Last Monday two United Nations (UN) agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Programme (WFP), jointly released a report flagging Afghanistan as a hotspot “of highest concern,” reporting:
“In Afghanistan, approximately 15.3 million people (35 percent of the population analysed) are estimated to face high acute food insecurity […] Over 3.2 million children and 804,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women are acutely malnourished.”
Hsiao-Wei Lee, Afghanistan Director at the WFP, stated in March, “the country is at the highest risk of famine in a quarter of a century and WFP’s food assistance is the last lifeline for millions of Afghans.” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres referred to the situation in Afghanistan in May as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world today.” 13,700 Afghan children died of hunger in the first ten weeks of 2022 alone according to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health.Current levels of food aid provided to Afghanistan are substantially inadequate: in May the UN reported it had only secured 9% of the $4.6bn in emergency aid it had requested for the year. An email I received this week from Philippe Kropf, the Director of Communications at WFP, eloquently explains how funding shortfalls have led to a massive reduction in aid distribution:
“An acute funding crisis is upon WFP in Afghanistan. Already, we reduced the ration size and we were forced to cut 8 million highly vulnerable people from our emergency programme. These reductions and some new funding received will allow us to assist just over five million most vulnerable people across the country from June to September. At current funding levels, however, we expect a first pipeline break for pulses and wheat flour in August and for vegetable oil in September. Beyond that, another harsh winter beckons at the end of the year – a winter which many cannot survive without funding and assistance picking up in the months to come. WFP needs US$918 million to cover operations for the coming six months.”
The mental health of the Afghans is at an all time low according to Gallup, which found that “almost all Afghans — 98% — rate their life so poorly that they are considered suffering. This percentage tops the previous high of 94% in 2021.” Unfortunately, also according to Gallup, the previous high was “not only a record high for Afghanistan, but also the highest level of suffering that Gallup has measured for any country since 2005.”
The Leading Role of US Sanctions
With around 15 million Afghans on the brink of famine and the current aid falling significantly short, it prompts us to ponder: what is causing such extreme poverty among Afghans that they are unable to afford even the most fundamental necessity of food? The Western business press cites US sanctions as the root cause driving Afghanistan’s economic crisis. The Economist reports:
“America and its allies have isolated the country. They have largely shut off the aid that once provided 75% of Afghanistan’s budget, and withheld $9.5bn of its sovereign reserves … Its loss of Western support has triggered an economic crunch that threatens millions with starvation.”
The Wall Street Journal follows Miya Ibrahim, an Afghan shopkeeper, who imports flour, cooking oil and rice for his business. The Journal finds:
“Mr. Ibrahim’s main problem is that it has become much more expensive to import goods to Afghanistan. ‘Our biggest challenge is banks. No one can send money abroad,’ said Mr. Ibrahim, who now buys goods almost only from bordering Pakistan. Foreign companies and banks are widely avoiding transactions with Afghanistan for fear of running afoul of international sanctions that target the Taliban leadership. That means people such as Mr. Ibrahim can no longer pay for imports through bank transfers.”
Global humanitarian organizations agree with the western business press about the leading role US sanctions. Former U.N. aid chief and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Secretary General Jan Egeland states: “It is now, paradoxically, the Western sanctions that is our main problem in saving lives in Afghanistan.” Madina Matin, a manager at Aseel, an Afghanistan aid organization, finds, “the [US-led] sanctions and banking restriction limit Afghanistan’s access to international financial institutions and donors, which can impact the ability of national organisations to secure funding for humanitarian aid.”
David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee and former UK Foreign Secretary, observes, “the US has a disproportionate and inescapable role to play given its direct control of Afghan financial assets, the wide-ranging impact of US sanctions and its leverage as the largest contributor to key international financial institutions.” Miliband further cautioned that, “the current humanitarian crisis could kill far more Afghans than the past 20 years of war.” While the US claims that sanctions are ‘targeted’ and only affect the Taliban, the NRC finds:
“Banks continue to restrict businesses’ access to financial services despite the exemptions in place […] payment instructions for any international bank transaction that mention Afghanistan get blocked, even for transactions for food shipments via the United Nations […] one European Bank reportedly needed 40-50 staff members to facilitate one financial transaction to Afghanistan.”
Perhaps the US is deliberately targeting the Afghan population, thereby creating a situation where they blame their government for the economic conditions and eventually overthrow it, much like the US did when it imposed sanctions on Chile. The Economist, however, argues that sanctions cannot effectively achieve even that goal: “It will not topple or even destabilise the regime, which is in firm control. It will only boost its hardliners.” National Public Radio interviewed Afghans and found that “few waiting in line at the WFP distribution center” blame the new government, “instead, many see the international community at fault.”
Lifting US Sanctions and Providing Aid: A Starting Point
In advance of a UN summit addressing the crisis, a coalition of 21 grassroots Afghan civil society organizations released a statement urging the lifting of US sanctions, “that are crippling an already struggling private sector and leads to overcompliance of the international banking system.” The civil society groups also called for the, “unfreezing of the #Afghanistan Central Bank’s assets to improve the banking and liquidity crisis plaguing the country and restore the SWIFT system.” They ended their statement with the following appeal:
“As Afghans living and working in Afghanistan, we are advocating on behalf of millions that have remained here and are suffering from a multitude of man-made crises. We urge you all to consider them when you meet this week to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. The current approach to Afghanistan has only increased the suffering in this country. Our people are innovative, determined, pioneering and resilient – let’s work towards lifting the barriers to our progress.”
All six of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, who are burdened with the majority of Afghanistan’s 2.7mn refugees, in March urged the US to unfreeze Afghanistan’s central bank assets. Ismatilla Ergashev, Uzbek’s special representative, noted that the assets could be used to, “pay the salaries of… school teachers and doctors, and at the same time to support the part of the population which is in a difficult situation.”
