Biden’s Moral Dilemma in Afghanistan

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Disclaimer:This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

Joe Biden showed immense political courage when he withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021. Biden must summon that same courage in 2022 to avert Afghanistan’s imminent humanitarian catastrophe.

Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has been the most controversial and criticized move of his presidency so far. However, the decision should not come as a surprise: for almost two decades, Biden had opposed the prevailing view on Afghanistan among foreign policy experts and the military. As Vice-President in the Obama Administration, Biden opposed sending more American troops to fight in Afghanistan. When Biden assumed the presidency in 2021, he had a chance to enact the Afghan policy he always wanted. Supported by a peace deal the Trump Administration had signed with the Taliban, Biden withdrew all U.S. forces in the summer of 2021. Biden realized that it was time to end America’s longest war. More U.S. troops would not change the reality that the Afghan government was hopelessly corrupt and ineffective. Furthering the U.S. war would only have led to more death and destruction for Americans and Afghans. Biden was unwilling to defend the broken status quo in Afghanistan. The mainstream media was almost universal in its negative coverage of Biden’s decision to withdraw and the subsequent Taliban takeover. The media’s negative coverage reflected its bias in favor of an active U.S. military presence around the world. The media portrayed Biden as a weak leader unwilling to stand up to America’s enemies. Biden’s approval ratings dropped after the Taliban took power.

Now Biden faces a similar dilemma: whether to do what’s right in Afghanistan in the face of media and political pressure. Sadly, he is not showing the same courage.

Afghanistan’s current humanitarian crisis could kill more Afghans than the past 20 years of war. 95% of the Afghan population does not have enough food to eat. Nine million people are at risk of famine. In December 2021, UNICEF announced that one million Afghan children were at imminent risk of dying from starvation. The number of Afghans who say they are eating less than they want has increased 60% since 15 August  2021, the date of the Taliban takeover. The UN Development Program predicts that by the middle of 2022 97% of Afghans could be living in extreme poverty.  It would be tempting to view these staggering numbers as  the unfortunate outcome of a country decimated by almost 40 years of continuous warfare. However, the US can be seen as directly responsible for the current catastrophe. The double blow of the withdrawal of Western aid and the decision to withhold Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves are responsible for the current crisis.

During its 20-year presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. created a government and economy dependent on foreign aid. Western development aid is worth 75% of the Afghan government’s budget and 45% of Afghanistan’s GDP. Western countries froze this aid when the Taliban took power. Doctors, nurses, teachers, and civil servants have gone months without being paid.

On February 11, the Biden Administration announced it would not be unfreezing the $7 billion in foreign reserves that the Afghan government holds in the New York Federal Reserve. Instead, it would split the money between the families of 9/11 victims and Afghan humanitarian relief. Afghanistan is an import-dependent economy. Since its foreign reserves are frozen in Western banks, traders cannot pay for imports with U.S. dollars. To make matters even worse, a Polish currency printing company stopped a delivery of $8.5 million afghanis due to U.S. sanctions. Even the UN is unable to access $135 million in Afghan banks because the central bank is currently unable to convert it to afghanis. The Afghan currency has lost over 25% of its value and there is now a severe shortage of cash. The Afghan banking sector is not functional because hundreds of millions of dollars in assets for individuals and corporations remain frozen in Western banks. U.S. sanctions have halted most of Afghanistan’s economic activity and made it nearly impossible to trade with the outside world.

 The Biden Administration is unwilling to spend any more political capital to do what’s right in Afghanistan. Any decision to increase aid or unfreeze assets would be politically toxic. The U.S. introduced sanctions and asset freezes to punish the Taliban. The same pundits and politicians who slammed Biden for withdrawing in 2021 would now attack him for aiding a brutal regime. But it is incorrect to view unfreezing assets as the same as giving the Taliban billions of dollars. As Arianna Rafiq wrote in The European Journal of International Law: “The state’s assets do not become the Taliban’s solely because they became the government. Nor do state assets ‘belong’ to their respective government, in any case.” 

However, we must remember that the Afghan people are not responsible for the Taliban taking power. Unfortunately, Afghan civilians, not their Taliban rulers, will suffer the consequences of America’s disastrous policies. The Biden Administration seems content to wash its hands of the Afghanistan debacle. They seem content for Afghanistan to fade into the background of public attention. But the U.S. shares a great deal of the responsibility for the current crisis. Its aid withdrawal and the recent decision on Afghanistan’s reserves are major contributing factors to this humanitarian nightmare. Biden should immediately increase U.S. humanitarian aid and reverse his decision on Afghanistan’s currency reserves. In 2021, Biden did what was right in Afghanistan at a high political cost; he should be willing to do the same in 2022.  

By John Morgan,

John Morgan is a final year Politics and International Relations student at UCL

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