President Joe Biden withdrew all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August. But unbeknownst to most of the public, he didn’t end the war.
Following the American withdrawal, international funding for Afghanistan, equivalent to 40 percent of the country's GDP, was severed in compliance with sanctions from the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council. That delivered “an almost globally unprecedented level of economic shock” to the war-torn nation, William Byrd, an economist specializing in Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me. The U.S. also blocked access to billions of dollars of the Afghan government’s foreign currency reserves held in the U.S., worth more than a year’s worth of imports to a country heavily dependent on them.
The primary premise for these actions has been to take aim at the Taliban, who took over the country as the U.S. withdrew, swiftly laying bare the grand failures of the U.S.’s two decades-long nation-building project in Afghanistan and humiliating the most powerful country in the world. Now the Afghan people are paying the price.
While the soldiers and planes have left, the brutality of the U.S. war is continuing in a different form.
Nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan’s population — 23 million out of 39 million people — already don’t have enough to eat and are suffering from acute hunger. Aid groups say many lack shelter and, between inflation and income loss, are being forced to make harrowing decisions between buying fuel for heat to survive the winter or food for their families. People in Kabul can be seen waiting for hours just to get a piece of bread. Public employees such as teachers are being paid sporadically at best, the public health system stands on the brink of collapse and people can’t withdraw cash from banks. A U.N. Development Program report noted that it took five years of civil war in Syria to achieve the economic contraction that Afghanistan is expected to see within the year; David Beasley, the executive director of the United Nations' World Food Program, has deemed it “the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth.”
Afghanistan has long been an impoverished country, but the exceptional nature of its current crisis is born of a deliberate policy regime designed to cripple it. While the soldiers and planes have left, the brutality of the U.S. war is continuing in a different form. “The U.S. has transitioned from a hot war to an economic war,” Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute who focuses on security, trade and rule of law in Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me.
Collectively punishing the Afghan people through their economy is morally heinous: it marks the evolution of a project of imperial sadism against a people who have already endured tens of thousands of casualties and terror after decades of a vicious U.S. occupation that never needed to happen. It’s also backward as a geopolitical strategy: If the country collapses into a failed state, it will become vulnerable to takeover by the exact kind of ambitious terrorist organizations, like the Islamic State Khorasan, that drove the U.S. to war in the first place.
In my conversations with over half a dozen regional experts and economists, it became clear that there is a widespread belief that the Biden administration is unwilling to take steps to dial back the harshness of its policy because it fears the optics of looking soft on the Taliban. Beleaguered by a slide in the polls that began around the time he withdrew troops from Afghanistan, Biden is starving millions of Afghans in a bid to preserve his diminishing political capital on other issues. This is the great scandal of the Biden administration.
Afghanistan’s economy was already struggling before withdrawal — between the cost of conflict, drought, a loss of investor confidence and the outbreak of Covid, the economy was entering a downward spiral before the troops were evacuated.
But the crucial bit of context for understanding Afghanistan’s crisis is its existence as a rentier state — one that relies on foreign aid to stay afloat. Afghanistan, an extremely rural, landlocked nation of tremendous geopolitical significance to its neighbors and the West, is one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world, and before U.S. withdrawal, a full three-quarters of its public spending was funded by international donors. The abrupt cut-off of that international funding has devastated the ability of the government to pay workers and provide services. Sanctions have frozen the country out of global banking and commerce and most aid. There are narrow exceptions to the sanctions regime to allow for humanitarian aid, but economists say international businesses and donors are terrified of being slapped with punishing sanctions for sending money into the country in case it slips into the hands of the Taliban, who populate the government and are the primary targets of the sanctions. One of the most remarkable illustrations of the asphyxiating effects of these sanctions is that the Afghan government cannot even print its own money because fear of sanctions has inhibited the European company that printed its bank notes in the past, Byrd explained to me.
Icing any country out of the global economy would devastate it, but doing so to a country that survives on international aid is existentially threatening: It’s ripping out the country’s life support.
