Americans need to make our voices heard as the Biden administrations struggles with a terrible dilemma: how to prevent economic collapse and a wintertime famine in Afghanistan without financing the Taliban.

When the Taliban rapidly came to power after the U.S. withdrawal in August, the United States stopped paying the salaries of teachers, doctors, and civil servants, who now join the ranks of the hungry alongside the unemployed and internal refugees. It also froze about $9 billion of bank savings of regular Afghan citizens that had been placed in U.S. national reserves.

These two factors deprive the Afghan economy of the needed liquidity to function. David Beasely of the UN World Food Program warns that up to 23 million Afghans could face starvation this winter as economic collapse compounds drought, Taliban mismanagement and the impact of decades of fighting.

A generous interpretation of the actions of the Biden administration is that it is playing chicken with the Taliban leaders. It will continue withholding the funds until it gets the maximum concessions on protecting women’s rights and preventing the proliferation of terrorism but will release them when it sees that delays are putting at risk too many civilian lives.

But our dysfunctional political system incentivizes President Biden to take a tough posture against the Taliban fanatics and ignore huge costs of the policy for innocent civilians. Hundreds of thousands of civilians across the Middle East have already fallen victim to artillery bombardment, drone strikes or starvation at the overlooked margins of our foreign policy.

Some conservative media have already criticized U.S. humanitarian aid sent to Afghanistan as “funding for the Taliban” even though it was directed to international organizations with direct access to vulnerable Afghans. Critics of the administration might forget that the $9 billion of frozen funds actually belong to Afghans, as occurred in 2016 when critics of President Obama labeled the frozen assets he returned to Iran as part of the nuclear deal “Obama’s handout to Tehran.”

President Biden may hope to sidestep this political minefield by just sending about half a billion dollars in emergency humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. But this can only be part of the solution because humanitarian aid cannot replace a functioning economy. We see this in war-torn Yemen,  where despite billions of dollars of humanitarian aid, a child dies of hunger or preventable disease every five minutes. Yemeni activists call to the international community to reorient its assistance towards jumpstarting their ravaged economy, since total reliance on food aid is a precarious and unsustainable future for the country. The same is 100% true in Afghanistan.

Afghan activists and international aid organizations are rushing to show how needed funds can be re-injected into Afghanistan without filling Taliban pockets. Perhaps understanding the scale of the disaster unfolding, Taliban leaders have signaled willingness for international organizations to pay public servants through direct personal transfers. The UN has already successfully experimented with such transfers.

Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, a diaspora organization, proposes that the US government return some basic liquidity to the economy by releasing $150 million of the $7.1 billion held in the NY Federal Reserve every month to the Afghan National Bank. They propose this be overseen by an independent public auditor who can freeze payments if they are being intercepted by the Taliban. While recognizing the difficulty and risks of this model, they justly ask how the Biden administration can calmly accept the risks of doing nothing in Afghanistan: total economic collapse and starvation?

Pushing Afghanistan into famine would be a disgraceful end to America’s tragic mission there, but it appears to be the most likely scenario unless we can jolt our elected officials into awareness. Mainers should urgently reach out to our members of Congress and let them know that Afghanistan desperately needs increased humanitarian aid, renewal of salaries for public servants and supervised release of its funds held by the U.S. government.

Brian Milakovsky, from Somerville, has been working abroad in the humanitarian and development sectors since 2009.

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