The Shame of Afghan Sanctions

A business owner reflects on the restrictions: a life in a ‘world of beggars’

The Shame of Afghan Sanctions
Afghans wait outside a gate for a humanitarian food distribution to start organized by a German aid organization on Oct. 27,2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan / Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

I am the kind of Afghan that successive U.S. governments once seemed determined to support. I am a citizen of both Kabul and the world, a man who has embraced Islam and modernity for the benefit of myself and my nation. Yet here I am, ashamed by what I have become.

Today, again, I do not know what to tell my employees or how to hold their gaze. I last paid them six months ago, and I can find no more words of apology or explanation. This is my fault, but it is also yours, reader, if you are one of the Western politicians, diplomats, lobbyists or lawyers who willingly brought us to this point, or a member of the public who enabled them.

Since the day the U.S. froze the reserves of Afghanistan’s Central Bank, I have had almost no access to the more than $3 million in my bank accounts. I probably never will again. The construction, mining and food companies I own, which used to have annual revenues of over $40 million, are in danger of folding entirely. Technically, of course, this is because the Taliban are under sanctions. But I think the accurate legal term for what we Afghans are going through is collective punishment. And that is a crime under international humanitarian law.

While the aim of the U.S. and its allies may be to put pressure on the Taliban, I am not a Talib. Nor are the people who rely on me to feed their families and pay their bills. When Joe Biden agreed to allocate half of the $7 billion America holds in Afghan state assets to the relatives of 9/11 victims last month, he overlooked something important: There were no Afghans on those planes. And the war that followed the attacks on the Twin Towers killed tens of thousands of us. We, then, are victims of 9/11 too.

I do not write any of these thoughts out of malice or bitterness; I write them out of shock and self-disgust, the feeling that I might have built my life upon a lie. Because if I am the person I would like to be, I must also admit that my personal and professional achievements are at least partly thanks to the Americans and their allies. They gave me chances I would not otherwise have had; their promises made me believe in an Afghanistan my generation had never experienced, a country of peace and opportunity.

I was born in Kandahar 40 years ago, when the Soviets were here and the U.S. armed the mujahedeen against them. When I was 12, I moved with my family to Pakistan, fleeing war and poverty in search of a better life. America — a nation built on immigration — must surely understand the yearning we felt. Like so many Afghans, I returned to Kabul after 9/11, buoyed by hope for the future and driven by a determination to play an active role in realizing the dreams so many of us shared. I earned a degree in economics and started working as a contractor for the U.S. and NATO, then later for the Afghan government. I felt self-reliant and proud, an Afghan who was building his life step by step and helping his country. Now I feel only shame and fear.

I have a son who is 12 years old, and I want him to leave Afghanistan because I see no other options for him. These are the choices we face. I have lived under the Soviets, I have witnessed both mujahedeen and Taliban rule, and I have experienced U.S. occupation. We Afghans know what war feels like, and that is what makes the current situation so terrifying. What is the prospect of enforced mass starvation if not another kind of war? I would rather be separated from my son than put him through more senseless suffering.

Afghans have everything we need to feed ourselves: meat, vegetables, some of the best fruit in the world. Everything. But our money is being kept from us and soon it will be just origami paper. I am, I admit, luckier than most. Until the sanctions kicked in, one dollar was worth around 80 Afghanis; now it is worth around 100. Average wages have plummeted from the equivalent of $180 a month to $75. An average household with 6.2 members must survive on 40 cents a day — the price of three apples. And the West tells us it still cares.

What is the point of all this? Do you want to get rid of the Taliban? Actually, you, dear reader, are getting rid of us. The 130,000 Afghans airlifted out of Kabul last August were our main asset and we all know what the fate of many of them is likely to be. Sure, some will live in luxury and forget about those they left behind. But Sayed Sadaat was a minister of communications in Ashraf Ghani’s government; he is now a food courier in Germany. For every doctor who will still be able to practice in Europe or the U.S., 99 will open up kebab shops or have to sign up for welfare checks. Who is going to benefit from Afghanistan’s brain drain? Neither you nor us.

I used to have 208 employees. Now I have 20. How am I meant to relaunch my businesses? Where will I find engineers and geologists? Where will I find skilled workers? I don’t have the resources I need, and I am ashamed to say that I also no longer have the confidence. If any of you reading this had gone through such a traumatic experience, how would you feel? Would you deposit your savings into a bank that might suddenly shut down? Would you bid for a contract with a government that might suddenly disappear? These sanctions do not just hit those in the government now, they hit the very idea of government. They hit the state and the society. They are an attack not just on the Taliban but on the very essence of who we are.

Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Gaza: the list was getting long even before the war in Ukraine. The world is turning into a world of beggars, and a world of beggars is doomed to fail. The U.N. appealed for $5 billion in urgent aid for Afghanistan. But who is going to give that to us? Why should one dying country be prioritized over another? Is that what we humans have become?

I do not want charity; I want back what is rightfully mine. Aid helps, but it also fuels cronyism and corruption — as the U.S. understood throughout the 20 years it kept this suicidal system alive. America spent about $145 billion in Afghanistan — more than the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe from the ashes of War World II. But Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Afghanistan as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, alongside North Korea. That’s why the Taliban, with their toughness on crime and their calls for social equality, had so much popular support, especially in areas outside Kabul — villages never reached by aid. We are now seeing that this was not just talk. In spite of a huge fall in goods being imported into Afghanistan, customs duties are still worth about $2.5 million per day because under the Taliban large amounts of money are not being lost to bribes. We must admit these awkward truths.

The effectiveness of a state is, of course, defined by so much more than a lack of corruption. We all want an inclusive, accountable, efficient government. And we all want a country that is open to all of its citizens, men and women alike. Do the Taliban agree? Are they different from who they were 20 years ago? People outside Afghanistan ask these questions over and over again, and I do not know the answers. No one here does. After all, the median age of our population is 18.4 years. Why must the past be our only reference point, when we should have our futures ahead of us?

All I know is that I am here and I am here to stay. And I have to try to engage with everyone, because we all belong to this country. It is easy for the West not to deal with the Taliban because its soldiers, diplomats and aid workers can leave and not look over their shoulders. It is not so easy for us. The U.S. speaks of women’s rights, but the first right all humans are entitled to is the right to be alive. Whatever we think of the Taliban government, it is not Putin’s Russia and should not be treated as such.

Now I hear this offhand talk of the million Afghan children who might die from cold and hunger. It reminds me of Madeleine Albright’s words years ago, when she was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and said that half a million dead Iraqi children from sanctions was a price worth paying. What did the Americans end up achieving in Iraq? The Islamic State group. Let me ask, who do you think will be to blame for our million dead children: the Taliban? Or you, the West?

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