Webb: Afghanistan, the starving time

The Biden administration may want the Afghanistan story to go away, but the reality of the country’s rocky ground remains. Afghanistan is now amid a battle between the Taliban and the Islamic State, with the added factor of a small resistance force mostly in the northern part of the country.

Caught in the crossfire are three generations of Afghans. The youngest generation, many of whom were born after the 20-year war began, have known nothing but war and had a mild hope that the country would become a modern society. Their parents saw the transition from the 1980s Soviet War era to Taliban rule, and then NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). They have never known peace. The old generation fought against communism and the Soviet invasion. They can barely remember a time in the 1970s when Afghanistan was at peace.

Throughout, Afghanistan saw little cultural or industrial advancement. The same resistance to modernization that caused the overthrow of Afghanistan’s first reformer, King Amanullah Khan, in 1928 remains as strong as ever. The extremist views of those who governed and the subsequent realities of everyday life stifled the development of a middle class. This is not to say they are bereft of modern technology and the knowledge of how to use it. It was often relegated to or controlled by those in charge — except for smart phones, which are widely used across the entire nation.

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Historically, as winter in Afghanistan approaches, the fighting season comes to a halt. What begins this year, post United States and NATO ISAF troop withdrawal is the “Starving Time.” 

Regardless of anyone’s political views, these are crucial factors to consider. A crisis is developing in Afghanistan. Little can be done to stem a large-scale human catastrophe on a par with the Ethiopian crisis of the 1980s.

• Winter is coming and over 18.4 million people in Afghanistan require urgent humanitarian assistance, twice the amount of last year.

• Afghanistan is expected to reach a historic high of 97 percent below the poverty level, many in abject poverty and hopelessness.

• 75 percent of those in need and most at risk are women and children.

• Current estimates are that more than 3 million children are at risk of acute malnutrition; even if they do not die, their growth and mental development will be stunted.

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• At least one million children are expected to suffer even more and will die without treatment, food and support.

• Since electricity runs only an hour a day, the gardens and trees of Kabul are already being stripped bare for firewood and heating. Many who do not die of hunger may freeze death in the harshest cold of January and February, even if they can eat.

• Over 50 percent of the population of Afghanistan will be in Integrated Food Security Phase Classification 3 (IPC3) in the next few months. IPC3 means at least 20 percent of Afghan households will have significant food consumption gaps or are marginally able to meet minimum food needs only with irreversible coping strategies such as liquidating livelihood assets.

The “Starving Time” will not end with the early spring. It will worsen , which marks the beginning of the so-called “Fighting Season.”

• Virtually every available analysis projects that Afghanistan will fall into a bloody civil war in 2022. The Taliban has prioritized keeping its own diverse factions in line, rather than the humanitarian disaster — and they are losing that battle.

• In the last week, ISIS-K elements have gone from a small group in only a few provinces, to a large group with a presence in every province of Afghanistan.

• The Haqqani Network, a designated terrorist group that once filled the ranks of the Taliban, has reasserted its independence and, with support from the government of Pakistan, is now seeking to unseat the Taliban and take control of Afghanistan in the spring.

• Amid the starvation and fighting, even if all aid being staged in the West is perfectly administered, tens of thousands will still die.

• Afghanistan is about to become the “new Ethiopia.” How many of you recall a desperate Ethiopia in the 1980s?

There are many international efforts already underway to save as many lives as possible as the Afghans face overwhelmingly dangerous odds. Yet it is not the U.S. government that is stepping forward to assist — and the question is how to support the Afghan people without aiding the Taliban itself. It may be a lack of will on the part of the Biden administration. Afghanistan, in the eyes of the White House, is “over.” As a result, private groups continue to do more than the White House or the State Department to save the lives of those left behind.  These same groups are now sending money and food into Afghanistan in hopes of keeping alive at least those who worked with the U.S. The odds against success are steep, and it is difficult to send support given the valid sanctions that are in place against the Taliban. These private groups are staffed mostly by individuals who have stepped into a gap where every life matters. They are sometimes former veterans who served in Afghanistan or sometimes just a neighbor who got involved because they cared.

A key difference in their approach is that they are working with vetted individuals holding U.S. passports, green cards and Special Interest Visas, known as SIVs. In contrast, almost none of the 82,000 people airlifted from Kabul in August were vetted before being admitted to the United States, even if the Biden administration claimed otherwise. A congressional memo summarizing interviews with federal officials who oversaw the process described a disastrous screening and vetting process. The Biden administration relied solely on criminal and terrorist databases to flag bad actors, according to the memo. They did little more than screening, rather than vetting people brought to the U.S.

Yet private groups are now being held to a much higher standard. Their SIV cases must prove every contract, every document, and every fact. As a result, their SIV applications are expected to take at least six months to a year to process. P1 and P2 refugee visas are expected to take between one and two years. There are uncounted cases of Afghans who worked for the USA for over a decade who were left behind and are now in hiding, hunted by the Taliban, and with little hope of escape. The White House and State Department say that there are only a handful left, but every private group working on saving those they can find can attest to thousands. These are the Afghans who should have been saved during the airlift but were left behind. Will any member of Congress ask the White House to provide a report of how many who were airlifted out ever worked for the U.S. government at all? Even if asked, would the Biden administration simply ignore the question?

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One such Afghan who was left behind with his entire family, despite having worked for many years for the U.S. military regularly receives calls from an old Kabul neighbor who was “screened” at the airport and evacuated, despite never having worked a day in his life for Afghanistan’s modernization or the USA. Like thousands of others, he somehow got into the airport and was taken to safety. Now living in an apartment and with full U.S. government support, the neighbor calls and laughs, saying that he made it to America, “but you didn’t, even if you broke your back for the Americans for years. This is the thanks you get!”

The U.S. government’s first focus has been resettling those who were airlifted out, even if perhaps as many as 80 percent never worked with the U.S. in Afghanistan. As more of those are resettled, Special Interest Visas (SIV), are more and more the focus of the effort. However, the processing and time it takes to approve each SIV case is a key factor slowing that progress.

Another problem that few have yet recognized is that the cut off for Afghan child dependents of SIV applicants to enter the USA is 21 years old. There are many Afghans SIV applicants with children nearing those dates. Imagine a child who is 19 and a half years old. If it takes the U.S. government a year and a half to complete their parents’ SIV application, they will turn 21 years of age and be excluded from the program, left behind as easy targets for Taliban extortion and reprisal killings. The child, now an adult, will have to find an alternative country or file for another kind of visa. In most cases, there will be little or no hope of escaping the hell Afghanistan has become.

These lengthy delays are already putting hundreds of children into this position. One possible solution is for Congress to pass a bill that anyone below the 21-year-old limit at the time of their SIV or P1/P2 applications will retain eligibility, no matter how long State takes to complete the review. Such steps seem fair since it is not the fault of the Afghans that the application review takes months, or even years to process. Congress could show that it still cares, even if others say that this is the ultimate “kick in the teeth” from the Biden administration.

The fact is that Afghanistan is a predictable humanitarian disaster, but the arrival of the Taliban is only the first disaster. The second disaster is one caused by the multiple failures of the Biden administration itself.

“The Starving Time” will happen — in fact, it has already started. The full extent felt by its victims may never be known.

Webb is host of “The David Webb Show” on SiriusXM Patriot 125, a Fox Nation host, Fox News contributor and a frequent television commentator. His column appears twice a month in The Hill.