The current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is very alarming. While the US and other Western countries must weigh a complicated array of humanitarian, geopolitical, and domestic political factors when determining how to act to stop the situation from getting worse.

Despite having little influence, the US benefits more from involvement than from disengagement. The US military and its allies withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, leaving the nation in anarchy. The Taliban took control shortly after the Western-backed Ashraf Ghani administration fell.

US spending in Afghanistan until its withdrawal. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-47391821

Afghanistan is in a downward spiral as a result of a number of factors, including subsequent international sanctions, the abrupt cessation of international aid, and a Taliban administration that is unable or unwilling to take significant action to lessen suffering, on top of an economy already suffering from COVID-19 and widespread drought.

US Engagement

Even though US sanctions freeze the Taliban’s US assets and make it illegal for Americans to do business with them or give them money, goods, or services, humanitarian exceptions are often made.

Despite this, the U.S. remains the largest humanitarian donor in Afghanistan, giving more than $327 million since mid-August, including more than $573 million from USAID.

An official from the United States Department of the Treasury stated, “We are taking steps to allow humanitarian aid to continue in a way that benefits the Afghan people.”

The official also mentioned that Vice President Joe Biden discussed humanitarian assistance with the other leaders of the G7.

Regional Responses

Although they have not demanded official recognition, the regional nations have argued that because the US and its allies caused the tragedy, they should bear the majority of the expenses associated with reacting to it.

The Presidents of China and Russia chose not to participate in the G20 meeting on Afghanistan and instead directed their attention toward an alternative conference held in Moscow the following week.

This summit brought together regional powers together with representatives from the Taliban. Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran, and the five Central Asian states all called for a UN funding conference.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi (right) meets the acting Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, Amir Khan Muttaqi, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on July 29, 2022. Retrieved From: https://www.arabnews.pk/node/2131976/world

They said that the countries that sent troops to Afghanistan should bear the “main burden” of its collapse. China, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia were among the regional actors who wanted American troops to leave Afghanistan and gave the Taliban access to dignified, high-level talks both before and after their triumph.

Following a series of talks with Taliban commanders, China demanded that the United States and its allies ease the sanctions and communicate with the Taliban rationally and pragmatically.

A little amount of humanitarian aid has also been given, albeit not significantly. These further include European concerns about terrorism, mass migration, and drug trafficking.

The Sanction structure

The sanctions that are presently being placed on the nation are on course to claim the lives of more people in the next year than have been murdered as a result of the armed conflict that has taken place over the past 20 years.

The most severe and damaging penalty now affecting Afghanistan is the confiscation of more than $7 billion worth of the country’s assets held at the Federal Reserve in the United States.

This is comparable to over 40 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and almost 14 months’ worth of the country’s imports, which include necessities such as food, medicine, and infrastructure that are essential to maintaining public health.

People hold a banner reading “Let us eat” before marching on the street during a protest in Kabul on December 21, 2021, as the country struggles with a deep economic crisis. Retrieved from: https://www.thenation.com/article/world/afghanistan-sanctions-hunger/

But it turns out that the loss of Central Bank assets is much worse than the loss of imports that are needed. The assets that were seized were worth dollars. Countries need these international hard currency reserves to stabilize their financial systems and economies.

“Cash shortages and the loss of correspondent banking relationships have crippled Afghan banks,” says the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is because the country’s reserves have been frozen.

By destroying the Afghan economy, Western governments, led by the US as they have been for the last 20 years of war, are unlikely to get the Taliban to make any concessions.

On the other hand, millions of innocent people will have to pay a high price, and most of them will die because there will be an ever-increasing scarcity of food, health care, jobs, and money.

The US Dilemma

For the Biden administration, which is still hurting from the withdrawal mess and understandably doesn’t want to bring any more attention to Afghanistan, US domestic politics may be the biggest obstacle to the bigger, broader help that is now being called “humanitarian plus” to avoid being seen as supporting the Taliban, which would be a bad look and a political risk.

The policy assessment the Biden administration needs to make is tough. There are certain factions in the United States and internationally that support the idea of pursuing an isolationist strategy in the hopes of hastening the demise of the Taliban.

It is possible that a different conclusion may be reached if the fall of the Taliban administration would result in anything beneficial for the Afghan people; nevertheless, there is little reason to expect that this would be the case. According to a representative of the United Nations, “the Americans need to determine if they want the state to collapse or not.”

It is a bitter irony that if it wants to honor America’s often-repeated vow not to abandon Afghanistan again, it must cooperate with a despicable dictatorship in order to do so.

Because of the fact that the result would make a mockery of Biden’s statements in the international arena that the United States has not abandoned Afghanistan.

Aid without any guarantee

The US and international community’s decision not to recognize the Taliban government, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 under a strict interpretation of Islamic law, has created a dilemma for Western powers regarding how to provide adequate aid without legitimizing the Taliban or putting money directly into its hands.

In addition, there are no ironclad guarantees that all of the funds and relief goods that are earmarked for their intended recipients will in fact reach those recipients, moreover, that Taliban officials will not, at least in some small part, divert these funds or direct them to their own preferred uses, or that working agreements will not be voided.

Some people are concerned that once the Taliban begin receiving an increased amount of help, they would no longer show any restraint and will institute even more punitive regulations and procedures.

It is more likely that a lack of support, continued economic collapse, and an escalating humanitarian catastrophe would cause dissatisfaction and precipitate harsh measures, similar to what happened during the 1990s.

Possible Policy Recommendations
  • Re-engaging with Afghanistan is something that the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other international financial organizations ought to do in order to keep a few key services operating.
  • The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund held by the World Bank now has unspent monies of $1.5 billion, which should be distributed as soon as possible.
  • Money for healthcare is not an issue because the implementing partners come from outside of the Afghan state; yet, health programming cannot be maintained only by funds alone.
  • Donors should consider reviving a wider variety of assistance programs in order to improve rural livelihoods, food security, educational opportunities, and basic infrastructure.
  • In order for them to accomplish this goal, they will usually be required to cooperate with Taliban authorities and pay the salary of state workers.
  • To avoid focusing on the entire Afghan government or the entire economy, the United States, the UN Security Council, and other sanctioning institutions should modify or more precisely interpret its sanctions.
  • Activities including development assistance, banking transactions, overflight fees, power purchases, and routine exchange of commercial commodities all require exemptions.
  • The US and its allies need to figure out how to get more money into the currency markets in Afghanistan.
  • The best case scenario would be for Washington to agree to slowly release frozen reserves to the Afghan central bank, starting with a small amount to see if there are any unintended effects.
  • By doing this, the central bank will be able to control the currency in Afghanistan and hold auctions for dollars. Currency swaps that are supervised by the World Bank or a UN group could be a short-term solution if the Biden administration feels hesitant to do so.