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The Case for Reparations for Afghanistan

The losers of wars often are made to pay for the damage and suffering they’ve caused. America should be no exception.

A child at a camp for internally displaced people
A child at a camp for internally displaced people on November 22 on the outskirts of Herat, Afghanistan, where staffers from Doctors Without Borders check for signs of malnutrition

Since Kabul fell to the Taliban in August, Afghanistan’s economy and banking system have been in freefall. More than half its population is facing food insecurity, including up to one million children who could die of starvation this winter. The scale of misery in a single year could dwarf the damage inflicted to the country during America’s 20-year war.

American policy is to blame. The Biden administration has frozen billions in DA Afghan Bank assets, which more than 40 House Democrats on Monday called on Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to release. The president has also continued a longstanding sanctions regime against the Taliban that has dried up foreign aid to a country whose government, including teachers and health care workers, was previously funded almost entirely by American aid. (The Biden administration on Wednesday took steps to lessen the restrictions on humanitarian aid, but they do not go far enough to assuage the crisis.) Even if this economic war accomplished its unrealistic goal of transforming the Taliban, the cure would be worse than the disease.

Those of us who patrolled that country’s mud-walled villages and poppy fields have Afghanistan burned into our conscience for the rest of our lives, but the fate of its people remains our entire nation’s burden to bear. Instead of perpetuating this conflict by other means, we should do what losers of wars have often done throughout history: pay war reparations to Afghanistan.

Americans take pride in a military that they consider the best in the world and are loath to recognize its failures, which makes accepting not only that we lost the war, but that we were the aggressors, more than we can bear. The attacks of September 11, 2001, gave us the moral standing to wage a military campaign, but that expired with the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. And yet we condemned the Afghan people to 10 more years of bloodshed.

Because America retains the most powerful military in the world, the Taliban are unable to impose reparations as previous victors of war have done: but that does not eliminate our culpability. The American people repeatedly ratified this immoral war by electing presidents from both parties who perpetuated it, and we have a collective obligation to make amends.

During the Vietnam War, President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger initially agreed to $3.25 billion in postwar reparations in the form of aid, but the United States reneged after the North Vietnamese overran Saigon and seized control of the entire country. Today, we enjoy normalized relations with the Vietnamese only after a 20-year period of painful reckoning championed by Vietnam veterans like the late Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State John Kerry. We were wrong not to follow through with our commitment to the Vietnamese people then, and we must not repeat that mistake now.

We can more than afford to repair what we have broken. Congress just passed a $768 billion peacetime defense budget that includes a $25 billion increase over what Biden initially requested—more than the entire GDP of Afghanistan last year. Even a fraction of what we regularly spend on defense would have an enormous impact.

Instead, we have adopted a nonsensical policy of creating a humanitarian crisis to prod the Taliban to adhere to higher standards of human rights. Attempting to do so merely replicates the flawed human rights justification that protracted the war itself.

For many of us who fought in Afghanistan, reparations would be a small step toward undoing the profound moral damage that killing imparts. Unintentional harm to civilians is justified as a necessary evil in war by the greater moral obligation to win. But in defeat, we are left with the certainty that it was not a necessary evil, but a pure evil, and all that we can do is atone.

When I deployed from 2010 to 2011, compensation was a common practice. Once, an airstrike destroyed a compound used by two Taliban soldiers as a firing position to pin down a Marine squad. Only during the battle damage assessment did we discover the bodies of several small children, dead in the rubble of the collapsed compound wall.

A few days later, I sat across from the relatives of those children we killed. There was hate in their eyes as we handed them a pittance of a few thousand dollars in crumbling Afghan bills and apologized meekly for what we’d done. But a few condolence payments do little to compensate for the scale of ruin we unleashed on Afghanistan.

In a call for Afghan reparations earlier this year, journalist Spencer Ackerman noted that past losers of wars often paid reparations to winning regimes. But in Afghanistan, he wrote, “it is people whom the U.S. owes, not regimes.” As Kabul fell, our indebtedness to the Afghans themselves was apparent, as the U.S. government and an ad hoc network of volunteers at home connected with old interpreters and allies, day and night, to evacuate more than 100,000 Afghans from the country before the American withdrawal deadline.

What we owe our allies, we owe to all Afghans who grew up in the middle of our crossfire. However, it’s not possible to resettle everyone now subject to Taliban rule. Instead, repaying our debt will likely require working with our former adversary—one whose ruling regime is here to stay, despite Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s assessment that the Taliban is not the legitimate government of Afghanistan but only its “de facto” government.

Reparations would give Afghan people a say for the first time in the outcome of this war. The process could be modeled off the tens of billions in reparations that Iraq was forced to pay after its invasion of Kuwait. Afghans harmed by the war could submit a claim for damages to the United Nations, where they would be verified and evaluated.

Reparations cannot bring back the dead, but they can alleviate the pain suffered by the families of the more than 47,000 civilians killed, an unknown number who were injured or maimed, the vast destruction of property caused by the air war, and also the 5.9 million Afghans forced to flee their homes due to the fighting. Critically, a civilian-led approach that works through a neutral party would give the first full account of the true cost of the Afghanistan war.

Working with the Taliban on reparations, which would be essential even to facilitate a claims process through the United Nations, does not mean surrendering on other issues like human rights, which we should continue to press them on. Reparations are also not a substitute for humanitarian assistance, and we should work in parallel to facilitate the global influx of aid into the country.

Concerns that Afghanistan’s culture of corruption means that foreign aid will be stolen by the Taliban before ever reaching the Afghan people is particularly ironic after how much the previous Afghan government, who were our allies at the time, stole to furnish lavish lifestyles before fleeing the country. Afghans despised the criminality of the American-supported regime, and this directly contributed to the Taliban’s swift takeover earlier this year.

The Taliban were not democratically elected, they may be prone to corruption, and their lack of respect for human rights, particularly the rights of women, is despicable. But the same is true of many nations where we maintain benign relations. We cannot let the sunk cost of our own failure to create a democratic Afghanistan be an excuse to deprive its people of the reparations we owe them. By holding ourselves responsible for our grave mistakes, we can begin to repair our national honor and compensate the Afghan people whom we’ve caused so much suffering.