Recalibrated US policy offers little hope for starving Afghans

Hundreds of people gather near a US Air Force C-17 transport plane at a perimeter of Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan | Photo credit: AP

Now that the gruesome scenes of desperate people trying to flee Kabul have faded from the news cycle, it’s time to ask whether the United States has found new clarity of purpose in dealing with the aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. .

The escalating humanitarian crisis in the country reflects policy failures on many levels, certainly not all American. But it also underscores the limits of American influence, and perhaps interest, now that eternal war is in the rearview mirror.

In the weeks following the August departure of all US forces from Afghanistan, US diplomats and political leaders focused on evacuating Afghans who had close ties to the two-decade US presence, or who were otherwise threatened by the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan. Powerful.

The Biden administration, with the logistical skills of the US military, actually evacuated more than 120,000 people in August, before and after Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15. Many have not been fully vetted for refugee or immigration status in the United States and some are still on military bases in Europe or the United States, awaiting final determination of their right of residence in America. .

The perception that the United States had abandoned the Afghans who had supported the American project there after 9/11 was a powerful driver of activity within the American government. Thousands more Afghans have been quietly evacuated in the three months since the US left. American diplomats are working with Qatar, and indirectly the Taliban, to organize charter flights. Meanwhile, US agencies in Washington continue to refine eligibility criteria and speak with anxious Afghan friends and former colleagues in this ongoing emigration of Afghan professionals and security partners.

This focus on rescuing Afghans presents moral dilemmas. It is difficult to choose which family members can accompany an approved Afghan immigrant. Decisions must be made about the extent of the resources needed to successfully integrate them into American society. Then there are the strategic consequences of the brain drain on the future stability of Afghanistan.

It also risks distorting long-term US interests; those tens of thousands of Afghans who are now settling in the United States or European countries may deserve support and sympathy, but what about the millions of Afghans who are now living in chaotic and deteriorating conditions , without the prospect of a passport or an exit visa?

US diplomats insist Washington is determined to address the country’s acute food insecurity, but the forms of financial leverage the US and the international community have over the Taliban make it extremely difficult to deliver food. essential food aid. US Special Representative Tom West, who in October replaced Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump official who brokered the 2020 deal with the Taliban, reports that the US has provided nearly $500 million in aid this year to the UN for the Afghan emergency. He says the Treasury Department has issued blanket licenses for food aid to allow transactions that would otherwise be prohibited by the Taliban sanctions.

As in Iraq more than two decades ago, US officials are declaring their political support for humanitarian aid and assuring vendors and aid organizations that aid can be delivered without penalty. But the obstacles to a normal distribution of funds from international banks to the fragile Afghan financial sector are formidable. International actors must weigh the risks of not respecting the application of sanctions and the Afghan side does not have the capacity to manage the influx of resources needed to get food to where it is most needed.

During talks with the Taliban in Doha last month, West reviewed the long list of US concerns, from human rights and access to education for women, to the deal’s counterterrorism provisions. of 2020, and maintained safe passage for Afghans wishing to leave. The US side will continue to wait for the formal recognition of the new Afghan government, and even the de facto normalization of relations, until it sees signs of a change in policy from the Taliban. For their part, the Taliban reiterated their commitment not to allow their territory to be used to harm other countries and asked for help in opening up their education system.

This diplomatic process can satisfy the US imperative to stand firm in the face of the Taliban’s many shortcomings. But this does not seem to respond to the urgency of the moment. Now that Americans are no longer in danger, there is a danger that American policymakers will think time is on their side, waiting for the Taliban to respond more effectively to the demands of the international community.

It is not clear that the overstretched and underfunded government in Kabul will be able to rise to the occasion. Every day, government institutions fail a little more, as the country’s teachers, doctors and civil servants join the ranks of the poor and hungry.

In agreement with Syndication Bureau

Ellen Laipson is a guest contributor. The opinions expressed are personal.

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