Progressive US lawmakers and human rights advocates are urging the Biden administration to immediately lift economic sanctions on Afghanistan that are fueling a humanitarian disaster and as famine threatens millions in the war-torn nation. "Aid groups have predicted that if current U.S. economic policy toward Afghanistan continues, there could be more civilian deaths this year than there were in 20 years of war," the Congressional Progressive Caucus tweeted Sunday. "The Biden administration can, and must, act now."
The Taliban seized control of the country in August following the U.S. military's withdrawal after two decades of a military occupation that enriched weapons makers but did little to benefit the Afghan people. Following its defeat, the U.S. then imposed new sanctions the Taliban government, while the World Bank and IMF froze crucial assets.
While last summer's troop pullout received widespread corporate media coverage, the country crisis is now largely absent from news reports. There's been a "stunning plunge" in coverage, as foreign policy analyst Jim Lobe put it late last month, despite "unprecedented levels of hunger and starvation for which U.S. sanctions bear important responsibility."
Warnings from aid groups about the humanitarian impacts of Western nations cutting off vital aid to the country were clear in the weeks following the military withdrawal. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, for example, warned of "imminent collapse of health services and widespread hunger"—crises made worse by the coming harsh winter and a fuel crisis.
In a mid-December statement, Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the World Food Program's country director in Afghanistan, put the situation in stark terms. "Afghanistan is facing an avalanche of hunger and destitution the likes of which I have never seen in my 20 plus years with the World Food Program," she said.
With a new year underway, the situation remains dire; the International Rescue Committee said last week that Afghanistan was the country "most at risk of worsening humanitarian crisis in 2022." As a result of the international community's suspension of most nonhumanitarian aid and the freezing of billions of assets, said IRC, "most health clinics have closed and the economy has spiraled downward (risking near-universal poverty)."
This story really has not broken through but, again, ****23 million of 39 million**** Afghans already do not have enough food to eat, per aid groups— Jeff Stein (@JStein_WaPo) January 10, 2022
The US has choked off much international aid while effectively seizing the country's government assetshttps://t.co/qoo7eeVoGS
According to one Afghan identified as Awesta who works with IRC, "The international community has turned its back on us."
"The healthcare system is on the brink of collapse," the person said, and "most Afghans can't afford to feed themselves or their families, and, with millions marching towards famine, I am desperately concerned for the people of my country."
The humanitarian group estimated that "throughout early 2022, 55% of Afghans will face acute food insecurity, including nearly 9 million people at emergency levels—one step before famine conditions."
"Food insecurity is likely to deepen in 2022 as the country is facing shortages of food, rapidly rising food prices, and an ongoing drought," the group said, noting that the food crisis coincides with an increasingly critical situation for girls and women, who face a "higher risk of gender-based violence, child marriage, and exploitation and abuse as resources become scarce and needs go unmet."
Writing Sunday at The Intercept, Murtaza Hussain put the blame squarely on "U.S. sanctions policy" for "pushing Afghans over the edge."
As Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote this 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 governments do not change their Afghanistan sanction policies, more Afghans will die from sanctions than at the hands of the Taliban."
The deaths will be brought about as a result of deliberate policy decisions made in the U.S. Alongside new sanctions imposed after the Taliban takeover, the U.S. froze nearly $10 billion of Afghanistan’s central bank holdings here. The Biden administration refuses to release the funds despite ongoing public protests by Afghans.
Author and Jacobin staff writer Branko Marcetic also noted that "for months, the IMF, World Bank, aid organizations, and others stopped the flow of foreign aid to the country—which, before the Taliban takeover, had accounted for three-quarters of public spending and 43 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP." The country's healthcare system and economy, he added, are "nearing collapse."
"This is an almost wholly man-made crisis," wrote Marcetic, "and the reason it’s being engineered and stubbornly held in place is because Washington and European powers, in their telling, don't want to 'reward' the Taliban for their medieval treatment of women." But that logic, he said, is both critically flawed and "repugnant."
Food and fuel prices are skyrocketing in Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. Millions are on the brink of starvation. Banks can't process humanitarian aid. The Intercept's @lhfang tried to speak to lawmakers in Congress, but few seemed to care.— The Intercept (@theintercept) December 14, 2021
Video: @PaulAbowd pic.twitter.com/ZJLsv0ZBHC
"The ones bearing the brunt of all this are ordinary Afghan people, whom Washington and its allies are using as ransom to force the Taliban to stop repressing . . . those same people, who these governments are busy humanitarianly starving to death," he continued. "This makes no sense, and it suggests that none of it has anything to do with concerns for Afghan people's welfare, but rather is about punishing a faction of political foes that embarrassed Western militaries."
To avert further humanitarian catastrophe, a group of 46 House Democrats last month urged President Joe Biden to urgently stop imposing and supporting economic policies that threaten to plunge Afghanistan—"which relies overwhelmingly on imports that require hard currency—deeper into economic and humanitarian crisis."
"Punitive economic policies will not weaken Taliban leaders, who will be shielded from the direst consequences," the lawmakers wrote, "while the overwhelming impact of these measures will fall on innocent Afghans who have already suffered decades of war and poverty."