U.S. Economic Strangulation Could Kill More Afghans Than 20 Years of U.S. War

So this is how we "end" Forever Wars: through inflicting by inflicting catastrophic economic damage as an American policy choice. Call it population-centric vengeance.

U.S. Economic Strangulation Could Kill More Afghans Than 20 Years of U.S. War
People wait in front of a bakery in Kabul to receive bread distributed by the Save Afghans From Hunger campaign on January 18. Wakil Kohsar, via Getty

Edited by Sam Thielman

"OFTEN IT FEELS like we are just using a wet towel to try to put out a wildfire," Obaidullah Baheer, formerly a university professor in Afghanistan, told my former Guardian colleague Emma Graham-Harrison. Take the time to read Emma's dispatch from frigid Kabul about three weeks ago. In it, you will meet people who will very likely soon starve or freeze to death because of choices made by the Biden administration—choices entirely in keeping with those made by Biden’s post-9/11 predecessors; historians can weigh in on older precedents—after "ending" the Afghanistan war.

When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan after the Taliban's victory in August, it effectively took Afghanistan's banking capacity hostage. Most of Afghanistan's $9.4 billion currency reserves are held in the Federal Reserve of New York. Since a designated terrorist organization was now the government of Afghanistan, the U.S. froze that money. "Billions of dollars in development assistance halted overnight," the International Crisis Group recounted last month. After 20 years of U.S. clientship, Afghanistan has a donor economy. Many of its foreign donors and the NGOs they fund began to worry whether they would run afoul of the post-9/11 U.S. sanctions regime if they continued to work in Afghanistan. No donors, no economy.

Beyond those organizations, the world's major finance institutions stepped away from Afghanistan, citing the lack of general diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime. The country was "exiled from the global financial system," as the ICG put it, as rapidly as it had become a post-9/11 client at Bonn. When the World Bank stepped back, it took with it financing for "two-thirds of the health facilities in Afghanistan," the ICG found. With the sources of the U.S.-backed Afghan economy dried up and its mechanisms unable to function, a predictable human disaster has materialized. A United Nations health official told the ICG that Afghanistan's health-care infrastructure will be bankrupt by early 2022.

I am sure there are other economic factors that experts can point to behind the rapid economic collapse. (That ICG paper does a nuanced job.) The Taliban are certainly known for many awful things before they are known for a facility at managing crisis economics.

Over my two decades of reporting on "national security," I've encountered an attitude within the Security State and its allies where if the United States isn't the sole cause of a disaster, then the United States is functionally morally blameless. Complicated world and all that. But the United States does not need to bear exclusive responsibility for it to bear an outsized share of responsibility for a crisis that a UN-sponsored report in October estimated could kill 22.8 million people this winter. "The enormity of the economic shock that hit Afghanistan in August is a consequence of donors, first, building an extremely aid-dependent Afghan state since 2001 and then, after the Taliban takeover on 15 August, dramatically curtailing that aid," judged the ICG last month. The ICG is describing an "aid-dependent Afghan state" that the United States constructed.

The Biden administration's response has been to alleviate a crisis through addressing the least-structural factor available. Starting in December, it began issuing Treasury assurances to various humanitarian aid groups, basically ensuring they won't have their assets seized or face prosecution for attempting to aid the Afghan people. Last Monday, the administration announced a $308 million tranche of aid from USAID that will "directly flow through independent humanitarian organizations."

That skirts the real issue: releasing control of the Afghan banking system, the only banking system Afghans can access. Freeing up NGOs to operate around that system, rather than through it, has the structural effect of further reinforcing Afghanistan's dependence on foreign aid and foreign capital. Shah Mehrabi, the audit committee chair of Afghanistan's central bank—who, apparently is a professor at Montgomery College in Maryland; yikes—warned the Washington Post that the U.S. and its adjuncts risk bringing the Afghan banking infrastructure to full collapse by creating a "parallel institution" controlled by outsiders. In other words, to destabilize Taliban rule, the U.S. is weaponizing the aid-dependent Afghan state that it built. This economic weapon works by harming the Afghan people directly, with the hope that the suffering of the people prompts the end of the Taliban regime.

Accordingly, it would be generous to say the administration is using a wet towel to put out a wildfire. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that an effect of all the wet towels is to create wood smoke, spreading the—you know what, I don't know if this metaphor can work, but you get the idea, the "emergency" solutions simultaneously don't fit the scale of the disaster and entrench the structural failures that make the emergencies so terrible.

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AND THE SCALE OF THE DISASTER has to remain top of mind. The U.N. has launched its largest ever relief appeal (I mention for that sense of scale alone, not structural impact). Nasir Ahmad Andisha, Afghanistan's ambassador in Geneva, called what his country faces "the worst humanitarian crisis of its contemporary history, and perhaps one of the worst in the world." Consider Afghanistan's post-1970s history to understand the magnitude of that assessment! The Costs of War Project estimates that the 20-year U.S. war in Afghanistan killed about 168,300 people. While that is surely an undercount, crippling Afghanistan's banking sector could kill two orders of magnitude more people this winter alone. Is this peace?

