What if the Longest War Isn’t Over?

The New York Times

U.S. troops have left Afghanistan. But ongoing American influence is still shaping the country’s future.

Children flying handmade plastic kites on a hillside graveyard overlooking Kabul, Afghanistan.
Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

The Daily strives to reveal a new idea in every episode. Below, we go deeper on one of those from our show this week.

People fell from the sky, their bodies reduced to small dots on the horizon, blurred by plane exhaust and the high August heat.

In a viral video taken on the tarmac at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the world watched as Afghans clung in vain to an ascending plane, attempting to escape the coming Taliban rule. The video captured the fear that reigned in Afghanistan as American troops withdrew from the country — a fear of Taliban brutality and a reversion to their last harsh, authoritarian rule.

But months after the American withdrawal, the Taliban have floundered for international legitimacy. Now, another fear has settled on Afghanistan: the fear of starvation as the country’s economy has all but collapsed, fueling one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. An estimated 22.8 million people — more than half the country’s population — are expected to face potentially life-threatening food insecurity this winter.

The United States has publicly tried to wash its hands of ongoing responsibility in Afghanistan, with President Biden justifying the chaotic withdrawal of troops by saying he “was not going to extend this forever war.” But American influence is still shaping the lives, and livelihoods, of millions of Afghans in the form of economic sanctions — revealing that there will be no neat ending to America’s longest war. Below, we take a closer look at the impact of the sanctions discussed on Wednesday’s show.

For years, Afghanistan was an aid state. American and international assistance made up 45 percent of the country’s G.N.P. and funded 75 percent of the government’s budget, including health and education services. But with the Taliban takeover, that aid — and that cash circulating in the Afghan economy — has nearly vanished.

As the Taliban took over the country, the Biden administration froze Afghanistan’s $9.5 billion in foreign reserves and stopped sending the shipments of U.S. dollars upon which Afghanistan’s central bank relied. The American goal was simple: Keep cash from getting into Taliban hands. But the effects of this policy were far more complicated. While the American sanctions were intended to punish the Taliban for their military takeover and limit their ability to establish governing legitimacy, the result has been a wholesale economic collapse in the country.

“You now have a crisis in virtually every dimension,” Anthony H. Cordesman, emeritus chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “There’s now an aid crisis, a financial crisis, job crisis, governance crisis and legal crisis.”

With billions of dollars in state assets frozen abroad, Afghan banks have been paralyzed and the country faces a dire cash shortage that has crippled business, impeded humanitarian services, sent food and fuel prices soaring and triggered a widespread hunger crisis.

The widespread hunger is the most devastating sign of the economic crash, and, as winter approaches, pressure is building on the U.S. government to reverse course.

In late September, the Biden administration issued two sanction exemptions for humanitarian organizations. But some have criticized these exemptions as being unclear — and insufficient. In a country where the boundaries of government entities are nebulous, some humanitarian organizations and donors fear they may face inadvertent sanction violations by continuing to support critical public services. Specifically, exemptions do not apply to paying employees like teachers in government-run schools and doctors in state hospitals.

The sanctions are also hampering general humanitarian operations. Many foreign banks that aid organizations rely on to transfer funds into Afghanistan have cut ties to Afghan banks. And the liquidity crisis severely restrains the amount that organizations can withdraw to pay vendors or aid workers.

David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary who is now president of the International Rescue Committee, questioned the argument for sanctions, which have been framed as essential to American security.

“The No. 1 threat of the failure to lift sanctions is to Afghan lives, but the No. 2 threat is to American reputation,” he said. “No. 3, there is a threat to American interests because if the implosion continues in Afghanistan, there are regional reverberations.”

“The lesson of the modern world is that instability anywhere has ripple effects. This is actually not a complicated security question,” he added.

American officials insist that sanctions will remain in place and argue that multilateral aid from the United Nations and member states can support Afghans as the winter looms. The U.S. government has offered over $450 million in humanitarian assistance and has pushed for multilateral aid for Afghans.

“U.S. aid is, of course, not sufficient to address Afghanistan’s looming needs,” Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a senior adviser with the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said at a Security Council briefing. “We welcome creative solutions from the international community to help mitigate these challenges in a way that limits undue benefit to the Taliban and sanctioned individuals.”

Mr. Milband said: “We don’t need to be that creative. It’s very, very clear why a million children and nine million Afghans” are on the brink of famine.

“My political judgment is that if people starve in Afghanistan, it won’t be the Taliban who get the blame,” he said. “It will be the West which gets the blame.”

Women and children awaited treatment at a World Food Program-supported health clinic in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in October.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Lauren Jackson is a journalist based in London.

What if the Longest War Isn’t Over?