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When politics overrides the humanitarian imperative: the tragedy of Afghanistan

Women carry their children to a Red Crescent health clinic in Shah Wali Kot district, Kandahar.

By Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“We are on a countdown to catastrophe.” That is how David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), described the humanitarian crisis that has been rapidly unfolding in Afghanistan ever since the Taliban seized power in August, 2021. Peter Michael McKinley, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2014 to 2016, warned in an article written for Foreign Affairs that unless immediate action is taken, “there is the risk of a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions by mid-winter.” Deborah Lyons, the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, said at a press conference in November that the country is “on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.”

In issuing these dire warnings, Beasley, McKinley, and Lyons echo the concerns of numerous aid groups and humanitarian organizations who have also sounded the alarm on Afghanistan.

The level of alarm is justified. As food security in Afghanistan has “all but collapsed” in recent months, about 22.8 million people—over half of the country’s population—face acute food insecurity. 8.7 million people are at risk of famine. One million children are at risk of dying from severe malnutrition, and 3.2 million children are acutely malnourished.

Food insecurity is hardly a new problem in Afghanistan, which, for decades, has suffered from malnutrition. However, the country’s chronic hunger crisis has “drastically worsened” in recent months. And for the first time, the crisis is affecting urban residents, in addition to rural communities.

The catalyst for the dramatic escalation of Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis is the Taliban takeover in August. Since that seismic shift in the country’s leadership, the number of Afghans requiring humanitarian assistance has increased by the millions. The crucial link between the rapid deterioration of Afghanistan's hunger crisis and the Taliban takeover is the economic crash that occurred almost immediately after Kabul fell to the Taliban. The takeover led to the contraction of Afghanistan’s cash-based economy at “dizzying rates,” triggering what one U.N. official described as possibly “the most rapid economic collapse in modern history.”

Before the takeover, Afghanistan’s economy was largely reliant on foreign aid. Nearly 40% of the country’s GDP was international aid, according to the World Bank. But once the withdrawal of U.S. troops led to a swift victory for the Taliban and the collapse of President Ghani’s government, the billions of dollars in humanitarian and development assistance provided to the previous government by Western governments, aid groups and financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, vanished almost overnight, sending the Afghan economy into freefall. And with the Afghan central bank’s nearly $9.5 billion in assets now frozen by the U.S. government, the Afghan banking sector has been paralyzed. The combination of economic sanctions on the Taliban government and frozen state assets has completely isolated the Afghan economy within the global financial system and has also created a “dire cash shortage.”

This sequence of damaging blows to Afghanistan’s economy has created a humanitarian emergency. According to Deborah Lyons, the “main cause” of the looming humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan is the financial sanctions on the Taliban. By cutting off international aid flows and freezing the entirety of the Afghan central bank’s billions of dollars worth of foreign assets, thereby triggering a banking and liquidity crisis and sending Afghanistan’s economy into free fall, there’s no question that international financial institutions and the U.S. government are largely responsible for the humanitarian crisis. The liquidity crisis in Afghanistan has significantly impeded the work of aid groups, because the most basic humanitarian aid operations cannot function without the regular flow of cash.

In addition, the economic crisis created by sanctions has led to the prices of basic goods skyrocketing; essential food items, such as cooking oil and wheat, have become unaffordable for many Afghan families. Reduced incomes, another byproduct of the disintegration of the Afghan economy, have also contributed to the deterioration of food security—the number of unemployed has been increasing for months, and millions of employed Afghans, including day laborers, civil servants, doctors and teachers, have gone months without getting paid.

Afghan hospitals were already under considerable strain due to the country's precarious coronavirus situation, as hospitals quickly ran out of the oxygen needed to treat COVID-19 patients. But now, the lack of pay for medical personnel, combined with a shortage of medical supplies once provided by aid groups, has led to a breakdown of basic healthcare services and a healthcare system now on the brink of collapse, at a time when Afghan hospitals are filling with malnourished children and anemic mothers due to the food insecurity crisis.

