What the Taliban Takeover Means for Food Security in Afghanistan

There is widespread concern within Afghanistan and the international community about how to help Afghan people access food. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) announced that millions of people could run out of food before the end of the year as winter sets in, adding to the 12.2 million Afghans who are already facing acute hunger and prompting debates on how the international community should respond. To adequately address the growing and acute needs of Afghans, the U.S. government and the international community should remove bureaucratic red tape and refrain from politicizing aid to avoid exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.

Q1: What was the state of food security in Afghanistan prior to the Taliban takeover?

A1: Afghanistan is experiencing some of the worst food insecurity in the world. The 2020 Global Hunger Index ranked Afghanistan 99th out of 107 countries evaluated. According to the WFP, roughly one-third of Afghanistan’s population was food insecure earlier this year. Due to long-standing economic and security challenges, major droughts, and floods in recent years, hunger in Afghanistan has increased substantially since 2014. More than five million people per year have relied on emergency food aid during this period.

Economic Challenges

Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani announced in July of 2020 that 90 percent of Afghans live on less than US$2 per day. According to World Bank estimates, an individual Afghan had to spend approximately US$0.58 per day in 2017 to meet their basic food needs, although maintaining a nutritious diet is more expensive. Food prices have increased significantly since 2017 due to food shortages and supply chain disruptions, making it even more challenging for Afghans to afford food in recent years.

Security Challenges

Armed conflict in Afghanistan has displaced an estimated 550,000 people since the beginning of 2021, adding to over 3.5 million Afghans already internally displaced from previous rounds of violence. Displacement contributes to high levels of food insecurity since people who are forced to leave their homes are disconnected from their livelihoods, agricultural land, and family and community support.

Floods, Droughts, and Covid-19

Over 80 percent of the country experienced a serious drought this year, following major droughts and floods in 2017, 2018, and 2019. The WFP estimates that 40 percent of crops were lost, greatly diminishing food availability.

Compounding the problem, the Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to rising food prices, high unemployment and income losses, and breakdowns in food supply chains. The costs of food staples like wheat and sugar have risen by up to 23 percent, an increase many Afghans cannot afford.

Q2: What impact could Taliban control have on the country’s food security?

A2: Taliban control will undoubtedly make a bad situation worse. The WFP estimates that 93 percent of Afghans were not getting enough food to eat at the beginning of September, up from 80 percent before the Taliban took over. The former Afghan government depended heavily on foreign aid, reportedly drawing about 80 percent of the nation’s budget from the United States and other international donors. The United States and the international community have paused most aid and frozen Afghanistan’s international reserves due to reservations and uncertainty about whether to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Furthermore, long-standing sanctions on the Taliban by both the United States and the United Nations further complicate the provision of bilateral and multilateral economic, development, and even humanitarian assistance.

Cash shortages, bank closures, and suspensions of money transfers since the Taliban took Kabul are contributing to hyperinflation of the Afghan currency, the afghani, and are preventing humanitarian organizations from continuing their operations on the ground. Food prices reached record highs this year, and inflation is likely to send prices soaring. The economic crisis makes it harder for Afghans to buy food, among other essential goods.

The withdrawal of international support in the country has raised questions about how the Taliban will fund social services and food assistance. In recent years, much of the Taliban’s financial reserves came from illegal activities; Taliban leadership has made numerous statements about cracking down on illegal opium trading, but that seems unlikely.

The Taliban takeover is also worsening disruptions to food supply chains. As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, they took control of highways and transportation channels across the country, starting in the periphery and border areas. Early Taliban gains were made in key areas near the borders with Iran and Pakistan, which affected both commercial and humanitarian supply lines, cutting off many people from necessary resources.

Gender inequality under Taliban leadership could worsen food insecurity for women as well as their families. Globally, women experienced about 10 percent more food insecurity than men in 2020. The Taliban have already directed all women to stay away from work. Taliban leaders say this is a temporary measure to protect women’s safety, but many Afghan women and human rights organizations are skeptical, since the Taliban made similar claims the last time they controlled Afghanistan, and the “temporary” orders did not change for years. Women’s participation in the country’s labor force has steadily increased over the past decade, and the loss of women’s incomes, even temporarily, could make it harder for their families to put food on the table. Furthermore, almost 20 percent of women-owned businesses in Afghanistan are in the food production and processing sector, so removing women from the workforce could further restrict food supplies at a time when they are desperately needed.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that conflict, climate variability and extremes, and economic downturns increase food insecurity and malnutrition, particularly in low- and middle-income countries and in places with high income inequality. Afghanistan was already experiencing many of these drivers of food insecurity and recent events have escalated these factors and added new concerns about food access.

Q3: What can be done right now to support Afghan people experiencing food insecurity?

A3: Humanitarian aid should not be overly politicized or hindered by sanctions and other restrictive measures, while agricultural food systems and local capacity need to be strengthened.

The international community must not repeat past mistakes when life-saving aid was delayed because of political concerns and sluggish bureaucracies. For example, during the conflict and famine in Somalia in 2011, private aid agencies were forced to leave areas of southern Somalia instead of providing humanitarian assistance to people experiencing famine, or else risk violating U.S. anti-terrorism provisions against al-Shabaab. The U.S. government eventually gave humanitarian organizations licenses that allowed them to restart their work and provide food assistance, but the delayed response cost the lives of over a quarter of a million Somalis. Rather than repeating the same mistakes in Afghanistan, the United States and other foreign governments should enable aid organizations to provide food and other services to Afghans as quickly as possible. This will require removing red tape and maintaining the political neutrality and independence of humanitarian work so that aid groups can help prevent further hunger. The U.S. Department of the Treasury issued two general licenses on September 24 to allow humanitarian aid into Afghanistan, which is a major step in the right direction. Further clarification of the scope of these licenses and written assurances for financial service providers and private companies that support humanitarian actors are also needed to secure the flow of agricultural goods into and across the country.

Steps can also be taken now to stabilize Afghanistan’s food systems in the longer term. Over 60 percent of Afghans rely on agriculture for their incomes, so rebuilding and supporting the sector is key to reconnecting people impacted by conflict and displacement with their livelihoods. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) plans to focus its efforts in Afghanistan on supporting small farmers and micro-enterprises, including those owned by women. This type of assistance will be essential to strengthen local food production and distribution systems, particularly in the face of increasing climate variability and extremes that will likely lead to more droughts, floods, and other disruptive weather patterns. Evidence from past famine and conflict situations in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Bangladesh demonstrates the importance of improving institutional and human capacity to respond to shocks such as natural disasters and conflict to prevent recurring crises. Since food insecurity and conflict can be mutually reinforcing, integrating displaced people into food supply chains can help reduce future conflicts and food crises.

Afghanistan has also become increasingly dependent on imports and foreign aid for its food supply, deepening the current crisis as foreign supplies are cut off. This is particularly true for food products like wheat flour and cooking oil that require transformation beyond the farm, since the country does not have the infrastructure and machinery to process these products domestically. In 2019, Afghanistan imported over 95 times more than it exported of these types of products. Strengthening local capacity to mill flour, to store and transport farm products, and to diversify farm products and incomes could help reduce long-term dependence on food imports and aid. These steps, combined with reconnecting Afghans with livelihood opportunities in agriculture, would help enable Afghans to access and afford food in the future.

Jamie Lutz is a research associate with the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jacob Kurtzer is the director and senior fellow of the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies
Jamie Lutz
Research Associate, Global Food Security Program
Jacob Kurtzer
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Humanitarian Agenda