The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The United States still has promises to keep in Afghanistan

An money changer counts money at a market in Herat, Afghanistan, on Dec. 15. The value of Afghanistan's currency is tumbling, exacerbating an already severe economic crisis and deepening poverty in the country. (Mstyslav Chernov/AP)

President Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan led to chaos and bloodshed in Kabul, as well as the fall of a U.S.-backed government; the Taliban, the Islamist movement that the United States had fought for two decades, now rules. Given this debacle, it is perhaps understandable that administration policy toward Afghanistan since the last troops left Aug. 30 has seemed to be: The less said, the better. On Thursday, however, the State Department provided a much-needed update, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, on a key piece of unfinished business: the status of more than 60,000 Afghans who are eligible for special immigrant visas because they had helped U.S. troops, often as interpreters, and their family members.

Some 33,000 Afghans have been vetted and are eligible to be taken out of the country immediately; because of logistical difficulties, though, they might not actually get out until “well into 2022,” the Journal reported. Another 29,000 applicants remain to be processed and would not be eligible to leave until after that. That’s a lot of friends the United States has left behind.

The Taliban has so far shown restraint; the systematic violence that many of these people feared has not materialized. That is cold comfort however, because — meanwhile — Taliban units have summarily executed or forcibly “disappeared” more than 100 former police and intelligence officers, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. The organization also reports that the Taliban has been seizing land in central Afghanistan to give to its fighters. Those dispossessed are generally members of the country’s long-persecuted Shiite Muslim minority.

And there is one clear and present danger facing all 40 million of Afghanistan’s people: economic privation, bordering on starvation in many parts of the country. International donors have pledged more than $1 billion in food aid, some $64 million of which is new money from the United States. The Biden administration has also taken steps to make it easier for Afghans abroad and humanitarian groups to send resources without violating continuing U.S. economic sanctions. The problem of how to make sure that relief reaches people who need it, rather than the Taliban — still not recognized as the legitimate Afghan government by most of the world — remains a real one, and it affects the flow of aid.

The Taliban is calling for the United States to release more than $9 billion in the former government’s reserves held in U.S. institutions, blaming the Biden administration’s refusal to do so for the country’s economic plight. U.S. diplomats are continuing to talk about that with the Taliban in Qatar. Also on the agenda are U.S. concerns such as cooperation against terrorism, safe passage out for our former allies and human rights, including the fact that the Taliban insists on limiting education for Afghan girls. The United States’ goals should be to ease the Afghan people’s critical near-term needs, while securing the Taliban’s long-term commitments on human rights and terrorism. With tough but wise use of its leverage, the Biden administration could achieve both.

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