What future Russia do we want?

It is not possible to see the pictures of dead bodies (320 and counting) and to hear the reports of the barbaric massacre of citizens of Bucha or the recent rocket attack on a train station in Kramatorsk that killed 50 and injured 98 civilians without feeling outrage towards the Russians and sorrow for the people of Ukraine. Understandable though such feels are, it is not a good state of mind in which to plan for a better future.

In a face-to-face interview with the Editor in Chief of The Economist in Kyiv on March 25, President Volodymyr Zelenskyin defined victory as: “being able to save as many lives as possible…because without this nothing would make sense.”  “The Russian war in Ukraine”  In this spirit, compromises will be made by both sides and a peace deal will be signed. It is for Ukraine to decide what is acceptable to them. But what should we wish for and— via various sanctions around the globe against Russia—what should we press for?

Our hearts cry out for revenge and punishment for Russia’s aggression and inhumane and barbaric behavior. But we would be much wiser to rely more on our minds than our hearts in fashioning the future. Existing and potentially strengthened sanctions will flatten the Russian economy if not lifted. Reallocating confiscated Russian property (e.g., the Central Bank of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves) for the reconstruction of Ukraine may seem justifiable but is surely illegal and no one should forget the role played by the Treaty of Versailles (providing for German reparations for WWI) in bringing about WWII. “How to stop a new cold war”

Ukraine President Zelensky has already indicated Ukraine’s potential willingness to become politically neutral ala Austria and give up seeking NATO membership. While taking territory by force violates international law, the formal return of Crimea to Russia, which is supported by over 80% of its residents, may well be part of a peace agreement. Should the U.S. and EU oppose such provisions? Should?

There are some, not just the defense industry, which profits from war, who believe that Putin is determined to reestablish the Imperial Russian Empire and must be resisted at all costs. We should fight Russia “to the last Ukrainian.” “How to stop a new cold war”  See the following interesting interview of Noam Chomsky: “Chomsky-US policy toward Putin assures no path to de-escalation in Ukraine”

Others, myself included, take seriously Putin’s (and Boris Yeltsin before him) pleas for a European security architecture in which Russia feels comfortable. We believe that America’s Monroe Doctrine is applicable to all major powers. Our true interest is in a peaceful Russia that is a comfortable member of the European continent ten or more years into the future. We should encourage Ukraine’s peace negotiations and our own sanctions and defense policies in that direction. Our defense industries have profited enough from our never-ending wars. Enough is enough. “Economic sanctions”

And we must never forget that our own flourishing rests, in part, on our reliable commitment to the rule of law. Why are we sanctioning Russians living outside of Russia and confiscating their yachts when they have not been convicted of any crimes? “The American Civil Liberties Union helped scuttle a bill this week that would have enabled the Biden administration to liquidate Russian oligarchs’ assets and turn the proceeds over to Ukraine.” “ACLU Ukraine-Russia-Oligarchs”

Our news media are confronting us daily with Russia’s atrocities (facts Russians are unable to see in their own country). It is hard not to want to strike out against Russia in kind. Such short-sighted reactions are not in Ukraine’s, nor the world’s, long run interest. We are, and should behave, better than that. “Ukraine itself is proposing terms that, if backed by a combination of U.S. and European sticks and carrots, stand some prospect of success.” “What can the US really do to protect civilians in Ukraine”  We should not let our short sighted, emotional, anger towards Russia and our military industry get in the way.

The Russian War in Ukraine

“Mariupol. As things have worsened the escape routes, already dangerous, have become more deadly. Oleksandr Horbachenko, a welder, says that when he left on March 18th the city was in a state of collapse, with no municipal services, no drinkable water and no food. He says at least 80% of buildings are bombed out. ‘The whole of the centre is in ruins, with wires and glass everywhere. The worst thing is seeing the corpses strewn across the street. There are hundreds of them rotting away near the central market.’” The Economist: An uncertain outlook”

All wars are terrible, especially when seen up close. Those who recklessly urge them are almost always viewing them safely from afar.  Russia’s war on Ukraine has become tangible to us because the Internet brings it visually to us in our living rooms almost instantly and because Russia’s poor planning and poor excursion on the ground have pushed it to launch rocket attacks on civilian locations. Anatol Lieven: Why the Russians are losing their military gambit in Ukraine”

In an in-person interview of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyin his compound in Kyiv, The Economist staff asked the President how he would define victory.

“’Victory is being able to save as many lives as possible…because without this nothing would make sense. Our land is important, yes, but ultimately, it’s just territory.’ To save everyone, defend all interests while protecting people and not giving up territory is probably an impossible task, he concedes.”

