The Humanitarian Effects of Sanctioning Afghanistan

The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan casted doubt on the future of the country and its leaders. However, few anticipated how abruptly and completely the Taliban would assume control of the government. President Biden announced on April 14, 2021, that the U.S. would fully withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.[1] He defended the complete removal of U.S. forces explaining, “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan — hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result.”[2] The eventual withdrawal was completed on August 31, 2021.[3] However, the political collapse of the Afghanistan government was completed even earlier. Prior to the U.S. departure, on August 16th, 2021, the Taliban seized control of the Afghan government and the Capital Kabul.[4] Although the Taliban have taken control of the government, foreign leaders have resisted recognizing the Taliban and largely cut foreign aid and funding to the country. The goal is to isolate Afghanistan and force the Taliban to join the negotiating table. Isolating Afghanistan and cutting off aid seems reasonable in theory, but this action could lead to dire humanitarian consequences. These consequences may take the form of increasing negative foreign influence in the region, increasing food insecurity, increasing disease resurgence, and worsening crises around the world. The failure to act will likely result in Afghanistan’s total economic collapse.

Recognizing The Taliban

The United Nations (“UN”) has so far declined to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate ruling body of Afghanistan.[5] Additionally, no individual country has made the step to formally recognize the Taliban as the governing body.[6] The UN does not recognize any government that gains power through force.[7] The UN council stated in their August 16th meeting that the way the Taliban conduct themselves will matter in how willing the international community will be to support a government in which the Taliban participate.[8] The formal recognition of a government does not necessarily mean an endorsement of one government by another or a normalization of relations.[9] Rather, Brookings Institution Fellow, Scott Anderson, says that international recognition allows the governing party to take on Afghanistan’s various international legal obligations just as they were when the former government was in place.[10] Recognition by individual countries and the international community as a whole provides benefits such as access to foreign assets and diplomatic immunities, allowing Taliban leaders to travel outside of the country.[11] These benefits are a driving force behind the Taliban push for international recognition.[12]

The fear of appearing to legitimize the Taliban as rulers has stopped countries in the E.U. and United States from providing assistance beyond basic humanitarian aid.[13] Long-term aid that supported necessary development funding remains blocked.[14] Rina Amiri, director of the Afghanistan and Regional Policy Initiative at New York University, believes that the humanitarian aid will not be sufficient to prevent economic collapse.[15] The reliance of the Afghanistan economy, even prior to the Taliban take-over, on foreign aid leaves the citizens in a dire situation.

The Economy of Afghanistan

The majority of Afghan citizens derive income from low-productivity agriculture. Therefore, the economy of Afghanistan is largely centered around grants from foreign countries.[16] As of March 2021, foreign grants to Afghanistan financed around 75 % of public spending within the country.[17] In fact, according to the World Bank about 40 % of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from foreign aid.[18] This dependency on foreign aid comes from decades of foreign power struggles in the region resulting in multiple civil wars, which have decimated the economy.[19] The World Bank’s 2020 “Doing Business Survey” ranked Afghanistan 173 out of 190 countries for a difficult business environment.[20] This dependence on foreign aid and low-level production places Afghanistan in a particularly vulnerable economic position.

The livelihood and wellbeing of Afghan citizens is largely dependent on the continued aid of foreign governments. Yet, after the Taliban overthrew the Afghan government, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (“IMF”) have halted payments to Afghanistan.[21] The IMF has blocked the Taliban’s access to around $460 million in emergency reserves allocated as part of the coronavirus response.[22] Additionally, about $7 billion of Afghanistan’s $9 billion in foreign reserves are held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.[23] These reserves are also currently blocked by the U.S. for Taliban access. The United States internally exercises sanctions commonly through the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, via Executive Order 13224.[24] Nevertheless, freezing central bank assets have come under international scrutiny recently, most notably with Iranian assets.[25] The International Court of Justice (ICJ) handles such sanction complaints, but the slow judicial process leaves the Afghani people with no hope of speedy solutions, as evidenced by the six-year ongoing Iranian trial.[26] Furthermore, even if the Taliban were successful in unfreezing the central assets, the ICJ has previously ruled that the termination of aid to a country is not a breach of nonintervention principles and is a determination made by the aiding country.[27]

These restrictions coupled with other sanctions from around the world have left the Taliban with access to 0.1 to 0.2 percent of the total Afghan international reserves.[28] The pressure on the Afghan economy does not have an end in sight either. Countries in the E.U. and the United States have stated that no payments will be provided to Afghanistan until the situation with the Taliban is resolved.[29] The lack of access to foreign reserves leaves the Taliban in a difficult spot politically because foreign reserves are used to keep Afghanistan currency stable and avoid inflation.[30] The Taliban as a group have traditionally made their money mainly through foreign donations, opium drug trade, and mining minerals.[31] While this income has made the Taliban rich as an insurgency group, it is not enough funding to run Afghanistan.[32] Given the underlying economic structure of Afghanistan, the Taliban may not be able to keep the economy from collapse without the help of foreign powers.[33]