There are also factors external to the economic crisis that have led the country to the brink of mass starvation. First, there is the onset of freezing winter, which will cut off millions of Afghans from accessing the humanitarian assistance they need to survive the harsh winter season. Second, Afghanistan is currently in the midst of a severe drought that has had a devastating impact on agriculture and livestock and has led to an annual wheat harvest that is 25% below average. Farmers across Afghanistan can no longer depend on wheat stored from their summer harvest to get through the winter months as they have in past years. The drought, which is the country’s worst in decades and alone “would have been enough to trigger a humanitarian emergency,” has only compounded the difficulties of millions of Afghans in feeding their families.

In the intensive care unit of the Mirwais Regional Hospital, a child suffers from severe malnourishment.

By Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

As the window for survival is closing for millions of Afghans at a terrifying speed, international aid organizations and experts are urging the U.S. to ease the economic sanctions that are worsening the humanitarian crisis. Mary-Ellen McGroarty, WFP country director for Afghanistan, has echoed this sentiment, claiming, “We need to separate the politics from the humanitarian imperative.” Dominik Stillhart, operations director at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has also challenged the U.S.-led sanctions regime on the Taliban with the critique that, “You cannot hold the entire Afghan population hostage.”

These criticisms expose a key fissure in the international community over what must be done to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan. The U.S. and other Western donors are hesitant to remove sanctions, expand assistance and offer financial relief to Afghanistan in the fear of granting the new regime legitimacy, putting money directly into the Taliban’s hands,” and losing any leverage they have for influencing the Taliban’s behavior. At the same time, the new Taliban government has been unwilling to make concessions that the U.S. and its allies have made funding for the regime contingent upon, such as providing guarantees for the rights of women and minorities and cutting all ties to international terrorism.

Through the establishment of Executive Order 13224 in September 2001, the United States designated the Taliban as a Specially Designated Terrorist Group (SDGT). Because of this designation, which is still held in place, all U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in any financial transactions with the Taliban that include but are not limited to “the making or receiving of any contribution of funds, goods, or services to or for the benefit of” the group, with the risk of incurring civil and criminal penalties.These sanctions have effectively excluded the Taliban from the global financial system for the past 20 years.

On December 22, the Biden administration took measures designed to make it less difficult for international organizations to provide relief to Afghans with the issuance of general licenses that will exempt nongovernmental organizations and international aid groups from economic sanctions. The licences will permit financial transactions between aid groups and the Taliban government that are strictly for humanitarian purposes. Shortly after the announcement of the new policy, a spokesperson for the U.S. Treasury Department clarified that “We have not reduced sanctions pressure on Taliban leaders or the significant restrictions on their access to the international financial system.” The administration’s actions followed shortly after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution exempting humanitarian actions from U.N. sanctions for a one-year period. The combined actions of the U.S. and the Security Council, in broadening the level of contact permitted between aid groups and the Taliban, will allow for much greater humanitarian engagement with the Taliban regime overall.

Moreover, in November, the World Bank’s board, which includes the United States, unfroze $280 million in donor funding for the World Food Program and UNICEF. A month earlier, the E.U. pledged $1.15 billion in aid to Afghanistan. The U.N. also secured $1 billion in humanitarian aid pledges from donors at a conference in September.

However, close observers of the crisis, including economists and aid organizations, claim that these measures are not enough. According to David Milliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, “We need a bigger humanitarian response, but without a functioning economy and banking system, we are facing terrible odds.” Milliband has argued that amassive economic stabilization package is also necessary for averting a humanitarian catastrophe. Abdallah Al Dardari, the U.N. Development Program’s resident representative in Afghanistan, has similarly voiced the concern that “No humanitarian crisis can be managed by humanitarian support only.”

A baby is checked for signs of malnutrition at a World Food Programme facility in Kandahar.

By Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

As for the humanitarian exemptions recently granted to aid groups by the Biden administration in the form of licenses, experts argue that these exemption licenses are functionally inadequate. Shah Mehrabi, a member of Afghanistan’s central bank board and an economics professor, has criticized the licenses as “piecemeal humanitarian exemptions” that do nothing to solve the impending failure of the economy and the country’s liquidity crisis. The liquidity crisis, which was caused primarily by the Biden administration’s decision to freeze the Afghan central bank’s foreign currency reserves,has meant that financial commitments—in the form of international aid—have not translated to actions on the ground.