Why then, asked The Economist, hasn’t the President agreed with Putin on the terms of a peace?

Zelensky replied that: “Everyone has varied interests. There are those in the West who don’t mind a long war because it would mean exhausting Russia, even if this means the demise of Ukraine and comes at the cost of Ukrainian lives. This is definitely in the interests of some countries. For other countries, it would be better if the war ended quickly, because Russia’s market is a big one that their economies are suffering as a result of the war. They would like to see Russia keep certain markets” The Economist: Volodymyr Zelensky in his own words

This should give you pause. The severe economic sanctions being imposed on Russia (leaving aside the legally questionable confiscation of the private property of Russian oligarchs living in England and elsewhere) seem designed to flatten and isolate the Russian economy. Why? To what end?  That certainly doesn’t benefit me or my country. Presumably they are meant to bring an end to the fighting, but what conditions must Russia satisfy to have them lifted? I have heard none stated.

Why hasn’t the U.S. pressed harder for negotiations? Who benefits financially from prolonging this war? Who besides the usual profiters of war (Military Industrial Congressional Media Complex)?

Russia: How should we fight back?

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has rightly outraged most of us. Leaving aside the history that brought us to this present conflict, Russia’s attack is totally unjustified. Our natural instincts are to help Ukraine resist its aggressor. As we watch the destruction of lives and property, it is natural to want to send in our boys or planes to help. Surely, we can stop this by using the might of our military and advanced weapons. Wars tend to look like that in the beginning. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq (I still can’t sort out what Bush/Cheney thought was America’s interest in attacking Iraq) looked like slam dunks going in. The realities were invariably very different by the end. How should we help Ukraine?

The U.S. and Ukraine’s NATO neighbors have been supplying Ukraine with weapons but left them to fight on their own. This was my assessment a month ago: “Ukraine-Russia-NATO”  As much as it strains against our impulse to help, President Biden is absolutely correct in ruling out our joining the war. For most of us, war, and the incredible pain it inflicts on those directly involved, is fought elsewhere by others. It is far too easy to say “sure, lets go to war.” “Ukraine-how should we help?”

But wars can be fought economically as well as militarily. Much of the West (the designation seems relevant again) has joined together to impose severe economic sanctions on Russia. But the objectives of these sanctions are not clear. They are too late to deter Russia from its invasion of Ukraine, though perhaps they provide an example of the potential cost to China if it decides to invade Taiwan. Are they meant to pressure Russia to come to the negotiating table? But it takes two to tango–Zelensky must be there as well. I have heard no statement of what Russia must do for the sanctions to be lifted.

The sanctions seem designed to cripple the Russian economy. Sadly, the pain will fall mainly on the Russia people rather than its government. Considerable pain will also fall on those imposing the sanctions. “The war in Ukraine and globalization”

Supply chains and financial channels will be disrupted for many years. But like military wars, the collateral damage an economic war is hard to predict. China and Russia and maybe India and much of Africa are being driven together to establish new trading relationships and non-dollar payment channels that don’t seem to serve American interests. If they are not explicitly linked to accelerating a negotiated peace, what are the sanctions for?  I don’t necessarily believe that our military industrial complex deliberately promotes the perpetuation of war, but as an economist I can’t ignore the fact that they have an economic incentive to do so.  

Missing from all of this seems to be the skillful deployment of diplomacy. The first priority, of course, is to end the fighting in Ukraine. But any peace agreement must look beyond the immediate war to the conditions that will promote peace and prosperity for Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the world well into the future. As is often the case Chas Freeman says it best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vxufUeqnuc

The War in Ukraine and Globalization 

We will cripple the Russian economy by cutting off their access to world markets. They will have to buy Russian.

We will strengthen the American economy by cutting off our own access to world markets. Buy American!

Both sentiments are circulating in the U.S. at the same time. If you don’t see the contradiction, you should probably stop reading. Cutting Russia off from external markets will definitely make it poorer but it will also hurt its former trading partners.

Without specialization and trade, we would all (the 99% of us) be poorer than dirt. See my very elementary explanation: “Econ-101-Trade in Very Simple Terms” This is why reducing Russia’s access to trade beyond Russia’s borders (cross border trade) will punish Russia and make it poorer. But this is often not properly understood even by very smart people: “Tony Judt on trade”

Trade is win-win, meaning that both the seller and buyer are better off as a result of their trades (assuming that their transactions are voluntary). Obviously then, restricting trade is lose-lose. Both sellers and buys are worse off as a result of restricting trade. I note this fact in my discussion of restricting trade with Russia: “How to Stop Russia in Ukraine” However, the rest of the world will have to scramble to replace Russian oil, gas, Ukrainian wheat, etc, and will pay higher prices for the substitutes.

