If Joe Biden Doesn’t Change Course, This Will Be His Worst Failure

EZRA KLEIN

Opinions

The New york Times

A child and his mother in January at the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital in Kabul.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Ninety-five percent of Afghans don’t have enough to eat. Nearly nine million are at risk of starvation. The U.N.’s emergency aid request, at more than $5 billion, is the largest it has ever made for a single country. “The current humanitarian crisis could kill far more Afghans than the past 20 years of war,” David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, wrote recently.

And we bear much of the blame. We have turned a crisis into a catastrophe.

The drought in Afghanistan is the worst in decades. The Taliban is a brutal regime that has no idea how to manage an economy, and in many ways is barely trying. “Remember, the Emirate had not promised you the provision of food,” Mullah Muhammad Hassan, the head of the Taliban regime, said. “The Emirate has kept its promises. It is God who has promised his creatures the provision of food.”

But neither drought nor Taliban mismanagement fully explain the horror unfolding in Afghanistan. “The long and short of it is Western economic restrictions are creating an economic crisis in the country which is driving tens of millions Afghans into starvation,” Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan expert at the International Crisis Group, told me.

In August, President Biden withdrew American troops from Afghan soil. But even as we left Afghanistan’s land, we tightened a noose around its economy. The Afghan economy was built around our support. Roughly 45 percent of the G.D.P. and 75 percent of government spending was foreign aid. When we abruptly cut off that cash, we sent it into a tailspin.

Then we went further. We froze more than $9 billion that belonged to the Afghan government — the vast majority of its foreign reserves. Sanctions that had long applied to the Taliban as a terrorist group suddenly applied to the government of Afghanistan, and few companies or countries dared violate them. “If state collapse was the object of policy, it could hardly be better designed,” Miliband told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in unusually blunt testimony.

“You saw people who had jobs in August,” Shelley Thakral, who works for the World Food Program in Afghanistan, said. “Teachers, construction workers, people who worked in offices — they don’t have jobs anymore. I remember coming in November, and sitting in some of our distribution sites and seeing people who, especially in Kabul, were just lost. They were standing in line for food assistance for the first time in their lives.”

I was more sympathetic than many to the chaos that accompanied the American withdrawal. We lost too many of our own, and left behind too many who had risked their lives at our side, but the core of the catastrophe stemmed from failures previous administrations had covered up or refused to face. There is no good way to lose a war.

What’s happening now is different. Economic collapse was predictable, and it was predicted. As the economic historian Adam Tooze put it in August, “The Taliban may threaten Afghan freedom and rights, but it is the abrupt end to funding from the West that jeopardizes Afghanistan’s material survival.” That we did so little to stop it, and so much to worsen it, is unconscionable.

The Biden administration isn’t made of monsters. They don’t want this. They don’t want it for Afghanistan, and they don’t want it for their own place in history. “The most urgent priority animating diplomacy as well as American decision making on Afghanistan is to meaningfully address the humanitarian and economic crises,” Tom West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, said on Tuesday.

It is easy to criticize. So before I go further, let me try and explain their perspective, and some of the constraints they face, as best I can.

First, the sanctions. “The U.S. has not imposed any new sanctions,” a senior administration official who works on Afghanistan told me, requesting anonymity to speak more freely. “The Taliban has been a specially designated terrorist organization for some time. The Haqqani network is designated as a terrorist organization. What we’ve been doing since August is trying to figure out how to get assistance into the country in spite of the sanctions.”

The Treasury Department has repeatedly clarified that the sanctions regime isn’t meant to stop humanitarian aid or truly private enterprise. And the United States remains the single largest aid donor to Afghanistan, with more than $500 million provided since August.

Then there’s Afghanistan’s foreign assets. The afghani is a weak currency, and much of the country’s commerce and saving takes place in dollars. Billions of those dollars sat in banks in the United States. We froze those assets when the Taliban took control of the country. What if the money made its way to terrorists or simply to enrich the Taliban?

This is not just the Biden administration’s perspective. When Representative Pramila Jayapal proposed an amendment requiring the United States to merely report on the “humanitarian impacts” these measures were causing, 44 House Democrats joined with virtually all House Republicans to reject the measure.

Meanwhile, an old legal ruling returned with unexpected force. In 2012, a group of 9/11 families persuaded a New York judge to name the Taliban responsible for billions of dollars of damages. “With no way to collect it,” my colleague Charlie Savage wrote, “the judgment seemed symbolic.” But when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for a second time, symbol turned to seizure. The families persuaded the courts that since the Taliban now controls the Afghan government, they could be taken as payment.

“The logic is obviously flawed,” Arianna Rafiq wrote in the European Journal of International Law. “The State’s assets do not become the Taliban’s solely because they became the government. Nor do State assets ‘belong’ to their respective government, in any case.”

The assets of a government, in theory, belong to its people. Andrew Maloney, one of the lawyers representing the 9/11 families, has considered this argument, and in an interview with the BBC, gave his answer. “The reality is, the Afghan people did not stand up to the Taliban when they had the opportunity,” he said. A moment later, he doubled down. “As a country, as a people, they bear some responsibility for allowing the Taliban back in.”

