning for the future 

But as the economy continues to struggle, I fear that a time will come when my business will also struggle. As people have less and less disposable income, paying for the necessities of life, like food and rent, will take priority over luxuries like clothes. I’m hoping the government will lend a helping hand to domestic producers and keep cheap imported products from flooding the market. The Emirate could subsidise the textile industry so that the fabric and other things we use could be produced in Afghanistan. Not only would this make the raw material we need cheaper, but it would also create jobs and bring money into the economy.

If women could work outside the home and if the government supported me with subsidies, I could open a big factory so that all the women could work under the same roof. We could invest in professional industrial machines and hire more people, including women. These things would make our work easier, faster and more profitable. We wouldn’t have to pay couriers to go to and from people’s homes all day to deliver raw materials and pick up finished products, which is time-consuming and expensive. It slows down our work and makes collaboration and coordination difficult.

Online sales have tremendous potential. They do away with geographic limits and make it possible for businesses to trade worldwide, like the fashion websites they have in China. I know that a business in Afghanistan can’t trade globally right now, but I hope that Afghanistan can someday rejoin the world economy. When that day comes, I plan to be the first Afghan online clothing store that sells clothes from Afghanistan to customers all over the world.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour


The Daily Hustle: Selling traditional Afghan clothes on Facebook
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22 Years On, Remembering US-Led Coalition Attack on Afghanistan

The 20-year presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan ended on August 31, 2021, with the withdrawal of the last US soldier in Afghanistan.

22 years ago, an international coalition led by Washington on October 7, 2001, attacked Afghanistan.

America stated that the aim of the attack was to fight and overthrow the organizers of the 9/11 attacks on their country.

On September 11, 2001, nearly a month before the United States invasion of Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda network crashed hijacked passenger planes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, killing around 3,000 people and bringing the United States into Afghanistan.

“America’s aggression against Afghanistan was against all international law, they waged an unjust war on the Afghan nation and a long war was inconclusive,” said Najibullah Jame, a political analyst.

“Their ultimate goal was to be able to contain global regional competitors in the region, particularly Russia and China, to a great extent,” said Jawid Momand, a political analyst.

“The United States invaded Afghanistan without any justified reason, without listening to the people of Afghanistan and the government, and unfortunately the invasion lasted for 20 years,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, the spokesman of the Islamic Emirate.

Some political analysts said that the US presence in Afghanistan was one of the mistakes that the former Soviet Union had made and that the two countries caused significant losses to the Afghan people for political gain.

“NATO and Russia both made the same mistake and it was not a mistake but a persecution for the people of Afghanistan who during 45 years of negative competition have done so,” said Said Qaribullah Sadat, political analyst.

Finally, the 20-year presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan ended on August 31, 2021, with the withdrawal of the last US soldier in Afghanistan.

The battle cost the US $2 trillion, and 2,460 US troops were killed and more than 21,000 others were wounded.

22 Years On, Remembering US-Led Coalition Attack on Afghanistan
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Learning from Failed Peace Efforts in Afghanistan

Over the course of 20 years, the United States made strategic mistakes in its war with the Taliban that helped fuel the insurgency and likely precluded an earlier end to the war. The U.S. government became fixated on a purely military solution, to the neglect of a political solution. This overwhelming focus on dealing the Taliban a decisive defeat was reinforced by the perceived political risks of negotiating a peace agreement with an organization that was seen solely through the lens of the war on terror. The United States should learn from its experience in Afghanistan and the opportunities it missed to reach a better and faster outcome to the war. Policymakers should apply these lessons to other conflicts — starting with the war in Ukraine.

Lesson 1: Seek opportunities for peace when military leverage is greatest.

The United States’ moment of greatest leverage with the Taliban was in late 2001, when the regime was militarily defeated and ousted from power. From 2001 through 2004, dozens of senior Taliban offered various forms of surrender and reconciliation in exchange for amnesty. The United States rejected these, excluded the Taliban from the new political order, and barred Afghan interim leader and later President Hamid Karzai from talking with the Taliban. We will never know whether greater openness to such offers might have averted two decades of war.

Later, as the Taliban insurgency emerged and grew, the United States increased its military presence, which peaked in 2011 with roughly 100,000 U.S. and 30,000 NATO troops in the country. Despite Taliban willingness to talk, U.S. leaders were highly skeptical about the prospects for a negotiated settlement. Military commanders sought to capitalize on the troop surge to strengthen the U.S. position in advance of any talks, and overestimated President Obama’s willingness to maintain the larger military presence. Some officials also feared that negotiations would undermine the war effort by forcing the military to enter into a cease-fire or reduce violence against the Taliban.

The Taliban made steady gains as the foreign troop presence declined over the next decade. By the time the United States came to the negotiating table in 2018, in desperation to end the “forever war,” it did so from a position of weakness. The tragedy is that, in the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement, the United States acquiesced to Taliban demands that it never would have considered earlier in the war but might have been able to resist or counter when it was stronger. The deal secured for the United States only the safe withdrawal of its troops, which in turn fatally undermined the Afghan Republic government in its negotiations with the Taliban — and later precipitated the collapse of Afghan security forces and the government that the United States had supported for 20 years.

