Help War’s Victims: End the Economic Punishment of Afghanistan

Having already endured decades of civil war, Afghanistan’s people must now face economic collapse and abysmal poverty. The Taliban’s victory, in August 2021, over the US-backed Afghan government led to a dramatic decrease in foreign support to Afghanistan. The United States has also placed economic sanctions on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. These events have contributed to a humanitarian crisis for the Afghan people. The United States must prevent any further suffering by ending Afghanistan’s economic punishment.

Under Afghanistan’s previous, American-supported regime, the country became heavily dependent on foreign financial support. Prior to the Taliban takeover, the United States and other western nations funded about 80 percent of Afghan government expenses. Following the August takeover, the donor money flow stopped.[1]

Meanwhile, the Biden administration and European banks froze the overseas funds of Afghanistan’s Central Bank, an amount totaling roughly $10 billion. Also, the United States designates the Taliban as a terrorist organization. This designation (along with other legal issues) restricts Taliban representatives’ ability to receive Afghan government funds.[2] The terrorist designation also means US people are prohibited from doing business with the Taliban.[3]

While these measures may be intended to keep money from the Taliban, their immediate practical effect has been to inflict suffering on the Afghan people.

Jan Egeland, of the Norwegian Refugee Council, an aid organization, commented that freezing Afghanistan’s overseas funds “sent shock waves through the banking system…leading to bank closures and halting the economy… The banking crisis has left several Afghan banks closed and others operating at limited capacity.” This situation restricts Afghan businesses’ ability to operate and even Egeland’s own organization’s ability to provide aid.[4]

Egeland estimated that hundreds of thousands of public employees, including teachers, healthcare workers, electricity grid engineers, and others, have gone without pay. Deborah Lyons, the United Nations’ special representative for Afghanistan, commented that “Cash is severely limited. Traders cannot get credit,” and many people “can’t access their savings.”[5]

These economic consequences have fallen on a nation already in dire need. A drought that began in 2020 hurt Afghan farmers, and over half a million people were internally displaced by conflict during roughly the first nine months of 2021.[6] In October 2021, a global partnership of aid organizations estimated that almost 19 million Afghans were facing high levels of acute food insecurity and projected that this number would rise to over 22 million—more than half the population—by March 2022.[7]

The United Nations Development Programme projected that by the middle of 2022 over 90 percent of Afghans could be living below the World Bank-defined international poverty line of $1.90 a day.[8] This past fall, UNICEF warned that some 1 million Afghan children under age five were at risk of dying from malnutrition by the end of 2021.[9]

Current economic sanctions do allow for some humanitarian aid to reach Afghanistan. The US Treasury Department allows for exceptions to sanctions for medicine and other aid.[10] UN agencies, such as the World Food Programme (WFP), and other groups are providing assistance to Afghans.[11] However, current aid efforts, while important, are inadequate for two reasons.

First, businesses and individuals predictably want to avoid legal penalties for doing business with the Taliban. Faced with regulations and uncertainty over commercial activities in Afghanistan, many groups will likely avoid such activities altogether.[12]

Second, even expansive humanitarian aid cannot replace a normally functioning economy.  As Laurel Miller, who worked on Afghan issues for the US State Department and currently works for the International Crisis Group, commented, “Restoring a minimally functioning public sector and stopping Afghanistan’s economic free-fall will require lifting restrictions on ordinary business and easing the prohibition on assistance to or through the government.”[13]

Miller urges the US government to lift sanctions on the Taliban as a group, provide funds for vital public services, and help restore the operations of Afghanistan’s central bank.[14] WFP director David Beasley calls on the Biden administration to unfreeze Afghanistan’s overseas funds: “If you unfreeze the money,” Beasley says, “then you can put liquidity back into the marketplace, and the economy will start to come back up.”[15] In a recent letter to the Biden administration, over 40 members of Congress urged a similar unfreezing of Afghan funds.[16]

Given the Taliban’s human rights record, any policy that seems to reward the group is a decidedly unappealing prospect. Nevertheless, economic punishments for Afghanistan are unlikely to change the Taliban’s behavior. Economic sanctions have a very mixed record of success in altering regimes’ policies.[17] The Taliban in particular, which has spent over 20 years fighting for control of Afghanistan, is unlikely to be swayed by economic pressure.

Current policies will probably not change how the Taliban rules Afghanistan or prevent them from sheltering terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda. These policies will, however, increase the suffering of the Afghan people.

