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Opinion In Afghanistan, the U.S. struggles to be generous in defeat

A man distributes bread to Afghan women outside a bakery in Kabul on Dec. 2. (Petros Giannakouris/AP)

Americans have been generous after military victories. Just look at the postwar economic miracles in Germany and Japan. But it’s harder to be generous in defeat — as we see in the Biden administration’s wary response to the humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s seizure of power there in August.

As winter approaches, Afghanistan’s battered population faces food shortages approaching famine; its financial system has imploded, thanks in part to U.S. Treasury sanctions. There is, literally, no cash to conduct many transactions. According to the World Food Program, the nation “is on the brink of economic collapse.”

“What is at stake is the survival of millions,” Saad Mohseni, the chief executive of Moby Group, Afghanistan’s largest media organization, warns in an email. “The tsunami of crises that Afghanistan is currently facing can claim more lives than the two decades of war,” in which the United States sought to vanquish the Taliban and failed.

Biden administration officials say the Treasury Department is preparing to announce an expansion of licenses for trade with Afghanistan that will make it easier to send humanitarian assistance there. But Treasury sanctions aren’t being lifted. That means the squeeze will continue for Afghanistan’s central bank and commercial banks that have been unable to provide the liquidity the country needs. The Treasury’s licensing move is good, but more should be done — and too much time has been wasted as Afghanistan heads toward disaster.

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Helping the Afghan people (but not the Taliban) should have been a no-brainer weeks ago. The fact that it has taken so long illustrates an unfortunate quality about the Biden administration: Too often, policy is reactive; it’s made with a closer focus on likely political reaction than on what’s happening on the ground. The Biden team sometimes seems to care more about the optics of policy than about the substance.

An illustration of this reactive approach: The Treasury’s modest revision of U.S. policy (assuming it happens next week) will come only after a bipartisan group of 39 House members sent a letter Wednesday to the Biden administration urging it to provide humanitarian aid directly to the people of Afghanistan. “No one benefits from a failed state in Afghanistan,” they wrote. The letter was signed by many of the Afghanistan and Iraq veterans who serve in Congress.

Global aid organizations have been slow, too, in part because they have been following the American lead. The World Bank announced Dec. 10 that by year’s end, as a “first step,” it would release $280 million from the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund to two U.N. agencies, UNICEF and the World Food Program, for humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people.

The World Bank’s last official Afghanistan project listed on its website was a June 30, 2021, plan for “Incentivizing Reforms in the Attorney General’s Office.” That has a macabre quality now, following the sudden collapse of the Afghan government.

At the International Monetary Fund, the latest official word from spokesman Gerry Rice in September was that “our engagement with Afghanistan has been suspended until there is clarity within the international community on the recognition of the government.” That means Afghanistan hasn’t been able to access IMF aid.

Afghanistan was a toxic war — for the Biden administration and its predecessors. The United States seemed always caught between doing too much and too little. The Taliban and al-Qaeda were the targets, but as in most wars, it was ordinary people who paid the price.

I hear the anger in Mohseni’s voice when he texts me that the administration’s “indecisiveness and lack of leadership [is] shameful.” He describes it as “dereliction of duty and abandonment of a commitment to a nation that was promised so much.” Generosity should be an American virtue — in times of success or failure.