Afghanistan is on the brink of mass starvation. Where is international aid?

In the nearly four months since the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world has witnessed the collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban takeover. The country is now in freefall, with millions in danger and a spiraling humanitarian crisis. 23 million Afghans need food assistance, with 8.7 million nearing famine. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been nearly four months since the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan, the collapse of the Afghan government, and the Taliban takeover.

    The country is now widely seen in freefall, with citizens in danger and a spiraling humanitarian crisis.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Afghanistan is on the brink of mass starvation. Every single Afghan province is considered food-insecure or even in crisis; 23 million Afghans need food assistance; 8.7 million are nearing famine.

    One million children face severe, acute malnutrition, and could starve and die this winter, far more than died in 20 years of war. Schools have no money to pay teachers because the banking system is inoperable. And the health care system is near collapse because international assistance that was the source of funding has been frozen.

    To talk about U.S. policy, I'm joined by Tom West, recently named the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, in his first broadcast interview in this role.

    Tom West, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    The U.S. is providing hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, but it's frozen all other assistance and kept in place preexisting sanctions on the Taliban that have become basically de facto sanctions on the Afghan government.


  • Thomas West, U.S. Special Representative For Afghanistan:

    Nick, thank you for having me.

    Let me first say that the humanitarian crisis unfolding and worsening in Afghanistan is at the very center of policy-making. You mentioned hundreds of millions. It's $474 million in American humanitarian assistance. That's in addition to $4.1 billion since 2002. We have issued two general licenses that aim to provide for U.N. organizations, humanitarian actors, NGOs to really scale up and meet the needs of a coming crisis this winter.

    Through outreach to particular corporations, we have managed to stitch together an operation that now is trucking in many millions of dollars explicitly to help humanitarian organizations scale up. We talked to the Taliban at great length about the magnitude of Afghanistan's dependence on foreign aid in the many months leading up to their takeover on August 15.

    They chose a military takeover. I think they knew the consequences. And they made that decision anyway. And, unfortunately, the Afghan people are suffering as a result.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. made those consequences clear. But, today, we are witnessing state collapse in real time.

    The U.N. says that, if the trends we have been talking about continue, 97 percent will be in poverty. That is a level of poverty never seen before in any conflict anywhere. Do you acknowledge that U.S. policy is exacerbating the crisis, even if the U.S. didn't start it?

  • Thomas West:

    You know, I'd say that, collectively, the international community has not yet decided to pursue, for instance, sanctions relief.

    There are a range of things we want to see from the Taliban when it comes to establishing a record of responsible conduct.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What are you waiting for? What is it exactly that you expect the Taliban to do right now?

  • Thomas West:

    So, we are not conditioning humanitarian assistance on anything that the Taliban moves forward with. So, that $474 million is moving.

    And I'd add that there about $1.5 billion stalled at the World Bank, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. That used to support about 75 percent of public expenditures.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I think, as you know, this is well beyond humanitarian assistance, emergency humanitarian assistance.

    This is what the government calls humanitarian-plus assistance, the idea of a health care system, that idea of an education system, the very idea of getting cash into society, people's salaries being paid, without all of which they cannot live, they cannot actually survive throughout the day.

    Do you acknowledge that this is a question more than morality? This is a question of national security. If the Afghan state collapses, do you acknowledge that you could have a migration crisis that could destabilize the region?

  • Thomas West:

    My first stop abroad in this job was to Brussels, where I consulted with our allies.

    Yes, I think the possibility of a repeat of 2015 and '16 looms very large in their minds. And that is why, on behalf of our allies, I think that is reason enough to do more to mitigate this humanitarian crisis under way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let try and do some specifics and get into the health care system.

    And to do that, I want to show a clip from a hospital in Kabul that my colleague Jane Ferguson filmed just last month.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    "Son of Sadam" written on a piece of tape stuck to this child's chest is all that identifies him. With each shallow breath, his chances of making it grow thinner. This ward is packed, frail, sick babies lined up next to one another in beds meant for one. Almost a third don't make it. That means four or five of the babies in this room will die.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What is the U.S. doing to help those children?

  • Thomas West:

    Well, like I said, I mean, the urgency of a policy responses is under way.

    But look, Nick, those images are just absolutely heartbreaking for anybody who cares about Afghans. I think, as a society, a lot of us in America still care about the Afghan people, about the 38 million people who remain there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's talk about education a little bit; 222,000 teachers, can the U.S. help pay the salaries, again, salaries that have not been paid, frankly, for much of the year?

  • Thomas West:

    I'd sketch for you maybe two areas of really strong consensus within the international community when it comes to potential support to teachers, again, through the World Bank.

    One is that we want to see a serious and rigorous academic curriculum. We have received strong assurances from the Taliban that they have no interest in revising the curriculum of the last 20 years.

    Second, we want to see some quiet efforts to, in effect, monitor and give us confidence that, when the Taliban say women and girls are back in school, they tell us back in 12 provinces, we want independent monitors to let us know the same.

    We have seen positive public statements in this regard from a range of officials with the Taliban, but we want to see follow-through and we want to see a monitoring arrangement in place as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Is that follow-through worth risking the lives of a million children this winter, given that those million children need more than emergency humanitarian aid? They need structural assistance that the U.S. is currently freezing.

  • Thomas West:

    So, when I say follow-through, I mean specifically on education and the matter of salaries.

    I mean, unfortunately, providing 200,000 teachers their salaries, even that is not going to be enough to truly meaningfully mitigate the suffering under way. I think the scale of the intervention is going to have to be larger.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tom West, special representative for Afghanistan, thank you very much.

  • Thomas West:

    Thank you, Nick.

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