Laurel Miller was one of Richard Holbrooke's successors as Special U.S. Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Speaking to the national-security community through the Washington Post, she sounded like she was soothing a toddler's tantrum:

“I recognize that it’s very difficult, in the immediate aftermath of losing a war, to contemplate supporting a state that is run by your former enemies,” she said. “But the Afghan people need a state that functions, to at least a minimal degree. There is no way to entirely circumvent the Taliban if you’re going to prevent the continued collapse of the entire economy.”

The administration argued to the paper's Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan that the whole thing is complicated and its hands are tied. Apparently there's a lawsuit in U.S. courts that obligates Taliban assets for 9/11 damages and apparently the Biden administration will give an indication on Jan. 28 whether that ought to be enforced while Afghanistan starves. For good measure, a Treasury official told the Post that the Taliban "haven’t gotten control of the economy. The Central Bank has set no interest rate, capital controls or taxations."

The official surely means that Taliban mismanagement rather than American strangulation is what's killing Afghans. But it sounds to me like the official is conceding the banking structure is presently free from Taliban influence, which was Mehrabi's point for why the administration can easily relinquish the currency reserves and permit the banks to access international markets. According to him, the U.S. would even still control the banking spigots if it spotted Taliban theft after releasing the currency.

"There is a better way: working with the state apparatus to preserve its basic functions," the ICG wrote last month. "Some of the solutions are free, or cheap, and could be implemented in a matter of days. The political costs are considerable, however, as they involve tacitly accepting that designated terrorists now control some Afghan ministries."

The fact that Miller phrased it the way she did—it's very difficult, in the immediate aftermath of losing a war…—gets to what I think is the heart of the matter. I have encountered, in national security circles, a lack of reconciliation to the declared end of the Afghanistan war. This tends to be articulated in terms of finding economic or proxy-asset leverage to destabilize and end Taliban rule. The ICG quoted a "Western official" saying, "There are lots of people in our system who would happily watch the Taliban fail."

I consider this to be a kind of American Exceptionalism on autopilot. You lost a 20-year insurgency to an ousted Taliban and now you want to oust the Taliban? Hell, let's say you win! The U.S. has just proven, conclusively, that it cannot create more than a hollow client state, requiring military and economic effort to prop up, to replace Taliban rule. There are many lessons of Afghanistan, but believing that a renewed Afghanistan war will produce a different outcome is nothing more than a coping mechanism. While the national-security community works out its psychodrama, innocent people are dying.

But more fundamentally: The unspoken but unyielding logic at work here is that the pressure necessary to oust the Taliban is the suffering of the population. A layer deeper lies the presumption, distributed across both political parties as well as the Security State, that the U.S. has the right not only to change Afghanistan's government but to inflict such suffering as a legitimate means. That logic runs through a U.S. sanctions apparatus that inflicts tremendous harm on noncombatants but is somehow considered an alternative to war.

How many million Afghans is Washington prepared to starve and freeze to death to compel the downfall of the restored Taliban regime? How many million Afghan deaths will have been worth the hypothetical ouster of a regime that, the United States is fond of mentioning, threatens human rights? When a U.S. adversary aims a weapon at a population to compel a desired outcome, we refer to that as an atrocity. In some such cases, we refer to it as terrorism. When the U.S. does it, we refer to it as the Rules-Based International Order. In its Jan. 11 aid announcement, the administration had the audacity to boast, in a prospective declaration of blamelessness, "we remain the single largest donor of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan."

In Washington, troop withdrawals are understood to be what makes a war Over. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq before it, they carry caveats. Usually they're pledges to bomb the no-longer-battlefield as Washington's counterterrorism interests see fit. Less often declared, but entailed in the promise of future drone strikes, is the extensive surveillance that will persist.

I believe we have to recognize that economic devastation in this context, where a defeated battlefield combatant retains enormous leverage over a victorious adversary's state functions, is warfare, rather than a departure from it. If these are not the deliberate choices of the Biden administration, if bureaucratic and legal ruts worn by the accumulated weight of 20 years of war led to this moment, then it is all the more urgent to repeal the underlying architecture of the War on Terror before it kills even more people in "postwar" Afghanistan than it did in "wartime" Afghanistan.

THERE WAS A VERSION OF THIS piece that didn't work and bears no resemblance to what you've just read. And when I say "work," that's what I mean—simply to function as a piece of journalism. What you've read above is due to my discovery last week of a band whose sound I can barely describe. They're called Ak Dan Gwang Chil and they perform a version of traditional shamanic music from western North Korea. I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and emerged with something so good that I found the vibe I needed to write this edition. Social media is good now. I seriously put this song on repeat for two hours and drafted what you read above:

SOMEWHERE, KEITH ALEXANDER IS SCANNING this indictment of a former Department of Homeland Security acting inspector general for swiping software "so that his company could develop a commercially-owned version of a case management system to be offered for sale to government agencies" and shaking his head at the lack of subtlety as he walks into an Amazon directors' meeting.