Moreover, the licenses “have not curbed the global chilling effect of the sanctions” that have deterred banks and multinational firms from engaging in commerce or any form of financial activity with Afghanistan, due to their fear of breaching the far-reaching U.S. sanctions that impose steep fines and criminal penalties on violators. That fear has discouraged international banks, being the highly risk-averse institutions that they are, from facilitating financial transactions in Afghanistan and dealing with Afghan banks. Shortly after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the resulting Taliban victory, international financial institutions were warned by American law firms that “any business transaction in Afghanistan”—a country now controlled by a sanctioned entity, the Taliban—“could risk violating sanctions.”

The strong aversion held by international banks towards financial transactions with banks in Afghanistan, driven by the fear of violating sanctions, has meant that international currency cannot be changed into local currency by banks in the country.” This is a significant functional impediment to aid operations in the country, particularly because international aid organizations cannot wire transfer payments to accounts in Afghanistan, making it impossible for those organizations to pay doctors, nurses and aid workers on the ground. The pressure to comply with U.S. sanctions policy has also led financial institutions to delay or refuse the transfer of funds to humanitarian organizations, which has made it so that getting funds into Afghanistan has become extremely challenging.”

Essentially, the Biden administration’s exemption licenses for aid organizations do nothing to alleviate the massive blanket sanction regime that is causing the Afghan economy to hemorrhage and challenging—if not outright obstructing—the humanitarian response effort in Afghanistan. Unless the bleeding is stopped, and the economy stabilized through sanctions relief, a humanitarian catastrophe will become all too likely.

Adam Smith, former senior adviser in the Treasury Department’s sanctions unit, has warned that Afghanistan could become a failed state under the weight of the economic sanctions currently held in place on the Taliban government. The United Nations issued a warning several months ago that the U.S. government’s decision to freeze billions of dollars of Afghanistan’s foreign assets would “push millions more Afghans into poverty and hunger” and cause “a severe economic downturn.” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has also attributed the breakdown of Afghanistan’s economy to the decision to freeze the country’s foreign currency reserves.

Included among the growing number of concerned voices urging U.S. sanctions relief are 40 members of the U.S. House of Representatives who authored a letter urging President Biden to ease sanctions on the Taliban government and release Afghanistan’s frozen foreign assets. In that letter, members described the futility of increasing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan in the absence of sanctions relief: “No increase in food and medical aid can compensate for the macroeconomic harm of soaring prices of basic commodities, a banking collapse, a balance-of-payments crisis, a freeze on civil servants’ salaries, and other severe consequences that are rippling throughout Afghan society, harming the most vulnerable.

Inside the malnutrition ward of the Mirwais Regional Hospital in Kandahar.

By Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

If the United States and its allies are truly committed to averting a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, they must do more than simply facilitating the flow of humanitarian aid to the country; it is imperative that they reduce sanctions pressure on the Taliban and amend the restrictions currently blocking the Taliban’s access to the global financial system. Unless these actions are taken, there is a genuine possibility of the complete destruction of the Afghan economy and the resulting deaths of millions of innocent Afghans who are currently at risk of famine.

However, offering any form of sanctions relief to the Taliban is a politically dangerous move for the Biden administration, which has already taken plenty of heat from both political parties for its chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The easing of sanctions could be interpreted as a signal for the “recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.” Providing any sort of foundation for such an accusation, no matter how questionable, would only invigorate existing criticisms of the Biden administration’s Afghanistan policy and offer fresh ammunition for political opponents.

In addition to the political costs of lifting sanctions on the Taliban, there are indeed “deep and justified concerns” about the Taliban benefiting from international aid and sanctions relief, as well as the fact that “If money went to the Taliban, there's absolutely no indication that they would spend it well or fairly.” In addition, there are undeniable moral repercussions to financially engaging with the Taliban, and thereby legitimizing the group on some level, that Peter Michael McKinley argues“cannot be waved away” due to the Taliban’s “long—and recent—record of repressive actions, their affiliation with international terrorist groups, and the presence of sanctioned terrorists in their government.” The new Taliban government has also offered no concessions on the issues of “inclusive government, respect for human rights and counterterrorism assurances.”

