In the Afghan Capital, the Economic Desperation Is Palpable

With the financial system collapsing and petty crime on the rise, many Kabul residents are selling their possessions to get out or just to survive

In the Afghan Capital, the Economic Desperation Is Palpable
Vendors wait for customers at a street market selling household goods in Kabul on December 4, 2021 / Ahmad Sahel Arman / AFP via Getty Images

Household items have been piling up on the streets of Kabul for weeks now: tables, chairs, carpets, saucepans, computers, televisions. Some families in the city are selling their possessions to raise enough money to leave the country. Others are just trying to raise enough money to feed their children.

Acts of quiet desperation are a feature of daily life here this winter. Although they may not grab the headlines like the suicide bombings of the Islamic State group or the latest proclamations of the Taliban, they too are expressions of a certain kind of politics.

Even the mundane suffering of individual households feels like it was scripted at an international level. We are reaping the aftereffects of a global war on terrorism and the onset of cataclysmic climate change. In response, all some of us can do is sell the detritus of our hopes and dreams for a few dollars.

During the final months of Ashraf Ghani’s presidency, when it became clear that the situation was unraveling at great speed, Afghans tried to prepare for the worst. From our own childhoods and the stories handed down by our parents, we had an idea of what to expect next, and those terrible memories offered us a strange sort of comfort. They gave us a blueprint for survival.

During the summer we set about gathering enough flour and cooking oil to last our families several weeks; we made plans to move to other neighborhoods or cities if ours turned too dangerous; and we took our children out of school in the belief that it was a temporary measure to keep them safe. Of course, we also prayed.

But what ultimately happened confounded our expectations. Kabul fell with barely a shot fired in anger. Even now it is still relatively peaceful compared with the days of the U.S. occupation. That does not mean the people are at peace, however. Fear comes in many forms, and today Afghans are more scared of dying from hunger than from bullets or bombs. The slow, tight squeeze of sanctions, drought and winter has left us gasping for air.

After a brief period of calm, petty crime has again become a problem in my part of town as thieves comb the streets and rip down electricity lines so that they can sell the wiring. More and more unemployed men crowd the local square each morning, hoping against the odds to be hired as day laborers. It’s true that we see fewer drug addicts hunched together along the edge of the river now, as they have been rounded up by the Taliban. But whether their sickness has been cured is another matter. They too are pawns in a bigger game.

Although we did not feel safe when the Americans were here, we knew that with God’s help and the sort of life-or-death planning that becomes routine in war, there was a good chance we might avoid the worst of the violence. Keeping the hunger and cold at bay is far harder. It creeps into our homes day and night.

For much of the U.S. occupation, an American dollar was worth about 50 Afghanis (Afs) — our national currency. Slowly but surely, the exchange rate began to change as the years dragged on and the uncertainty over our country’s future grew. Now, as I write this, the rate stands at 95 Afs per dollar with money changers on the street. The price of goods has also increased sharply. The cost of cooking gas has doubled; the coal we use to heat our homes has gone from 5000 Afs a ton to more than 8000 Afs. Rice, a staple of our diet, is more expensive than it has been for decades.

The plight of women who lost their old jobs in government because of the Taliban’s restrictions has rightly been highlighted by the international media in recent months, but the sanctions of the West are taking a toll on everyone. A relative of mine who used to drive a minibus taxi has stopped working because he can no longer afford the price of petrol and knows that people will not ride with him if he raises his fares.

The financial system is in chaos. To withdraw even a small amount of cash from the bank, we must submit an application one day beforehand, and even then there is no guarantee that we will get it when we turn up. People wait in line for hours with the right paperwork and are still made to leave frustrated. We can transfer money domestically using our traditional hawala network of brokers. But we struggle to receive money from overseas.

Life in the countryside is even harder, just as it was during the war. Apple and apricot orchards in the Dashti-e-Top area of Sayedabad, a district in Wardak province, have been destroyed by drought. Farmers now cut the trees down for firewood. Springs and wells are dry. The lack of rain has killed everything, including the happiness and morale of families.

Some Afghans blame the Taliban’s intransigence for this situation, but the anger of most people is directed toward the West and the U.S. in particular. Having spent 20 years claiming they were here to help, America and its allies seem intent on proving their mendacity.

All we have to cling to now is our faith. When the Taliban were last in government from 1996 to 2001, some Afghans took to digging up the bones of the dead and selling them to merchants who would turn them into glue. After a while, rumours spread that the bones were being sent to Pakistan to make cooking oil, which was then sold back to us. At least the situation in late 2021 isn’t that bad. Not yet, anyway.

This “Letter from Kabul” is part of a new offering by New Lines. Over coming weeks our contributors will provide their own unique glimpses into life on the ground in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. To read them first, sign up to our newsletter.

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