US Sanctions Compounding Afghan Crisis II
There are no good options, only bad and worse ones.
In Sunday’s post, “US Sanctions Compounding Afghan Crisis,” I passed along news of mass starvation under the new Taliban government, partly caused by the massive withdrawal of aid and the imposition of sanctions on the regime by the West, including the United States. My reaction was modest:
That things would get much worse for the Afghan people once the Taliban returned to power and Western (mostly American) money dried up was inevitable. We obviously weren’t going to continue sending billions of dollars a year to the new regime. But our sanctions policy is compounding a humanitarian crisis.
Again, not putting money directly into the hands of the Taliban is understandable. The obvious compromise would be to let trusted organizations—the Red Crescent and UNICEF come immediately to mind—administer the aid, handing out food and medicine directly to families.
Dan Drezner, who among other things is an expert on international sanctions, is more critical. But, first, he gives the Biden team credit:
Devoted fans of Spoiler Alerts — all 14 of you! — are fully aware of my concerns about how the United States is abusing economic sanctions in recent years. This has been a bipartisan problem that has gotten worse with each successive administration.
To president Biden’s credit, his administration seemed intent on reversing this trend. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen ordered a review led by Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo and published six weeks ago. In late October I wrote a favorable column about the review but cautioned, “This report is a framework document. There are few concrete details (beyond the hardy perennial of improving the website) of how these principles will be met. This invites some skepticism.”
Alas, he judges the administration is failing to live up to its own guidelines:
Do the current sanctions against the Taliban support “a clear policy objective within a broader U.S. government strategy”? Only if that policy objective is categorically denying the Taliban formal recognition. Continued sanctions will not lead to the Taliban’s demise, A starving populace is literally too weak to rebel, and the Taliban will feed their own before feeding anyone else.
What about “incorporates anticipated economic and political implications for the sanctions target(s), U.S. economy, allies, and third parties and has been calibrated to mitigate unintended impacts”? Nope, this is definitely a sanctions fail. Again, the prospect of a winter that kills more Afghan civilians than a generation of war seems like poorly calibrated sanctions. The ICG report references the likelihood of increased refugee flows to Europe. If memory serves this has led to considerable populist blowback in recent years.
I get that the political optics of sending aid to Taliban-run Afghanistan are not great. I have no desire to empower the Taliban any further. Afghanistan’s current rulers should shoulder most of the blame for what is happening in Afghanistan right now. But I am old enough to remember how sanctions narratives play out. If this status quo persists, the United States will stand accused of fomenting a humanitarian disaster.
This is a situation, not uncommon in foreign policymaking, when there are no good options. But letting millions of innocents starve is the second-worst outcome here, exceeded only by intentionally contributing to the causes of that starvation.