Opinion

How U.S. sanctions are driving Afghanistan to famine

American sanctions almost never achieve their stated goals, but they do harm innocent civilians

Afghanistan is starving. The country's economy has collapsed, a bitter winter has taken hold, and half the population doesn't have enough to eat. Already many have died — and it could get much, much worse. UNICEF estimates 1 million children could perish over the next few months without sufficient humanitarian aid, roughly four times the number of deaths caused by the entire 20-year American occupation.

The approaching famine is not only a fluke of bad weather or poor agriculture. It is being caused by the United States' economic sanctions against the Taliban, which now rules Afghanistan. Despite the recent announcement of another round of humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, the bulk of U.S. sanctions will remain. They're the latest example of America's brainless addiction to punitive sanctions regimes that virtually never achieve the desired effect and too often inflict pointless suffering on innocents.

As Murtaza Hussein explains at The Intercept, when American forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August and the puppet regime they had supported instantly collapsed, that left the country without three quarters of its government budget and 40 percent of its GDP. The U.S. government also seized Afghanistan's central bank reserves this past fall and now is using our control of global financial pipelines to prevent most economic interaction with Afghanistan's new government. Result: a shattering economic crisis only made worse by drought and the ongoing pandemic.

And Washington's position is so irrational there's no sign the Taliban could do anything to relieve U.S. pressure. The group could crown President Biden king and that probably wouldn't do it. Even more aid won't negate U.S. policy here. It's just one more failure to add to our list of sanctions disasters.

U.S. sanctions have done nothing, for example, to get Iran to stop working on a nuclear weapon — on the contrary, what actually helped was the nuclear deal negotiated under former President Barack Obama. When former President Donald Trump unilaterally went back on America's word and reimposed sanctions for no reason, Iran logically returned to nuclear development. It's an open question whether Tehran can be convinced to trust American good faith again.

Sanctions equally haven't convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop being an aggressive warmonger who interferes with elections in Western countries — on the contrary, he's currently threatening to annex Ukraine.

And sanctions haven't destabilized the North Korean dictatorship, nor have they ousted Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, nor have they achieved any major U.S. policy goal in this century.

Now, some of the ineffectiveness of American sanctions likely has to do more with execution than concept — especially because they're notoriously impossible to remove. Indeed, many Russia experts suspect one reason Putin is being so aggressive is he has concluded he'll be sanctioned no matter what he does, so he shouldn't bother trying to get back in America's good graces.

Our execution problems are many because American sanctions are almost always applied for reasons of domestic politics and chauvinism, not hard-nosed foreign policy. As Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman write in The New York Times, American imperialists can't resist the temptation to use U.S. control over the dollar funding system to economically strangle perceived adversaries. Presidents use sanctions to signal they're tough by inflicting pain on "enemies" (most often innocent civilians) who are helpless to fight back from thousands of miles away. Presidents don't remove sanctions because that would be "weak," or because the Kafkaesque imperial bureaucracy only goes in one direction, or because it would be humiliating to admit error.

The one place where sanctions did work in the past few decades, against apartheid South Africa, only underlines these points. That was the sole instance since 1945 when American sanctions have been applied as part of a consistent and well-understood foreign policy objective. The tactic was also unusually realistic, because South Africa was an American ally heavily dependent on good relations with the U.S. at the time. (Incidentally, this example is why partisans of Israel react so hysterically to the BDS movement: U.S. sanctions might also work there.)

The sanctions against the Taliban, by contrast, have all the usual pathologies. The Biden administration has no clearly articulated list of demands, much less ones that the Taliban might realistically except. We are not the Taliban's allies. To the contrary, the administration fears being attacked for doing anything that could, even indirectly, help the group that sheltered al Qaeda before 9/11.

That fear isn't unfounded. The shrieking Fox News segments virtually write themselves, and given the deranged meltdown half the mainstream press had during the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the same can be expected from much of CNN and MSNBC (with a few exceptions, like Chris Hayes). A lot of "objective" reporters whose wounded imperial pride led them to pretend to care about the welfare of Afghan women and children are now mute when those same people are facing starvation by the millions. If the Taliban got a single dollar of American aid, you can bet most of these self-proclaimed humanitarians would be right next to Tucker Carlson delivering purple-faced harangues about 9/11 and the troops.

In that context, the Biden administration's Tuesday announcement of another $308 million in humanitarian aid, to be carefully routed around Taliban-controlled institutions, is almost bold. It brings our total aid to Afghanistan since October to $782 million, and it's certainly a step in the right direction.

But it's still not even close to adequate. The same day, the United Nations announced a fundraising goal for Afghanistan aid of $5 billion just to get the country through the next few months. Over and above that total, the Times reports U.N. officials think "far-reaching efforts are needed to revive the banking system, restore businesses, and stabilize an economy that has collapsed under international sanctions and the freezing of Afghanistan's international reserves." In other words, so long as U.S. sanctions continue in their current form, the Afghan economy cannot possibly recover.

Either the Biden administration and American foreign policy establishment can admit this — and acknowledge the Taliban won the war, and treat them like any other poor and unsavory government — or they can continue causing untold harm to Afghanistan's civilian population while almost certainly doing nothing to displace the Taliban from power. It's time to end this miserable and useless economic seige.

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