A currency exchange dealer in Kabul counts money on July 16, 2021. The country is at risk of a food crisis amid Western sanctions against the Taliban regime. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Haroon Sabawoon

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

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

In the weeks after the August departure of all US forces from Afghanistan, American diplomats and political leaders focused on the evacuation of Afghans who had strong links with the two-decades-long US presence, or who were otherwise threatened by the return of the Taliban to power. 

President Joe Biden’s administration, with the logistical skills of the US military, did in fact evacuate more than 120,000 people in August, before and after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15. Many were not fully vetted for refugee or immigrant status in the United States and some are still on military bases in Europe or the US, awaiting final determination of their right to residency in America. 

The perception that the US had abandoned Afghans who had supported the American project there after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, was a powerful driver of activity in the US government. Thousands more Afghans have quietly been evacuated in the three months since the US departure.

American diplomats are working with Qatar, and indirectly with the Taliban, to organize charter flights. Meanwhile, US agencies in Washington continue to refine the criteria for eligibility and speak with anxious Afghan friends and former colleagues in this ongoing outmigration of Afghan professionals and security partners.

This focus on rescuing Afghans presents some moral dilemmas. There are difficult choices about which family members may accompany an approved Afghan immigrant. Decisions must be made about the scale of resources needed to integrate them successfully into American society. Then there are the strategic consequences of the brain drain on Afghanistan’s future stability. 

It also risks distorting long-term American interests; those tens of thousands of Afghans now settling in the US or European countries may deserve support and sympathy, but what about the millions of Afghans now living in chaotic and deteriorating conditions, with no prospect of a passport and an exit visa?  

US diplomats insist Washington is committed to responding to the country’s acute food insecurity, yet the forms of financial leverage that the US and the international community have on the Taliban make it extremely difficult to get the critical food aid flowing.

US special representative Tom West, who in October replaced Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump official who negotiated the 2020 agreement with the Taliban, reports that the US has provided nearly $500 million this year in emergency aid to the United Nations for the Afghan emergency.

He says the Treasury Department has issued general licenses for food aid to allow transactions that would otherwise be prohibited by sanctions against the Taliban.

Like in Iraq more than two decades ago, US officials declare political support for humanitarian relief and assure vendors and humanitarian organizations that aid can flow without penalty. But the barriers to a normal distribution of funds from international banks to the fragile Afghan financial sector are formidable.

International actors have to weigh the risks of running afoul of sanctions enforcement, and the Afghan side lacks capacity to manage the needed influx of resources to get food to where it’s most needed.

In talks with the Taliban in Doha last month, West reviewed the long list of American concerns, from human rights and educational access for women, to the terrorism provisions of the 2020 agreement, and continued safe passage for Afghans who wish to leave.

The US side will continue to hold out on formal recognition of the new Afghan government, and even de facto normalization of relations, until it sees signs of policy change from the Taliban. For their part, the Taliban repeated a pledge 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 may satisfy the American imperative to demonstrate toughness towards the Taliban’s many shortcomings. But it does not appear to meet the urgency of the moment. Now that Americans are not in harm’s way, there is a danger that US policymakers think that time is on their side, waiting for the Taliban to respond more effectively to the demands of the international community. 

It’s not clear that the overwhelmed and under-resourced government in Kabul will be able to rise to the occasion. Each day government institutions fail a bit more, as the country’s teachers, doctors and civil servants join the ranks of the poor and hungry.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Ellen Laipson

Ellen Laipson is director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former vice-chairwoman of the US National Intelligence Council.