I have a beloved 4-year-old granddaughter. If I lived in Afghanistan, my family would be facing the likelihood that she would die. My heart breaks in pieces thinking of this. The UN estimated a million children under the age of five in Afghanistan will die this winter from malnutrition and starvation, a situation brought on primarily by the U.S., through economic sanctions and the freezing of Afghan assets in U.S. banks. How did we get to this point?
During the American war in Afghanistan, outside donors (including the U.S.) came to dominate the government, providing the majority of its funds—almost 80%– used to pay teachers, health care workers, civil servants, and the many others who made the country run. With the U.S. and NATO departure from Afghanistan in August, this money completely dried up, as did access to the international banking system. The economy went into free-fall, the government could not pay workers, banks closed, and people had no money to buy food or fuel for the harsh winter. NPR reports that families are selling their children in order to obtain money to buy food to prevent the rest of the family starving to death.
The U.S. spent roughly $2.3 trillion on the Afghanistan war, much of which went to contractors who made enormous profits. While 2,324 American military members died in the war, Afghans suffered far more. Brown University’s Cost of War project found that 69,095 soldiers and national police and an estimated 46,319 civilians were killed; thus, over 115,000 Afghans died as a result of the war. But for the people of Afghanistan, the war has not ended, nor has the killing. The new economic war is expected to kill more Afghans in four months this winter than did the “kinetic” war in twenty years. No one expects the leaders of the Taliban to suffer. But everyone agrees that hundreds of thousands of babies will die. In fact, Afghanistan in 2022 is shaping up to be one of the worst, possibly the worst, humanitarian catastrophe on record, for any country.
This tragedy is the result of U.S. policies.
The Politics of Dealing with the Taliban
The role of the U.S. in Afghanistan’s latest calamity began, of course, in 2001, when the U.S. waged a war of revenge on a poverty-stricken country that did not attack the U.S. That war dragged on, more or less out of sight, after the Iraq war began in 2002. U.S. corruption and ineptitude is devastatingly described in The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock. While massive amounts of money were spent on the war, Whitlock shows most of it was siphoned off to various war profiteers, lining their pockets and ripping off American taxpayers. The vast amount of money the U.S. spent had almost nothing to do with helping the Afghan people, although bringing democracy and helping women soon became the raison d’etre for the war, though the actual actions of the U.S. did neither.
Clearly, the Taliban are vicious misogynists and extremely brutal to those who transgress acceptable standards of behavior according to the Taliban’s beliefs. However, essentially all of the Afghan government’s assets remain in U.S. banks (or in banks that are beholden to the U.S. government). The U.S. has frozen these accounts, some $9.4 billion. The result is a “liquidity crisis,” with very little money circulating throughout Afghanistan. The government has almost no money and cannot pay workers, who cannot buy food for their families. Most have received no payment for months. In addition, Afghans have limited access to their own funds in banks. International commerce has halted.
Given U.S. sanctions and the liquidity crisis, even international humanitarian relief organizations have great difficulty operating in Afghanistan, despite U.S. government assurances. Relief efforts designed to stave off starvation—although critically important right now–cannot endure for long since no one is willing to provide assistance indefinitely to a country of almost 40 million people. The country needs a functioning government and economy, and needs access to the international financial system..
Unfreezing the assets of the Afghan people and making the funds available to the Afghan Central Bank is a critical first step. The U.S. could conditionally unfreeze the assets (for example, dependent on the ability of girls to attend high school) and in tranches, not all at once, to ensure that the money is used for the people.
But to date, the U.S. has not taken any such steps. The Biden Administration has set aside $780 million for humanitarian relief, a nice gesture but a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. Put in perspective, the U.S. spent $300 million per day on the war for 20 years, so $780 million of humanitarian assistance represents less than three days’ worth of war spending.
We can speculate with some degree of confidence, about why the Biden Administration has given no signs that it will unfreeze the funds or remove the most destructive sanctions: fear of political repercussions. The Administration’s political enemies would possibly claim that unfreezing Afghan assets represents acceptance of the Taliban’s past and its current human rights violations—but that unfounded claim can be refuted, and funds distributed can be tracked by international accounting firms still operating in Afghanistan, according to Dr. Shah Mehrabi, a member of the governing board of the Afghan Central Bank since 2002.
Courage by the Biden Administration–willingness to accept short-term political risks in order to prevent catastrophe–is the right decision, both morally and practically.
Peace organizations and other groups have warned about the current calamity for some months now and are urging action, including allowing the Afghan people access to their own money and lifting sanctions so international commerce can restart. On and around Valentine’s Day, February 14, peace groups are holding Love to Afghanistan vigils. Peace Action chapters have lobbied their members of Congress, urging them to work to prevent famine. And in fact, forty-six members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Biden in December, urging him to unfreeze Afghan assets and end onerous sanctions.
While some in Congress oppose these steps, a functioning economy and government can be contrasted to a failed state in which people starve in great numbers, an unmanageable migration crisis erupts, regional instability grows, and the stage is set for further violence, with the possible emergence of possibly even more dangerous, terrorist groups.
Those of us who value Afghan lives must now forcefully oppose the new economic war by working to enable the Afghan economy to restart. Carefully crafting the release of Afghan funds to the Afghan Central Bank could help to ensure an effective state while at the same time providing leverage to end some of the most egregious of the Taliban’s human rights violations.
I traveled to Afghanistan in 2011, to see the war up close and to hear from Afghans as to their views of the war and their hopes for the future. Some of the people that I met worried that when the war finally ended, they would be sold out, that the longed for peace would be purchased at the price of justice. No one I spoke with imagined an economic war replacing a bombing war.
Political backbone is required of the Biden Administration. The lives of one million children are more important than a negative headline in a tabloid. The U.S. should unfreeze Afghan government assets and lift sanctions hindering the recovery of the Afghan economy and humanitarian relief efforts. We must end the U.S. economic war on Afghanistan.