The US can aid Afghans without boosting the Taliban
After last summer’s cataclysmic evacuation from Kabul, over 100,000 Afghans are now making the United States their new home. Americans have responded with warmth and generosity, befitting this country’s deep ties to the Afghan people. Forged over two decades of war, those bonds remain exceptional, even after the final withdrawal of American troops.
In addition to extending help to the fraction of struggling Afghans lucky enough to secure a flight out of the country, America must also help the tens of millions of suffering Afghans who remain. Today, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has reached catastrophic proportions and portends even worse over the near term. Despite the understandable desire to avoid strengthening the Taliban — and the foolish wish of those who want to simply close the book on Afghanistan — the Biden administration can and should provide urgent help.
It is hard to overestimate the scale of suffering today. Most international assistance disappeared after the Taliban took control of the country, and $10 billion in Afghan foreign reserves were immediately frozen, leaving the economy bereft of liquidity. In September, the World Food Program estimated that 14 million Afghans faced crisis-level hunger. Now the number is 22 million — more than half the country’s population — and nearly 5 million are expected to suffer severe malnutrition this year. The International Rescue Committee believes 90 percent of all Afghan health clinics may shut down soon. The United Nations says more than $5 billion in emergency aid is urgently required; the United States has so far provided more than $500 million.
Relieving the humanitarian crisis is, of course, only one American aim in Afghanistan. Washington rightly wishes to press the Taliban to improve human rights and ensure that terrorist groups do not grow stronger. As a result, the Biden administration should help alleviate Afghan suffering while preserving a degree of leverage with the Taliban on both human rights and terrorism concerns.
We opposed the full withdrawal of U.S. troops and view the Taliban’s return to power as a terrible blow to American interests and values. But depriving Afghanistan of urgently needed assistance will not reverse that outcome. It is fanciful to imagine that poverty and starvation will somehow motivate anti-Taliban forces to do what the Ghani regime could not.
The international community can, in fact, assist the Afghan people without legitimizing or boosting the Taliban. The U.N. and international NGOs have begun providing aid directly to Afghans, bypassing the new regime. The World Bank recently announced plans to fund civil servants in the healthcare and education sectors. Others are exploring currency swaps that would convert cash for humanitarian operations into local currency.
The U.S. Treasury Department has taken welcome steps to allow humanitarian aid to flow more freely, including by licensing food and medicine and their associated fees, taxes and import duties. It also recently announced that aid groups may pay the salaries of teachers and healthcare workers without facing sanctions.
Other possible remedies would put help directly into the population’s hands. The World Bank could, for example, establish a humanitarian relief trust fund supported by multiple governments. A humanitarian financial corridor could be established by allowing an Afghan private bank to assume some limited functions of the central bank, thereby injecting badly needed liquidity into the economy. Yet another possibility would rely on digital wallets or other digital currency options through the Afghan mobile network.
It is likely that no matter the safeguards, some emergency aid will leak into Taliban hands. That unfortunate result would be preferable to denying Afghans the assistance that can save their lives.
Over the longer term, development assistance to Afghanistan should be conditioned on the Taliban’s respect for human rights — especially those of girls and women — and on concrete steps to reduce terrorist threats in the country. Those should include evicting al-Qaeda remnants from the country and preventing other foreign terrorist fighters from entering Afghan territory. Whether the Taliban would comply with such conditions remains a major question mark, but key leverage — including diplomatic recognition and frozen reserve funds — should be directed at the effort.
In the meantime, however, the acute crisis demands immediate help. The $5 billion U.N. appeal is large but remains a tiny fraction of the perhaps $2 trillion the United States spent on the war over 20 years. The Biden administration last week took an important step by making available a large portion of the frozen Afghan foreign reserves for humanitarian relief. Now it should quickly establish the trust fund to deliver the aid. The world’s largest humanitarian crisis is unfolding before our eyes, and American leadership is necessary to remedy it. The United States should marshal international efforts to save the Afghan people. We will regret doing otherwise.
For two decades, presidents of both parties have reiterated America’s special commitment to the people of Afghanistan. That exceptional bond is a major reason why the thousands of recently arrived refugees have been welcomed into our communities. Amid this profound current emergency, our caring for Afghans must not stop at America’s own border.
Lisa Curtis directs the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and served as Senior Director for South and Central Asia on the National Security Council from 2017-2021. Richard Fontaine is CEO of the Center and served as foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain.