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Is It Already Too Late for a Biden Comeback?

The Taliban Is Eating America's Lunch in Afghanistan

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its 2023 High-Risk List report, and it highlights "major sources of risk to U.S. assistance efforts in Afghanistan" while debunking the Biden administration's recent efforts to rewrite history with an overly rosy narrative about what's happened in Afghanistan since the president's chaotic and deadly withdrawal in August 2021. 

First, let's look at Biden's claims about his withdrawal from Afghanistan that came in a lengthy document released on April 6, 2023. The president said that the United States is "keeping our promise to American citizens and Afghan partners," "rebuilding long-term capacity" to respond to future crises, and "putting the United States on stronger footing" to address terrorist threats stemming from Afghanistan. At the same time, Biden repeated claims that his failures in Afghanistan were former President Donald Trump's fault.

But SIGAR's latest report on what's happened in Afghanistan since Biden's withdrawal paints an entirely different picture in which there have been, and are still, "serious risks to the more than $8 billion the United States has provided or otherwise made available to the Afghan people." And, notably, they're the result of the Biden administration's failures that have continued since August 2021 and, therefore, can't be blamed on Trump.

Based on five main areas of concern, the SIGAR report calls out the Biden administration for its problems and failures in dealing with Taliban interference with the United Nations and NGOs, reliance on trust funds and multilateral organizations, a loss of oversight, the Afghan Fund, and evacuating America's Afghan allies. That is, it's the same items the White House bragged about that the impartial and independent SIGAR finds most concerning. 

In a surprise to no one but President Biden, the Taliban government — called "businesslike" by the Biden administration during the disastrous withdrawal — has not kept its promises of being more progressive or allowing more rights for women or religious minorities. As the SIGAR report notes, "it has been U.S. government policy to continue supporting the Afghan people without assisting the Taliban government in any way," but that has proven next to impossible. 

"The Taliban have increasingly interfered in the activities of the UN and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Afghanistan, limiting their ability to provide aid," the SIGAR report states. "The Taliban also have accessed international funds through the imposition of customs charges on shipments coming into the country, taxes and fees directly on NGOs—as had the Ghani administration—and additional fees on vendors like commercial landlords, suppliers, and cell-phone companies that sometimes pass the costs along to NGOs." 

According to NGO officials in-country, this scheme means "the Taliban do not need to 'shake down' NGOs directly to benefit from international funds entering the country." The Taliban's "fee structure" is "reportedly arbitrary and selectively enforced nationwide." That is, the Taliban is benefitting from U.S. aid, while the Afghan people who are in need of it often don't receive it as intended. 

Adding to the Biden administration's unaccountable aid to Afghanistan is the White House's decision to rely on trust funds and multilateral organizations to conduct and supposedly carry out aid projects. SIGAR, however, has found that "international organizations receiving U.S. funding have not provided the information or oversight necessary to make informed decisions about program effectiveness." 

What's more, the Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan which saw the country delivered into the hands of the Taliban, means that the U.S. "lost the ability to directly observe the execution of its assistance programs, raising significant oversight challenges and greatly increasing the risk that aid to Afghanistan will be diverted before it reaches those most in need." Some Biden administration agencies — such as the State Department and USAID have tried to find a way to conduct oversight in the environment created by Biden's withdrawal, "but the loss of in-person visibility inevitably has hurt the overall oversight mission," SIGAR concludes.

Then there's the matter of the Afghan Fund, a plan to provide $3.5 billion worth of "frozen Afghan central bank assets for the benefit of the Afghan people" — eventually for return to Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB) — according to the Biden administration. But again, SIGAR notes that "the Taliban's interference in DAB poses risk to the Afghan economy and to Afghan fund-held assets should they eventually be returned."

Testifying before Congress on Wednesday, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko put an exclamation point on the report. "As I sit here today, I cannot assure this committee or the American taxpayer we are not currently funding the Taliban," he said. The bureaucratic failures of the Biden administration's handling of Afghanistan post-withdrawal should not obfuscate the ongoing human cost of the Biden administration's disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Thirteen U.S. service members were killed, along with scores of innocent Afghans trying to flee the Taliban, during the withdrawal. Those who weren't airlifted out continue to languish. 

When it comes to Biden's claim that his administration is "keeping our promise" to Afghan partners, SIGAR didn't mince words. "One month before the Afghan government collapsed, President Biden assured U.S. allies that they would not be left behind: 'There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you, just as you stood with us,'" the report reminds. But, "[o]nce the United States withdrew and the Taliban seized power, the risks to Afghans who worked for, or in concert with, the U.S. government soared," SIGAR explains. "However, the United States has left most of its allies behind, and it will take a year, on average, until each family reaches safety." 

Among other issues in the Biden administration's failure to keep its promise to Afghan allies, the SIGAR report notes "a significant gender imbalance in whom the U.S. government is trying to resettle" — between 7 percent and 10 percent — that comes as women make up a higher percentage of Afghans seeking resettlement but have ended up "deprioritized." SIGAR chalks the failures up to the Biden administration's "bureaucratic dysfunction and understaffing." Yet Biden still trots around seeking credit for keeping a promise that remains broken.

So, the Biden administration is not keeping its promise to Afghan allies — especially women — who have largely been left behind to fend for themselves under Taliban rule. The Biden administration has little, if any means, of conducting oversight for the billions of dollars in aid that has been sent to Afghanistan, but it continues to end up in Taliban hands. In what world does the reality laid out again by the SIGAR sound like the U.S. is on a stronger footing or building long-term capacity to respond to crises in Afghanistan when the Biden administration is failing to respond to the crisis it created through the bloody withdrawal?


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