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1 September 2021

Why the Biden administration should not sanction the Taliban

Embargoes will almost certainly hurt the people of Afghanistan more than the Taliban itself.

By Emily Tamkin

On 30 August, the last US troops left Afghanistan. The Taliban celebrated with gunfire and fireworks.

But as Secretary of State Antony Blinken reminded Americans in a public address on the same day, the US may have left Afghanistan, but it has not ended its relationship with the country. The Biden administration now needs to decide the nature of that engagement. As the Taliban moves from insurgency to governance, some in Washington, DC are advocating for sanctions as the most appropriate and effective means of dealing with the Taliban.

To put it as directly as possible: the White House should not place new sanctions on the Taliban, nor enforce pre-existing ones. There are two reasons why it shouldn’t.

The first is that enforcing them will be futile. Embargoes are generally imposed on an individual actor, group or state in order to force a change in behaviour. After Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, for example, the US implemented sanctions on entities in Russia’s finance, defence and energy sectors, not only as punishment, but also to pressure Russia to recognise Crimea as part of Ukraine. It is improbable that sanctions will succeed when 20 years of active war between the US and Taliban have failed.

Yet even if the behavioural change argument is accepted, using them as a tool of statecraft will almost certainly hurt the people of Afghanistan more than the Islamist group itself.

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Pro-sanction officials may argue that Kabul’s new regime would be sensitive to how embargoes can exacerbate an already deep economic crisis in Afghanistan, but as Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, CEO of Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, a think tank focused on economic diplomacy in the Middle East, put it to me, that argument assumes the Taliban will govern pragmatically. “The problem with that approach is that it instrumentalises the economic suffering of ordinary Afghans,” he said.

Sanctions will make it harder for the Taliban to govern, and thus easier for the US to extract concessions, but that process would rely on making life harder for the population of an already impoverished nation – a cruel tactic. Some legal experts also argue that using economic sanctions as collective punishment is a violation of international and human rights law.

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[See also: Where has the Afghanistan crisis left Joe Biden?]

The US also needs to proactively engage with the Afghan economy, not just resist using economic penalties. As the historian Adam Tooze has argued, “The Taliban may threaten Afghan freedom and rights, but it is the abrupt end to funding from the West that jeopardises their material survival.” Afghanistan is still heavily dependent on foreign aid. Humanitarian groups are already asking the Biden administration for assurances that they can continue their work without fear of legal retribution; those assurances have reportedly been given privately, but they should be stated publicly and not be removed.

The US is also going to need to work out how to get money to humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan, such as CARE, in a way that limits the Taliban’s abuse of those finances yet restricts interruption to aid work. That is “going to be a process that requires a degree of Taliban buy-in”, Batmanghelidj said.

“I think a lot of people will have an allergic reaction,” Batmanghelidj continued, to the idea of sending foreign aid to a country under Taliban rule. But the US just spent two decades trying to build a country and it is still dependent on foreign money. “We do have a responsibility not to exacerbate that situation.”

The US’s military occupation of Afghanistan revitalised the Taliban, fed corruption and cronyism, and killed an unknown number of civilians, all while lying to the world about the good it was doing. Perhaps now that US troops are no longer in the country, the Biden administration can put the Afghan people first. Trying to minimise their economic pain would be a place to start.

[See also: How should American credibility be judged after Afghanistan?]

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