The United States should release Afghan funds and lift sanctions on the Taliban as a group. This repeal of general economic restrictions should be combined with targeted restrictions on selling weapons or other military equipment to the Taliban. The United States also should dramatically increase humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Last, the United States should encourage and help other nations and international institutions to follow a similar approach to Afghanistan.

Please consider contacting the Biden administration by phone (https://www.whitehouse.gov/get-involved/write-or-call/) or email (https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/) and contacting your representatives in the House (https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative) and Senate (https://www.senate.gov/senators/senators-contact.htm) to urge an end to the economic punishment of Afghanistan. You can also contact your representatives to urge support for the Afghan Adjustment Act (https://www.votervoice.net/LIRS/campaigns/89654/respond), which would help Afghan refugees in the United States.

Last, consider donating money to aid organizations working to help Afghanistan, such as World Food Program USA (https://secure.wfpusa.org/donate/afghanistan-web?ms=Afghanistan_WEB_HOME), Catholic Relief Services (https://www.crs.org/our-work-overseas/where-we-work/afghanistan), or other organizations (https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=8993).

The Afghan people have suffered greatly from decades of war. We should not add to their suffering. Let’s provide Afghanistan with the help it needs.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Rehumanize International blog.

Notes

[1] Susannah George and Karen DeYoung, “As Afghanistan’s Economy Collapses, International Community Looks for Innovative Ways to Avoid Humanitarian Disaster,” Washington Post, November 28, 2021, https://wapo.st/33GoCJ5.

[2] Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan, “Pressure Grows for Biden to Ease Sanctions As Hunger, Poverty Soar in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, December 20, 2021, https://wapo.st/3qPis1V.

[3] Jeremiah Centrella, Robert Nichols, and Alan Chvotkin, “Afghanistan has Fallen: U.S. Taliban Sanctions Now Present a Critical Risk to Entities with Operations in Afghanistan,” Nichols Liu, August 24, 2021, available at https://bit.ly/3GUN3Rw.

[4] Jan Egeland, “Afghanistan Is Facing a Total Economic Meltdown,” New York Times, October 12, 2021, https://nyti.ms/3KqryKi.

[5] George and DeYoung, “As Afghanistan’s Economy Collapses.”

[6] Maite Fernández Simon, “More Than Half of Afghanistan’s Population Faces ‘Acute’ Food Crisis This Winter, U.N. Finds,” Washington Post, October 25, 2021, https://wapo.st/356scMN.

[7] Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, “Afghanistan: IPC Acute Food Insecurity Analysis,” October 2021, https://bit.ly/3nOSsBX.

[8] Jane Ferguson, “Afghanistan Has Become the World’s Largest Humanitarian Crisis,” New Yorker, January 5, 2022, https://bit.ly/3GQuu0t.

[9] UNICEF, “Half of Afghanistan’s Children under Five Expected to Suffer from Acute Malnutrition As Hunger Takes Root for Millions,” October 5, 2021, https://bit.ly/3fIuR1v.

[10] Lee Fang, “Humanitarian Exemptions to Crushing U.S. Sanctions Do Little to Prevent Collapse of Afghanistan’s Economy,” The Intercept, December 28, 2021, https://bit.ly/3AAiSg9.

[11] Ferguson, “Afghanistan Has Become the World’s Largest Humanitarian Crisis”; Pamela Constable, “As Afghanistan’s Harsh Winter Sets In, Many Are Forced to Choose between Food and Warmth,” Washington Post, January 7, 2022, https://wapo.st/3Ix9QmR.

[12] Centrella, Nichols, and Chvotkin, “Afghanistan has Fallen”; Fang, “Humanitarian Exemptions to Crushing U.S. Sanctions.”

[13] Laurel Miller, “Afghanistan Is in Meltdown, and the U.S. Is Helping to Speed It Up,” New York Times, January 11, 2022, https://nyti.ms/3nMd8KY.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ferguson, “Afghanistan Has Become the World’s Largest Humanitarian Crisis.”

[16] Pramila Jayapal et al., Letter to President Biden on Afghanistan, December 20, 2021, https://bit.ly/3FTZMlU.

[17] Adam Taylor, “13 Times That Economic Sanctions Really Worked,” Washington Post, April 28, 2014, https://wapo.st/3nMb1Xv;  Adam Taylor, “Do Sanctions Work? The Evidence Isn’t Compelling,” Washington Post, August 2, 2017, https://wapo.st/356DvEN.

© 2022 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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