The assets of a government, in theory, belong to its people. Andrew Maloney, one of the lawyers representing the 9/11 families, has considered this argument, and in an interview with the BBC, gave his answer. “The reality is, the Afghan people did not stand up to the Taliban when they had the opportunity,” he said. A moment later, he doubled down. “As a country, as a people, they bear some responsibility for allowing the Taliban back in.”
This is nothing less than an assertion of collective guilt, and a gruesome one, given how many Afghans died fighting the Taliban.
Faced with this mess, the Biden administration proposed a bizarre deal wherein the 9/11 families will get half the money and the other half will be put toward Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis, though no one yet knows how. The way the Biden administration sees it, it fought to make sure Afghans get some of that money back, at potential political cost.
But in both the sanctions and the seizures, you can see an almost Kafka-esque madness in the American position. They are expending all this effort to ameliorate the consequences of a sanctions regime they are implementing. They are desperately brokering deals to preserve foreign reserves that they are freezing. When I ask why they continue to impose these policies at all, the administration says that the Taliban has American prisoners, that it is a brutal regime that murders opponents and represses women, that it has links to terrorists, and that our sanctions grant us much-needed leverage.
But what is that leverage, exactly? “To destabilize Taliban rule, the U.S. is weaponizing the aid-dependent Afghan state that it built,” wrote Spencer Ackerman, a national security reporter, in his excellent newsletter, Forever Wars. “This economic weapon works by harming the Afghan people directly, with the hope that the suffering of the people prompts the end of the Taliban regime.”
That this will work — that these sanctions will destabilize the Taliban or persuade them to make the changes we want — is a hypothesis. It is only the Afghans’ suffering that is fact. You do not have to absolve the Taliban of their sins to wonder if this policy makes sense.
“The reality is that the only thing Washington has control over is its own actions,” Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute, and a former Marine who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, told me. “It has a choice here to not make things worse for Afghans. And it’s actively choosing instead to make them exponentially worse.”