Qandi Gul holds her brother outside their home housing those displaced by war and drought near Herat, Afghanistan. Dec. 16, 2021. Gul’s father sold her into marriage without telling his wife, taking a down-payment so he could feed his family of five children. Without that money, he told her, they would all starve. He had to sacrifice one to save the rest. Credit: Mstyslav Chernov / AP

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Sean L. Callahan is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services. He wrote this column for The Baltimore Sun.    

Afghanistan is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. In addition to financial and political turmoil, the worst drought in living memory has put nearly 23 million Afghans — more than half the population — at risk of severe food insecurity. Last month, as the head of the global charity Catholic Relief Services (CRS), I traveled to Afghanistan to better understand the needs. I was alarmed by what I saw.

On one hand, everyday life has returned to relative normal following the Taliban’s August takeover. In Kabul, families buzz around the airport, welcoming home relatives. Motorbikes and tuk tuks whiz through traffic-clogged streets. Vendors haggle over merchandise. And girls with backpacks walk to school. While there are localized instances of violence, security is mostly stable.

However, on the other hand, the relative calm is deceiving. The collapse of the government has created a deteriorating economic crisis. For months, teachers and other government employees haven’t gotten paid. CRS, like other organizations, is struggling to get cash into the country.

To make matters worse, prolonged drought has depleted the country’s food supply. CRS is the only international humanitarian organization in Adraskan, one of the hardest hit areas, where conditions are bone dry. Farmers told me they have no crops, which is incredibly worrying going into the lean season when families depend on earlier harvests to get them through the winter.

It bears emphasis that Afghanistan is already one of the poorest countries on Earth, with more than 20 million people living below the poverty line.

According to a recent World Food Program survey, an estimated 98 percent of Afghans are not consuming enough food — a 17 percent increase since August. To cope, families are eating less or are borrowing food to get by. Some are even selling off assets or are pushing their children into early marriages. CRS and other NGOs are providing emergency relief while continuing ongoing development programming to stem the tide of this crisis. For example, we’re giving cash to farmers across 50 drought-affected villages so that they can buy food.

But make no mistake: Humanitarian efforts alone cannot replace a government and a functioning economy. Money must get into the country quickly so that the public sector can be paid. It’s likely a matter of weeks before the hunger crisis escalates to the point where we see masses of people — many children — die from hunger-related maladies.

What can we do, then, as an international community to help Afghanistan navigate its way out of this crisis?

To date, no Western nation, including our own, has formally recognized the Taliban’s new government. In addition, billions of dollars in assets and aid have been frozen since August. Western governments like the U.S. are in an unenviable position. They must determine how to support the Afghan people while engaging with authorities who took over the country after the U.S. pullout. So far, this balancing act has failed to produce worthwhile results on behalf of the people caught up in the morass.

The U.S. must do better at leading efforts to work around the new political guardrails. While we were pleased to see the U.S. Treasury Department expand licenses to allow more humanitarian assistance to flow into the country, it is unlikely this move will be enough to drastically improve conditions. If the international community doesn’t ensure a functioning government and economy, and scale its humanitarian assistance, we’ll likely see an increase in suffering, displacement and instability. A failed state or a return to war are not in the interest of the people of Afghanistan, the region or the United States.

“The world cannot turn its back as the Afghan people starve,” said David Beasley, the head of the World Food Program, in a recent statement. We couldn’t agree more.

Despite all the chaos, our Afghan staff — many of whom come from the villages we serve — are back at work and have shown remarkable resilience in the face of despair. But many are worried about what comes next. The current environment is not sustainable. When I was there last month, I met a young staffer who proudly showed me a picture of his beautiful 10-day-old daughter. When I asked him how his wife was doing following the birth, he flashed me a faint smile. “Everything is OK right now. But we’re afraid of the future,” he said. What he didn’t have to say is that his baby’s future — and the future of Afghanistan — partly lies in our hands.