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Last week, it again became clear: The Biden White House—like many before it—is willing to facilitate mass death.
Since August, when the Biden administration withdrew US troops after two decades of war, Afghanistan has been experiencing one of the worst economic shocks of any country in recent history. After the Taliban essentially walked into power, Biden began blocking Afghanistan’s central bank from accessing the roughly $7 billion it has sitting in the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. Countries holding the rest of the central bank’s more than $9 billion in foreign reserves have been reluctant to release them before the United States makes a move, and US sanctions against the Taliban have brought other Afghan banking and currency circulation to a halt. As a result, banks have closed, salaries have gone unpaid, and inflation and unemployment have skyrocketed. Tens of millions of ordinary Afghan civilians do not have reliable access to food or electricity during winter, and millions of children could starve.
The country’s more than 40 million residents have been bearing this misery for months, waiting for Biden to do something. Late last week, he made his move. He issued an executive order consolidating and officially freezing the $7 billion held in the US, and announced plans to split that pot of money in half: $3.5 billion would be set aside to distribute as aid “for the benefit of the Afghan people” while the other roughly $3.5 billion would be made accessible to families of American victims of Taliban-aided terror attacks who had sued the group in US federal court.
Whatever recompense those American families of Taliban victims—who number less than one hundredth of 1 percent of the number of Afghans depending on the frozen funds—deserve, robbing millions of people to such an end would be a mockery of whatever notion of justice to which Biden is appealing.
The funds are the Afghan people’s money. If released, they would not—as administration officials, members of Congress, and many in the US media have said—be going “to the Taliban.” Rather, they would be controlled by a central bank that US-based economists designed (and in fact still help run) to be a stabilizing force amid chaotic politics—and which, despite the Taliban’s having appointed a new governor, board members have claimed is still able to operate independently. But even if the funds were slated to go directly to the Taliban-controlled government, how is that not appropriate if it will prevent mass starvation?
Moreover, that the Biden administration is trying to use “aid” to camouflage its pillaging is paternalistic at best. In its announcement, the Biden administration blamed the Taliban for the economic contraction, and said its decision to release some of the funds in the form of aid is “one step forward” in meeting “the needs of the Afghan people.” In reality, it’s a move to preserve the illusion of US dominance. Even now, after the US has failed in nearly every aspect of its nation-building project in Afghanistan, Biden seems to want to toss crumbs at the country’s starving people by channeling their own money through slow-moving Western-backed NGOs.
And these funds are indeed crumbs; though they are crucial to stabilizing the nation’s currency and avoiding mass starvation, releasing them would not make Taliban-controlled Afghanistan wealthy or even necessarily prop up the economy. Biden is playing keep-away over a sum that amounts to less than two-thirds of the New York City Police Department’s annual budget.
It’s mostly thanks to the Biden administration that, per the World Food Program, more than 23 million people don’t have enough to eat and some 9 million are facing starvation. Afghanistan is experiencing what is likely now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and the Biden administration has the power to end it.
Speaking of world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the last country to hold that grisly title—Yemen—also found itself in Biden’s crosshairs last week. As The Intercept reported, administration officials are considering designating the Houthi rebel movement, which is now the ruling power in northern Yemen, as a “foreign terrorist organization”—a move that would bring with it a slew of sanctions, which humanitarian groups have said would exacerbate the famine in the country. As of September, some 16 million Yemenis were at the brink of starvation and 2 million children acutely malnourished.
Biden campaigned on a promise to progressives and humanitarians that he would do his part to end the war in Yemen—the current iteration of which has lasted for nearly seven years, in no small part because of US support for the Saudi Arabia–led military coalition that is bombing the country.
This time last year, the Biden White House reversed a foreign terrorist organization designation the Trump administration had placed on the Houthis, citing its likely humanitarian consequences. Nothing about the humanitarian effects of such a designation has changed; rather, the United Arab Emirates, the main secondary power assaulting Yemen, asked the administration to reimplement it after the Houthis launched missile and drone attacks on Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
A year ago, Biden also promised to end support for “offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” But that promise has also gone unfulfilled. In the past year, Washington has sold hundreds of millions of dollars in arms and provided military logistical support to the coalition—which recently ramped up its bombing campaign, including by targeting hospitals and other civilian infrastructure—and the Biden administration has done nothing about Saudi Arabia’s grip on Yemeni ports, which is a major driver of the humanitarian crisis. The war’s death toll, including from disease, hunger, and kinetic attacks, is likely in the hundreds of thousands.
As brutal and corrupt as the Houthis are, they—like the Taliban in Afghanistan—now unquestionably run northwest Yemen, where a majority of the country’s 30 million people live. The US-back coalition cannot starve the Houthis out of power without starving millions of civilians in the process—and even then, an economic siege would be unlikely to topple the rebel regime.
In fact, the Biden administration doesn’t seem to care if any of its policies lead to huge numbers of preventable deaths among non-Americans. As The Nation’s Aída Chávez reported in October, a long-awaited Treasury Department review of the humanitarian impact of US sanctions policies during the Covid-19 pandemic amounted to nine pages of nationalistic justification with almost no acknowledgement of the well-documented suffering those policies have caused over the past two years. Meanwhile, US sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran worsened supply shortages, making the pandemic even more deadly.
The death toll from US policy under Biden is mounting. In Yemen, Biden’s professed concerns about civilian suffering have been nothing but hot air. And Biden’s Afghanistan plan is neither generous nor patriotic nor a savvy way to keep resources from terrorists. It’s a tantrum—a refusal to concede that the US war in Afghanistan was as spectacular a failure as any geopolitical grift in recent history. But it is in keeping with the Biden administration’s other foreign policy decisions, which have forced tens of millions into deadly destitution.
Chris Gelardi is a New York City–based journalist and a former editorial intern at The Nation.
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