For starving Afghans, no carrots, many (economic) sticks

Continuing the war through economic means should be called what it is: a crime against humanity.

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Image Credit: Astute News

For 2 decades, many of us have followed events in Afghanistan, a place that periodically captures the world’s attention when resisting foreign occupation, something that’s become almost routine since British imperialists set their sights on the country in 1839 as part of what was then called “the Great Game’ against Czarist Russia. 

With a median age just above 18 years old, the majority of Afghanistan’s population today were not yet born when the American led NATO intervention and occupation of the country unfolded in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 in New York and Washington, D.C. During the media celebration that followed the short war, only the most observant commentators in the Western press noted that the governing Taliban seemed to melt away rather than standing and fighting as bombs rained down on the country, hinting at the long-running, if usually low intensity, conflict to come.

While Pakistan and Saudi Arabia played out-sized roles in creating the fundamentalist center in the politics of Afghanistan that remained throughout the occupation through to the present day, the United States, as part of its ideological battle with the Soviet Union, incentivized a return to medieval thinking in a country that was slowly modernizing. After the U.S. funded and equipped mujahadeen chased out the Soviets in 1989, America’s former clients were no longer of much interest in Western foreign policy circles and were left to their own violent devices.

When the Taliban, or ‘students’, in the simplest translation of the Pashto term adopted from Arabic, took control from these warlords, they were mostly welcomed for the stability they represented despite their reactionary, misogynist and puritanical mix of Islam and politics. It would be ironic were it not so tragic that the quick overthrow of the Afghan government in 2001 saw the return of many of those who preyed upon the country prior to the rise of the Taliban, many elevated to positions of influence in a new, Western approved government.

Out of power, the Taliban would go on to create parallel governments in some areas, slowly expanding their influence over many years. Insurgents blended in with the civilian population, mainly fought at the most advantageous times and used local sympathy and knowledge to run circles around their much better trained and equipped enemies, local and foreign. 

With the withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces in mid Augustof last year, despite Joe Biden claiming that a takeover was “highly unlikely”, the Taliban easily took control of the country, even in parts of Afghanistan’s north that had long resisted them.

While much of the Taliban leadership probably lived relatively well in neighboring Pakistan over the past 2 decades,  with the insurgency at its end, those doing the actual fighting were probably ready for some of the prosperity enjoyed by many of those who served under the previous, Western supported government. It’s unlikely most were aware of the widespread economic strangulation that the West could and has imposed.

Rather than trying to moderate the country’s new Taliban government through diplomacy, offering carrots like increased aid and investment for respecting the rights of women and minority groups like the Shia Hazara, the U.S. and its allies appear to be trying to make them fail through economic warfare.

Initially these measures included seizing $9.5 billion in assets held by the U.S. Federal Reserve in New York and by American banks and other financial institutions, money that belonged to Afghans who have no tools to access it, not the Taliban or the previous government. 

As reported on this web-site last week, 1 million children in a country of just under 23 million people face “severe acute malnutrition” and 98% of the population are trying to go about their daily lives living with hunger due to food insecurity.

The follow on effects of sanctions paired with the withdrawal of aid is destabilizing the whole society, with journalist Robert Koehler recently writing, “No increase in food and medical aid can compensate for the macroeconomic harm of soaring prices of basic commodities, a banking collapse, a balance-of-payments crisis, a freeze on civil servants’ salaries, and other severe consequences that are rippling throughout Afghan society, harming the most vulnerable.”

Though some NGOs have bravely continued their work, in a country that relied on foreign aid to feed and provide other basics like healthcare and education to its citizens, the withdrawal of security guarantees as foreign armies departed and the Taliban took control led to an exodus of many aid workers and the humanitarian services they were providing.

In regards to this exodus, the executive director of U.S. based Sahar Education, which was working in the country on projects that included building a school for girls but pulled out as the Taliban took control told NPR in late August, “All our staff went home because they felt scared for their lives.” 

Adding insult to injury, the Biden Administration announced on Friday, February 11th that they would be releasing $7 billion of the seized funds with the caveat that only half would be returned to the people of Afghanistan, with the rest earmarked to compensate the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. 

While the U.S. government has promised to release half of the $7 billion to Afghans, they have been short on the details of how this will actually be done. As explained by the Intercept this week, the Biden Administration is blaming a court delay for the failure to release the money. 

Another problem noted in the piece cited above is how these funds, if they are actually released at some point in the future, will be distributed. A likely route is through the NGOs that remain, whose operations have not always proven cost effective in other places destabilized by war and natural disasters.

While ensuring widespread economic pain, Western leaders and much of the press perversely insist that these actions are being taken to ensure ‘stability’ in the country.

While the Taliban did offer sanctuary to the wealthy Arabs who had fought alongside them against the Soviets, most ordinary Afghans probably had no idea what Al Qaeda was until foreign armies began pounding the country with bombs in 2001. Considering how many of the actual hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens, it might be more just to look there for compensation for the victims of these crimes.

When the invasion took place in 2001 and during the withdrawal this past summer, many commentators who almost never mention these issues in any other context presented themselves as proud defenders of the rights of Afghan women.

That this is a matter of convenience is proven by the fact that these are the Afghans who will bear the brunt of a brutal sanctions regime as they try to provide for their children. The West has failed them as surely the U.S. and its NATO allies failed at both war and institution building in Afghanistan. Continuing the war through economic means should be called what it is: a crime against humanity.

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