Devoted fans of Spoiler Alerts — all 14 of you! — are fully aware of my concerns about how the United States is abusing economic sanctions in recent years. This has been a bipartisan problem that has gotten worse with each successive administration.

To president Biden’s credit, his administration seemed intent on reversing this trend. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen ordered a review led by Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo and published six weeks ago. In late October I wrote a favorable column about the review but cautioned, “This report is a framework document. There are few concrete details (beyond the hardy perennial of improving the website) of how these principles will be met. This invites some skepticism.”

I bring this all up because we are now observing an easy test of whether this sanctions reform will have any effect on policy. What will the Biden administration do about restrictions placed on humanitarian aid to Afghanistan?

When Americans last paid attention to Afghanistan, U.S. forces were coping with the rapid collapse of their partner government in Kabul and scrambling to contain the fallout from the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the state. While the outcome was not the worst thing to happen in American foreign policy in the last 40 years, it wasn’t good either. This had consequences for how the U.S. and its allies approached the newly-empowered Taliban. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted in its latest Afghanistan assessment, “donors adopted isolation policies calculating that voters would react badly to headlines about aid money propping up the Taliban regime.”

We are now starting to witness the consequences of continued sanctions against the Taliban. According to that same ICG assessment, “The Afghan state is teetering on the edge of full collapse, as the UN warns that the country is fast becoming the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.” The New York Times’ Christina Goldbaum, reporting in-country, writes, “Afghanistan is on the brink of a mass starvation that aid groups say threatens to kill a million children this winter — a toll that would dwarf the total number of Afghan civilians estimated to have been killed as a direct result of the war over the past 20 years.

Maybe these aid groups are exaggerating. Child mortality estimates under sanctioned regimes have been exaggerated in the past. Sanctioned regimes are adept at shifting blame from themselves to sanctioning states. The Taliban is running plays from a book that Saddam Hussein wrote in the 1990s.

That said, Goldbaum’s first-hand reporting suggests that the suffering is real. The ICG’s assessment that “economic strangulation is unlikely to change the Taliban’s behaviour but will hurt the most vulnerable Afghans” jibes with on-the-ground observations.

Here we arrive at the Biden administration’s sanctions review. In that document, the United States argues that sanctions imposition must meet a variety of criteria. Let’s run through some of them!

Do the current sanctions against the Taliban support “a clear policy objective within a broader U.S. government strategy"? Only if that policy objective is categorically denying the Taliban formal recognition. Continued sanctions will not lead to the Taliban’s demise, A starving populace is literally too weak to rebel, and the Taliban will feed their own before feeding anyone else.

What about “incorporates anticipated economic and political implications for the sanctions target(s), U.S. economy, allies, and third parties and has been calibrated to mitigate unintended impacts”? Nope, this is definitely a sanctions fail. Again, the prospect of a winter that kills more Afghan civilians than a generation of war seems like poorly calibrated sanctions. The ICG report references the likelihood of increased refugee flows to Europe. If memory serves this has led to considerable populist blowback in recent years.

I get that the political optics of sending aid to Taliban-run Afghanistan are not great. I have no desire to empower the Taliban any further. Afghanistan’s current rulers should shoulder most of the blame for what is happening in Afghanistan right now. But I am old enough to remember how sanctions narratives play out. If this status quo persists, the United States will stand accused of fomenting a humanitarian disaster.

This is an ideal case for the Biden administration’s sanctions review to have an impact on policy. We will have to see whether it will.