Afghan women wait for donations of bread outside a Kabul bakery. The majority of them come here every day and wait three hours for a piece of bread. A loaf of bread costs 10 afghanis ($ 0.10) but they can't afford it. Afghanistan is on the verge of becoming the world's worst humanitarian crisis that could lead to unprecedented famine. November 14, 2021. Photo by Oriane Zerah/ABACAPRESS.COM
US sanctions are causing a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan

Washington is helping to set into motion the makings of a failed state — with all of the human suffering that comes with it.

The people of Afghanistan are starving. A perfect storm of droughts, economic implosion, and the suspension of most development aid have come together to create an increasingly volatile humanitarian catastrophe. As winter approaches, estimates suggest that as many as 22 million people will be close to starvation.

While it’s fair to say that the Taliban is better at fighting an insurgency than it is running a modern, bureaucratic state, we can’t lay all the blame at their door. In the years after 2001, the United States and its allies created the most aid-dependent state in the world. Upon withdrawal, almost all of this aid has been cut, and further sanctions limit almost all financial transactions with the country.

As a recent report from the International Crisis Group put it, “donors’ decisions to cut off all but emergency aid is the biggest culprit” of Afghanistan’s dire situation. Indeed, one U.N. expert quoted in the report suggested that the sudden withdrawal of aid in Afghanistan is the greatest shock any modern economy has ever faced, as 43 percent of its GDP disappeared virtually overnight.

U.S. sanctions ultimately determine how states and companies can interact with the Taliban. Since the late 1990s, the Taliban has been under sanctions from the United States and the United Nations. While the U.N. sanctions are significant, they have much lower compliance rates than Washington’s as the United States actively punishes sanction violators. These sanctions have blocked the Taliban off from conventional financial transactions and criminalized any transactions that involve the Taliban.

However, as the Taliban took over Afghanistan, these sanctions have become applied to the whole country as most private financial transactions and existing development work have become criminalized. The sanctions regime is so strict that many NGOs over-comply for fear of punishment. The specifics of these rules remain unclear, with one international business concluding that it could most likely pay regular taxes to the Taliban, but not fines for late payment, which are all but inevitable due to the collapse of the banking sector. Moreover, even humanitarian aid is dependent on basic state provisions such as cell phone towers, hospitals, and sanitation systems, which are currently all run by a cash-strapped Taliban and are not eligible to receive any aid.

Sanctions, of course, are a tempting mechanism of statecraft. They come at a perceived minimal cost to the United States and have increasingly become one of America’s favored foreign policy tools. Even so, research on their usefulness is almost unanimous that they rarely succeed. Most notably, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago studied 115 cases of sanctions from 1914-1990, revealing that in only 5 percent of cases did sanctions lead to the desired change in behavior. Researchers have since found some situations in which sanctions may be more effective, such as where the stakes are relatively low (for example releasing political prisoners), when the sender and target don’t foresee subsequent conflicts, and when the target state is democratic. Clearly, none of these criteria are met in the Taliban case.

Seen from the ground, early signs would indicate that sanctions are not having their desired effect. Rather than forcing the Taliban to moderate its actions, the Taliban appears to be becoming increasingly ruthless to shore up any revenues it can.

Reports from inside Afghanistan reveal that the Taliban has started seizing property and redistributing it among its followers. Moreover, it may well legitimize more radical factions within the Taliban, who can plausibly argue that little is to be gained from engagement with the international community if no aid is forthcoming.

Domestically, the Taliban can shore up its support by blaming the United States for its role in creating this economic crisis. Indeed, survey experiments show that Afghan civilians are much more likely to blame external agents for their suffering than the Taliban already, and a brutal sanctions regime is only likely add to that sentiment.

Outside of Afghanistan, the consequences of the harsh sanctions will also be felt. Over the past few months, emigration to Europe has sky-rocketed, with human traffickers telling journalists that their business has already doubled. As the situation only worsens, it’s likely that these numbers will only increase.

Second, fears that Afghanistan will now become a breeding-ground for international terrorism will only heighten if the state faces total collapse. The Taliban is currently fighting the Islamic State Khorasan in Northern Afghanistan, a far greater terrorist threat. In this battle, limited cooperation may also be possible.

Finally, the Taliban may well turn an increasingly blind eye to opium production as it becomes increasingly desperate. This, in turn, would enlarge the global production of narcotics.

What might a reorientation on Afghanistan look like? One option might be to follow the European Union’s “humanitarian plus” strategy which incorporates some limited cooperation with the Taliban regime. While it remains unclear exactly what this strategy entails, it certainly signals a deeper engagement than current U.S. policy. Another option is to follow Russia’s strategy of continuing aid while withholding recognition.

Washington could also enact several more specific policy changes that would serve to alleviate Afghanistan’s suffering without unnecessarily empowering the Taliban. Currently, sanctions designed to punish the Taliban are essentially being applied to the entire Afghan state. These could be limited to listed members of the Taliban, rather than also impacting bureaucrats who have just stayed on in their roles after the Taliban takeover.

Moreover, the existing sanctions regime only allows money for critical humanitarian relief to be sent to Afghanistan. Basic services such as health care, education, electricity, and water supply all fall outside of the strict criteria for emergency relief. Allowing for more extensive aid provisions and re-opening the World Bank’s $1.5 billion Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund to do this would go a long way to alleviate suffering.

Finally, some mechanism for re-opening Afghan financial services is necessary. This could take the form of reviving and closely monitoring the Afghan central bank (perhaps with the assistance of technical experts), setting up an external central bank, or instituting large-scale currency swaps that the United Nations or World Bank could manage.

Going forwards, U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is likely to be piecemeal, complex, and frustrating. As one journalist put it, “there are no rules to Taliban rule, only exceptions.” Rules seem to be determined by local decision-makers and war lords on the ground. While this makes conventional negotiations difficult, it also opens up space for lower-level negotiations between international officials, NGOs, and local leaders. Indeed, U.N. officials have had some success in local negotiations about reopening girls’ secondary schools.

Walking the tightrope between supporting the Afghan people without empowering the Taliban, though, will not be easy and the political costs of being seen as supporting the Taliban will be high. What is clear, however, is that a strategy that leads to mass starvation, state collapse and mass migration is not viable.