Countries that impose trade restrictions on themselves (e.g., via tariffs) are often indulging in a form of corruption by enriching (“protecting”) favored industries or firms by reducing the competition they face from abroad (so called cheap Chinese labor, etc.). But trade policies and decisions can be more complicated than that.

Trade creates interdependencies. If a truck strike, or bad weather, or a cow disease, prevents the yogurt you no longer produce yourself from reaching your market (the local Safeway), you will go without it for a while. If semiconductors produced in Taiwan can’t reach American auto manufacturers on time and in sufficient numbers, car production is slowed. In short, supply chains that generally lower the cost of producing whatever, thus benefiting consumers, also increase the risks of supply chain interruptions. Businesses must (and do) evaluate the cost-risk trade off seeking a reasonable (profit maximizing) balance.  

Some products, e.g., those related to our national defense, are sufficiently critical that the government forces producers to forgo the economic efficiencies of importing them in order to minimize the risks of supply interruptions, especially in war time. While this is often justified, the line between risk reduction for national defense and corruption to buy votes or benefit friends is sometimes fuzzy. But no one can believe that buying steel from Canada is a national security risk as Trump claimed and as I note here: “Econ-101- Trade Deficits”  Buy American policies are more often in the corruption rather than the national interest category.

There is also an interesting political dimension to trade currently in our faces. The dramatic growth in trade in goods and services (from $63 billion in 1950 to $17,249 billion in 2020 “Worldwide export volume in trade since 1950”), has produced a dramatic reduction in poverty around the world (from 76% of the global population in extreme poverty in 1820 to 10% in 2018 “Extreme poverty in brief”’). It has also created significant interdependence between countries. This has positive and potentially negative aspects. While depending on Russia, China, Mexico, etc. for many of the things we enjoy (and sometimes even need) creates economic incentives to retain peaceful relationships, it also (the other side of the same coin) creates vulnerabilities and thus economic weapons to punish bad behavior. If the trade didn’t exist in the first place, cutting it off couldn’t be used to punish Russia. While we can inflict economic pain on Russia for its war on Ukraine by cutting off its access to our goods and services, Russia can and is inflicting pain on those of us who invested in Russia and who depend on Russian oil and enjoy Russian caviar.  

The pain some in the West have inflected on themselves (and the rest of us) out of their anger at Putin by canceling our enjoyment of Russia’s rich culture, is beyond comprehension coming from so called adults. “Russian musicians, artists, athletes and other cultural figures are facing broad backlash as Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to press his relentless and increasingly brutal invasion of Ukraine.” “Ukraine war-be careful canceling Russia”

Among the tragedies of the physical and human losses in Ukraine, and the disruption of the lives of millions of Ukrainian refugees, are the damage to trading relationships and the global order. See my commons in:  “Ukraine-Russia-Nato”  We failed to deal properly with Russia and its concerns the first time around after the USSR was dissolved. It will take a long time to repair the damage done to the international order by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. We need to do a better job next time around.  “Western sanctions on Russia are like none the world has seen” We also need to better address the costs to those who must seek out new jobs and skills as a result of new technology and greater labor productivity, to which trade contributes. “Our Social Safety Net”

How to stop Russia in Ukraine?

In violation of international law, Russia has invaded Ukraine and the world is rightly outraged. Countermeasures to stop the fighting and punish Russia’s aggression do not include sending NATO armies against Russia for the very good reasons that it would significantly increase the risk of a devastating nuclear war and because our experiences with such wars in the last half century are not encouraging. What countermeasures might we (and are we) use(ing)?

Our primary tools are to economically and culturally isolate Russia in order to damage their economic ability to continue waging their war and to hurt their pride. What might that include within the limits of our commitment to the rule of law?

Each of us as individuals, companies, and governments have the right to decide who we trade and deal with. Refusing to sell to or buy from Russia can have a powerful impact on the Russian economy. Examples of companies that have ended or restricted their sales to and/or operations in Russia include Ford, GM, Toyota, VW, Volvo, Nissan, Honda, Subaru, Harley Davidson, Apple, BP, Equinor, Shell, ExxonMobil, Visa, Mastercard, Google, and Netflix. And the list continues to grow by the hour.

“Ikea, the world’s largest furniture company, is closing its 17 stores in Russia. The company said the conflict is having a “huge human impact” and “resulting in serious disruptions to supply chain and trading conditions.” In addition to pausing its retail and manufacturing operations in Russia, it will suspend all trade with the country and its ally, Belarus.” “CNN: Companies pulling back from Russia”

Sports and entertainment organizations certainly have the right to determine their members and kicking Russian teams or performers out of competitions, etc. can usefully demonstrate disapproval of Russia’s behavior.

