Afghanistan has become a test for US humanitarianism

As winter quickly approaches in Afghanistan, the humanitarian crisis deepens. Some 23 million people face acute food insecurity according to the United Nations World Food Program and 9 million — the most vulnerable — face death by starvation in coming months.

Because our erstwhile enemy, the Taliban, now rules in Afghanistan many Americans try to look away. Afghanistan, many say, is now someone else’s problem. Yet, in our experience, when forced to view the tragic consequences of a humanitarian crisis, the American people do not turn their backs on people in distress.

For much of the last century, America has led aid efforts to feed starving people suffering under oppressive regimes. Herbert Hoover as secretary of Commerce in the Harding and Coolidge administrations managed one of the greatest aid efforts of the 20th century, funded by the U.S. Congress, to end the Volga Famine in 1922-23 in the newly created Soviet Union.

According to Benjamin Weissman’s book, “Herbert Hoover and Famine Relief to Soviet Russia 1921-23 Hoover told Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin that if they interfered in the aid effort — which he insisted would feed people according to need not political loyalty to Communism — he would leave the country with the U.S. food. They were enraged but had no choice but to comply with his demands.

The United States led a multinational effort under the Reagan, Bush (41) and Clinton administrations to create the contemporary international humanitarian response system modeled after Herbert Hoover’s earlier efforts. Millions of EthiopiansSouth Sudanese, people from Darfur in Sudan and North Koreans survived on U.S. food aid though all were governed by brutal regimes that were enemies of the United States.

This system has resulted in a major reduction of famine deaths beginning in the late 1980s according to Alex de Waal’s book, “Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine.” It is composed of international NGOs, UN agencies led by the World Food Program and the Red Cross movement. If allowed, it can save the Afghan people from what will shortly become a major famine.

The Biden administration remains in a defensive posture after the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, seemingly wary of the political fallout. Republicans in Congress are too busy attacking the failures and are not about to annoy their base by taking legislative leadership. Both are ignoring the humanitarian crisis and the massive loss of life beginning to unfold.

The challenge here is that the Taliban government is a “specially designated terrorist group” ineligible to receive American aid and subject to UN restrictions adopted in 1988. Some $7 billion in Afghan assets — U.S. bills, bonds, World Bank assets, gold and cash — are being held by our Federal Reserve Bank. Afghan banks have had to close their doors and families in the country are unable to purchase what little food exists in the markets. A drought has further exacerbated the food supply problem.

In late September, the U.S. Treasury Department granted licenses to UN and non-governmental organizations to engage in humanitarian relief operations in Afghanistan as exceptions to the sanctions regime. This relief was welcomed but it was narrowly defined and has proven inadequate.

Relief agencies have found it exceedingly difficult to operate in a country with a collapsed banking system. The UN secretary general has called for a further loosening of the sanctions but the United States has yet to offer its support.

Some have argued that we should use humanitarian aid as leverage in negotiating with the Taliban. If they cease attacking minority groups such as the Hazaras, allow girls back into high schools and universities and end their repression of the Afghan people, we will let them eat. While such an argument may have some merit with long-term development aid, it has none when it comes to humanitarian assistance in a famine. As Ronald Reagan once put it, “a hungry child knows no politics”.

We strongly recommend that portions of the Afghan government’s $7 billion in frozen assets be released to the World Food Program and other aid organizations that are mounting the relief efforts. This conditional release of funds would facilitate the operations of relief agencies and allow food markets to open. It would be monitored closely to assure that it would aid the people in need. None would go through the Taliban government. If the Taliban abuses the system and diverts the resources, the program should be shut down and aid agencies should be withdrawn.

We are encouraged that David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program, has been able to negotiate non-interference commitments from the Taliban for this vital work. Beasley, a former Republican Governor of South Carolina, has been tireless in his advocacy for humanitarian relief for Afghanistan. He needs resources and the United States should provide them from the Afghan government’s own funds.

The news is already filled with images of emaciated children and displaced camps full of starving people, the leitmotifs of famines. Leaders of civil society, think tanks and the media are already asking how Democrats and Republicans allowed this to happen. The time to prevent further tragedy from happening is right now.

The United States has always led the world in its advocacy for humanitarian principles. We recognize the challenge of putting a 20-year war behind us and turning towards a humanitarian endeavor. However, we believe, as in the past, the American people will support saving innocent lives.

Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He served as administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration. Andrew Natsios is director of the Scowcroft Institute at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He served as administrator of USAID in the George W. Bush administration. He is the author of “The Great North Korean Famine.”

Afghanistan has become a test for US humanitarianism