Don’t Wage Economic War on Afghanistan

Now that U.S. forces have finally exited Afghanistan, some American hawks are already agitating for the government to stoke internal conflict by backing a new insurgency and wage economic warfare on the country. Last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Mike Waltz publicly called for US recognition of anti-Taliban forces in the Panjshir Valley as the Afghan government, and they urged the Biden administration to add the Taliban to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTO). Sanctions advocates from the hardline Foundation for Defense of Democracies recently made the case for piling on sanctions on Afghanistan by adding the Taliban to both the FTO list and the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Hawks have been disastrously wrong about the use of sanctions for decades, and now they propose to strangle a country that has been wracked by war for the last four decades. The last thing that Afghanistan needs after generations of armed conflict is a new US economic war.

These calls for designating the Taliban would have a few practical effects, all of them bad: it would impede the delivery of aid and the conduct of trade with the rest of the world, it would deprive the Afghan people of being able to import goods from elsewhere, it would worsen the refugee crisis, and it would give Taliban every incentive to cooperate with and support hostile groups. Just like the "maximum pressure" campaigns against Iran, Venezuela, and Syria, the sanctions would ostensibly be aimed at the de facto government, but in practice they would impoverish, starve, and kill innocent people now living under Taliban rule.

The US has previously responded to military defeat by inflicting economic punishment on the former enemy. The US trade embargo on Vietnam impaired the country’s economic recovery and contributed to the mass exodus of refugees from the country beginning in the late 1970s. There is already a significant Afghan refugee crisis in the wake of the US war. Inflicting collective punishment on the country as a way of striking at the Taliban will drive even more people to flee to other countries. The decent and prudent thing to do in this situation is to refrain from our government’s knee-jerk impulse to use economic coercion against another country.

Afghanistan remains a poor country that depends heavily on outside aid, and half the population is already facing food shortages. Millions of Afghan children face severe malnutrition, and millions of Afghans are internally displaced. Significant disruption in the flow of aid and trade would drive some parts of the country towards famine, and that disruption is exactly what these terrorism designations would cause. It is as if sanctions advocates looked at the catastrophic humanitarian crisis created in Yemen as a result of the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition war and blockade and thought that they should try to copy that result. If we want to avert a major humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the US should focus on how to help in the delivery of aid rather than discuss punitive and coercive measures. Adam Tooze recently argued for delivering that aid: "What Afghanistan needs is an amply funded multilateral humanitarian effort to ensure life can continue as far as possible and millions of people are preserved from disaster." It should go without saying that this relief effort won’t be possible if Afghanistan is heavily sanctioned.

The US briefly designated the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization in one of Mike Pompeo’s final act of spite as he left office. If the designation had remained in place, aid groups believed that it would be a death sentence for hundreds of thousands of people as commerce and aid would have been cut off from the part of Yemen where most of the population lived. The aid groups opposed the designation because they understood that you cannot label the de facto government of much of a country as terrorists without severely harming everyone that they rule over. The same thing applies in the case of Afghanistan.

Sanctions are often presented as the fallback from or alternative to military action, but we need to remember that the effects of broad sanctions are much more indiscriminate and can be just as deadly to vulnerable and poor members of a society. The US should not wage an economic war against the Afghan people, who have already suffered greatly from our interventions in their affairs.

By the same token, the US absolutely should not provide further arms and support to the remaining holdouts of anti-Taliban forces. Entire generations of Afghans have known nothing but war, and our government has had a major role in keeping it at war. It would be indefensible to continue fanning the flames of conflict by backing an insurgency after the US lost the war outright. That would not serve the interests of the Afghan people or the United States, and all it would do is get more people killed without any realistic prospect of success.

It took the US almost twenty years to end the embargo on Vietnam after the war ended there. That was a punitive and vindictive policy that achieved nothing except to impoverish ordinary people. The US would do well not to repeat that mistake after its latest defeat. Instead, the Biden administration should be trying to make the best of that loss by refusing to strangle Afghanistan with sanctions and by looking for ways to avert a possible famine.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.