More problematic are the announcements by Boeing and Airbus that they have suspended support services to Russian airlines flying their planes. Airbus stated that “it has ‘suspended support services to Russian airlines, as well as the supply of spare parts to the country.’” These are problematic because they might be breaking provisions in contracts these companies have with Russian airlines.  However, such contracts often provide for suspension in the event of war or other unusual circumstances. Moreover, if Russia withdraws from Ukraine in the next few weeks and the more severe sanctions are withdrawn, these reservations may become mute.

While social media platforms and entertainment companies (Disney, DirectTV, and WarnerMedia) also have the right to cut off Russian users, I am not convinced that it is always wise to do so. In my view we should all be able to view the propaganda disseminated by, for example, RT.  While I am sure that WarnerMedia’s decision to “pause the release of ‘The Batman’ in Russia,” will be devastating for many Russians, they do have more challenging issues to worry about at the moment.

A rather different category of sanctions are those taken by and/or imposed on others by governments. For example, all Russian airline flights are now banned from EU, U.S., and Canadian airspace. As a result, or perhaps for other reasons, the Russian delegation to the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-20) of the International Telecommunications Union now underway in Geneva didn’t come. This important meeting is held every four years to allocate spectrum and set other global telecom standards. By its absence Russia has lost all opportunities to nominate and elect chairmanships of any study groups and task forces for the next four years.

Most payments in dollars, Euros and most other currencies have been forbidden by the issuers of those currencies with specific exception. Russia has been blocked from using S.W.I.F.T. for sending payment instructions. The most important economic exception is that Russia may continue to sell oil and gas to Europe and to receive payment for them. Another is that Russia may continue to make debt service payments on Russian debt securities held abroad. The assets of all Russian banks outside of Russia, including its central bank, have been frozen. I am not sure how these two are reconciled. “BBC News”  

The approach of blocking economic activity by blocking payments for them is a bit similar in spirit to Anti Money Laundering (AML/CFT) restrictions, which attempt to stop illegal activities by stopping the use of the proceeds of “crimes” that haven’t been proven, rather than stopping the illegal activities themselves. The effectiveness of blocking payments in key currencies depends on how widely they are supported. A UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was supported by 141 members. Only 5 countries voted against (Russia, Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria). China and India and 33 other members (including, surprisingly, Cuba) abstained. Germany completely reversed earlier policies and is sending serious weapons to Ukraine and is increasing its military expenditures above NATO recommended minimums. While the extent of support is impressive, the abstainers open sufficient holes to undermine the impact of financial sanctions. None the less, the dramatic shrinkage of trade and real economic interactions will be devastating. Russia will be flattened and isolated.

More recently some countries have seized the assets of private Russian citizens.

The Russian Oligarch Igor Sechin’s yacht was seized Thursday by French Authorities while docked for repairs in La Ciotat, near Marseille. On the same day “Germany seized the Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s 512-foot mega yacht Dilbar, which is valued at $600m, which was moored in Hamburg.” “Russia sanctions superyacht seizures”. To my knowledge, neither of these Russians committed any crimes in France or Germany or anywhere else outside of Russia. The legal basis for these seizures, unless they are being held temporarily pending a court determination of whether crimes have been committee, is very questionable.  

Imposing harm on Russia and Russians of the types discussed above, will have costs to us as well. This by no means suggests that we should not use them. Properties and businesses abandoned in Russia and goods and services no longer sold there or purchased from there will impose costs on the western companies involved.  Western owners of Russian securities are likely to incur losses. Some Russian debt will default. But Russia’s aggression must be stopped, and future aggression strongly discouraged. Watching the Soviet tanks crush Hungarian and Czech demonstrators in 1968 without our military intervention to help them was very painful but was the right thing to do, just as our nonmilitary approach now is the right approach, as long as we apply sanctions lawfully.

Putin’s reckless war in Ukraine is destroying Russia. Let’s hope that the good and long-suffering people of Russia will not allow him to also destroy the whole world.

Diplomacy

What does the press coverage of the Canadian trucker strike and Russia’s threatened attack on Ukraine have in common?  Matt Taibbi’s column on the “The Great International Convoy Fiasco” will tell you. For good measure, he added that “On February 4th, 2004, the Wall Street Journal published, ‘A Historian’s Take on Islam Steers U.S. in Terrorism Fight’, about the influence of a Princeton Scholar named Bernard Lewis on George W. Bush’s Iraq policy. The ‘Lewis Doctrine’ was simple. The good professor believed there was no point to asking, Why do they hate us?”