Lesson 2: Be careful not to neglect peace efforts, particularly when overconfidence in the war effort might dampen support for negotiations.

The United States never seriously invested in a peace process to end the war in Afghanistan until it was too late. Up until 2018, the United States consistently sought to achieve a complete victory against the Taliban on the battlefield, either through its own military operations or those of Afghan forces. The overwhelming U.S. focus on winning militarily — rather than exploring a political settlement — illustrates retired Army colonel and scholar Christopher Kolenda’s argument that the U.S. government “has no organized way of thinking about war termination other than seeking decisive military victory.”

Despite years of warning signs that the Afghan government was losing the battle for legitimacy and that its security forces would not be able to sustain the fight against the Taliban without significant ongoing support, U.S. leaders continued to pursue a strategy that hinged on those trends reversing themselves. They believed — wrongly — that time was on their side. Defense Department reports to Congress overestimated Afghan forces’ strength and legitimacy relative to the Taliban’s. Part of the problem was that defense officials were using bad data and changing metrics for Afghan army and police capabilities that overestimated their actual strength and cohesion. In turn, overconfidence in the war effort limited policymakers’ appetite for pursuing peace. Why prepare for and invest in a political track to end the war if U.S. and Afghan forces were expected to turn the corner in the next six to 12 months?

Lesson 3: Pursuing peace can entail greater political and bureaucratic risks than continuing war.

Even as the United States doubled down on counterinsurgency efforts at the start of Obama’s presidency in 2009, a handful of senior officials in the White House, State Department and Pentagon quietly agreed that the United States needed a Plan B. In an interview, a former senior White House official told me that in early 2010, these officials created a small “Conflict Resolution Cell.” The cell helped pave the way for secret U.S.-Taliban talks, which began later that year. Those talks proceeded episodically over the next several years, but largely remained “talks about talks” and focused on prisoner releases. They were stymied by diplomatic snafus, the eroding U.S. relationship with President Karzai, and the Taliban’s refusal to include the Afghan government in talks (a U.S. demand).

But backchannel talks were also hamstrung by serious political and bureaucratic obstacles within the U.S. government. A former senior State Department official told me that “there was never a willingness to take political risks that would have been necessary to advance the peace process.” For example, prisoner releases faced an array of barriers: disagreements between the State Department and Defense Department, congressional certification required for releases from Guantanamo prison, and cabinet-level secretaries’ aversion to associate themselves with a politically risky prisoner exchange or with the talks themselves.

So, at the peak of the United States’ military leverage, the Obama administration never resourced peace efforts in a significant way (e.g., as in the Balkans in the 1990s), nor aligned both Defense and State Department efforts behind a peace process. There was no single U.S. official on the ground in Afghanistan who was responsible for coordinating military and political tracks, much less one who was empowered to do so.

Lesson 4: Do not demonize the enemy. When opportunities for peace negotiations arise, it will be harder to garner political and public support for talks.

For most of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, talking with the Taliban was taboo. U.S. presidents saw negotiations — and the prospect of any concessions to the Taliban — as politically toxic, even as many policymakers acknowledged that there was no military solution to the war. The taboo was rooted in the maxim that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists, the Taliban’s brutal treatment of women, and post-9/11 rhetoric that made little distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaida despite the two organizations’ different origins and goals and the fact that no Afghans were part of the 9/11 attacks.

The problem with a black-and-white, dehumanized portrait of the Taliban was that it sharply constrained U.S. policy options and blunted inclinations to better understand the movement. As early as 2001, simplistic perceptions of the Taliban — combined with the trauma of 9/11 and political pressures for vengeance — cut off pathways for negotiations. These factors led the Bush administration to rebuff Taliban attempts at reconciliation. A decade later, the same factors undercut the Obama administration’s backchannel talks and made even modest confidence-building measures a political lightning rod with Congress and the public.

Lessons for Other Conflicts

The U.S. experience in Afghanistan suggests that the pursuit of military leverage should be paired (perhaps quietly) with diplomatic and other tools of national power. And it shows how the failure to do so can prolong a conflict in ways that do not serve the interests of the United States and its partners, and may lead to a less-favorable negotiated settlement down the road. It also demonstrates that accurate intelligence about battlefield trends and military capabilities, and political will to admit that U.S. leverage is declining, are crucial for weighing when to pursue a peace process. Further, without White House attention and resources, U.S. efforts on peace negotiations may well founder and fail.

As the topic of negotiations becomes ever more taboo in the Ukraine war, there are echoes of Afghanistan. U.S. policymakers should seek to maintain space for discussion — including within U.S. agencies — of various scenarios, outcomes and the potential for a political process. The work of thinking through the conditions that would be conducive to negotiations, redlines to hold and what outcomes could prevent a relapse in hostilities can be done now. Critics might say such efforts signal weakness and risk emboldening Russia. But if the United States fails to identify or shape potential opportunities for a just peace in Ukraine, U.S. leaders may not be prepared to seize those chances when they arise.

This article was originally published by Lawfare.

Learning from Failed Peace Efforts in Afghanistan
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