opinion | US must fight starvation and help those left behind in Afghanistan

opinion |  US must fight starvation and help those left behind in Afghanistan


“Bread, work and freedom” — it’s a fair list of what’s necessary for a decent life. It was also the list of demands that about 40 Afghan women chanted in protest outside the Ministry of Education in Kabul on Aug. 13, before being beaten and dispersed by rifle-wielding Taliban personnel. Ousted from their jobs and denied the right to speak, to attend high school or to move freely in public, Afghan women and girls have probably suffered even more than their male compatriots since the US-supported government collapsed and the Taliban seized power a year ago this month. Yet they are hardly the only victims of Taliban repression: So are independent journalists, political opponents and alleged violators of the self-styled Islamic Emirate’s moral code.

This was foreseeable and, indeed, foreseen, by those, including President Biden’s military advisors, who advised against his plan to pull all US troops out by Aug. 31, 2021. Costly, bloody and unsatisfactory as the 20-year US commitment was, keeping a small force, bolstered by NATO allies, might have preserved a measure of stability and hope for continued freedoms. However, after the nightmare a year ago at Kabul’s airport, including a suicide bombing that killed 13 US service personnel and as many as 170 Afghans who had flocked to the site to escape the advancing Taliban, the president vigorously defended his concept, adding: “I take responsibility for the decision.” That was a forthright but potentially hollow gesture, unless the Biden administration deals with the ramifications. A year after leaving, the United States still has obligations to the country over which it once exercised de facto dominion.

The first duty is to banish all illusions about the Taliban. Once it took over, it was pragmatic to maintain dialogue, especially regarding practical matters such as the exit of US citizens. Despite the repressive record of the Taliban’s last reign, between 1995 and 2001, it made sense to keep an open mind regarding new commitments it had made, both to the United States and the wider international community. Now, though, its broken promises are too numerous and blatant — including regarding rights for women, having an “inclusive” government and — perhaps most relevant to US security — ending ties with foreign terrorist groups.

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The July 31 US drone strike that killed al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, where he was living under apparent official protection, settled the latter point. The Taliban’s harboring of a main intellectual author of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks reminded the world that the group had provoked the 2001 US-led intervention by making Afghanistan a terrorist haven. Yet it was sadly predictable, given that the Taliban’s powerful interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is himself wanted by the United States for terrorism, including in connection with a January 2008 attack on a hotel in Kabul that killed a US citizen and five others. While its security apparatus has proved capable of suppressing peaceful protests, the Taliban has failed to protect its people from deadly terrorist attacks by the Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate, known as ISIS-K. We wednesday, 21 people died in the bombing of a Kabul mosque. No group has claimed responsibility for that attack.

The Taliban has governed this way despite enormous incentives to moderate. Respecting human rights and shunning terrorist groups might have helped win diplomatic recognition and economic support, including access to the $7 billion in reserves the United States has frozen. In February, Mr. Biden took steps toward releasing half that amount for humanitarian purposes and, under certain conditions, recapitalization of the Afghan central bank. (The rest would have been held to settle claims that families of 9/11 victims might bring against the Taliban.) After the al-Zawahiri revelations reconfirmed the risks of funding a government including men such as Mr. Haqqani, Mr. Biden has reverted to a total freeze on all $7 billion.

We balance, it was the right call. We say “on balance” because another tragic development over the past year has been the near-total collapse of the cash-starved Afghan economy. ISIS-K’s attacks notwithstanding, guns have mostly fallen silent across the land—no small blessing for ordinary Afghans. But hunger stalks the country. This raises the next US responsibility: to aid ordinary Afghans generously through international agencies autonomous from the Taliban. The World Food Program, a United Nations agency, says 8.7 million Afghans face emergency levels of food insecurity. As it reaffirmed the $7 billion asset freeze, the Biden administration announced $80 million in new food aidalong with $40 million in education funds and $30 million to support women and girls. Tea UN agency said in June 2021 that it needed $234 million through the end of that year, which implied that the United States and its allies must do yet more.

Admittedly, preventing outright starvation while denying recognition to the Taliban and striking anti-US terrorist groups from “over the horizon” are minimum short-run goals — hardly long-term strategies. Yet they may be all the United States can accomplish while preparing to shift gears in the unlikely event that the Taliban does change.

In the meantime, there is other unfinished business. The Biden administration points with pride to last year’s historic airlift of 124,000 people, including roughly 76,000 Afghans, many of whom had worked with Western countries and feared possible Taliban reprisals — and others who had not — who have come to the United States. As of May, 9,000 more people had gotten out on flights chartered by the State Department or private organizations. Though this does not redeem other policy failures, Americans can be proud of the military’s performance in August 2021 as well as efforts, official and voluntary, to resettle Afghans in this country. The next step should be passage of the bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Actpending in Congress, which would provide Afghans a path to permanent immigration status.

Still, it was disconcerting to learn last week from a House Foreign Affairs Committee Republican staff report, confirmed by the State Department, that more than 800 US citizens and 600 permanent residents had been evacuated since the last US troops left, a far higher count of left-behinds than previously acknowledged. There is still a backlog of more than 70,000 Afghans who applied for Special Immigrant Visas before September 2021 and remain in Afghanistan, senior administration officials acknowledged at a State Department briefing July 18. Of all the responsibilities left over from the war in Afghanistan, none is higher than the duty the United States still owes to translators, contract employees, journalists, human rights workers and others who stood with us, and for our shared cause, during 20 long, hard years.

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