For many weeks the American press (I apologize for lumping our somewhat diverse collection of newspapers into one camp) have been shouting that Russia might invade Ukraine any day now. Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, says that that is nonsense and to please stop saying it. I am inclined to believe him over our newspapers.

Something similar is going on with the striking Canadian truck drivers. The message in both cases is that we need to be tough. Arrest them and remove their trucks that are blocking the border with the U.S. Beef up our troops in Europe and tell Putin all the nasty things we will do to him if Russian troops cross the border. The mindset that reacts in these ways is not in our national interest.

Why are the truckers striking and why is Putin demanding a rethink of European defense architecture? While Putin has told us explicitly what he wants, to my knowledge no meetings have occurred between the Canadian truckers and the Canadian government. We may or may not sympathize with some of the Trucker’s concerns, but the proper (dare I say adult) starting point is to sit down with them and understand what they want.  At least the Biden administration is talking with the Russians, but it would be healthier if more were said in the Press about these talks and the issues that Russia has raised, and less about the potential for, if not eminence of, war. Such discussion of the pros and cons of mutually acceptable options are out there, but you need to search for them.

The role of diplomacy (the first intergovernmental tool of civilized nations) is to understand the concerns and desires of the other side. That is the essential first step in seeking out areas of common ground that each side can live with. War is (or should be) a last resort.  I am sure that Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, etc. can figure out other uses for their manufacturing and technical capabilities. “National Defense”

Econ 101:  How to help Afghans?

The world is rightly looking for ways to help Afghans without helping the Taliban (until or unless the Taliban forms a government the world is willing to recognize). Washington Post: “How to help Afghans without aiding Taliban”  In this Post article Anthony Faiola states that “The biggest problem isn’t a lack of food. Rather, it’s the disappearance of what had been the lifeblood of the Afghan economy — Western cash.” This mischaracterizes the problems of Afghans thus confusing our understanding. In this note I attempt to clarify the “cash” aspect of Afghanistan’s problems.

But first there is no escaping the fact that the cut back of foreign aid is reducing the income (and the goods that income buys) available to Afghans. Mention is often made of the approximately 10 billion US dollars of the Afghan government’s funds frozen in deposits abroad. These funds cannot be used until a new Afghan government is recognized with the authority to claim them. But these funds are not part of the lost revenue to the Afghan government. They are the wealth–the previous income saved–of the government (whoever that will turn out to be). The savings that we accumulate from our incomes for retirement or whatever is our wealth not our current income (though it can be drawn on to augment current income).

In recent years (prior to the Taliban take over) the Afghan government’s operating expenditures were 16 to 18% of Afghanistan’s GDP while its domestic revenue was 12 to 14% of GDP. The balance of its financing plus all development expenditures were from donors. The hope is that squeezing the Taliban “government” financially will add to the incentives for them to quickly form an inclusive government meeting international norms of human rights. Unfortunately, it is not possible to shut off the flow of funds to the government without also starving the Afghan people.

While the Ghani government has been replaced (temporarily) by Taliban leaders, the institutions (ministries and agencies) of government remain, but with new management. Of the government’s operating expenditures roughly 80% was for wages and salaries. Thus, the government could more or less finance its wage and salary expenses from its own domestic revenue without donor support. Indeed, all salaries have been and continue to be paid in the central bank (Da Afghanistan Bank — DAB) and presumably in the other government ministries as well, albeit with delays. However, the real value of these incomes is being reduced because of increased inflation (an indirect form of taxation). DAB and other government agencies have largely stopped providing economic and financial data since the Taliban take over.  IMF First-Review-Under-the-Under-the-Extended-Credit-Facility

None the less, freezing Afghanistan’s deposits abroad (DAB’s foreign exchange reserves held abroad) has created monetary problems within Afghanistan because of the inability to import the cash (dollar banknotes) on which the economy depends. Afghanistan remains a largely cash economy. Most payments are made in cash. Though inflation has been low in recent years (generally 2-4%), inflation in earlier decades was relatively high and thus Afghans held and transacted in US dollars quite extensively. Around 70% of bank deposits are in dollars. The availability of USD banknotes for local payments is thus very important. These were mostly supplied by the New York Federal Reserve Bank from the dollar deposits that DAB maintains there (and now frozen).

Prior to the Taliban takeover, the normal operation of DAB’s monetary policy consisted of receiving US dollars from the government (largely from donor grants) and depositing the equivalent value of Afghani in the government’s accounts. The government disbursed these Afghani to its employees in wage and salary payments (generally by electronic deposits to employee bank accounts). Without offset, the resulting creation and injection of these Afghani would be inflationary. DAB drains (buys back) this excess base money by auctioning some of the dollars it received from the government (sufficient to stabilize the dollar exchange rate) and capital notes of DAB. The government’s deposits of dollars with DAB took the form of credits to DAB’s dollar account with the New York Fed. From these deposits DAB pays the Federal Reserve to fly USD banknotes to Kabul as needed for DAB’s dollar auctions.

