Afghanistan is rapidly descending into one of the worst humanitarian crises in living memory amid rampant starvation, a health-care crisis marked by child malnutrition, and the collapse of essential services since the Taliban took over the country six months ago.
The situation initially prompted generous donor pledges from the international community in an effort to fend off large-scale death and destruction. But the escalating war in Ukraine -- which has prompted the exodus of more than 1 million civilians into neighboring European countries -- is now diverting international attention from the equally dire situation in Afghanistan.
A week into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, international attention is shifting away from Afghans as they bear the brunt of decades of war, drought, and an economic collapse.
Afghans who spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi have reported difficulties maintaining even a meager existence, with some resorting to sending their young children to work or beg on the street to help feed the household.
"There is no work. I wonder day and night, how can I feed my family?" Sharifa, a mother of three, told Radio Azadi. Her 11-year-old son and 13-year old daughter are pitching in by shining shoes in their home city of Kabul, but she says that even on the best of days they bring home no more than $2.
Nine-year-old Dadullah's family, too, is depending on him to help after his father lost his job as a builder after the Taliban takeover.
"I give everything I earn to my parents," the boy, who lives in the central province of Maidan Wardak told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. He says that Fridays are often his lucky day, when he makes more than $1, but other days he barely makes 25 cents.
Aid workers warn that the world's attention is turning away from such grim realities in Afghanistan.
"What we see is a lot of media leaving Afghanistan. If you see the newspapers and TV, it's all about Ukraine. That is a very strong indication of where the global attention is," said Sam Mort, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, the UN's children's agency. "We also see urgent funding appeals for support to Ukraine, which absolutely needs that support, but Afghanistan's needs are no less."
Afghanistan, one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world, rapidly slid into a desperate humanitarian crisis after losing most international development funding and humanitarian assistance after the Taliban seized power in August. A marked decrease in trade and an enduring drought magnified the losses, even as countries have pledged renewed funding and aid and looked for ways to deliver it without propping up the Taliban.
But that aid has been slow to arrive, and U.S. and UN sanctions against senior Taliban leaders have complicated the country's economic situation. Individuals and organizations are encountering difficulties in wiring money into Afghanistan, where banks are teetering on the brink of collapse.
Aid workers say that combined with the Taliban oppression, these sanctions have forced businesses to shutter and deprived tens of thousands of Afghans of jobs in health care and education after Western development assistance ceased six months ago. Even UN agencies and international NGOs have struggled to fund their humanitarian projects.
The UN estimates more than 23 million Afghans -- more than 55 percent of the 39 million population -- face starvation. UNICEF says over 1 million Afghan children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from malnutrition, and that more than 3 million children could ultimately be affected.
According to the UNDP, 97 percent of Afghans will see their incomes drop below the poverty line this year. Since the Taliban takeover, more than 1.5 million Afghans have fled to other countries, while another 3.5 million are displaced inside Afghanistan.
"Nothing has improved, and the predictions are really grim," Mort said of the current state of the crisis. "We are desperate for more funds to help those most in need."
Veteran aid worker Anders Fange ran the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, one of the most significant humanitarian projects in the country, for decades. He says that given his experience during recent crises, the unfolding crisis in Ukraine will impact the willingness of Western donors to fund other humanitarian emergencies.
"Media is already influencing how the politicians see this," he said. "Available funds and money will be focused on Ukraine."
Looking For A Silver Lining
Two recent developments offer a possible silver lining for Afghanistan. First, the U.S. Treasury issued a waiver on February 25 that will "expand authorizations for commercial and financial transactions in Afghanistan, including with its governing institutions." The General License, as the waiver is officially called, will allow commercial activities previously forbidden under sanctions against the Taliban.
And on March 1, the World Bank announced the release of some $1 billion from the previously frozen Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. The money will be channeled to aid agencies "to support the delivery of essential basic services, protect vulnerable Afghans, help preserve human capital and key economic and social services, and reduce the need for humanitarian assistance in the future," the World Bank said in a statement.
But Deborah Lyons, UN special envoy for Afghanistan, warned that the country was moving toward "a point of irreversibility" because the international community has failed to revive the Afghan economy. "We are nearing a tipping point that will see more businesses close, more people unemployed and falling into poverty," she told the UN Security Council on March 2.
Fange agrees. "Even if these steps work, they will not solve all of Afghanistan's problems," he said, emphasizing the need to revive the economy, which remains in a downward spiral as the country's agricultural sector struggles due to drought.
He says that even during years with an average harvest, Afghanistan was forced to import up to 3 million tons of wheat, the staple food in the country, to meet demand. "Now there is no money for this kind of import, and together with a 40 percent drop in last year's harvest, it will get worse, much worse," he predicted.
While Afghanistan has received more than 100,000 tons of donated wheat from Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan, and other countries, it is not enough to plug the gap.
Hameed Hakimi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, is not optimistic about the situation. He says there is little hope for increased international attention to Afghanistan's growing humanitarian woes and that Western economies, reeling from the shock of the coronavirus pandemic, are tightening spending abroad.
"This puts the Afghan context in direct competition for Western resources against the Ukrainian conflict, with the latter highly likely to be prioritized by donors," he said.
Hakimi argues the Taliban's hard-line rule in Afghanistan, which has made it an international pariah, doesn't help, either. "The Taliban's regime remains unrecognized internationally and therefore there is an absence of official Afghan lobbying for aid to the Afghan people," he noted.
Mort maintains hope that the international community has learned that it is more humane and cost-effective to prevent a crisis than to treat it. However, she warns: "Time is running out for that in Afghanistan because people are really suffering."