An Afghan man carries food supplies in a wheelbarrow Wednesday during a distribution of humanitarian aid for families in need in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Hussein Malla / AP

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Because the Taliban have been designated as “terrorists,” it is possible for the United States not only to embargo American aid and trade to Afghanistan, but also to block or at least seriously hinder efforts by other countries to send humanitarian aid. As a result, more than half the country’s people — 23 million at last count — are suddenly near starvation.

There are many reports of people selling one of their children in order to feed the others. This is formally a kind of adoption process, but in practice is often a thinly disguised form of debt slavery. There have even been a few documented cases of parents selling an organ to buy food for their children.                        

Because the central bank is in Taliban hands, anti-terrorism legislation enables the U.S. to deny the country access even to the many billions of dollars — mostly unspent aid money, but also private savings — that the former government had on deposit with foreign banks. The real motive for blocking the money, however, is vindictiveness — plus domestic U.S. politics.

The vindictiveness needs no explanation: nobody humiliates the United States and goes unpunished. The fact that ordinary civilian Afghans had nothing to do with that humiliation, but are the ones suffering the retaliation for it, has no more weight in this case than it had in any other. The domestic U.S. politics, however, is a more complex issue.

The Biden administration has taken a severe beating politically due to the events of last August, and it’s no use pointing out that it was originally Donald Trump who signed the deal that led to the abrupt collapse of the pro-Western Afghan regime and the humiliating sauve-qui-peut that followed. President Joe Biden has to take the blame.

There are midterm elections coming up this November, and the Democratic Party is at risk of losing control of both chambers of Congress. Biden cannot afford to be seen as soft on the Taliban, but that severely restricts his ability to do anything for the starving Afghans even if he wanted to. To give the man credit, he appears to be trying anyway.

Nearly $7 billion of Afghan money is frozen in U.S. banks. Even now it could probably save hundreds of thousand innocent lives in Afghanistan if it were released to Kabul immediately. What Biden has tried to do is free up half of it for humanitarian aid by giving the other half to American families who have lost relatives in terrorist attacks.

It’s questionable whether he can legally give that $7 billion to anybody, but on Feb. 11, he signed an executive order splitting it evenly between U.S. victims of terrorism and humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. He obviously hopes this will give him enough political cover to give half to the starving Afghans, but it won’t work and it isn’t fair.

It won’t work because the Republicans won’t give him a free pass on this, any more than they’re going to let him sign a new deal with the Iranians curbing their nuclear weapons ambitions — if any — without calling him a traitor.

And it’s not fair because nobody now alive in Afghanistan except a few al-Qaida members is a terrorist. The Taliban fighters were in the tradition of insurgencies against foreign rule from the FLN in Algeria to ZANU in Zimbabwe, and even their enemies have generally treated them as legitimate combatants.

If a couple of senior members of the Taliban knew in advance about Osama bin Laden’s plans to attack America eighteen years ago — which is unproven and unlikely — they are long gone now. The Taliban are deeply unpleasant to Western eyes, but they won the war fair and square and the best way of ending the incipient famine would be to recognize them.

If you can’t do that, and you can’t even bring yourself to talk to them yet, let alone trust them with their own money, then just buy food for the Afghan people with their own money and fly it in. Deliver it to the airports, and let the Taliban distribute it from there. You owe the Afghans that much, at least.

Gwynne Dyer, Opinion columnist

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.