by Jean Athey
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 to think of this. It is estimated that a million children under the age of 5 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. It is hard to comprehend a million babies dying as a result of political decisions. How did we get to this point?
During the American war in Afghanistan, outside donors (including the U.S.) came to dominate the government by providing the huge majority of its funds—almost 80%–which was used to pay teachers, health care workers, civil servants, and the many other people who made the country run. Then, 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 anything else, such as fuel for the harsh winter. NPR reports that families are selling their children—both very young boys and girls—in order to obtain money to buy enough food to prevent the rest of the family from starving to death.
The 20-year American war in Afghanistan was costly. The U.S. spent roughly $2.3 trillion on that war, an inconceivable amount, much of which went to contractors who made enormous profits. While 2,324 American military members died in the war, Afghans suffered far more: the Brown University 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, more if those we were fighting are counted. But for the people of Afghanistan, the war has not ended, nor has the killing. The new economic war is expected to kill far more Afghans in four months this winter than did the “kinetic” war in twenty years, and all of these deaths will be of innocent civilians. No one expects the leaders of the Taliban, even those who have personally been sanctioned, 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. The U.S. corruption and ineptitude of the war on Afghanistan is devastatingly described in The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock. While massive amounts of money were spent on the war, Whitlock shows in detail how 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, even though the actual actions of the U.S. did neither.
There is no doubt that the leaders of the government, the Taliban, are vicious misogynists and brutal in the extreme to people who disagree with their brand of Islam, to those who are ethnically different, and to those who transgress acceptable standards of behavior according to the Taliban’s beliefs. Nevertheless, as a result of the agreement negotiated between the Taliban and the U.S. during the Trump regime, the Taliban now control the government. 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), and the U.S. has frozen these accounts, some $9.4 billion. As a result, there is a “liquidity crisis,” meaning that very little money is circulating throughout Afghanistan and that the government has almost no money and cannot pay workers, and so workers cannot buy food for themselves or their families. Most have received no payment for months. In addition, Afghans have limited access, if any access at all, to their own funds in banks, and international commerce has come to a stop.
Given U.S. sanctions and the liquidity crisis, even international humanitarian relief organizations have great difficulty operating in Afghanistan, despite U.S. government assurances to the contrary. In any event, 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 an entire country of almost 40 million people. Humanitarian relief does not address the underlying problem, which is that the country needs a functioning government and economy, and to secure that, it needs to be able to participate in 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, something that is incumbent on the U.S. to do. One possibility is that the U.S. could unfreeze the assets in a conditional manner (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 benign purposes and 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. To put this amount of money 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. In any event, aid does not address the fundamental issue of recreating a viable economy.
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–not wanting to be depicted as “helping the Taliban,” the enemy to whom the U.S. lost and also a group that has exhibited cruel and sadistic behavior. The Biden Administration’s political enemies would possibly claim that unfreezing Afghan assets represents acceptance of both the Taliban’s past and its current human rights violations—but that unfounded claim can be refuted.
Courage by the Biden Administration–the willingness to accept short-term political risks in order to prevent complete and utter catastrophe–is the right way to go, both morally and practically.
Peace organizations and other groups have been warning about the current calamity for some months now and urging action, including in particular allowing the Afghan people access to their own money and lifting sanctions so that international commerce can restart. Peace Action members around the country have sent thousands of emails to Congress and to President Biden. 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. However, other members of Congress have taken the opposite position, for example introducing bills calling for tighter sanctions and imposing secondary sanctions on any state or non-state actor that gives support to the Taliban or any government offices under Taliban control.
But what these people fail to recognize is that such policies are neither in the interests of the U.S. or of the people of Afghanistan, as they would restrict the ability of the country to emerge from its current nightmare. An economy and government that function can be contrasted to a failed state in which people starve in great numbers, a whole new and unmanageable migration crisis occurs, regional instability grows, and the stage is set for further violence and the emergence of new, possibly even more dangerous, terrorist groups.
Those of us who have opposed the American war in Afghanistan for so long and who value Afghan lives must now forcefully oppose the new economic war on Afghanistan by working to enable the Afghan economy to restart. At the same time that we work to eliminate the reasons for the failure of the economy, we must continue to do everything we can to ensure that basic human rights are respected. We cringe to see women forced into wearing burkas and living at the mercy of misogynistic men. But neither do we want to see them dead from starvation or having to bury or sell their children. 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 and learn 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 peace they longed for would be purchased at the price of justice. No one I spoke with imagined an economic war replacing a bombing war or the killing of a whole generation of children.
People like you and me must demand backbone from the Biden Administration, we must insist that 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 that hinder both the recovery of the Afghan economy and humanitarian relief efforts. We must end the U.S. economic war on Afghanistan.
— Jean Athey is vice chair of the board of Maryland Peace Action