While lifting US sanctions would resolve the underlying economic crisis, until then it is crucial for the US to address the UN aid shortfall, which stands at a staggering $4.2bn currently for this year. Since the end of the US military occupation, the US has contributed a paltry $1.9bn in aid to Afghanistan, an amount that falls significantly short of the $10.9bn requested by the UN during the same period.
US Reparations to Afghanistan: A Legal Obligation
A policy rooted in international law would involve granting Afghanistan reparations for the extensive devastation inflicted and the loss of tens of thousands of Afghan lives due to the illegal US invasion. The legal grounds for compensation are laid out in UN Security Council Resolution (UNSC) 687, which states that Iraq, having just illegally invaded Kuwait at the time of the resolution, “is liable under international law for any direct loss, damage, including environmental damage and the depletion of natural resources, or injury to foreign Governments, nationals and corporations, as a result of Iraq’s unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait.”
The term “unlawful” in UNSC 687 aptly describes the US invasion of Afghanistan. The US argues that the invasion, despite lacking authorization from the UN Security Council, was legally justified as an act of self-defense in response to 9/11. However, the claim of self-defense fails to hold on multiple grounds, as explained by John Quigly, a distinguished law professor at Ohio State University:
“The attack on Afghanistan was not a lawful response. To have a valid self-defense claim, the United States would have to satisfy each of the six indicated elements; on none of the six did it have a convincing argument. As of October 7, 2001, the United States was not experiencing an armed attack. It pursued the wrong target. It did not pursue methods short of armed force to protect itself and failed to approach the U.N. Security Council. It did not use force in a fashion calculated to protect itself. It used more force than was necessary.”
The US falls short of meeting one of the six crucial criteria for self-defense in a rather astonishing manner: the lack of evidence substantiating Al Qaeda’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks. John Quigly illustrates:
“With regard to Osama bin Laden, whom the United States did specifically name, Afghanistan indicated willingness, both before and after October 7, 2001, to discuss a surrender, but the United States refused to talk to the Taliban government. As Cherif Bassiouni, a leading analyst of extradition law, stated, ‘The United States … never formally sought bin Laden’s extradition from Afghanistan, nor did it present to Afghanistan’s government any evidence of his criminal involvement in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.’”
As far as eight months into the invasion, the US had still not provided, let alone found, any evidence that Al Qaeda was involved in 9/11. Robert Mueller, the lead investigator into 9/11 and FBI Director at the time, stated in his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2002:
“In our investigation, we have not yet uncovered a single piece of paper – either here in the U.S. or in the treasure trove of information that has turned up in Afghanistan and elsewhere – that mentioned any aspect of the September 11th plot.”
How much does the US owe to Afghanistan in reparations for its aggression? While determining the exact amount of compensation is more of an art than a science, it might be helpful to look at what past aggressor states have paid to their victims. For example, Iraq compensated Kuwait $52.4bn for their invasion and seven month occupation. Considering that Iraq, a nation with a GDP of less than 1% of the United States’ GDP ($208bn compared to $23tn), managed to compensate Kuwait $52.4bn despite enduring two US invasions, crippling sanctions imposed by the world’s superpower, and years of sectarian conflict, it is difficult for me to comprehend why the US, being the wealthiest country in human history, cannot afford to contribute more than the dismal $1.9bn it has sent to the Afghan people.
Some may say that comparing the US’ monetary obligations to Iraq’s is a faulty comparison since the US, with a foreign policy guided by democracy and human rights, carried out its invasion much differently than Saddam Hussein, a murderous tyrant. This criticism may have merit given the significant disparities that exist between the two acts of aggression. For instance, whereas Iraq adhered to conventional weaponry, the US employed white phosphorus, a chemical previously utilized in rat poison and infamous for its ability to cause severe burns down to the bone, as well as cluster bombs, which are presently prohibited by international law due to their indiscriminate impact on civilian populations.
Also notable is that the US, unlike Iraq, initiated its attack on a nation already grappling with a severe humanitarian crisis. The New York Times reported that prior to the invasion in October 2001, when millions of Afghans were dependent on international food aid, the US demanded from Pakistan “the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan’s civilian population.” Unsurprisingly, food shipments plummeted drastically. The Times later reported that Washington’s “threat of military strikes forced the removal of international aid workers, crippling assistance programs.” Food aid managed to resume just a week before the invasion, but was suspended when the bombing kicked off on October 7. When aid eventually started flowing back in, it was at a much slower pace.
Perhaps the most significant distinction between the US’ invasion and Iraq’s lies in consequences for the aggressor state. While the US emerged unscathed, Iraq, in the words of Secretary of State James Baker III, was bombed “back into the stone age”. A comprehensive study conducted by Beth Osborne Daponte, a senior research scholar at Yale and former Census Bureau analyst, uncovered that US bombing alone killed 3,664 Iraqi civilians. Furthermore, according to Thomas Griffith, Director of the Defense National Security Studies Program at George Washington University and a 30-year career veteran of the US Air Force, US bombing “virtually eliminated” Iraq’s national energy grid, bringing its capacity down from 9,500 megawatts to less than 300. The lack of electricity rendered Iraq’s healthcare and water purification systems dysfunctional, which, according to Daponte, killed an additional 70,000 Iraqi civilians from lack of water and healthcare in the following months. Over the next decade, US-led sanctions prevented Iraq from importing medicine and food as well as the necessary equipment to rebuild their infrastructure, which led to the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children according to a UN Children’s Fund survey conducted in 1999.
If we consider that even a country as devastated as Iraq was legally obliged to pay scores of billions to Kuwait for its invasion, then surely the US bears a similar, if not greater, responsibility to the people of Afghanistan.
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