Written by: Pranav Krishnan
The tragedy of Afghanistan did not end with the conclusion of the war. Today, the Afghan people are facing what some now consider to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Last year’s American and NATO military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the following Taliban victory saw the collapse of the country’s democratic government and the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The newly established Taliban government has brought about the imposition of an extremist interpretation of Islamic law, widespread persecution, summary executions, and reprisal killings of women, ethnic minorities, and political dissidents.
However, the most grievous problem facing the Afghan people is the economic upheaval that has led to widespread famine and starvation. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that a staggering 95% of Afghans lack sufficient food for subsistence. By the end of this year alone, UNICEF estimates that half of Afghanistan’s children under the age of five will face acute malnutrition, up to a million of whom will die. The increasingly dire conditions have forced Afghan parents to resort to selling their organs and even babies and young girls in a desperate attempt to keep their families alive. While economic meltdowns do not receive public and media attention comparable to that of terrorism, combat, and state persecution, they are no less deadly, with the pervasive starvation threatening to kill more Afghan civilians than twenty years of war. The gross incompetence and opportunism of the Taliban, who have uprooted the Afghan civil service by installing unqualified loyalists to replace experienced bureaucrats in the government, has undoubtedly exacerbated the intensifying crisis.
Despite the Taliban’s role, the most significant factor underlying Afghanistan’s precipitous economic collapse is arguably the myriad of sanctions the United States has levied upon the Taliban. These sanctions were initially aimed to sustain the now-deposed democratic government by restricting the opposing Taliban’s avenues to receive or transact money and aid from the outside world. However, after the Taliban assumed power, these sanctions have carried over to what is now the de facto government of Afghanistan, thereby proscribing financial transactions between much of the outside world and the Afghan state and civilians. American sanctions have prevented vital aid, investment, and agricultural and medical commodities from reaching those in desperate need. Over the past two decades, international assistance accounted for over 75% of government expenditures and 40% of total gross domestic product. The abrupt ceasing of foreign aid due to American sanctions has resulted in appalling consequences for the Afghan people.
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is the principal organ of American sanctions enforcement and currently classifies the Taliban as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). Such a classification permits the United States to exact harsh penalties on anyone who facilitates financial transactions to the “Taliban, Haqqani Network, or any affiliated institution in which they individually or in the aggregate, directly or indirectly,” have even a partial interest in and explicitly includes those in key leadership roles of governing institutions in Afghanistan. Today, the Taliban permeate nearly every aspect of Afghan society and the state, and with the dearth of accurate fiscal records and a lack of clarity from governing authorities about who constitutes the Taliban beyond a few key leaders, it is nearly impossible to verify or ensure that no aid ever reaches the Taliban. The expansive and ambiguous American sanctions impose an onerous burden on humanitarian workers and NGOs, often making compliance infeasible.
While the Treasury Department has issued a series of general licenses that ostensibly permit exemptions in sanctions for deliveries of humanitarian aid, agricultural and medical commodities, and remittances, the ambiguous sanctions have led to a de-risking and over-compliance effect. The phenomenon in which organizations, in fear of unintentionally violating sanctions, mitigate risk by opting to cease operations in sanctioned jurisdictions. The NGOs attempting to provide aid to Afghan citizens often find that the corporate donors and banks necessary to finance their operations in Afghanistan refuse to collaborate with them, forcing NGOs to scale back or end their operations entirely.
The restrictions on direct humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people are aggravated by the effects of the sanctions on the government, which in turn cannot fund state utility services that provide water and electricity or the salaries of civil servants, health care workers, and teachers, leading to declining human capital in governing bodies and further deterioration of the Afghan economy. Moreover, the Da Afghanistan Bank, the central bank of Afghanistan, has been made impotent by sanctions which have severely limited its access to international financial institutions and capacity to set monetary policy. This has critically impacted Afghanistan’s economy as Da Afghanistan Bank plays an integral role in sustaining the Afghan economy by stabilizing the Afghani currency, imposing deflationary measures, and providing liquidity by auctioning US dollars.
Furthermore, multilateral development banks such as the World Bank, which holds billions in its Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank, have been prohibited from supporting the Afghan government through direct injections of liquidity and aid, relegating their funds to only limited disbursements to third parties. Additionally, international intermediary banks have left the country in response to sanctions, precluding one of the only avenues the central bank, the private sector, and citizens have to transact with the global economy. The sanctions are exacerbating the difficulties already faced following President Biden’s move to seize and withhold 3.5 billion dollars from the central bank. A sustainable Afghan state that can be economically viable in the long run and provide for its people is not possible without sanctions relief that would allow the government to operate within the global financial network.
Lifting the classification of the Taliban as an SDGT would not only align the Treasury with the State Department’s position of declining to list the Taliban as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) but also with the precedent already set by the Biden Administration towards Houthi Insurgents in Yemen. In February of 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken revoked Trump’s designation of the Houthis as an SDGT and FTO, despite the American and Houthis’ mutually antagonistic relationship, citing the disproportionate humanitarian impact on Yemeni civilians given that the Houthis were functionally acting as the government in much of Yemen, similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan today.
The sanctions imposed on Afghanistan today are cruel and vindictive. Rather than serving American interests by diminishing the Taliban’s power, they instead disproportionally harm innocent Afghan civilians. The widespread starvation and civil rest induced by American sanctions will inevitably harm American national security interests by leading to increased radicalization into extremist groups, millions of internationally displaced refugees and force the Afghan government to pursue closer relationships with our adversaries in the region. Providing sanctions relief to Afghanistan comparable to that in Yemen and allaying concerns regarding prosecution of donors would be a more pragmatic foreign policy and allow the United States to fulfill its moral obligation to the Afghan people who have fought side by side with American soldiers for over two decades by averting one of the worst humanitarian tragedies the world faces today.