There is no doubt that the new Taliban regime has already proven to be a menace to human rights in Afghanistan and, through their long litany of human rights abuses to date, have comprehensively demonstrated that they have no intention of protecting and respecting the human rights of Afghan civilians. But the West cannot afford to waste any more time on moral posturing and philosophical quabbles about political legitimacy when the lives of millions of Afghans hang in the balance. The very people whose human rights the political leaders of the West repeatedly invoke when justifying their decision to maintain sanctions on the Taliban, and thereby allowing the Afghan economy to crumble, are in serious danger of succumbing to famine and mass starvation. At this crucial juncture, only the U.S. and its allies hold the power to avert the humanitarian nightmare in Afghanistan experts have been warning about for months by relieving financial pressure on the Taliban. With that kind of responsibility, the pursuit of political expediency under the veil of moral righteousness is unacceptable. The Biden administration has a clear choice: ease sanctions, or stand aside and enable one of the worst humanitarian disasters in modern times.

DCI’s main goal is to decode encrypted news for an enlightened citizen

Hajira Fuad

February, 8th 2022

Sources and links for interested readers:

On the UN World Food Programme’s warnings about Afghanistan’s food insecurity crisis

Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Peter Michael McKinley’s argument for urgent action to avoid a historic humanitarian crisis

UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan Deborah Lyon’s address in a UN Security Council press conference urging the international community to provide financial support to Afghanistan

On the aid groups and humanitarian organizations that have sounded the alarm on Afghanistan

The World Food Programme’s summary of the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC)

Report that reports emergency (IPC phase 4) levels of acute food insecurity in Afghanistan

The official IPC Report on Afghanistan referred to in the previous not

The Council on Foreign Relations’ official timeline of the U.S. War in Afghanistan

The United States’ freezing of the Afghan central bank’s foreign assets

On the humanitarian repercussions of the Afghan banking sector’s paralysis

The dire cash shortage that economic sanctions on the Taliban have created

A discussion of why humanitarian exemptions to U.S. sanctions policy are inadequate for preventing the Afghan economy’s collapse

The devastating consequences of severe winter weather on Afghanistan’s agriculture and livestock

On how millions of Afghans are going to be cut off from humanitarian aid during the winter season

The severe drought that has compounded Afghanistan’s joint food insecurity and economic crisis

How U.S. sanctions are worsening the humanitarian crisis

Why unfreezing Afghanistan’s foreign assets could lessen the political leverage that the U.S. has on the Taliban

Executive Order 13224, which classified the Taliban as a Specially Designated Terrorist Group (SDTG)

On the financial sanctions that result from designation as an SDTG

How sanctions violations can incur civil and criminal penalties

On the Biden Administration’s humanitarian licenses that exempt aid groups from economic sanctions

The U.S. Treasury Department’s assurances after issuing sanctions exemptions licenses that it has not reduced sanctions pressure on Taliban leaders, or the significant restrictions on their access to the global financial system

The E.U.’s $1.15 billion pledge in aid to Afghanistan

The UN donor conference that raised $1 billion in aid for Afghanistan

On how Afghanistan’s liquidity crisis will lead to the collapse of the economy unless the U.S. revises its sanctions policy

On the repercussions of maintaining the Taliban’s designation as a sanctioned entity, now that it controls an entire country; Adam Smith’s comments on how Afghanistan could become a failed state under the current weight of sanctions

On how, because of U.S. sanctions, international aid groups are struggling to pay the salaries of doctors, nurses and aid workers on the ground

The UN’s warnings of a severe economic downturn in Afghanistan due to the freezing of its foreign assets

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ comments linking sanctions to the Afghan economy’s breakdown

The Taliban government’s lack of concessions on human rights and counterterrorism assurances, and how the group “has done very little to demonstrate a willingness to meet the conditions put forward by Western powers”

The human rights abuses that have already taken place under the new Taliban regime

On how, due to a variety of factors including the hunger crisis, sanctions, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Afghan healthcare system is on the brink of collapse

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