Foreign Influence

With the United States no longer militarily involved, the opportunity for other countries to exert their influence increases.[34] However, Afghanistan is no stranger to foreign influence. Afghanistan has been a geostrategic region of influence due to its geological location between the Iranian Plateau and Himalayan mountains.[35] Historically, Afghanistan was one of the main routes for the Silk Road, connecting countries from China to Europe. More recently, the country has been a political battleground for world superpowers. In the 1980s, Afghanistan was a focus of U.S. geostrategic planning for the Cold War, but after the fall of the Soviet Union the U.S. abruptly abandoned the country and left a power vacuum.[36] With the U.S. departure in 2021 that power vacuum has grown.

Afghanistan is likely to have countries, such as neighboring Iran and Pakistan, try to move the political situation in their favor, by offering further aid in exchange for political influence. [37] Pakistan has been accused of aiding the Taliban for years as a sanctuary for Taliban leaders and their families.[38] In addition, Pakistan and Russia have been accused of giving financial aid to the Taliban.[39] Now Pakistan and Russia may look to capitalize on the Taliban’s dire economic situation.[40] Other countries like China may also look to grab a stronger foothold in the region.[41] After the Taliban takeover, both Russia and China expressed their desire to work with the Taliban.[42] However, founder of the Ecological Futures Group, Rod Schoonover, believes that countries like Russia, China and Pakistan may be after the wealth underneath Afghanistan.[43] Afghanistan is rich in natural resources with some estimates of over $1 trillion in mineral deposits.[44] These mineral deposits include possibly the largest deposit of lithium in the world, an essential mineral for 21st century technology like batteries.[45] The ICJ has prohibited indirect intervention within a country, though, proving this intervention is often too difficult to be of value.[46] The lack of financial options for the Taliban will leave them with no choice but to negotiate with countries looking to take advantage of a vulnerable situation. Nevertheless, most countries are choosing to sanction the Taliban in the hopes of bringing them to the international negotiating table.

The Reasons for Sanctions

Forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table will benefit Western governments if the Taliban get desperate enough to cooperate in negotiations.[47] Sanctions are nothing new for a country following a government coup. After the Thai military coup in 2014, the international community placed “soft-sanctions” on the new government to attempt to coerce them into policy that they wanted to see.[48] Dina Esfandiary, a senior advisor at International Crisis Group, explains that sanctions, “work by coercing, constraining or signaling a target. The goal of coercion is to modify the target’s cost-benefit calculation of pursuing a certain policy, while constraint restricts a target’s capabilities.”[49] These sanctions are often viewed as symbolic and futile in their impact.[50] However, in proper circumstances, sanctions can work to the benefit of the countries enforcing them. In the case of the Thai military coup, the Thai military required the goodwill of the Thai people and their continued confidence to stay in power.[51] Similarly, the Taliban must hold the confidence of the Afghan people if it has any hope to stay in power.[52] The basic premise is fighting against both the international pressure of foreign governments and a revolting people would likely be too much for the new Taliban government.[53]

The U.S. and the rest of the world are likely hoping that sanctions and the threat of economic collapse will bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table.[54] Waiting for the Taliban to submit to negotiations may seem reasonable but it could increase humanitarian crises within Afghanistan and around the world. Already the number of Afghans facing acute food insecurity has risen 10 % since the Taliban took over, bringing the total amount of food insecure to over 40 % of Afghans.[55] In addition, the lack of government funding has caused a shortage of health services and medicines desperately needed.[56] The longer world leaders “play chicken” with the Taliban, the worse the situation within the country becomes and the greater the possibility of global effect.

The Effect of Inaction

Inducing sanctions and withholding funds from the Afghan people is intended to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and avoid further humanitarian crises.[57] This plan hinges on the Taliban coming to the negotiating table. There is the possibility that the Taliban decide they will rule without international assistance which could further deepen the humanitarian crisis. A modern example of this is taking place within Venezuela. The country is currently in a crisis that has only increased with COVID-19. According to Worldvision, one out of every three Venezuelans is food insecure.[58] This food insecurity is in part due to an over one million percent inflation between 2016 and 2017.[59] As a result poverty in the country has increased from 48 % in 2014 to 91 % in 2017.[60] Additionally, diseases like cholera, malaria, polio, and measles have had a resurgence, threatening not only Venezuela but the whole region.[61] Former President Donald Trump began the “maximum pressure” campaign that aimed to financially isolate Venezuela.[62] Pressure like this from the international community targeted President Nicolas Maduro’s rule; however, it has led to widespread food insecurity and disease resurgence. Yes, these sanctions have been successful in weakening the Maduro government, but the question is at what cost? The current policy seems to be pressuring a political leader until their country is all but fallen.

