Choking the Afghan People to Death
It is within the power of the U.S. and its allies to release that chokehold, but they have to want to stop choking the life out of the Afghan people.
Graeme Smith urges the U.S. and its allies to stop starving Afghanistan:
The United States and its allies should ease their restrictions and get to work helping revive the Afghan economy. Doing so would reinforce regional stability, stem the drug trade, and reduce the likelihood of another migration crisis. Saving millions of Afghans from destitution might also redeem U.S. prestige after its chaotic withdrawal. The unavoidable side effect would be some degree of assistance for the Taliban regime, but such tradeoffs are a hallmark of realpolitik.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan should have marked the end of the U.S. war there, but an even more destructive economic warfare had taken its place. The Afghan people are being punished more by our government’s sanctions than they were by its bombs, and now they are staring one of the largest man-made famines in the face. I have made similar arguments over the last two months.
I would add that the severe humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is an example of what sanctions can do to an economy that is also being starved of government reserves and international aid. Other economies targeted by broad and crippling sanctions have some resources to fall back on. Afghanistan was so dependent on U.S. and international support that the moment the funding spigot was turned off and the sanctions took effect the country went into freefall. “Maximum pressure” on Iran and Venezuela is cruel, but doing the same thing to an even more vulnerable country is far more vicious.
There is a fear of “legitimizing” the Taliban if restrictions are eased and government assets are unfrozen, but the Biden administration should consider what it would mean for our government to be responsible for causing the mass starvation of millions of people. This would not only be a monstrous crime against innocent people, which is what matters most, but it would also be an unparalleled propaganda win for adversaries. The worst thing the U.S. could do after ending its unwinnable war in Afghanistan is to be responsible for creating a humanitarian catastrophe on this scale through our government’s mindless attachment to sanctions and punitive measures.
There has always been a vindictive aspect to U.S. sanctions. States that defy the U.S. are punished, and they continue to be punished until they obey. The fact that it is ordinary people that bear the burden of this punishment usually doesn’t matter to policymakers, who insist that they have carved out “exemptions” and then do nothing when even those exemptions fail to work. Even when the exemptions work as intended, an economy cannot function on humanitarian aid alone. This is not hard to grasp. If you make trade and commerce with the outside world all but impossible, you cannot provide enough aid to sustain the tens of millions of people that need help.
Keeping sanctions in place and keeping government assets frozen while you permit a trickle of aid money to flow amounts to putting an entire nation under siege. Pointing to the trickle of aid money as proof that you are committed to helping the people is just insulting at that point. As Smith says, “the main reason for devastation is the West’s chokehold on the economy.” It is within the power of the U.S. and its allies to release that chokehold, but they have to want to stop choking the life out of the Afghan people.
As Lee Fang explained in a recent report, the few humanitarian exemptions to sanctions in Afghanistan are woefully inadequate to address the needs of the Afghan people:
But those humanitarian exemptions, overseen by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, are nowhere near enough, according to experts who spoke to The Intercept. The OFAC licenses, including new licenses released December 22, have not curbed the global chilling effect of the sanctions and are ineffective in preventing a spiraling disaster that could kill more Afghan people than nearly 20 years of U.S.-backed war and occupation.
As we have seen in many other cases, overcompliance by financial institutions and businesses is a major problem. These institutions would rather not take the chance of being on the wrong side of U.S. sanctions, and so they write off doing business in Afghanistan:
“The OFAC licenses never work, never will,” added Shumacher. “The moment that the banks see any sanction or any sort of restriction, they just walk away from doing any transactions. That’s what’s happening now with Afghanistan. The banks are not willing to take our business, and no amount of OFAC licenses is going to satisfy their needs.”
Sanctions are an indiscriminate weapon, and they kill lots of innocent civilians. If nothing is done, they will soon be responsible for causing mass starvation and mass death in Afghanistan. This is still a preventable outcome, but there is not much time left to avert the worst of a man-made famine that is already happening.