Two weeks’ respite on the North Atlantic Canadian shore, and I return to find no let-up in the onslaught of news here in the US. New crises have emerged alongside lingering issues that seem only to have intensified these past two weeks: the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban; the draconian anti-abortion law in Texas; the continuing logjam over infrastructure and voting rights bills in the nation’s capital; relentless wildfires in California and floods on the Gulf Coast are all reminders that the world just keeps on spinning, even while some of us are privileged enough to escape for contemplation of a Nova Scotia sunrise.
But there is a growing nexus of forces revealed in America’s chaotic departure from Afghanistan that signals an excruciating time ahead, prompting a challenge to all ethically-minded Americans that we are not done yet with Afghanistan. The convergence of conflict, Covid-19 and climate change creates a toxic stew engulfing that beleaguered nation that calls us to act aggressively as a dire humanitarian crisis looms.
In our haste to draw conclusions from our withdrawal from Afghanistan, we risk overlooking a whole set of casualties, causing us to ask if they will ever be counted among the tallies of this “endless war.” Millions of Afghans are on the brink of starvation. Few solutions are in sight and there is little stomach in the international community to continue involvement there. We must ask with some urgency: what is America’s responsibility in this looming quagmire?
Writing in the New York Times, Marc Santora, Nick Cummings-Bruce and Christina Goldbaum point out that since the Taliban’s takeover, “the nation’s poverty rate has soared and basic public services have neared collapse and, in the past year, hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless after being forced to flee fighting.”
UN Secretary General António Gutteres says, “the deepening humanitarian crisis tops a dizzying array of challenges confronting the new Taliban regime as it navigates governing a country propped up for decades by aid from international donors.” Gutteres claims that “one in three Afghans do not know where they will get their next meal.” He calls conflict and hunger “mutually reinforcing.”
One million children are at risk of starvation. The World Food Program estimates that 40 percent of Afghanistan’s crops are lost. The global pandemic has strained health care workers to the breaking point so even as widespread malnutrition looms, hospitals that once treated people for starvation now face potential collapse. When sustained conflict is added to the covid equation—and Afghanistan has been in conflict for decades—the strain becomes a break and dysfunction ensues.
(In the US, we think of such dilemmas as the inability to treat a traffic accident in the midst of covid-filled ICUs. How can we even grasp the idea of a million starving children descending upon an overtaxed health care system? Again, we must ask ourselves: what is our special responsibility in this crisis?)
And when you add the dynamics of climate change, the situation becomes exponentially more dire. Prolonged drought and prolonged conflict cause the displacement of countless individuals from their homes. This only magnifies the impact of each catastrophe on the lives of individuals and communities.
Afghanistan is not the only country facing this dilemma. Khanyi Mlaba, writing in Global Citizen, states ominously that, “today, 155 million people are facing acute food insecurity (where people’s inability to consume enough food puts their lives in immediate danger) with 28 million people across 38 countries and territories teetering on the brink of starvation.” She sites conflict, pandemic-related economic factors and climate change being to blame for the worsening food crisis this year.
So while Afghanistan is not alone in facing these intersecting crises, it is where US foreign policy has had a sustained, devastating impact on its culture and its future. In the same way that we must ensure security and safe passage for those who assisted us in the generation-long war in that place, it is imperative that we draw on our tradition of justice and mercy to address the looming crisis of starvation in a country we ravaged by war for so long.