Worsening Global Humanitarian Crises

One of the major contributors to the Taliban rise in power was their poppy and opium trade. The U.N. reports that opium accounts for $300 million to $1.6 billion annually to the Taliban reserves.[63] The Taliban has publicly stated that they plan to put an end to illegal drug trafficking.[64] Yet, the economic crisis unfolding in the country may leave them with little alternatives.

The Taliban initially banned the cultivation of poppy in 2000 when they held power, “cutting the world’s supply of heroin by two-thirds.”[65] The ban had the unintended consequence of sending poor farm workers into debt and caused extensive unemployment throughout the country.[66] The unease within the Afghan community that followed was likely a contributing factor that led to the ousting of the Taliban from power by the United States in 2001.

Without access to funds and international aid, the Taliban may not have the ability to fund the country without allowing poppy farming to continue in 2021.[67] Jonathan Goodhand, Professor of Conflict and Developmental Studies at SOAS, explains, “If the Taliban do try to introduce [severe] measures to [remove] drugs, they will undermine their support base and exacerbate the humanitarian and development crisis…”[68] Given the choices the Taliban face without any funding to run the country, the likelihood of an increase in worldwide opium production seems inevitable.[69]

An increase in the worldwide opium supply may partially relieve the humanitarian crisis within Afghanistan, but it will intensify a current humanitarian crisis throughout the world. According to the National Institute of Health, nearly 50,000 people die every year from opioids in the U.S. alone.[70] According to the World Health Organization, 70 % of all drug overdoses worldwide are attributed to opioids.[71] Many people in the U.S. and around the world have personal accounts of opioids affecting their life or one of their loved ones. The UNODC estimates that over 60 million people worldwide use opium in some form, almost double the number of users since 2010.[72] Not only is opium increasing in users, but countries like the U.S. are spending billions to curb addiction and use.[73] Despite these efforts, the increase in opium from the Afghan farmers would undermine any progress made up to this point. Our world is interconnected and clearly sanctions in Afghanistan have the capability to affect people around the globe.


The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has shocked the international community, but the response requires thoughtful intervention. The price of isolating the country could be taking a dire situation and making it worse. Already the economy and health industry in Afghanistan are failing, leaving the Afghan people to fend for themselves. The old strategy of removing international aid to continue the Western influence within a crumbling government should be a relic of the past. The international community must not recognize the Taliban government but bringing a country to economic collapse at the expense of real people’s lives cannot be the answer. The consequences are too bleak. The leaders of the world may be willing to wait until the situation is bad enough for the Taliban to come to the negotiation table, but the Afghan people and the world cannot afford to wait that long. The UN countries must bring the discussions to the Taliban now or be prepared to send out enough foreign aid to support the Afghan people.