This is nothing less than an assertion of collective guilt, and a gruesome one, given how many Afghans died fighting the Taliban.

Faced with this mess, the Biden administration proposed a bizarre deal wherein the 9/11 families will get half the money and the other half will be put toward Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis, though no one yet knows how. The way the Biden administration sees it, it fought to make sure Afghans get some of that money back, at potential political cost.

But in both the sanctions and the seizures, you can see an almost Kafka-esque madness in the American position. They are expending all this effort to ameliorate the consequences of a sanctions regime they are implementing. They are desperately brokering deals to preserve foreign reserves that they are freezing. When I ask why they continue to impose these policies at all, the administration says that the Taliban has American prisoners, that it is a brutal regime that murders opponents and represses women, that it has links to terrorists, and that our sanctions grant us much-needed leverage.

But what is that leverage, exactly? “To destabilize Taliban rule, the U.S. is weaponizing the aid-dependent Afghan state that it built,” wrote Spencer Ackerman, a national security reporter, in his excellent newsletter, Forever Wars. “This economic weapon works by harming the Afghan people directly, with the hope that the suffering of the people prompts the end of the Taliban regime.”

That this will work — that these sanctions will destabilize the Taliban or persuade them to make the changes we want — is a hypothesis. It is only the Afghans’ suffering that is fact. You do not have to absolve the Taliban of their sins to wonder if this policy makes sense.

“The reality is that the only thing Washington has control over is its own actions,” Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute, and a former Marine who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, told me. “It has a choice here to not make things worse for Afghans. And it’s actively choosing instead to make them exponentially worse.”

The officials I spoke to last week sounded exhausted. They’re working day and night to try to avert disaster. They’re frustrated by armchair quarterbacks like, well, me, who don’t have to grapple with all that could go wrong if they radically change course. “This question of why we don’t wave the wand and make the sanctions go away — it’s too simplistic a question,” the official said. “The Taliban was involved in the 9/11 attacks. We were at war with them. They’re brutal domestically.”

But this is a framework that has lost its logic. America is trying to choke the Taliban with one hand while handing out aid and sanction exemptions with the other. Too often, the Biden administration’s humanitarian victories are scored against their own policies. It is spending precious time and energy fighting itself.

The administration has put a lot of work into clarifying the sanctions, issuing exemptions and licenses for legitimate activity, even working with individual companies and donors to reassure them that they would not fall afoul of the United States.

“We have taken a large number of steps at this point to try and open the aperture,” said the official. “After we’ve taken those steps we hear back — ‘That was helpful, that’s good, now three other things aren’t working.’ This is an iterative process. We’re going to keep doing what we can to make these sanctions not impede private-sector business and N.G.O.s.”

But I think you can hear, in that quote, how impossible a task they’ve created for themselves, and how even their efforts to make it better can make the situation worse. I repeatedly heard the complaint that every time they explicitly allow something within their sanctions, it suggests that whatever was not named acceptable is prohibited.

The Biden administration has set itself up as the central planner of all foreign investment and trade with Afghanistan. That isn’t a job they can or should do. “U.S. bureaucrats cannot sit in their offices in D.C. and imagine all the different activities and sectors that can be permitted,” Smith said. “The people will starve.”

The frozen assets are, if anything, worse. That’s the Afghan people’s money, and the United States is simply taking it. “A year ago, the United States was trying hard to preserve and strengthen institutions in Afghanistan like the central bank,” wrote Mohsin Amin in The Washington Post. “Now, the Biden administration is knocking the legs out from under the country’s banking sector, thwarting the economy and leaving Afghans like me unable to access our savings.” I wonder if we have fully grappled with the fury this is causing in Afghanistan, and how that fury might haunt us in the future.

I found it hard, in my conversations with Biden officials, to get them to zoom out, to explain how our various policies fit into a sensible, humane whole. But this is how it looks to me, and to many analysts I spoke to: Over 20 years, the United States built an aid-dependent economy in Afghanistan. When we left, we withdrew the aid on which it depended. When the Taliban took over, we turned the sanctions and financial weapons we’d wielded against them against the government and country they now controlled. We comfort ourselves by saying we are the largest donor to the Afghanistan relief effort, but we are also a major reason the crisis is dire in the first place, and we continue to be.

In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, was unsparing. “This crisis will not be solved by more humanitarian aid,” he said, “Aid cannot make up for an economy deprived of oxygen. Economic collapse makes the humanitarian challenge like running up an escalator that is going down faster and faster. It becomes impossible. That is why the need today is not just for more aid; it is for different policy.”

I make no pretense of knowing how to solve a problem as wicked as Afghanistan. But Joe Biden chose this policy. For his own legacy, and more important, for the tens of millions of human beings suffering in Afghanistan, he needs to figure out how to fix it.

If Joe Biden Doesn’t Change Course, This Will Be His Worst Failure