US intelligence agencies have warned that Islamist extremists operating in Afghanistan could attack America within six months as the country suffers what the UN has called “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”.
The twin crises of widespread hunger and growing terror threats reflects the rapid deterioration of conditions in Afghanistan since the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani’s western-backed government and the takeover by the Taliban in August.
“Every Afghan man, woman and child knows there is a really deep crisis unfolding,” said Dick Trenchard, Afghanistan country director for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. “We haven’t seen the worst of it yet.”
The UN and international aid agencies estimate that about 19m Afghans are enduring an acute hunger crisis, which means they are unable to access sufficient food each day, owing to a drought and the implosion of the aid-dependent economy.
An additional 13m Afghans are struggling to secure sufficient food, with the situation expected to deteriorate during the winter. The UN said about 3.5m children under the age of five were at a high risk of starvation unless aid is scaled up dramatically.
“The trajectory is still deeply down,” Trenchard said. “We’ve never seen a crisis that has escalated downwards so quickly. The speed of the collapse — as well as the scale — has been so alarming.”
US officials meanwhile are increasingly worried that Islamist terror groups that had used Afghanistan as a base before the US-led 2001 invasion were regrouping, despite a Taliban pledge that it would not allow the country to be used as a springboard for jihadi groups.
The Taliban itself has been targeted in attacks by the rival Isis-K, a local, Isis-inspired militant group, which considers the new government as sell-outs to the global Islamist cause and is eager to prevent their consolidation of power.
On Tuesday, a senior Pentagon official warned that US intelligence officials believed that Isis-K would have the “capability” to conduct external strikes, including on American soil, within “six or 12 months”. The official added that it would take al-Qaeda between one or two years to reach a similar culpability to do the same.
“We have to remain vigilant against that possibility,” Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defence for policy, told the Senate armed services committee.
In Afghanistan, the UN said it was rushing to increase stocks of food and medicines before winter snow make the delivery of aid even more difficult.
“There is no Plan B,” Trenchard said. “We need a massive increase in humanitarian resources to carry Afghans through the winter into next year.”
Although international governments pledged at an emergency conference in September to provide about $1bn in emergency food, medical supplies and other humanitarian aid for Afghan’s 38m people, just a fraction of that has been received by the UN, which is leading the relief effort.
Afghanistan was already facing its worst drought in 35 years — its second severe drought in three years — before the Taliban rolled into Kabul. The change in government led to an abrupt end to the international development support that had helped keep the economy afloat.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington