Point & counterpoint | US Sanctions: Mark Weisbrot — A Deadlier Cost Than Decades of War

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Economic sanctions have become one of the most important tools of US foreign policy in recent years. There are more than 20 countries subject to various sanctions by the US government.

But if more Americans knew how many innocent civilians are actually dying because of these sanctions, would the worst of them be allowed?

We may be about to find out in Afghanistan. The sanctions currently imposed on the country are on track to kill more civilians in the coming year than have been killed in 20 years of war. There is nothing left to hide.

Projections for the winter estimate that 22.8 million people will face “high levels of acute food insecurity”. This represents 55% of the Afghan population, the highest ever recorded in the country. It is estimated that one million children suffer from “severe acute malnutrition” this year. Malnourished children are more likely to die from diseases, even though they can absorb enough calories and nutrients to survive. Already, 98% of the population does not get enough food, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.

The largest and most destructive sanction Afghanistan currently faces is the seizure of more than $7 billion in the country’s assets held by the US Federal Reserve. This equates to around half of Afghanistan’s economy and about 18 months of the country’s imports – which include food, medicine and infrastructure needs that are vital for public health.

But the effect of this loss of central bank assets is proving far more deadly than the loss of essential imports. The confiscated assets are in dollars; countries need these international hard currency reserves to maintain a stable financial system and economy. Since the country’s reserves were frozen, “cash shortages and the loss of correspondent banking relationships have crippled Afghan banks,” reports the International Monetary Fund.

News reports from the field describe the calamitous human cost of the disruption that results from the loss of these reserves: desperate mothers seeking medicine for emaciated children; the increasing number of people without income; farmers give up working their land.


The Afghan currency has depreciated more than 25% since August, driving up the price of food and other basic necessities beyond the reach of many people in what was already Asia’s poorest country. Banks have imposed a $400 limit on cash withdrawals, along with restrictions that prevent businesses from meeting their payroll. This pushes more people into unemployment and acute hunger.

Supporters of the sanctions, within the US government and elsewhere, have responded that people starving, malnourished or unemployed because of the sanctions can be helped by international aid. However, it is clear that the logic of destroying an economy and then trying to save people with aid does not work. The aid will replace only a small fraction of the country’s lost revenue, which the IMF estimates could decline by a staggering and unprecedented 30% in the coming months.

And there are enormous difficulties in channeling aid: the banking system is hampered, international banks and even some aid groups are reluctant to take the risks involved in transferring funds, and there are breakdowns in transport , as well as other essential services due to the sanctions and the resulting economic contraction.

Washington and its allies have argued that the sanctions are a necessary response to the Taliban’s human rights abuses, including the repression of women. But it is the people, especially the poorest, who pay the price. How many tens or hundreds of thousands of women and girls should be sacrificed to punish the Taliban?

Western governments, led by the United States as during 20 years of war, do not risk obtaining concessions from the Taliban by destroying the Afghan economy. But a huge price will be paid by millions of innocent people, many of whom will die, as food, healthcare, jobs and income become increasingly scarce.

Members of US Congress are beginning to backtrack: Four dozen sent a letter to President Biden in December noting: ‘US confiscation of $9.4 billion in foreign exchange reserves from Afghanistan’ plunges the country “deeper into the economic and humanitarian crisis”.

This collective punishment is horribly wrong and immoral. The Biden administration can remove the biggest contributing factor with the stroke of a pen.

They need to do it now, before it’s too late.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. He is the author of “Failed: What the ‘Experts’ Got Wrong About the Global Economy.” He wrote it for InsideSources.com.

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