Analysis

Biden’s Conundrum: How to Pressure the Taliban Without Hurting Afghans

After 20 years of building up Afghanistan, can the United States really cut the country off now?

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Afghan schoolchildren study at a destroyed high school.
Afghan schoolchildren study at the destroyed Papen High School in Deh Bala district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on July 22, 2019. NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Until the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was showered in U.S. and international assistance that amounted to nearly half of its GDP. Now, delivering a stern message to the triumphant militants, U.S. President Joe Biden and European leaders are shutting down most of it. The United States is freezing Afghan reserves, and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have announced they will also suspend aid, as have major Western powers like Germany. 

But Biden has a problem he doesn’t face in other rogue countries squeezed by U.S. sanctions: The United States has spent an estimated $2 trillion over nearly 20 years trying to build up Afghanistan and help its desperately poor people. Moreover, given the swift U.S. withdrawal that left behind tens of thousands of Afghans who once supported the U.S.-led effort there, can Biden morally justify cutting them off? This is an especially pressing question as potentially new strains of COVID-19 proliferate among a poorly vaccinated population and Afghanistan heads into the colder months.

The Biden administration is trying to thread that needle by saying it will continue to deliver humanitarian aid to Afghanistan but the Taliban government won’t get any of it. 

Until the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was showered in U.S. and international assistance that amounted to nearly half of its GDP. Now, delivering a stern message to the triumphant militants, U.S. President Joe Biden and European leaders are shutting down most of it. The United States is freezing Afghan reserves, and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have announced they will also suspend aid, as have major Western powers like Germany. 

But Biden has a problem he doesn’t face in other rogue countries squeezed by U.S. sanctions: The United States has spent an estimated $2 trillion over nearly 20 years trying to build up Afghanistan and help its desperately poor people. Moreover, given the swift U.S. withdrawal that left behind tens of thousands of Afghans who once supported the U.S.-led effort there, can Biden morally justify cutting them off? This is an especially pressing question as potentially new strains of COVID-19 proliferate among a poorly vaccinated population and Afghanistan heads into the colder months.

The Biden administration is trying to thread that needle by saying it will continue to deliver humanitarian aid to Afghanistan but the Taliban government won’t get any of it. 

“Consistent with our sanctions on the Taliban, the aid will not flow through the government but rather through independent organizations, such as U.N. agencies and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations],” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Monday as U.S. forces completed their withdrawal. “And we expect that those efforts will not be impeded by the Taliban or anyone else.” 

But bypassing the Taliban could be especially difficult—if not impossible—since the group can now officially oversee the operations of any agencies and NGOs in the country. In any case, it’s hard to make a distinction between the people’s welfare and the overall health of the Afghan economy—particularly if, as expected, it collapses in the coming months. 

“The leverage of the West is quite limited,” said Adnan Mazarei, a former deputy director at the International Monetary Fund who oversaw Afghan programs from 2009 to 2015. “In the end, leverage is a function of how much the United States and other countries care about the suffering of the Afghan people. The U.S. may decide it cares.” 

Nor are major institutions like the United Nations necessarily on board with Biden’s pressure campaign. On the contrary, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Tuesday that “extra food, shelter, and health supplies must be urgently fast-tracked into the country” because Afghanistan faces a “humanitarian catastrophe” amid a severe drought and with winter approaching. Guterres said he had “grave concern” about “the threat of basic services collapsing completely,” adding “1 in 3 Afghans do not know where their next meal will come from.”

The Biden administration has not yet specified how its limited-aid approach will work. Speaking on condition of anonymity, several government officials indicated the U.S. Treasury Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, the key agencies overseeing financial support, have barely begun discussing the details.

On Tuesday, a Treasury official indicated the Biden administration would maintain sanctions against Taliban leaders, including “significant restrictions on their access to the international financial system,” but could not be more specific. Other major donors, such as the World Bank, which had been overseeing nearly $800 million in programs in 2021 for Afghanistan, are also still figuring out how to navigate the new reality. “We continue to follow events in Afghanistan, and once the situation becomes clearer, we will be able to make an assessment of next steps,” a World Bank spokesperson said Tuesday. 

The European Union, which mainly fears a giant influx of refugees, is now focused on giving aid to neighboring countries where Afghans might flee rather than to Afghanistan itself. In a statement Tuesday, the EU said its member states “stand determined to act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements faced in the past.” 

