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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

America stands ready to help the people of Afghanistan, while at the same time actively hindering the government of Afghanistan's ability to help its own citizens directly. That's the rather confused message sent by Secretary of State Tony Blinken in a major speech on Monday.

Why it matters: Afghanistan is a desperately poor country in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. There's no realistic way to get help to its citizens without the Taliban having some kind of access to that aid — they control the country, after all. But America's foreign policy seems to be predicated on that impossibility.

The big picture: Because the Taliban is a sanctioned terrorist organization, the entire country of Afghanistan is now effectively cut off from the international financial system. As Columbia University's Adam Tooze notes, the sanctions are therefore effectively aligned with the Taliban's own goal of demodernizing the country.

What they're saying: "The United States will continue to support humanitarian aid to the Afghan people," said Blinken in his speech. "Consistent with our sanctions on the Taliban, the aid will not flow through the government, but rather through independent organizations" like the UN.

  • The UN, for its part, has raised just 39% of the $1.3 billion it needs to reach 16 million Afghan citizens — and that was before the logistics of humanitarian assistance were complicated enormously by the Taliban takeover.
  • Afghanistan as a country has some $9 billion in international reserves, substantially all of which have now been frozen. Unfreezing those reserves would go a long way towards keeping food and electricity flowing in Afghanistan, but so far there's no sign of that happening.

Where it stands: America's real power is being wielded from within the Treasury Department, which has stopped money from making its way into the country since August 15.

The bottom line: The number of lives on the line, in terms of adults and children facing mass starvation, dwarfs the total casualties from both the Afghan and the U.S. armies over the past 20 years.

  • As Tooze writes, about sanctions as a diplomatic tool: "If there was ever a case that revealed the pitiless violence of liberalism’s preeminent means of international coercion, it is Afghanistan."

Go deeper

University of Arkansas grad student saves Afghan cyclists

Afsana Nawrozi and Farid Noori, from Afghanistan, participate in a panel about getting cyclists out of the country controlled by the Taliban. Photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios

Farid Noori believes in the power of bikes as a tool for gender equality and freedom.

What's happening: His organization, MTB Afghanistan, recently helped 18-year-old Afsana Nawrozi get a student visa so she could leave Afghanistan. She faced constant ridicule and potential death now that the Taliban are in power.

  • Nawrozi was a target because of her gender and sport. She has been on the Afghan women’s national cycling team for more than two years.
Bryan Walsh, author of Future
23 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Axios AM Deep Dive: America’s murder surge

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Homicides rose at the fastest rate in at least six decades last year. This Axios AM Deep Dive, led by Future correspondent Bryan Walsh, looks at the state of gun crime.

4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Senate Democrats target billionaires

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

After failing to get a deal on other planned tax increases, key Senate Democrats are pivoting to a billionaires' income tax to pay for President Biden's social spending.

The big picture: No advanced economy has attempted anything similar on such a scale.

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