The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Without the U.S. releasing billions in assets, Afghans will continue to sink into desperation

An Afghan man in a bakery in Kabul on Oct. 31. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

Obaidullah Baheer is a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan.

A local security guard down the road where I live in Kabul was recently forced to sell his wedding band to feed his family. He hasn’t gotten paid in months but he hopes he might get what he is owed soon. Another man tells me he buys old bread from the bakery at a discount — it’s the only thing his family will eat over the next two days.

Stories of desperation are everywhere in Afghanistan. The roads are lined with possessions as families try to sell what they can to get much-needed cash. In rural areas, a drought has decimated crops, and the weakened purchasing power is also drying up demand for goods and livestock.

According to a report co-led by the United Nations’ World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 19 million Afghans, or 45 percent of the population, are experiencing “high levels of food insecurity.” For many people like me, this has meant switching from political activism to humanitarian work. We are working constantly to provide food rations for families in need. The obscene hunger and poverty are heartbreaking, and the international community must understand the urgency of the situation.

Right now there’s a $200 weekly limit of cash withdrawals at banks — so there aren’t a lot of ways to help people directly. But we have managed to bring money from other countries to purchase locally and help generate a cash flow within the economy. However, inflation is making things harder with each passing day.

The most wrenching part of providing aid is the impossible decision of choosing whom to help, knowing how omnipresent the suffering is. The Taliban detained one of my friends for collecting information on needy families in Kandahar. The closer one collaborates with the relevant Taliban authorities, the likelier it is their own members will be prioritized over others in receiving assistance. But the Taliban does have a directorate of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation present in every province that ensures the same families do not receive aid multiple times.

As we work, we constantly have to remind each other of the line “save one, save all.” It’s what helps me sleep at night right now —seeing the smile on the face of Hakeem, blind in one eye and using a hearing aid, the sole guardian to a family of 11. I think of how fortunate we were to be able to help Masouda, whose drug-addicted husband left her and her five children, which pushed her into trying to sell one of her daughters in order to feed the rest of the children.

For many of us here, it’s clear the international community and the media have lost interest in Afghanistan. Emergency aid could fade next. In the absence of any real government policy to change Afghanistan’s fortunes, we have to come up with ideas to revive the economy. Maybe we could turn to microfinancing, so that we could move from feeding Afghans fish to enabling them to fish themselves. The Taliban is still riding high off its military conquest, but it must remember that the real war of liberation is against hunger.

The United States must also arrive at a working relationship with the Taliban if we want to avoid catastrophe. Sanctions are not the answer. The Biden administration must release the lion’s share of almost $10 billion it has frozen of Afghanistan’s federal reserves, vital to restart the economy. It is counterintuitive to expect sanctions to incentivize autocratic states to change their behavior. The lack of a democratic process means the general population that feels the hurt has no means to influence the regime to change. Rather than pushing the population away from the ruling elite, sanctions end up pushing the population into the arms of the regime to provide them with basic needs. Sanctions do not encourage the spirit of liberty but create ripe circumstances for further subjugation.

The West should not repeat the mistake of the 1990s, when it expected international governmental organizations to function as a parallel entity to the Afghan state. If aid and rehabilitation efforts are to be successful, they must be carried out through and with local civil organizations.

The return of hard cash into the economy and the normal functioning of banking systems would also allow members of the Afghan diaspora to support their poverty-stricken kin in the country. The resumption of salaries to government employees would also relieve families from the current economic strain. In addition, it would remove a major hurdle facing those attempting to bring in aid funds to Afghanistan.

The United States and its allies must throw out their old Cold War-inspired toolbox of foreign policy. The vicious cycle of poverty is already in full motion, and it is going take years of help for Afghanistan to attain economic stability. Afghans should not pay the price of grand politics they never had a say in.