Editor’s Note: For another viewpoint, see Point: U.S. Sanctions on Afghanistan Could Be Deadlier Than 20 Years of War.
Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the U.S. Department of the Treasury froze Afghanistan Central Bank’s reserves. The Taliban is currently on the Treasury’s “Specially Designated Nationals” list.
In the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, many commentators and analysts have argued that the economic sanctions should be lifted to address the dire economic situation in the country. While the effectiveness of economic sanctions is widely debated, a number of studies illustrate that economic sanctions are effective when levied against countries with small economies and when modest policy goals are the goal.
Why shouldn’t the U.S. lift the economic sanctions?
First, economic sanctions are a conventional coercive policy instrument deployed primarily to achieve foreign policies such as curtailing financial sources of terrorism. The Treasury has more than 30 active sanctions programs against countries and entities such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban, which blocks their access to U.S.-based funds.
By appointing a number of individuals who are on various designated terrorist lists to key government posts, the Taliban has made diplomatic engagement very difficult. A case in point is the recent inclusion of Anas Haqqani in a diplomatic delegation to Norway. Haqqani is a senior leader in the terrorist Haqqani Network which has been implicated in numerous deadly terror attacks including an attack at Serena hotel in Kabul leading to the death of seven foreigners including a Norwegian journalist. His presence sparked outcry among Norwegians and calls for his arrest. Reportedly, the Taliban were concerned about the potential arrest of Haqqani by the Norwegian police and were preparing to take a number of civilians in Mazar-Sharif as hostages to exchange for Haqqani if he was detained in Norway.
Furthermore, given the Taliban’s close ties with a number of terrorist organizations (al-Qaeda, ISIS-K and others) currently present in Afghanistan, lifting economic sanctions will inevitably lead to easier access of these groups to financial resources.
Second, economic sanctions send a strong message, not only to the Taliban but also to other insurgent and terrorist organizations, that overthrowing a democratically elected government will have consequences. Should the sanctions be terminated, the message to other terrorist organizations is that they can rise to power through violence and be met with few consequences. The Taliban’s victory has already boosted the morale of many terrorist organizations. More concessions will further embolden these terrorist groups.
Third, the Taliban cannot be trusted. Lifting the sanctions does not mean that the Taliban will meet international demands. While the U.S. made significant concessions such as unconditional withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and releasing Taliban prisoners, the Taliban made very few promises, and delivered on even fewer. A condition of the U.S.-Taliban agreement was that the Taliban should engage in intra-Afghan dialogue in order to reach a political settlement. Instead, the Taliban took control militarily.
The Taliban, emboldened by a successful agreement and a sweeping victory, views itself as the de jure sovereign. It regards any pressure by the international community as interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and has threatened to resort to violence if it is not recognized by the international community.
There is no guarantee that terminating sanctions will compel the Taliban to stop its harsh policies toward women, its oppressive behavior toward minorities, or its retaliation against the former government officials and security personnel.
Furthermore, there is a real possibility that international aid and Afghanistan’s frozen assets will be misappropriated by the Taliban rather than reaching Afghan civilians.
Finally, women’s rights and the unfolding humanitarian crisis are the Taliban’s bargaining chips. The Taliban has adopted a hard-bargaining tactic including extreme demands such as foreign recognition, unfreezing of Afghanistan’s reserves and termination of sanctions before addressing women’s education and employment.
The Taliban leadership believes that the international community will eventually concede given the humanitarian crisis. If alleviating the dire economic condition was the Taliban’s priority, they would have agreed to the Norwegian proposition of opening an international bank in Kabul so that Afghans could have access to cash. Instead, the Taliban delegation in Norway has demanded that aid and funding should be transferred to bank accounts under their control and that the Taliban should be removed from the list of terrorist organizations.
Given that redeployment of U.S. forces is highly unlikely, economic sanctions remains the only foreign policy tool for the United States to exert pressure on the Taliban. The Taliban might be malleable under economic sanctions, but it certainly will not pay any heed to international demands should the sanctions be removed.