Just as Americans began to gather for Thanksgiving dinner two weeks ago, the BBC reported that families in Afghanistan are selling their daughters into early marriage to pay for food and feeding their children tranquilizers and anti-depressants because the pills are cheaper than bread. According to ToloNews, Afghanistan’s unemployment rate stood at 40 percent in October. A recent Gallup poll from inside the country shows that, as they face their second winter since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, 86 percent of Afghans say they have trouble getting enough food.
While Western governments often focus on the Taliban’s record on political freedoms and gender apartheid, access to food is also an international human right that national governments are beholden to provide to their citizens. Yet who is to blame for Afghanistan’s inability to obtain sufficient food for its citizens depends on whom you ask. The Taliban—and more than a few commentators—argue Afghanistan’s food shortage is the fault of the West, which has cut off bilateral aid and frozen Afghanistan’s foreign reserves. Western countries point out that they would loosen aid restrictions if the Taliban would allow girls to return to school, cut ties to al-Qaida and cease other highly restrictive policies that violate fundamental human rights. If anything, some observers say, current efforts to isolate the Taliban do not go far enough.
What almost every observer can agree on, though, is that this is a manufactured disaster stemming from multiple, interrelated policy-driven causes, exacerbated by drought, COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. Ultimately, the blame game only adds a political layer to the problem, making it even more difficult to determine how to fix it.
When the Taliban took over the country last year, they immediately reverted to a draconian system of rule that imperiled minorities, restricted press freedom and other basic human rights, and removed women and girls from most jobs, schools and public life. In response, Western countries made two moves that themselves directly contributed to food insecurity in Afghanistan.
First, the U.S. froze the Afghan Central Bank’s $9 billion in foreign reserves. A country’s foreign reserves function as a rainy day fund that can be used to finance imports and shore up local currency. Without them, inflation tends to spike, and bank runs are frequent. This is why in one of his last acts before fleeing the country ahead of the Taliban takeover, the Afghan Central Bank’s former governor imposed a withdrawal limit, which his Taliban successor then strengthened and enforced. Afghans can now remove no more than $400 per week from the bank, standing in line for up to three days to get their money out. Nor can the Taliban easily print Afghanis, the country’s currency, because in the past they imported the bank notes and coins from third countries.
Half of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves are still set aside pending the resolution of domestic lawsuits in the U.S., but the other half now sits in a Swiss trust fund, ostensibly “for the use of the Afghan people.” But what this means in practice is still unclear. Though the trust fund was set up in September, the trustees met for the first time only two weeks ago and have much work to do to figure out how to use the money.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s initial executive order on the issue had implied that the money would be used to fund humanitarian aid, but this would have meant using it to solve the wrong set of problems. Humanitarian aid is meant to be a form of charitable giving by international donors, not something Afghans pay for out of their own rainy-day fund.
Instead, according to Reuters, the fund’s statute states that the money will more appropriately be used “for macroeconomic purposes, such as foreign exchange rate and price stabilization.” Yet other nonmonetary purposes are also on the table, and some fear they may have perverse side effects. If the funds were used to pay for electricity imports, for example, this could allow the Taliban to continue charging ordinary Afghans for electricity and use their payments for other purposes. Substituting services to the Afghan people that the Taliban then won’t have to provide also risks inadvertently shoring up the Taliban’s legitimacy.
What makes Afghanistan’s food crisis so intractable is also what makes hunger so difficult to solve globally: The multifaceted nature of the problem, and the lack of consensus on who is to blame and what should be done.
If the use of the reserves is limited purely to monetary policy, however, price stabilization itself could have a huge and beneficial impact for ordinary Afghans. The Taliban has done better than expected at collecting taxes and import tariffs, but without its foreign reserves, the Central Bank can’t easily fight inflation, now at 15 percent, or stabilize its currency. Putting these monies to work as the rainy day fund they are meant to be, rather than holding them in abeyance or spending them to pay national bills, can only help. If a judge releases the other half of the foreign reserves that did not go into the trust fund—rather than awarding them to families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, as Biden’s executive order stipulated—so much the better for Afghans, who have mobilized to argue against the seizure of the reserves for this purpose.
Nonetheless, unfreezing the reserves alone will not solve Afghanistan’s food crisis, because the freezing of the reserves is only one cause of the Afghan economy’s collapse. The wider issue is that after the Taliban takeover, the West halted the influx of development aid dollars that paid Afghans’ salaries and fueled the Afghan economy. This meant that nearly $8 billion dollars of development aid and almost as much military aid evaporated overnight, in a country almost entirely dependent on these funds.
Emergency humanitarian aid still trickled in from donors through multilateral contracts to NGOs and United Nations agencies; the U.S. itself has provided over $1 billion as of September 2022. But this only creates a deeper cycle of dependence, as Afghans formerly paid to work are now dependent on cash or in-kind handouts. And while humanitarian aid may keep people alive, it is development aid that fuels economies and provides for long-term infrastructure and economic growth.
This leads us to the bigger ethical question: Are economic sanctions and aid conditionality the right tools to promote political rights when they generally harm the very people they are trying to help? Or do steps taken to lessen the impact of sanctions on those vulnerable people just then encourage human rights violations? After all, the international community has few other tools for addressing the kind of massive human rights violations inflicted by the Taliban on its people, which the U.N. recently characterized as “crimes against humanity.”
Notably, Afghans themselves disagree as to whether aid conditionality on Afghanistan should continue or be lifted. A survey conducted in Afghanistan this spring by the Human Security Lab, of which I am the director, showed that approximately a third of roughly 3,750 Afghan internet users randomly surveyed on this question wanted to keep the economic pressure on the Taliban, with a third opposing that view and another third undecided. Notably, women in the survey were 5 percentage points less likely than men to argue that international food support should be conditional on human rights.
At the same time, political science research shows that economic sanctions generally worsen human rights violations like killings, torture or arbitrary arrest, rather than improve them. And even if sanctions are effective in the long term at improving human rights conditions or achieving other goals like preventing terrorism, there are ethical questions about whether the ends justify the means.
Ultimately, part of what makes Afghanistan’s food crisis so intractable is the same thing that makes hunger as a global social problem so difficult to solve: The multifaceted nature of the problem, and the lack of consensus on who is to blame and what should be done instead, can drive apathy. As political scientist Michelle Jurkovich shows in her book “Feeding the Hungry,” this problem is not limited to Afghanistan’s current circumstances. Rather, it is endemic to global economic and social rights advocacy more generally—what human security experts refer to as the “freedom from want” agenda.
According to Jurkovich, global social policy on guaranteeing the right to food is stymied by disagreements among anti-hunger organizations about who should do what to fix the problems contributing to food insecurity. And so far, every fix in one area seems certain to cause trouble in another. The case of Afghanistan is currently and tragically an example that illustrates this wider rule. But while the West’s political standoff with the Taliban continues, Afghans are either going hungry or, in many instances, resorting to tragically desperate acts not to.
Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets at @charlicarpenter.