We can't starve Afghanistan into democracy and shouldn't try

(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Afghanistan is teetering on the edge of famine. There are several causes, including chronic drought and a bad harvest, but the main reason is the national economy has collapsed following U.S. military withdrawal.

The 20-year American occupation created a warped economic system totally dependent on foreign aid. When the Taliban took over, the Biden administration halted those cash flows, which accounted for about 40 percent of GDP and three-quarters of the government budget, and seized Afghanistan's currency reserves. Now, as The Washington Post reports, unemployment is high, inflation is rising, and millions of people are already going hungry. Hospitals are filled with malnourished babies — according to UNICEF, a million Afghan children could die this winter, a stunning proportion of a population of 39 million.

The United States should respond with generous humanitarian aid, but the Biden administration is reportedly resisting this step for political reasons. There are apparently voices in the administration who would starve the Afghan people to avoid funding the Taliban.

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Because like it or not, the fates of the Afghan people and the Taliban can't be disentangled right now. A group of former ambassadors to Afghanistan and U.S. generals recently wrote on a number of proposals to distribute aid without directly aiding the Taliban. But realistically, there's no way to send money to Afghanistan without the Taliban benefiting. If the economy is restored to some level of functioning, and people have enough to eat, the Taliban government will be cemented in power. That's the choice: starvation or letting the Taliban govern.

Frankly, were it up to me, I'd give the Taliban whatever aid is necessary in the short term, unfreeze Afghanistan's financial system, remove U.S. sanctions, and be done with it. There was a 20-year political struggle over who would rule the country, and the Taliban won decisively. Our government lost. The least Washington can do now is not make things worse for Afghan innocents.

A friendly hand might even encourage the Taliban to behave more moderately. But if it doesn't, remember: If the Taliban falls, a more extreme group may well succeed them. We didn't bomb Afghanistan to democracy, and we won't starve them into it, either.

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