On a warm day in late August, 22-year-old Samim was navigating the streets of Kabul for the last time. In the waning days of their 20-year occupation, the Americans were transporting Afghans out of the country from Kabul’s airport, and Samim was desperate to make it onto a flight.
Samim had little time to reflect on the painful decision to leave his city, his education at a local university, or even his mother and father. “I don’t remember much about that day. I was mostly very worried. We didn’t know where we’d be taken if we made it onto a plane,” he told me. “We just knew we had to leave.”
After being rebuffed seven times outside of the airport perimeter by Taliban fighters, who shot into the air and beat them back with cables, Samim, miraculously, made it in on his eighth attempt. Just over 24 hours later, on August 25, Samim was on a transport plane bound for Kuwait, leaving Afghanistan for the first time. A day after his departure, a suicide bomber detonated amid the crowd outside the airport, killing more than 170 people. “I do not think I will return,” said Samim. “It is not a safe place.”
Since August, the circumstances that forced Samim to flee have only intensified for millions of Afghans. Following the Taliban takeover, the Biden administration froze $9.5 billion in Afghan assets and imposed sanctions that have devastated an already fragile economy.
While the policies are aimed at isolating the Taliban, everyday Afghans are suffering. Banks are running out of cash. The price of everything from bread to fuel is shooting up. Imports have been crippled, and civil employees have gone months without being paid. President Joe Biden promised to promote human rights on the world stage, but his administration is now overseeing a sanctions regime that has pushed Afghanistan to the brink of famine. Barring major changes, over 1 million children could starve to death over the winter, according to the World Food Program, the food assistance branch of the United Nations.
Despite increasing calls to relax the sanctions, the Biden administration has shown few signs of changing course. Members of Congress have largely remained silent or voiced their support, with notable exceptions such as a group of 40 Democratic lawmakers who have urged Biden to unfreeze Afghan cash reserves.
Even before the Biden administration imposed sanctions that have isolated Afghanistan from the world financial system, the Afghan economy was struggling. A withering drought decreased crop yields. The Covid-19 pandemic damaged areas of the economy such as the service sector, and decades of war made for an unstable environment for doing business.
The Taliban’s successful campaign to take power also resulted in another blow against the Afghan economy: the immediate disappearance of billions of dollars’ worth of foreign aid. The US-backed government had been largely dependent on international donations to function, with over 70 percent of public spending and over 40 percent of GDP coming from aid.
Sanctions have created additional issues for humanitarian organizations still working in Afghanistan, who cannot deposit funds in Afghan banks and can become excessively cautious out of concern that their activities may unintentionally run afoul of sanctions. “If you’re a humanitarian organization on the ground in Afghanistan, and it’s not totally clear what sanctions do and don’t apply to, it can make it more difficult to operate,” said Sarah Rose, who coauthored a paper on the impact of sanctions for the Center for Global Development.
For an already struggling economy, the sanctions and cash freeze have tipped the country toward catastrophe, with the economy estimated to contract by 30 percent. As a result, 23 million Afghans face starvation. Shah Mehrabi, a professor of economics at Montgomery College and board member of the Central Bank of Afghanistan, told me, “People are starving. There is no employment. People have no income.”
Behind such damning statistics are Afghans, many of whom have suffered through decades of war and violence, who face a dilemma. “People ask us every single day, should I leave the country?” said Wogai Mohmand, an Afghan attorney and organizer with Project ANAR (Afghan Network for Advocacy & Resources), an organization offering legal assistance to Afghans seeking humanitarian parole. “The borders are dangerous. But because of the cash freeze and food shortage, people are weighing this extremely risky decision.”
While sanctions are often touted as a humane alternative to military power, those with loved ones still in Afghanistan are increasingly desperate as family members describe life on the ground. “The situation is incredibly dire,” said Halema Wali, cofounder of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, a progressive Afghan diaspora group. “Family members are rationing food. People are bartering, because there’s no cash.”
Mohmand said that even those who feel they have no choice but to leave have received little attention from the Biden administration. While the United States successfully transported over 100,000 Afghans out of the country, hundreds of thousands were left behind. Project ANAR and others have called on the administration to allow Afghans into the United States under humanitarian parole, which allows people living under urgent emergency circumstances to temporarily enter the United States. But the US government has not responded to any of the requests from Afghanistan. Mohmand told me, “Over 37,000 applications have come in since August, and very, very few of them have been processed.”
To those with family members still in the country, it is proof that the United States has cared little for Afghan lives from the start. “The whole world saw the complete failure of US efforts and 20 years of war when the government collapsed in August,” said Wali. “Now the Biden administration is trying to look strong with these sanctions, and they’re leveraging Afghan lives for influence.”
While the Biden administration has granted a small number of concessions, including licenses that allow for certain humanitarian goods to enter Afghanistan, experts say that such steps are insufficient so long as sanctions ravage the Afghan economy. “Humanitarian aid is necessary, there’s no doubt about that,” said Mehrabi. “But let’s be clear: It is not adequate to rescue an economy that is in free fall.”
As heavy sanctions push the country toward famine, experts warn that, rather than resulting in concessions from the Taliban, they could destabilize the country and create conditions that would be fertile ground for extremist groups. “Even if all you care about is terrorism and security, what does the security landscape look like if the country descends into mass starvation?” asked Adam Weinstein, an analyst with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank that promotes a more restrained US approach to foreign policy. “Once a target regime adjusts to life under sanctions, their utility is diminished. It’s regular people who suffer.”
Mehrabi said that it is possible to balance concerns that loosening restrictions could inadvertently benefit the Taliban with the need to get cash into the Afghan financial system. “There is a plan that would allow Afghanistan’s central bank to access $150–200 million a month from the assets that are currently frozen,” he said. “The US should also loosen the sanctions to allow not just for humanitarian aid, but for fundamental economic activities and development.” He did stress that unfrozen funds should be monitored and conditional to ensure that they are not misused.
As for the possibility that such efforts may result in some benefits for the Taliban, Saad Mohseni, owner of the Afghan news outlet TOLO News, told me that such a possibility has to be weighed against the chilling alternatives. “I’d rather err on the side of a few Talibs having access to the banking system than mass starvation,” said Mohseni. “If people die—and they will die—it will be on the international community. It’s in their capacity to end this, because a lot of this suffering is due to these restrictive measures relating to sanctions.”