  1. Terri Moon Cronk, Biden Announces Full U.S. Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan by Sept. 11, DOD News, Apr. 14, 2021, at
  2. Id.
  3. Noel King & John Kirby, The Last U.S. Troops Meet Deadline And Depart Afghanistan, NPR, Aug. 31, 2021,
  4. Hannah Bloch, A Look at Afghanistan’s 40 Years Of Crisis – From the Soviet War To Taliban Recapture, August 31, 2021,
  5. Secretary-General Urges Security Council to ‘Stand as One’, Ensure Human Rights Respected in Afghanistan, as Delegates Call for Protection of Civilian, Aug. 16, 2021, United Nations Meetings Coverage, at
  6. Id.
  7. Id.
  8. Id.
  9. Shirin Jaafari, The Taliban want international recognition. Countries are debating., Sept. 17, 2021, The World, at
  10. Id.
  11. Id.
  12. Id.
  13. Priyanka Boghni, ‘Brink of Collapse’: How Frozen Assets & Halted Foreign Aid Are Impacting the Afghan People, Oct. 12, 2021, PBS, at
  14. Id.
  15. Id.
  16. The World Bank in Afghanistan, Mar. 30, 2021, available at
  17. Id.
  18. Ashitha Nagesh, Afghanistan’s economy in crisis after Taliban take-over, Aug. 25, 2021, at
  19. Nancy Hatch Dupree, Afghanistan, Sep. 14, 2021, Britannica, at
  20. See supra note 16
  21. Nagesh, supra note 18
  22. Eshe Nelson and Alan Rappeport, U.S. and I.M.F. Apply a Financial Squeeze on the Taliban, Aug. 18, 2021, at
  23. Id.
  24. Jonathan Master, What Are economic Sanctions?, Aug. 12, 2019, Council on Foreign Relations, at; See also U.S. Department of State, Executive Order 13324, Sept, 23, 2001, at
  25. Certain Iranian Assets (Islamic Rep. of Iran v. U.S.), Order, 2019 I.C.J. Rep. 680, (15 November)
  26. Id.
  27. Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua (Nicar. v. U.S.), Judgement, 1986 I.C.J. Rep. 14, ¶ 244 (June 27)
  28. Id.
  29. Id.
  30. Id.
  31. Dawood Azami, Afghanistan: How do the Taliban make money?, Aug. 28, 2021, BBC, at
  32. Alexandra Stevenson, Short on Money, Legal and Otherwise, the Taliban Face a Crisis, Sept. 2, 2021, The New York Times, at
  33. Kate Abnett, Afghanistan on verge of socio-economic collapse, EU’s top diplomat says, Oct. 3, 2021, Reuters, at
  34. Ariel Cohen, As U.S. Retreats, China Looks To Back Taliban With Afghan Mining Investments, Aug. 17, 2021, Forbes, at
  35. Dr. Julian Voje, Afghanistan: Geopolitical Hotspot, Munich Security Conference Blog, Aug. 24, 2021, at
  36. Id.
  37. Id.
  38. Andrew Roth, Hannah Ellis-Petersen, and Vincent Ni, China, Pakistan, and Russia set to increase Afghanistan influence, Aug. 16, 2021, The Guardian, at
  39. See supra note 31
  40. Id.
  41. See supra note 33
  42. See supra note 34
  43. Julia Horowitz, The Taliban are sitting on $1 trillion worth of mineral the world desperately needs, Aug. 19, 2021, CNN, at
  44. Id.
  45. Id.
  46. Jyoti Rattan, Changing Dimensions of Intervention Under International Law: A Critical Analysis, 9 Sage Open, 1, 3-4, (Apr. 2019) at
  47. Saleha Mohsin, Bank-Averse Taliban Leave U.S. Struggling for Financial Edge, Aug. 18, 2021, Bloomberg News, at
  48. Pavin Chachavalpongpun. THE POLITICS OF INTERNATIONAL SANCTIONS: THE 2014 COUP IN THAILAND, 68 Journal of International Affairs, 169, 170, 2014, pp. 169–85, at
  49. Id. at 179
  50. Id. at 176; See, Hossein G. Askari, John Forrer, Hildy Teegan and Jiawan Yang, Economic Sanctions: Examining their Philosophy and Efficacy, (Westport: Praeger, 2003). The book argues that the U.S. government has been imposing sanctions against a number of countries to express opinions about certain issues. This, in many ways, portrays the symbolic side of sanctions.
  51. Id. at 178
  52. See, Vanda Felbab-Brown, Will the Taliban regime survive?, Aug. 31, 2021, Brookings, at The Taliban’s greatest threat may come from a collapse within. The Taliban need the cooperation of technocrats and existing service providers to keep the country stable. If the Taliban push all the capable citizens out they will not be able to continue their rule.
  53. See supra note 48
  54. See supra note 52
  55. Afghanistan: Humanitarian Crisis Needs Urgent Response, Human Rights Watch, Sept. 3, 2021, at
  56. Id.
  57. Barnett Rubin, Leveraging the Taliban’s Quest for International Recognition, United States Institute of Peace, pg. 2-3, at
  58. Kathryn Reid, Venezuela crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help, World Vision, Aug. 12, 2021, at
  59. Marcela Escobari, Made by Maduro: The Humanitarian Crisis in Venezuela and US Policy Responses, Brookings, Feb. 28, 2019, at
  60. Id.
  61. Id.
  62. Jason Bartlett and Megan Ophel, Sanctions by the Numbers: Spotlight of Venezuela, Center for New American Security, Jun. 22, 2021, at
  63. Nik Martin, Afghanistan: Taliban face financial squeeze from West, Deutsche Welle, Aug. 8, 2021, at
  64. David Pierson, The Taliban says it wants to ban drugs in Afghanistan. Here’s why it can’t, L.A. Times, Aug. 29, 2021 at
  65. Id.
  66. Id.
  67. Id.
  68. Id.
  69. Id.
  70. Overdose Death Rates, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Jan. 29, 2021, at
  71. Opioid overdose, World Health Organization, Aug. 4, 2021, at
  72. World Drug Report 2021, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Jun. 2021, at
  73. Nathaniel Lee, America has spent over a trillion dollars fighting the war on drugs. 50 years later, drug use in the U.S. is climbing again, CNBC News, Jun. 17, 2021, at