Sanctions are devastating Afghanistan. Where is DC?

General view of a camp where some families live by begging and others plan to sell their children due to poverty in Qala-E-Naw, Afghanistan, October 28, 2021.

Photo: Ahmad Seddiqi / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Months after the With the US-backed Afghan government fallen into the hands of the Taliban, ordinary Afghans are now facing what could be their most difficult winter in decades. Thanks to the economic collapse that accompanied the US military withdrawal, coupled with the imposition of sanctions and the halt of much humanitarian aid, millions of Afghans face the very real prospect famine. Some will die. Many will lose their lives due to preventable deaths.

While limited humanitarian exceptions for trade have been set in recent weeks, the World Health Organization has already warned that up to 1 million Afghan children could die of malnutrition this winter if drastic measures are not taken. . Children are already bearing the brunt of the humanitarian catastrophe, punctuated by horrific tales of children being sold to pay for food. And the country’s notoriously harsh winter is already taking its toll: Afghans are freezing to death as they flee the country with their families.

The US sanctions policy is directly to blame, pushing Afghans to the brink as they already struggle to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and the political upheaval created by the collapse of the central government. As Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote in December, after returning from a trip to Afghanistan on behalf of the WHO, “I can clearly state that if the United States and other Western countries governments do not change their sanctions policies in Afghanistan, more Afghans will die from sanctions than at the hands of the Taliban.

The deaths will be caused by deliberate political decisions made in the United States. Along with new sanctions imposed after the Taliban takeover, the United States has frozen nearly $ 10 billion in Afghan central bank assets here. The Biden administration refuses to release the funds despite continued public protests from Afghans.

As all this unfolds, the clamor of voices criticizing the US military withdrawal this summer on humanitarian grounds has died down. After the withdrawal, many commentators and political leaders asserted that there was a humanitarian imperative behind the conflict, especially the protection of Afghan women. Many humanitarian and feminist arguments have been used over the years to help justify a military occupation that was often looked down upon by the very people it ostensibly defended. In contrast, ending the current sanctions regime and releasing funds held by Afghans would actually be something unambiguously positive for civilians there, including women and children who are particularly at risk.

The cognitive dissonance on display is perhaps best underscored by Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranked Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This summer, McCaul spoke out against the plight of Afghan women. “We see this nightmare unfold – an absolute disaster of epic proportions,” he said in an interview. “And what worries me the most are the women left behind and what will happen to them.” When the Biden administration then put in exemptions from sanctions to allow some humanitarian aid, McCaul then turned to condemn the limited relief – even as news reports described the economic collapse wreaking havoc in the country. lives of Afghans, including women and children.

With this new nightmare unfolding, the anxiety expressed in August has largely faded.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - DECEMBER 21: Afghans holding banners take part in a protest and march towards the old United States Embassy building demanding the release of frozen Afghanistan assets and the resumption of international funds against a backdrop worsening economic conditions and increasing poverty in the country in Kabul, Afghanistan on December 21, 2021. After the Taliban takeover, international funds destined for Afghanistan were cut off and assets from the country abroad were frozen.  (Photo by Bilal Guler / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Afghans holding banners take part in protest and march towards former US Embassy building to demand release of frozen Afghanistan assets and resumption of international funds amid worsening economic conditions and increased poverty in Kabul, Afghanistan on December 21, 2021.

Photo: Bilal Guler / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Numerous breaches of sanctions

Sanctions are one of the most brutal coercive tools in the United States’ foreign policy toolbox – and happen to be a favorite with policymakers, even if they rarely produce political results. Afghanistan is just one example of a mindlessly cruel sanctions regime that is wreaking havoc on entire civilian populations without accountability. For decades, the Iranians have been subjected to some of the most crushing sanctions in the world. Obstacles are erected against even the most trivial business ventures. The young people there are unable to envision a successful life in the countryside. Sanctions against Iran were stepped up under the Trump administration but continued under President Joe Biden, as part of a desperate effort to force a total surrender to Iran’s nuclear program.

Even Cold War-era sanctions against countries like Cuba remain in place to this day, absent compelling geopolitical reasons. In a recent example that highlighted the parody nature of the Cuba sanctions policy, rental company Airbnb was fined for doing business on the island and allowing Cubans to access its accommodation services. . This was just the latest limitation on the ability of ordinary Cubans to conduct basic economic transactions or trade with companies headquartered abroad and therefore at risk of US sanctions. Although they have been in place for years and make life difficult for Cubans, the sanctions have done little to advance U.S. foreign policy goals.

“The sanctions against Cuba have been totally ineffective in achieving their political objectives,” said William LeoGrande, government professor at the American University and expert on the Cuban sanctions regime. “They did not bring about regime change. All they have done is inflict pain on the Cuban people.

The situation in Afghanistan may yet emerge as one of the deadliest cases of violence against civilians inflicted by US sanctions. The Afghan government that was built over two decades of American occupation was created to depend entirely on foreign support, especially its health care system. With the abrupt withdrawal of aid and the imposition of sanctions, millions of Afghans, including women and children, are now at risk.

The sanctions seem unlikely to do what 20 years of war could not: build a stable government that keeps the Taliban out of power.

The current approach of denying access to funds held by the Afghan government and denying aid is likely to lead to more stories of famine, cold deaths and families shattered by economic need. And it seems unlikely that such measures will do what 20 years of war could not: build a stable government that keeps the Taliban out of power.

While the sanctions against Afghanistan fall short of the political objectives of the United States, they succeed, as in so many other countries, in inflicting cruel consequences on the most vulnerable. House Democrats have called on Biden to release funds held by the Afghan central bank, but the administration has so far resisted this step. One reason could be that a backtracking would reveal the brutality of the underlying policy – using sanctions to prevent central banks in foreign countries from accessing their funds – which the U.S. government continues to do in other cases. Meanwhile, the broader sanctions regime against Afghanistan remains in place, with ordinary Afghans paying the price.

“Helping Afghanistan move forward on the humanitarian front is simply not enough to just provide aid to Afghanistan. Washington’s financial war against the country must end, ”wrote Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics and associate researcher at the American Security Project. “Those in the West who have expressed so much concern about the lack of freedom of Afghan women under the Taliban should also be concerned about their survival this winter. “

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