In mid-April 2021, when the U.S. announced its intention to withdraw the rest of its military personnel by September, an increased outflow of dollars by Afghans wanting to protect their wealth put the Afghani exchange rate under pressure. Acting DAB Governor Ajmal Ahmady (his appointment was never approved by Parliament) increased dollar auctions to stabilize the exchange rate. “Afghan central bank drained dollar stockpile before Kabul fell” As the amount of dollars in its vaults ran down, it used USD banknotes that it held on behalf of banks (approximately $700 million USD). The delivery of additional cash from New York expected in July never arrived and DAB’s balances at the New York Fed are now frozen until a new government is recognized so that no more dollar cash can be purchased from the Federal Reserve by DAB.

As an aside, I was surprised during a 2009 visit to Zimbabwe—as part of an IMF team following Zimbabwe’s dramatic hyperinflation during which it dollarized—to learn that there was an active private market in dollar banknotes supplying Zimbabwe from South Africa:  “Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe”

In the days just before and after the American evacuation in August 2021 public demands to withdraw dollar cash intensified but DAB had largely used up the dollars in its vaults (both its own and those held for banks). In response, on August 14 DAB imposed limits on the amounts that could be withdrawn each day. This fed public concern that their banks were running out of dollar banknotes and triggered runs on the banks. DAB was even running low on Afghani banknotes, which might have replaced dollars. Without access to its deposits abroad DAB is unable to purchase additional dollar cash nor pay for printing additional Afghani. For a largely cash and heavily dollarized economy this drying up of cash liquidity is very disruptive and the basis of the statement that people can’t buy the food that might be available.

In addition to the cash shortage, Afghans are also lining up to withdraw their deposits out of concern for a possible bank failure. Aid cut offs and civil strife have damaged many firms resulting in arrears on their bank loan payments. This threatens to push bank illiquidity into insolvency. Even if DAB had USD and AFN cash to lend or sell to banks with fully performing loans, DAB is currently unable to buy or lend against these illiquid bank assets. Moreover, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Treasury has sanctioned payments to many Afghan entities and activities blocking many payments to and from abroad by Afghan banks and uncertainly about the application of the sanctions regime has made banks overly cautious about executing payments for their customers.

UN and other aid organizations have experience in other countries with delivering wages and other payments to targeted recipiences (teachers, healthcare workers and potentially even government employees) without the funds passing through the government’s hands. This approach is needed and is being developed for use in Afghanistan. OFAC sanctions are being modestly relaxed and UN and other aid agencies have begun funding the importation of dollar cash for humanitarian assistance projects. The use of digital mobile phone payments, such as M-Paisa and HesabPay, should be promoted and exploitation to the extent possible.  “Use of mobile phone payments” The United States needs to and has been gradually relaxing its payment restrictions to make this possible.

The Taliban leadership needs to take urgent steps to establish a new inclusive government that can and will be recognized internationally thus unfreezing Afghanistan’s (and DAB’s) deposits abroad and eliminating its cash shortage and restoring development assistance. In the meantime, in addition to the urgent need for humanitarian assistance that bypasses the Taliban, the New York Federal Reserve, or any other doners, should consider a loan to DAB to finance immediate shipments of dollar banknotes to Kabul. Da Afghanistan Bank Law adequately protects the central bank from government interference in its conduct of monetary policy and bank supervision. As a condition for restoring USD currency shipments to DAB, the Federal Reserve (and the UN) should obtain an agreement from the Taliban government to fully respect that law and appoint qualified people to its Supreme Council and Executive Board.

Until Afghanistan has a proper government, and its economic development can resume, Afghans, many of whom are very poor to begin with, will suffer unnecessarily depressed incomes. The lack of cash is adding a further, tragic, and quite unnecessary disruption to the lives of a long-suffering people. This can be and should be fixed urgently. Any such assistance will somewhat reduce the financial pressure on the Taliban, but a total financial squeeze on the government will fall on the people of Afghanistan as well.

________________________________________ 

I worked in Afghanistan as a member of the IMF program and technical assistant teams from January 2002 until mid 2015. I am grateful to Syed Ishaq Alavi for his insights and comments on this article. Mr. Alavi was Advisor to the governor of DAB from 2010 to early 2013, Director General Monetary Policy Department of DAB from early 2013 to mid 2018, and advisor to the Executive Director of the International Monetary Fund for Afghanistan, Algeria, Ghana, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, and Tunisia from June 2018 to August 2020. For the sake of their security, I am not naming those who helped me with this article who remain in Afghanistan.

