With the Taliban in power, Afghanistan and its people are in the midst of a world-historical humanitarian catastrophe that may not even have reached its peak.
No, it’s not August 2021, as Washington withdraws from its pointless, twenty-year occupation of the country and the Taliban seizes back control. This is 2022, and the reason you may not have heard much about it is because the solution, this time, doesn’t involve military force.
Ever since the Taliban took back power in August and September 2021, Afghanistan has been in the grip of a deadly crisis unparalleled in its already tumultuous modern history. While the Taliban are, to put it mildly, far from the country’s ideal stewards, this crisis has little to do with their policies. Rather, the causes are the worst drought in Afghanistan’s history, and the US sanctions that have devastated the nation’s economy and infrastructure from the moment the American military stopped bombing and killing.
There’s nothing anyone can do about the drought. The sanctions are a different story. $10 billion worth of assets that belong to the Afghan central bank have been frozen in the foreign vaults they’re kept in, including in the United States. The country’s $440 million worth of reserves held with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are likewise blocked. 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.
To say that the results have been devastating doesn’t really capture it. Doctors and civil servants went unpaid for months, as have the hundreds of thousands of security forces who lost their jobs in the political transition. The US freeze led to a devaluation in Afghan currency and exacerbated a steep rise in the cost of basic necessities, while interrupting the flow of overseas remittances, normally accounting for 4 percent of the country’s GDP.
As early as September, United Nations officials were warning that one million kids were at risk of starving to death, more than five times the number of all people killed over the course of the entire twenty years of US war in the country. By December, the UN upped that estimate to nearly twenty-three million people facing life-threatening food insecurity in the winter, and nearly nine million approaching famine.
With Afghanistan’s health care system reliant on a $600 million World Bank program funded by the United States and other foreign governments, its health system, like its economy, is also nearing collapse. Only four hundred of the health care facilities it funds are still operating, with widespread medicine shortages and medical professionals trying to deliver babies and carry out other procedures without electricity or enough equipment. This has all come about as the country’s been ravaged by no less than six epidemics, including measles, polio, and, of course, COVID-19. Like the rest of the Global South, Afghanistan is unable to secure vaccination against COVID due to Western governments’ jealous guarding of Big Pharma profits.
Ordinary Afghans have been reduced to selling any household items they have on the side of the road or, horrifyingly, their own children, in an effort to save their entire families from starving. While Washington has, after months of sitting by watching the horror they’d set in motion unfold, finally moved to allow some humanitarian exceptions to its sanctions, a small amount of foreign aid isn’t going to be enough to replace a functioning banking system or halt a collapsing economy.
This is an almost wholly man-made crisis, 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. This is clearly not working, though, because even as the Afghan economy continues its death spiral, the Taliban are still cutting the heads off female mannequins and barring women from traveling alone and using bathhouses.
Take a moment to think about the repugnant logic of Western governments here. 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. 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.
For casual observers, all this might be a bit puzzling. After all, it was only a few months ago that the press and wider political establishment took part in one of the most brazen pro-war campaigns in recent memory to undermine and reverse a US withdrawal from the horrific war there. That push, we were told at the time, was because of political and media figures’ intense, overwhelming love and concern for the Afghan people, particularly the “women and girls” relentlessly cited by people whose hearts suspiciously only started bleeding once there was a prospect of Western bombs and bullets no longer killing them.
Miraculously, these war-hawk humanitarians found a way to silence their consciences. As Adam Johnson has documented, figures like CNN anchor Jake Tapper, Atlantic columnist Caitlin Flanagan, and NBC journalist Richard Engel — who heavily reported on the chaos of the US withdrawal and even, at times, explicitly argued against it — have simply lost interest in the Afghan people’s suffering, almost totally ignoring the humanitarian disaster that’s unfolded since, and eliding the role of Western governments in the one or two instances where they have reported on it.
This is part and parcel of the broader media coverage of the war. For years, when Washington and its allies were killing kids, bombing hospitals, and otherwise creating the widespread rage that led Afghans to decide that they were better off under the deeply reactionary Taliban, TV news coverage of the war was negligible, reaching a combined total of a mere five minutes in all of 2020 across CBS, NBC, and ABC. When it looked like the war might actually, finally end, coverage then ramped up to 345 minutes in August 2021 alone. And now that the war is over and Western governments are inflicting even greater carnage by economic means, the press has lost interest again, devoting only twenty-one minutes to the country over ten segments since September.
The same is true for those members of Congress who are always quick to bring up the plight of Afghan civilians if that’s what it takes to sell a war. Intercept reporter Lee Fang went to the Capitol in December and couldn’t get a single congressperson to come out in clear opposition to the sanctions. Both Democrat Tammy Duckworth and Republican Richard Shelby justified them on the basis of the Taliban’s behavior, with Shelby claiming that “they’ll do more harm to the people of [Afghanistan] than anybody else could,” before immediately walking away. This is, of course, not remotely true: as illiberal as the Taliban are, the suffering imposed by their policies doesn’t come close to the scale of suffering from the famine and wholesale societal collapse that US policy is currently engineering.
In a familiar pattern of US foreign policy, policymakers have substituted a military war with an economic one. The conditions in Afghanistan and the program of economic strangulation behind them is identical to what Washington is currently doing in at least three other countries whose governments it dislikes: Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba.
The United States could use its enormous economic might for a variety of laudable, urgent causes, like using targeted financial sanctions to staunch the destruction of the world’s rainforests. Instead, it’s doing it to condemn millions of innocent people to starvation and disease. As is so often the case, Western governments don’t have to do much to make the world a better place — in fact, all they have to do is stop what they’re doing.