The people of Afghanistan are facing what could be the worst modern famine in at least half a century, and US policies will be responsible for much of the humanitarian catastrophe if they are not changed immediately. Afghanistan became heavily dependent on international aid during the 20-year US war, and it is also heavily dependent on imports. Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the country has largely been cut off from the funds that it needs to keep its economy functioning, and that is the result of actions taken by US, US allies, and US-led international institutions. The Biden administration’s decisions to halt aid, freeze government assets, and keep US sanctions in place have throttled the country’s economy and pushed it towards the abyss of famine.
US sanctions have strangled the economies of other countries before, and several other countries are still under Trump-era "maximum pressure" sanctions right now, but Afghanistan is uniquely vulnerable to the destructive effects of sanctions. Afghanistan has been so dependent on the US and its allies for support that a simultaneous cutoff in aid, freezing of government reserves, and enforcement of sanctions are devastating to the national economy. Mathias Gjesdal Hammer cites a UN official that claimed 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."
Sanctions typically harm the civilian population without changing the behavior of the targeted government, but in the case of Afghanistan it is even worse because the people are being punished solely because of the change in government that resulted with the collapse of the US-backed state. The people of Afghanistan are being made to pay once again for the failure of our war.
US economic wars have impoverished tens of millions and killed tens of thousands in other places, but now economic warfare against Afghanistan threatens the lives of tens of millions. It is estimated that almost 23 million Afghans face life-threatening food insecurity this winter. The World Food Program estimates that a shocking 98% of the population of 40 million does not have enough to eat. US policies are not the sole cause for this disaster, but they are responsible for making the humanitarian crisis as large, sudden, and severe as it is.
The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is not limited to mass starvation. The country’s health care system is already collapsing, and US sanctions are a main cause of the collapse. Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins, warns that "if the United States and other Western governments do not change their Afghanistan sanction policies, more Afghans will die from sanctions than at the hands of the Taliban." Like the rest of the country, Afghanistan’s health care system depended heavily on international aid, and Spiegel says that the freeze in aid and government assets "has crippled just about everything."
Inflicting collective punishment on the Afghan people is a monstrous policy. As Charli Carpenter has explained, "this wholesale policy of turning Afghanistan, a country already experiencing drought, famine and instability, into an economic outcast is not only unethical. It is also ineffective, counterproductive and unnecessary." Just as we have seen in other US economic wars, the ordinary people of Afghanistan are the ones that suffer most because of these exceptionally cruel policies. Strangling Afghanistan economically will do nothing except kill poor, innocent people, and in this case the death toll could exceed many of the worst man-made famines of the last hundred years. Keeping Afghan assets frozen and refusing to lift or suspend sanctions are deliberate choices to kill the same Afghans that many of our political leaders pretended to care about so much just a few months ago.
Part of accepting the US defeat in Afghanistan is accepting that the Taliban is the de facto government for the foreseeable future. It is profoundly wrong to penalize the Afghan people, and it is absurd to punish them for a political outcome that they did not choose. We know from our other economic wars that wrecking national economies does not weaken the hold that the government has over the country, so our policies are going to starve millions of people for nothing unless they are reversed at once. Our government spent twenty years fighting an unwinnable war in the country, and it is our policies that are driving Afghanistan over the cliff now, so the US has a serious obligation to stop doing more harm to Afghanistan and to do what it can to avert a famine.
The pretense that the US and other governments are using these financial resources as leverage to compel the Taliban to improve its governance is not credible. As one official recently told The Financial Times, "It’s mind-boggling to say that we’ll sacrifice 15m women in order to defend women’s rights." Even if such coercive tactics might eventually "work," they would come at an appalling cost in preventable deaths. No one can seriously claim to defend the rights of people in Afghanistan while simultaneously endorsing policies that could kill them by the millions.
The Biden administration has proven unwilling to provide sanctions relief even for humanitarian purposes during a global pandemic. There is now growing pressure on Biden to ease sanctions on Afghanistan to avert the worst of the humanitarian crisis that our policies have created. Time is of the essence. Rep. Tom Malinowski warns, "If you want to help people survive the winter, you can’t wait until spring." Afghanistan’s needs are immediate, and they are dire, but this does not seem to be fully registering in Washington. As the International Rescue Committee’s Amanda Catanzano has said, "The urgency is not lining up with the severity of the economic collapse and the speed of the economic collapse."
If nothing else, the growing humanitarian nightmare in Afghanistan should demonstrate the total bankruptcy of the coercive policies that have made this crisis so severe. Economic coercion is effective in impoverishing people and depriving them of essential goods. It cannot do anything except cause pain and destruction. Withholding aid and cutting Afghanistan off from being able to engage in normal commerce cannot lead to any improvements in how the Afghan people are governed, but they will lead to the atrocity of mass starvation. Unless the US moves quickly to change its policies, it will bear most of the responsibility for that atrocity.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com 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.