Six months ago, the U.S. military began an overdue yet chaotic process of withdrawing from Afghanistan. The United States had maintained a substantial military presence in Afghanistan since it invaded the nation in 2001, but after almost 20 years of occupation, regime change, and demonstrably futile nation building, U.S. troops pulled out almost as rapidly as they had entered.
In the two decades that intervened U.S. invasion and evacuation of Afghanistan, 241,000 people died in the seemingly endless contest; 71,000 of those people were noncombatant civilians, many of whom were murdered either by U.S. personnel or else by militia groups that were armed and subsidized by the U.S. government. Officials in the Pentagon pursued and expanded a relentless drone strike program that violated human rights and international law, yielding extensive “collateral damage” in the form of thousands of dead men, women, and children. And in its hasty retreat, the U.S. government contributed to the increasing political instability and economic deterioration that have long threatened the security and prosperity of Afghanistan. The Taliban, ousted by U.S. forces early in the conflict, swiftly crushed an Afghan Army that had been trained and equipped by the U.S. government for the explicit purpose of resisting such a takeover. The Taliban once again resumed control of Afghanistan, now armed with billions of dollars worth of sophisticated weaponry abandoned by the United States. Its stranglehold on the Afghan people tightened as its capacity to harbor terrorists, sponsor rougue insurgencies, and oppress women and members of minority groups increased.
In other words, after spending vast amounts of time, resources, and lives on the War in Afghanistan, the United States accomplished none of its objectives. The U.S. military departed an Afghanistan that looked almost identical to the one it had captured in 2001. The Afghan people, meanwhile, suffered on the whole for U.S. involvement in their affairs.
Now, Afghanistan teeters on the brink of economic collapse. After a half-century of imperialist ventures by the Soviet Union and the United States, internal civil war, and violent transitions of power, Afghan infrastructure crumbles, Afghan wealth is depleted, and Afghan markets stagnate. Millions of people across the country lack access to food, water, shelter, health care, and other basic necessities; many have taken to desperately selling their possessions in the streets. Banks are out of cash. The United Nations warns that Afghanistan is on the precipice of “total breakdown.” A formerly impending economic catastrophe has now materialized.
And yet, in spite of the documented role that the United States has played in generating this humanitarian crisis, U.S. policy has not only failed to take action on behalf of the Afghan people, but has actually accelerated the decline and decay of the Afghan economy.
After the Taliban took control in August 2021, Western nations including the United States cut off all foreign aid to Afghanistan. These development grants had formerly constituted 45% of Afghan gross domestic product and 75% of the Afghan national budget. As these stipends dried up, the Afghan government was left with a mere quarter of its previous purchasing power. In addition, the United States imposed austere sanctions across numerous sectors and industries in Afghanistan, further crippling an already fragile financial system.
Most recently, President Biden signed an executive order that froze more than $7 billion worth of assets that the Afghan central bank had deposited in the U.S. Federal Reserve. In response to widespread criticism and mounting outcry, Biden partially relented and authorized the eventual and conditional release of a portion of these holdings. But as much as half of the total amount could end up being disbursed to relatives of the September 11th terrorist attack victims, while the other half could be placed in a virtual trust fund and distributed to various recipients in Afghanistan at the discretion of the United States.
Make no mistake: every cent of these investments belongs to the Afghan people and is absolutely essential to the revitalization of the struggling Afghan economy. The U.S. government has not merely seized the funds of the Afghan central bank, but has confiscated the property of the citizens of Afghanistan. The Biden administration has attempted to disguise illegal plunder as some sort of noble and patriotic endeavor; but while compensation for those who were harmed by the events of 9/11 is certainly warranted, it simply cannot justify the unlawful theft of Afghan capital or the continued impoverishment of the Afghan people. In the short term, the consequences for Afghanistan are dire. In the long term, the precedent established is dangerous.
All of these measures are, of course, primarily aimed at moderating, if not obstructing, Taliban leadership. But the real casualties of the ongoing economic assault on Afghanistan are innocent people: a people whose recovery from 50 years of chronic warfare and U.S. interference has been interrupted by the devastation of the pandemic, and a people who are currently dying of starvation, from exposure, or from preventable illnesses and treatable injuries.
One chapter of U.S. abuses has ended. Another is underway. If calamity is to be averted in Afghanistan, the United States must reverse its course and completely overhaul its approach to the evolving situation. It must accept the inevitable reality of Taliban rule and work to cooperate with Taliban members in order to establish and foster a credible relationship with the Afghan government, and thus spare the people of Afghanistan from further distress. It must find a way to restore fiscal assistance and to abolish sanctions against Afghanistan in a manner that is safe and responsible. And it must return the billions of dollars of stolen money to the Afghan people.
Millions of lives are at stake.