Kabul, Afghanistan, August 1 2021, refugee children after the collapse of the country in August 2021 by the Taliban in the North of the country (Trent Inness/shutterstock)
Why is Washington collectively punishing the Afghan people?

The decision to freeze nearly $10 billion in government assets has put an already impoverished country on the brink of state collapse.

Afghanistan is facing a major economic and humanitarian crisis, and the U.S. has it within its power to prevent at least part of the approaching disaster. 

The Biden administration’s decision to freeze nearly $10 billion in Afghan government assets has put an already impoverished, suffering country on a disastrous path to mass poverty and starvation, and it must move swiftly to release these assets. It is understandable that the administration does not want to be seen as “rewarding” the Taliban after it seized control this summer, but that is not a good enough reason to keep these funds frozen. Refusing to unfreeze these assets will impose a terrible punishment on tens of millions of ordinary Afghans. 

Ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan this year was the appropriate course of action, but that should not mean that the U.S. simply washes its hands of Afghanistan and allows its people to suffer from famine and want when our government can avert the worst. The U.S. has an obligation to free up the financial resources that the Afghan people desperately need to live. Failure to do so amounts to inflicting collective punishment on the people of Afghanistan, and our government will share in the blame for the many preventable deaths that follow. 

According to the U.N. World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated 22 million people, more than half of the population in Afghanistan, face acute food insecurity this winter. Afghanistan was already suffering from a serious drought, and the Taliban takeover in August has led to a cutoff of outside aid funding. When a country that has depended heavily on international aid and imports for decades is cut off from both, economic and humanitarian catastrophe is bound to be the result. In their report on the crisis last month, Frontline quoted Ibrahim Bahiss, a consultant on Afghanistan with the International Crisis Group: “The freezing of the national reserves and the drying up of all types of aid to the country has sent financial shockwaves in the country, and the economy is on the brink of collapse.” Freeing up the reserves to finance imports is essential to stopping the Afghan economy from shuddering to a halt.

Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer at the American University in Afghanistan, called on the Biden administration to release the frozen assets in The Washington Post:

“It is counterintuitive to expect sanctions to incentivize autocratic states to change their behavior. The lack of a democratic process means the general population that feels the hurt has no means to influence the regime to change. Rather than pushing the population away from the ruling elite, sanctions end up pushing the population into the arms of the regime to provide them with basic needs. Sanctions do not encourage the spirit of liberty but create ripe circumstances for further subjugation.” 

Releasing the frozen assets is critical because Afghanistan’s available currency reserves have almost run out. When that happens, imports will grind to a halt and the value of Afghanistan’s currency will deteriorate quickly. Even if essential goods are available, they will soon become unaffordable for the vast majority of the population. It makes no sense to let this foreseeable and preventable nightmare to unfold, but the Biden administration is refusing to budge. Max Fisher noted in his report for The New York Times, “Mr. Biden’s Treasury Department announced recently that it had no intentions of lifting the restrictions driving the crisis.” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo recently testified to this effect before the Senate Banking Committee, and the administration has given no indication that it is rethinking its position.

Diplomats and experts have been sounding the alarm about the crisis for weeks. Former U.N. envoy for Afghanistan Kai Eide criticized the administration’s position earlier this week: “The U.S.-led opposition to releasing frozen Afghan financial resources simply does not make sense. First, the U.S. abandoned the country and handed it over to the Taliban. And now the Afghan people are punished with a lack of money to avoid a humanitarian disaster and economic crises.” 

Fatima Ayoub, the policy director at Crisis Action, was even more emphatic last month: “I don’t know [how] much louder or more often I can say this: because of U.S. restrictions on the banking sector the Afghan economy is collapsing. Millions of people will die if this problem isn’t fixed in order to get cash and liquidity into the system.” 

Dartmouth Prof. Jason Lyall summed up the dire situation: “Afghanistan is quietly sliding into one of the worst humanitarian disasters in modern history. Wracked by 40 years of war, now drought, famine, & collapsed economy. 97% of Afghans will be living on <$2 day by 2022. U.S. must release the $10 billion it holds in Afghan assets now.” The crisis in Afghanistan illustrates how U.S. financial restrictions can cause terrible devastation by denying another country access to its own money.

The Biden administration’s stubbornness on Afghanistan’s frozen assets stands in sharp contrast with their decision earlier this year to reverse the Houthi foreign terrorist organization designation for humanitarian reasons. In that case, the administration recognized that the civilian population would pay a steep price if the designation remained in place as humanitarian aid and trade disappeared. Despite carping from hawkish critics, the administration did the right thing to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that sanctions would have created. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has obviously not ended, but it could have been much worse if they had not moved quickly to remove the designation. The crisis in Afghanistan is equally urgent, and the potential loss of life is just as great. How many more Afghan deaths is our government willing to cause? 

The Taliban is the de facto government in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. For the sake of the people of Afghanistan, the U.S. must acknowledge this reality and stop punishing the Afghan people by withholding the resources they need to survive. As the Quincy Institute’s Adam Weinstein put it recently, “it’s absolutely nonsensical to negotiate a deal with the Taliban only to suffocate the country financially from afar.” Attempting to strangle authoritarian regimes into submission always causes massive harm to ordinary people, and the regimes usually just grow stronger and tighten their control over the country by exploiting the scarcity created by outside restrictions to their advantage. 

The U.S. lost the war in Afghanistan. The president correctly determined that it was not in the American interest to keep our forces in harm’s way any longer in an unwinnable war. The U.S. cannot fix most of Afghanistan’s problems and should not try to do that, but it can act to avert a humanitarian catastrophe now. Our government has already inflicted enough damage on Afghanistan. It would be unforgivable if it chose to plunge that country into a preventable famine when it could have done something to stop it.

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