The economic war on Afghanistan is taking a deadly toll on the population as the country has been cut off from all but a trickle of humanitarian aid. Roughly 23 million people are facing acute food insecurity as a result, and that number is liable to grow if the international response remains as limited and piecemeal as it has been. Nothing better illustrates the cruelty and destructiveness of economic warfare than the current situation in Afghanistan, which is being subjected to the equivalent of a blockade because of the outcome of a war that the US and its allies lost. The people of Afghanistan are now being starved because the US and US-led international institutions refuse to accept the reality of that defeat. It is inexcusable that the same governments that kept Afghanistan so dependent on external support for the last twenty years have yanked away that support when it is most needed for the Afghan people to survive and recover. It is incumbent on the US and these institutions to alleviate the massive suffering that their policies are creating.
As Esfandyar Batmanghelidj and Erica Moret explained in a recent article for Foreign Affairs, US sanctions have combined with other cutoffs in funding to send Afghanistan into economic collapse: "These measures, together with capital flight from the country and confusion over what is permitted under the UN and U.S. sanctions against the Taliban, has precipitated a major liquidity crisis and the collapse in the value of the Afghan currency, leading to sharp price increases in the import-dependent country. The collapse in Afghan purchasing power is so severe that the UN Development Program forecasts that 97 percent of Afghans could fall below the poverty line by the middle of 2022." As they make clear, it is no accident that sanctions are striking at Afghans’ purchasing power, since this is what broad sanctions are designed to do. This economic weapon is hitting Afghanistan even harder than it has hurt other countries because the country has practically nothing to fall back on, and that makes the use of it against Afghanistan even more outrageous.
Broad sanctions always hurt the population much more than they damage the targeted government. It would be indefensible to starve a population to achieve regime change in any case, but collective punishment of the population never leads to the political and policy changes that sanctions advocates say they want. The Times of London quoted Mary-Ellen McGroarty, country director of the World Food Program (WFP), in a recent report on the disastrous conditions: "You cannot condition humanitarian support. This is a country where 75 percent of its budget was foreign assistance. If we don’t send money, people will die. Should the children of Afghanistan starve? Is that punishing the Taliban?"
Besides sanctions relief, unfreezing Afghan government assets is critical to reviving the country’s economy in the near term. As David Beasley, head of the WFP, told Jane Ferguson earlier this year, "If you unfreeze the money, then you can put liquidity back into the marketplace, and the economy will start to come back up…If you don’t, we’re not going to need to feed twenty-two or twenty-three million people per month – we are going to need to be feeding thirty-five million people….This country will absolutely collapse." In addition to the horrifying loss of life that would follow, this will also produce a massive refugee crisis that will place heavy strains on all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Iran, where hundreds of thousands of refugees have already fled.
However distasteful it may be to work with the Taliban to prevent Afghanistan’s further deterioration, it is preferable to being responsible for one of the largest man-made famines on record. As Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group put it, "Kneecapping the government through sanctions and frozen aid won’t change the fact that the Taliban are now in charge, but it will ensure that ordinary public services collapse, the economy decays and Afghans’ livelihoods shrink even further." Releasing funds, lifting sanctions, and providing aid are not panaceas, but they will stave off a far worse outcome that will happen if these things are not done. It is a measure of how warped our foreign policy debates are that this position is even slightly controversial.
The Biden administration may be reluctant to take the necessary actions for fear of hawkish attacks that they are "rewarding" the Taliban, but they have to know that they will face disingenuous hawkish attacks no matter what they do. The minimal aid that they are facilitating now is not nearly enough to address a humanitarian crisis as severe and extensive as this one. The crisis is bound to get worse if the economy does not get the infusion of cash that it needs to function, and it is largely within our government’s power to make that happen.
The Afghanistan case is a stark reminder that sanctions kill, and they can be more deadly than a military campaign. Broad sanctions are not a real alternative to war. They are simply another means of inflicting death and destruction on the targeted country. Because they are so damaging and indiscriminate, broad sanctions should be rejected as an instrument of policy.
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.