China and the United States

“Biden describes the China challenge as a global, ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies…. Any event from the pandemic to the Olympics will occasion commentary, particularly in the United States, of who “won,” China or America, and what it means for the epic struggle for global supremacy.” “There is no unified front against China”

I am not sure what it is that we want to win. We don’t seem to mind selling planes and bombs to other autocracies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc.). Anything to keep the defense industry’s profits flowing short of yet another war seems a (relatively) good deal. And why might “global supremacy” matter?

Winning things sounds to me like rooting for our own basketball team and cheering when it wins the championship. How do we go about striving to have the best basketball team? First, we recruit the best basketball players we can find and hire the best coach to train them. Everyone must play by the agreed rules, and we win by playing the best game. In short, our efforts go into being the best team possible, not into poisoning the drinking water of the other teams.

But sporting contests are zero sum. One side wins and the other losses. Global cooperation and trade is win–win. The goods we produce and sell (for example) to China, with which to pay for the goods we buy from China make us and China both richer. The citizens of both countries benefit from this exchange. Win–win. Sharing information on the source, nature, and potential cure of a virus (which knows no borders) benefits all of us. Win–win.

The world’s output is maximized when our productive assets (labor and capital) are allocated to their most productive uses globally. That requires that market prices reflect the true productivity and value of each activity. Thus, the world as a whole benefits from rules governing government interferences in market prices and allocations. The World Trade Organization is the forum for agreeing on these rules of fair trade and enforcing them. “Econ 101- Trade in very simple terms”

The airplanes built by Boeing and Airbus benefit from government support of one sort or another. For years they have fought one another over whether this support conformed to fair trade rules. A settlement has finally been reached. “Boeing – Airbus settlement”

Trade restriction in the name of national security, while potentially legitimate, can easily cross the line into wealth reducing protectionism. Does the use of Huawei 5G equipment really threaten U.S. national security or U.S. business interests (protectionism). Some of these cases are hard to call but we must look carefully at narrow business interests in protecting their markets to the detriment of the rest of us. “Huawei ban could crush US aid efforts”

Global supremacy suggests that we would set these rules. To be successful the rules of international trade must be very broadly followed. Thus, their formulation must be a collective undertaking. It is fine for the U.S. to exert influence in setting these rules, but unfortunately, we have a poor record of even following them. We have caused the demise of the WTO dispute resolution body. We have strangely and counterproductively withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was then replaced by the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). These set high standards for more open trade that China will hopefully have to meet to join. The self-image of supremacy has corrupted U.S. behavior. Former President Trump’s protectionist tariffs on trade with China, EU, Canada, etc., which President Biden has so far failed to remove, have further reduced U.S. and world income. “Trade protection and corruption”

So, what should our policy be toward China? China has no intention or interest in attacking the United States. They care about their own economies and their own neighborhoods. We should keep our nose and military home to look after our own neighborhood. We should work with China (and Russia and others) to formulate win-win rules for international interactions and behavior. We should apply the mechanisms of the WTO and other international bodies, and diplomacy more generally, to hold China (and others) to the agreed rules. But we must abide by them as well. The rule of law is not just for others.

We should fix the problems in our own economy. We should work to make our domestic rules of commerce fair and efficient so that our economy will be the best in the world. We should work with other countries, including China, to maximize the productivity of their resources because we and everyone else will benefit (win-win).

The United States was founded on principles that have served us well providing a model that the rest of the world would do well to follow. The idea that we should (or can) impose our principles on others rather than provide an example like “a shining city on a hill,” is a violation of those very principles. We have repeatedly failed to uphold those principles, but we keep trying. We must continue trying and must try harder.

Never Again

On this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on America, many of us are saying “NEVER AGAIN”. What those saying it mean will determine the future of our country.

If “never again” means to you that we will never allow attacks on our homeland again, you are saying that out of your fear you chose safety over liberty. You support the authoritarian, repressive measures of the so-called Patriot Act and the related government intrusions in our privacy and liberties in the name of greater security. This is not the spirit of those Americans who continue to get into their cars to drive to work or wherever despite automobile accidents killing ten times more Americans every year as American soldiers who have died in Afghanistan in the past 20 years.

