The Biden Administration Must Rethink its Foreign Policy in Afghanistan

Fabrizio Montisci, Staff Writer

On Aug. 30, 2021, when the last U.S. military aircraft took off from Kabul, millions of Americans had a reason to celebrate. That day marked the end of America’s longest war, the 2001-2021 U.S. war in Afghanistan. But among miscalculations and failed strategies of compellence against the newly-established Taliban government, the Biden administration is directly responsible for the worsening living conditions of tens of millions of Afghan civilians. 

Following U.S. military withdrawal from the country in the summer of 2021, the number of citizens in Afghanistan in need of life-saving assistance and experiencing acute food insecurity has surged to 24 million, while the number of citizens experiencing acute food insecurity has reached 22.8 million, or over half of the national population, as announced in the 2022 U.N. Global Humanitarian Review. The report also identified “repeated economic shocks, political tumult and the severe food insecurity caused by the worst drought in 27 years” as the prevalent causes of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. But instead of acting upon a worsening humanitarian crisis that it has helped create through prolonged military involvement in the region, the federal government proceeded by establishing a set of sanctions, the harshest of which consisted in freezing $9.4 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves. U.S. economist Mark Weisbrot, in a report for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has been clear in condemning this action, arguing that “sanctions currently imposed on the country are on track to take the lives of more civilians in the coming year than have been killed by 20 years of warfare.” Matin Yaqubi, an Afghan student at Trinity College in Connecticut, who provided The Colgate Maroon-News with a comment, sees these sanctions as “a cruel attempt by the Biden administration to punish the Afghan people for a crime they did not commit.” To Yaqubi, these sanctions “will not only set a problematic precedent for seizing foreign wealth, but also do very little to address the underlying, systemic issues driving Afghanistan into a humanitarian crisis.”

In fact, the lack of hard currency caused by the freezing of foreign assets and Afghan dependency on the U.S. dollar has paralyzed banks and crippled the economy. As highlighted by Weisbrot, Afghanistan’s currency has depreciated by 30% in the first four months of U.S. sanctions, forcing an increase in the cost of most essential commodities such as food and medicines and which are now out of reach for most people. And while hospitalizations and deaths among youth have surged in the past year, humanitarian agencies “are having to choose between helping the hungry or the hungrier,” Hsiao-Wei Lee, deputy director for Afghanistan at the World Food Program, told the Wall Street Journal

The situation is worsening by the day. The U.S. and its allies state that harsh sanctions and their effects on Afghan society are being countered with sufficient international aid, but so far this statement can only be regarded as misleading or, at the very least, insufficient. In September of 2021, 100 nations pledged $1.2 billion in humanitarian and development aid to Afghanistan during the High-Level Ministerial Meeting on the Humanitarian Situation in Afghanistan, and in January 2022 the U.S. brought its total aid to the region to $782 million. However, in the largest single country aid appeal ever made Martin Griffith, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, stated that $4.4 billion are now needed for the Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan alone. And if that weren’t enough, current security risks and the crippling of domestic banks is causing international aid to meet important obstacles in attempting to reach its target population. “What we’re doing,” former U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband told The Guardian, “is not making it worse for the Taliban, it is making it worse for the people.” 

As the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan worsens, four dozen Congressional Progressive Caucus members have published an open letter asking President Joe Biden to reconsider his actions, stating that “pragmatic U.S. engagement with the de facto authorities is nevertheless key to averting unprecedented harm to tens of millions.” After all, from a strategic point of view, the U.S. would only gain from changing their approach to Afghanistan. In fact, as the economy worsens and humanitarian aid remains insufficient, the Taliban seems optimistic and is working on a series of policies aimed at strengthening domestic capacities by promoting the revival of private businesses, not punished under American sanctions. If the Taliban is to be even remotely successful, domestic opinion of the U.S. could worsen even more and the Biden administration could further lose political legitimacy over this region of the world. Choosing diplomacy over national asset freezing and prioritizing humanitarian assistance over strategic victories would not only help solve one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, but most importantly would contribute to the economic, social and political empowerment of millions of Afghans.