The United States and major Western nations also have, over the last two decades, sponsored critical aid programs that many are loath to eliminate now—in particular, hundreds of millions of dollars in investments toward female education, with some 3 million girls and young women affected, said Daniel Runde, a development expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I would argue we would want to support those programs, and there’s a lot of money in those pipelines,” he said.

“They need to distinguish between humanitarian needs and the broader development programs. It’s going to be fuzzy,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. deputy ambassador in Afghanistan. “They’re going to have to have a set of governance conditions and rights conditions. That will also get fuzzy.”

The central issue going forward is whether the Taliban will uphold such conditions of fair governance and observance of human rights—at least adequately enough to keep some of the aid flowing. The Biden team credited the Taliban leadership with helping U.S. forces airlift more than 120,000 people, including thousands of Americans, out of the country. The Taliban have also said they want international recognition, and they appear to be forming a motley governing body that could include technocrats like Omar Zakhilwal, a former finance minister who has returned to Kabul, along with U.S.-designated terrorists such as Sirajuddin Haqqani. 

But it is not yet entirely unclear what sort of government will emerge or whether the Taliban will ever moderate their past behavior—especially their harsh treatment of women and girls.

“What is problematic for the West is how to respond to what may soon be urgent humanitarian needs generated by an extensive drought and a large internal displaced population, the possibility of significant refugee flows, and the collapse of the money economy—all of which will create pressures to find ways to help the Afghan people,” said Peter Michael McKinley, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. “That may require dealing with the Taliban more directly.”

If Biden comes down too hard on the new Afghan government, he could also face political problems at home as stories of desperation and Taliban oppression continue to make headlines. On Tuesday, facing harsh bipartisan criticism, the president again defended his decision to withdraw by Aug. 31, even though some Americans were left behind along with thousands of Afghans who helped the U.S. effort. Biden suggested the only mistake he might have made was to think “the Afghan government would be able to hold on for a period of time beyond military drawdown.” And he insisted “we have leverage” to hold the Taliban to their promise of safe passage for Americans and Afghans holding special immigrant visa applications.

“We will continue to support the Afghan people through diplomacy, international influence, and humanitarian aid,” Biden said. “We’ll continue to speak out for basic rights of the Afghan people, especially women and girls.”

On Monday, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution sponsored by the United States, Britain, and France that called on the Taliban to facilitate safe passage for people wanting to leave Afghanistan, allow humanitarian organizations to access the country, and uphold human rights, including for women and children. The resolution also called on the Taliban to let humanitarian aid flow and combat terrorism. In his speech, Biden said “we are joined by over 100 countries that are determined to make sure the Taliban upholds those commitments.” Notably, China and Russia abstained.

A key question in the months ahead will be whether—faced with the threat of an international embargo on at least some financial aid—the Taliban will decide to preemptively moderate their worst past practices, which only in recent weeks have reportedly involved revenge killings and forcing girls and young women into marriage or sex slavery. 

A half-dozen foreign aid experts interviewed for this article, all of them well versed in international programs that help Afghanistan, agreed the Taliban-led government will be unable to replace billions of dollars in Western aid with meager revenue from the opium trade or aid from China and neighboring Pakistan, which has supported the Taliban in the past. Given the cutoff in aid, they believe it is inevitable the country will sink further into poverty, opening the way for terrorist groups to exploit the people’s misery with illicit funds. 

“It’s hard to envisage alternative streams of revenues that would provide the same sustenance for running a government and an economy,” McKinley said. He said the Taliban’s narcotics revenues are “not at a level that would compensate for the loss of international donor assistance and, in any case, would be grounds for holding off. Pakistan is not a country in a position to provide significant assistance. China is the real issue, but how much assistance does China actually deliver in many situations like this?”

Aid specialists say China is probably not interested in large-scale development or humanitarian aid. “It’s not their forte,” Runde said. “What the Chinese offer is to say, ‘hey, I’ll lend you money to build a port or a road.’” 

The withdrawal of international aid won’t necessarily be felt immediately by ordinary Afghans, especially since the previous Afghan governments led by former Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were steeped in corruption and most U.S. assistance went to the military buildup of the now-collapsed Afghan National Security Forces.

But there is little doubt that millions of Afghans will suffer in the coming months and years. Mazarei, who is now with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, suggests if the Afghan economy collapses completely, U.S. leverage over the Taliban could increase somewhat. “There is going to be pressure on the exchange rate and balance of payments and a rise in inflation and poverty levels,” he said. “The trick is going to be whether the Taliban decide that, at least for now, they will form a more inclusive government so as to get some of this foreign aid.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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