For me and thankfully for many other Americans, it means that we will never again surrender to the fear that blinded us to the tragic mistakes of American aggression in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Uganda. Lawrence Wilkerson explains our self-destructive behavior in the following interview. COL Wilkerson was a senior official in the Bush administration when it launched the Iraq invasion. Now he calls it a mistake born of rage and fear. https://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2021/09/10/amanpour-wilkerson-9-11.cnn

We have the most powerful military in the world. No military force could protect us at home (to the extent that our safety depends on military force) better. When it comes to its effectiveness in offensive attacks on other countries, its effectiveness is less clear and its effectiveness in efforts to rebuild the countries it has occupied…… well this fantastic three hour discussion reveals it as worse than zero https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkjsjBknWfo

We once revered and defended our liberty above all else and we were respected and envied around the world. We prospered. Over the last twenty years we have gradually, year by year, squandered our cherished traditions and our standing and respect in the world has declined as a result. Former President Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban promising to remove all American troops from Afghanistan by May 1 of this year. It was a bad agreement, but our departure was many years overdue. President Biden extended our stay for a few more months but has now honored Trump’s commitment. Why our military was unable to prepare properly for our withdrawal from Afghanistan with this two-year notice is a mystery we need to investigate.  

Never again should mean that we never again act out of fear. https://wcoats.blog/2021/09/05/nation-building-in-afghanistan-2/

The Band of Brothers and Afghanistan

Sunday night Ito and I finished the tenth and final episode of the WWII story of Easy Company of the 101 airborne division of the U.S. Army–The Band of Brothers. It is a moving and masterful depiction of the horrors of war, and its impact on those (often) brave men who fight them.  How, I asked myself, can good people do such terrible things to each other?  And why?  Who benefits (that is too obvious to answer explicitly)?

I woke up that morning to the fact that the government in Afghanistan that I had been working with for the past 20 years had been replaced by the Taliban who intends to form a new government. Fingers are being pointed all over the place in the search for fault. I am afraid that this American question is of little interest to my Afghan friends. Those who have not already left the country are holed up in their homes afraid to go to work. Their question is what the new Taliban regime will look like.

Our objective now should be to join with all other nations to exert diplomatic pressure on the new government (which potentially will have the cooperation of at least former President Hamid Karzai, CEO Abdullah Abdullah, and Islamic Party leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) to adhere to UN standards of humanitarian treatment of its citizens and to help them administer an efficient and honest government. America’s leadership in this regard will be critical for Afghanistan’s future.

But who should we blame for, and what lessons should we learn from, Afghans fleeing the country by climbing onto the outside of planes leaving the Kabul Airport (something I have done many times but more comfortably seated)? Working backward, President Trump gave our military leaders a May 1 deadline for leaving. It rather looks like they ignored him (tempting but not appropriate).

The speed with which the Taliban took over the country with barely a shot fired surprised most of us. We had dinner at the home of Edward and Dalya Luttwak Saturday. During the conversation I passed on the statement by an Afghan friend emailed to me that afternoon that the Taliban could take Kabul by the next day or week.  We all thought that would be impossible, thinking it might be as fast as a few months. In fact, they peaceably took over the city the next day (Sunday Aug 15).  In fact, our Embassy and Military leaders should not have been surprised. My work in Afghanistan with its central bank did not require that I be thoroughly versed on Afghan history and customs, but that is not true for our foreign policy establishment working in and on Afghanistan.

Rather than arm, train, and support Afghan fighters in regions they cared about, we pulled together a national Army with the incentive of money. In addition, the broader Afghan public did not strongly support its corrupt government and could fairly easily change sides. “Afghanistan military collapse-Taliban”  Moreover, waring tribes and political groups such as the Taliban have a long tradition of negotiating peaceful surrenders when the outcome seems clear.  “Afghanistan history-Taliban collapse”

The initial blame for our failure to “build” a strong government in Afghanistan falls on George W Bush who gave in to the Cheney/Rumsfeld fantasies of American Imperialism, and abandoned the original and sensible approach of American support of the Northern Alliance war against the Taliban. “Its plan was for small teams of CIA officers, along with Green Berets and U.S. air power, to assist the indigenous Afghan resistance—the Northern Alliance.” “Afghanistan withdrawal-CIA-bin Laden-al Qaeda-Bush-Biden-Northern Alliance” Instead we took over and occupied the country.

Rather than work with and build from Afghanistan’s traditional tribal structures, we imposed an alien, centralized government that was not understood and was generally resented outside of Kabul. Rather than elevating village chiefs to govern provinces, for example, Kabul sent strangers to oversee areas they knew nothing about. Our ignorance and arrogance were mind boggling, but sadly typical. And our military—the best in the world for waging wars— is incompetent at nation building, which should be the job of others. We couldn’t even build an Afghan Army in 20 years. “How America failed Afghanistan”  

Those who are most loudly criticizing Biden’s troop withdrawal are those most responsible for creating this mess to begin with.   “Afghanistan disaster started with withdrawals most ardent critics”  See my account of my work with the central bank in Kabul:  “My travels to Afghanistan”