One million Afghan children may die from starvation over the next several months, according to the United Nations. Nearly 23 million Afghans are facing “crisis levels of hunger” and 8.7 million are on the “brink of starvation.” This mass hunger has rendered millions of Afghans on the “verge of death,” according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Alongside looming mass starvation, Afghans face below-freezing temperatures, severe shortages of life-saving medical supplies, and extreme poverty, making conditions in Afghanistan among the gravest of human rights crises on Earth.
This is not a natural disaster, nor is it the result of conflict internal to Afghanistan. This a human-made humanitarian catastrophe. United States-made, specifically.
The U.S.-allied Afghan government, most recently under the rule of Ashraf Ghani, was heavily dependent on foreign aid. Following the Taliban takeover in mid-August 2021, the Biden administration and the UN Security Council instituted devastating sanctions, sharply reducing foreign aid. The Biden administration froze 9.5 billion dollars’ worth of Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves, roughly equivalent to 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Journalists Ryan Grim and Sara Sirota recently reported that the White House has “urged European partners and multilateral institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to similarly starve the nation of capital.” This has led to the total collapse of Afghanistan’s economy, creating “an almost globally unprecedented level of economic shock.” Unemployment has skyrocketed, and the country’s health care infrastructure has been decimated.
As experts have noted, more Afghans are poised to die from U.S. sanctions over the next few months alone than have died at the hands of the Taliban and U.S. military forces over the last 20 years combined — by a significant margin. Yet, as journalist Murtaza Hussain recently wrote, U.S. establishment politicians and intellectuals who decried the humanitarian crisis during the fall of Kabul are seemingly unbothered by imminent mass starvation, imposed by us.
The Biden administration — which routinely laments human rights violations perpetrated by China, Iran, Russia, and other adversaries — is ignoring desperate pleas from humanitarian organizations and UN human rights bodies, choosing instead to maintain policies virtually guaranteed to cause mass starvation and death of civilians, especially children. Yet it is important to note, and remember, that as a matter of policy, this is not particularly new; the U.S. has often imposed harsh economic sanctions, causing mass civilian death. A previous imposition of sanctions resulted in one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes, one largely forgotten in mainstream historical memory.
In 1990, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iraq through the UN following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. These sanctions continued for more than a decade after Iraq withdrew from Kuwait, and had horrific humanitarian consequences eerily similar to the imminent mass starvation of Afghan civilians. The sanctions regime against Iraq — which began under President George H.W. Bush but was primarily administered by President Bill Clinton’s administration — froze Iraq’s foreign assets, virtually banned trade, and sharply limited imports.
These sanctions crashed the Iraqi economy and blocked the import of humanitarian supplies, medicine, food, and other basic necessities, killing scores of civilians. The respected international diplomat, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, led the first UN delegation to Iraq shortly after the imposition of sanctions. The delegation reported that, “Nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for the particular form of devastation which has now befallen the country.” The sanctions had produced “near apocalyptic results.”
Two years later, the World Food Program reported that the continuing sanctions had “virtually paralyzed the whole economy and generated persistent deprivation, chronic hunger, endemic undernutrition, massive unemployment, [and] widespread human suffering…. A grave humanitarian tragedy is unfolding.”
The consequences of the sanctions for Iraq’s health care system were dramatic. Journalist Jeremy Scahill extensively covered Iraq under these sanctions and reported that, “Every pediatric hospital felt like a death row for infants.” Highly trained Iraqi doctors had the knowledge to save these infants, but the sanctions blocked them from acquiring basic medical supplies and pharmaceuticals, forcing doctors to reuse syringes multiples times and ultimately watch children die of perfectly treatable ailments. Iraqi hospitals “reeked of gasoline,” Scahill recalled, since desperate doctors were forced to substitute gasoline for sterilizer, disinfectant and bleach.
UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Denis Halliday resigned his post in protest of the sanctions after serving as a UN diplomat for more than 30 years. During his resignation, he told the press that, “four thousand to five thousand children are dying unnecessarily every month due to the impact of sanctions because of the breakdown of water and sanitation, inadequate diet and the bad internal health situation.” He went on to label the U.S.-imposed sanctions “genocide.” His successor, German Diplomat Hans von Sponeck, also resigned in protest after fewer than two years, calling the sanctions a “true human tragedy that needs to be ended.”
A report by the UN Commission on Human Rights studying the impact of the sanctions on Iraq estimated the civilian death toll to be in the “range from half a million to a million and a half, with the majority of the dead being children.” Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was confronted with this shocking statistic on “60 Minutes,” which led to this now-infamous exchange:
Lesley Stahl: We have heard that half-a-million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?
Madelaine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice. But the price — we think — the price is worth it.
During this era of sanctions, then-Sen. Joe Biden was a member, and eventually chair, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Biden strongly supported the sanctions and advocated for even more aggressive policies toward Iraq. Biden was not then, and is not now, known for his humanitarian impulses or dovish foreign policy stances. The same cannot be said for Samantha Power.
Power is the current head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who was brought into the Biden administration to be a champion of human rights, “lifting up the vulnerable” and “ushering in a new era of human progress and development,” according to Biden’s nomination statement. Power was the founding director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, served as the Obama administration’s UN ambassador, and has a long list of human rights accolades. The nomination of this “human rights crusader,” as Politico put it, was widely praised in the human rights community. Yet Power’s record on U.S. imposed sanctions — first in scholarship and then practice — is abysmal.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Power describes the U.S. response to genocides of the 20th century, arguing that U.S. power should have been used to prevent atrocities and protect civilians. In the chapters surveying the 1990s, Power condemns the Clinton administration’s failure to intervene in Rwanda, intervene soon enough in the Balkans, and use U.S. military force to curb atrocities elsewhere.
Yet the U.S. sanctions regime that caused mass devastation to Iraqi civilians was conspicuously absent — it does not get a single mention in the book. For someone so dedicated to using U.S. power to protect civilians and stop atrocities, Power’s silence on the hundreds of thousands of children dead from U.S. sanctions is telling. Power is unrelenting — and rightfully so — in her condemnation of human rights abuses carried out by other countries. Yet even though the death toll of the U.S.-imposed sanctions rivaled or even exceeded the contemporaneous atrocities and genocides Power depicted in her book, when the U.S. was the perpetrator, she was silent. Unfortunately, her silence on sanctions, and their devastating human consequences, persists.
Power, as administrator of USAID, is now an active participant in the starvation of Afghan civilians. In response to pleas from the UN and humanitarian organizations working in Afghanistan, USAID increased humanitarian aid. But as experts have noted, meagerly increasing aid while imposing devastating sanctions and freezing nearly all of Afghanistan’s foreign assets will do nearly nothing to stop the “unprecedented level of economic shock.” There is near consensus among numerous humanitarian coordinators that the only way to curb the collapse of Afghanistan’s economy and prevent furthering the major humanitarian disaster already underway is to lift the sanctions. Unfortunately, Power, the celebrated defender of human rights, refuses to call for a lifting of the sanctions, and instead remains uncritical.
The devastating human toll of sanctions on Iraqi civilians in the ‘90s is a grim warning for what lies ahead if current U.S. policy continues. The Clinton administration’s sanctions caused mass death and suffering, and the Biden administration is dangerously close to following in their footsteps. The “human rights hawks” who lamented the humanitarian consequences of the fall of Kabul are now silent in the face of U.S.-imposed mass starvation, and the “human rights crusader” within the administration is complicit.
We must listen to the chorus of humanitarian organizations and pressure the Biden administration to immediately lift the sanctions before it is too late. Afghans have suffered at the hands of the U.S. for long enough.
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