On May 25, 2022, the United Nations (U.N.) announced that 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are projected to suffer from starvation in Afghanistan in the upcoming months. Making a plea for increased international aid efforts in the country, Mary-Ellen McGroarty, World Food Programme Country Director in Afghanistan, stated that “Afghanistan is facing an avalanche of hunger and destitution the likes of which I have never seen in my twenty-plus years with the World Food Programme.” However, the United States (U.S.) and other global leaders have continued their foreign policy of sanctioning Afghanistan, worsening the crises the long under-siege country now faces. The U.S. and the international community can and must reorient their foreign policy toward Afghanistan to aid — rather than hurt —  the Afghan people. 

This food crisis comes after the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, which was immediately sanctioned by the international community for the number of human rights violations it has since hoped to enshrine into law. As a result, the United States (U.S.) immediately halted its aid efforts in Afghanistan through the U.S. Agency of International Development and successfully pressured the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank to halt their own funding.

The Importance of Aid to Afghanistan

Long prior to the Taliban’s takeover, Afghanistan had relied on international aid and funding to sustain itself and its citizens through decades of war and American military occupation. In 2020, an estimated three-fourths of Afghan governmental expenditures were covered by international aid funding.

This sudden suspension of international aid to Afghanistan and the implementation of sanctions against the new Taliban government has seen the country spiral into several humanitarian crises, with malnutrition and starvation at the forefront as noted by analysts. 

On top of this U.S.-led exclusion from global markets, in January 2022, the U.S. froze $7 billion in governmental funds the Taliban gained access to, and deposited them into the possession of the New York Federal Reserve Bank — effectively spoils of war. The Biden administration has claimed that the seizure of the governmental funds was carried out in an effort to ensure they are not misappropriated by the Taliban government and instead go toward the Afghan people. However, the Biden administration has since pledged $3.5 billion of the seized funds to be distributed to 150 American families who lost loved ones to the 9/11 terrorist attack of 2001, an event that did not involve the Taliban nor the Afghan government at the time, with lawyers and lobbyists slated to receive the largest cut of these distributed funds. The other $3.5 billion have been set aside for yet undetermined future efforts “for the benefit of the Afghan people.” Yet, this seizure of national funds has worsened the humanitarian crisis by further crippling any domestic stop gaps able to be taken by Afghan state services. 

In this blanket international boycott of Afghanistan, those most affected have been the Afghan citizens whose rights and well-being these actions were meant to protect. Nearly every Afghan citizen could be living in poverty by mid-2022, as the U.N. Development Program projected in September. In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover and its implications, the U.N. and other international aid groups have temporarily expanded operations to “stay and deliver” in the immediate crisis. However, this is only a temporary solution that will soon no longer be able to withstand as recognized by the World Food Program and other analysts.

These crises have festered in the ten months since the Taliban took over, further exploding since a 5.9 magnitude earthquake left more than 1,000 dead and 1,500 injured in the border city of Khost in June 2022, stretching humanitarian efforts even thinner than they already were.

It is clear that international aid efforts in Afghanistan are currently unable to meet the on-the-ground needs of the Afghan people. Given the U.S.’ and the international community’s role in not only heightening the current fallout of the Taliban takeover but in also encouraging instability and Afghanistan’s subsequent dependency on international aid, they are obliged to review their foreign policy toward the new Taliban-led state to support the Afghan people. 

What Changes Can be Made? 

These are three ways the U.S. and the international community can shifttheir efforts toward Afghanistan in a way that projects a long-term strategy in both diplomatically dealing with the Taliban and improving the effectiveness of international aid efforts in Afghanistan.

1. Lift Blanket Sanctions and Expand Aid Efforts

Many U.N. officials and analysts have described the blanket economic exclusion of the Taliban government led by the U.S. as drastic at best and draconian at worst given the country’s long documented reliance on aid. The U.N. and other non-governmental organizations have mobilized to try and meet these gaps but are stretched thin.

While placing financial pressure on the Taliban government is necessary to protect the human rights of its citizenry and set an example on the global stage, it should come below humanitarian aid, treated separately from governmental assistance previously received by the pre-Taliban government. While this does not challenge the U.S.’ and the international community’s selective exertion of accountability for violations of international law and human rights – other countries, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, are exempted from such scrutiny – the people of Afghanistan cannot afford to play the game of politics at the current moment. 

Throughout 2022, the U.N. has called for increased international aid efforts in Afghanistan, most recently making a plea for $4.4 billion in funding to provide food, shelter, medical care, and other essentials — an amount close to the remaining $3.5 billion seized by the Biden administration for undesignated future efforts to “benefit the Afghan people.” On top of using these seized funds, the U.S. and other members of the international community could divert previous international aid once received by the pre-Taliban Afghan government towards the U.N.’s immediate humanitarian efforts on the ground, carried out by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). 

2. Ease and Open up Diplomatic Avenues

While the diplomatic and financial blacklisting of the Taliban is arguably warranted given its form of governance, not allowing any diplomatic avenues for the Taliban government to engage with the international community and subsequently concede on some grounds only affects the citizens they preside over. Since the implementation of sanctions led by the U.S., human rights abuses, particularly toward women, have exponentially increased in Afghanistan rather than decreased.

While the Taliban government may be an unsavory partner for much of the international community, a small number of diplomatic avenues should be opened up for it to engage with the world in exchange for certain conditions being met. This could work to both provide immediate financial relief to the Afghan people by reinstating aid and economic relations while also opening up legal and ideological frameworks for further reforms in a (hopefully near) future Afghan government.

3. Assist Refugees through Multilateral Diplomacy

The number of Afghan refugees has increased in its neighboring countries of Pakistan and Iran following the Taliban’s takeover and the ever-expanding crisis the country has faced since its sanctioning. The U.S. and the international community must learn from the lessons of the migration crisis sparked by the Syrian civil war and pre-emptively engage multilaterally with these countries to provide the necessary logistical and financial support to meet this influx of refugees. This may encourage migration out of Afghanistan to minimize the humanitarian crisis. 

The International Community is Obligated

As the one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan looms, the structural poverty and violence left in the wake of the American military’s pullout and the international community’s implementation of sanctions have only deepened further and further. Contrary to the supposed goals of both the previous American military occupation and its subsequent demonization of Afghanistan under the Taliban, the country is caught in a series of intersectional crises that have seen the most vulnerable people suffer. A massive reorientation of diplomatic and financial policy must be taken into consideration both in the U.S. and amongst the leading countries of the international community to resume effective international aid efforts to Afghanistan, with the underfunded U.N. and other NGOs offering an apolitical humanitarian vessel to carry out these much-needed efforts. 

With the contrast in global diplomatic outrage over the loss of Ukrainian lives in Russia’s invasion compared to other recent conflicts and crises duly criticized more actively than times previous of selective world humanitarian response, the international community no longer tolerates this double standard in the valuation of human life. Leaving the Afghan people to the cruel circumstances in which the U.S. and other world leaders effectively —  whether inadvertently or not — put them in is a test of their alleged commitment to values of internationalism and accountability. Failure to take responsibility for the predicament of the people of Afghanistan will have repercussions on the continued global recognition of international institutions and principles, already low in popular faith. 

Majeed Malhas

Majeed Malhas is a Palestinian-Canadian journalist from Amman, Jordan. He received his MSc in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics & Political Science in 2020, where he has since...