It should not go unnoticed that the U.S. bears significant responsibility for the intensity of Afghanistan’s dependency. Despite the fact that the U.S. spent more on nation-building in Afghanistan than it did on the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Western Europe after World War II, it focused primarily on arming Afghanistan to the teeth rather than fostering a sustainable economy. Anand Gopal, the author of “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes'' and a trained sociologist who has traveled around Afghanistan for years, told me that the U.S. manufactured an “extreme dystopian neoliberal society where everything was privatized and everything was tied to foreign aid, and there was no endogenous economy, there was no attempt to develop local industry.” He pointed out that when basic infrastructure like roads were built, the U.S. often outsourced the work first to U.S. companies, circumventing the kind of direct transactions with locals that would’ve helped develop the economy sustainably.
Biden should draw from the same strength he displayed during the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Aid groups and progressive advocates are calling for the U.S. to relax sanctions and release the roughly $7 billion in Afghanistan's foreign currency reserves it has held in the U.S., which would be critical for mitigating the country’s cash crisis and price instability. A lawsuit on behalf of 9/11 victims has tried laying claim to those funds based on the rationale that the Taliban was complicit in 9/11. But a number of analysts have described the lawsuit as questionable and politicized. Previous administrations have sought to block similar attempts at lawsuits against Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally; and while Osama bin Laden did seek safe haven in Afghanistan, no Afghans were involved in the 9/11 attacks.
Perhaps more importantly, economists point out, those funds were primarily accumulated during the U.S. war in Afghanistan when the Taliban were not in power. Shah Mehrabi, a member of Afghanistan’s central bank board, told me the foreign exchange reserves don’t belong to the Taliban but are “the property of the Afghan people.” In order to deal with the issue of not giving the Taliban free rein with the cash, he has proposed the idea of conditionally and incrementally releasing the funds and using independent auditing to ensure that the funds are used solely for the purpose of stabilizing currency and price stability.
The Biden administration could challenge the lawsuit and take steps to release the currency reserves, experts say. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for it in the administration.
“Biden is allergic to Afghanistan. He doesn’t want to touch it,” Barnett Rubin, a former senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department and a fellow at New York University, told me, explaining that Biden fears the optics of “trying to give money to the Taliban” while spending limited political capital on trying to move legislation through Congress. Rubin said that Biden has left it in the hands of officials and staffers who are unlikely to change course if he does not “exercise leadership.”
Biden should draw from the same strength he displayed during the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Though he took extraordinary heat from mainstream media and the national security establishment, and he did make serious mistakes in overlooking refugees, he was right to stick to his guns on pulling American troops out. Avoiding taking action now to let the Afghan economy function because it might be perceived as enabling the Taliban is to condemn millions to death out of expediency.
Moreover, it's simply impractical to work around the Taliban entirely. “I think it is impossible to try to address the humanitarian issue, given the scale of it, without providing ancillary benefit, if even unintentional, to the Taliban regime,” Jonathan Schroden, a military operations analyst who directs the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, Virginia, told me. He explained that the U.S. can make demands of the Taliban to nudge it toward reform while relaxing its sanctions, but those demands have to be grounded in political reality about the nature of the Taliban.
Realism is on display in many areas of American foreign policy, and to deny it is hypocrisy. The U.S. doesn't just decline to sanction plenty of other governments that violate human rights or thwart democracy, it actively aids them. That's because, despite rhetoric of promoting liberal values, core U.S. foreign policy is guided by geopolitical interest in access to resources and influence over the global arena.
The primary case for rolling back sanctions on Afghanistan and unfreezing its reserves is that it is wicked to starve a massive civilian population because one does not want to acknowledge having lost a war. But since that may not convince many in Washington, it is important to also emphasize the utter irrationality of this policy from the perspective of U.S. national security interests — analysts say Afghanistan as a failed state will become a hotbed for the kind of internationally oriented extremist activity that initially helped cause the war on terror. A stable Afghanistan rather than one spiraling toward collapse is in the interest of Afghans, its neighbors and the global community.