Let’s Call Sanctions What They Are – War

Just five months after President Biden’s high profile troop withdrawal from Afghanistan the country is in crisis. According to the United Nations World Food Program, 23 million Afghans are living in conditions of "severe food insecurity," and conditions are expected to get worse throughout the winter. This crisis comes not from President Biden’s so-called end of the war on Afghanistan, but rather through his continuation of the war through economic means.

Immediately after the U.S. troop withdrawal, the United States, along with the United Nations Security Council, launched heavy sanctions on Afghanistan. This resulted in a withdrawal of international funding equivalent to 40% of the country’s entire GDP. This was immediately devastating to the country given that 75% of its public spending was funded by foreign aid grants.

While it took a while for the economic crisis to gain attention from the international community, the situation in Afghanistan has gotten so bad that major news outlets are finally covering the issue. Not only are they covering it; they are publishing direct criticism of Biden’s policy of economic warfare. The New York Times editorial board published an op-ed requesting that Biden "let innocent Afghans have their money," and on the one year anniversary of Biden’s inauguration, MSNBC columnist Zeeshan Aleem wrote an opinion piece arguing that Biden never ended the war and that his economic sanctions are a form of collective punishment on the Afghan people.

With major news outlets publishing such direct critiques of Biden’s economic warfare on Afghanistan, it is safe to assume that even news consumers who do not pay close attention to foreign policy are learning more about sanctions than they usually would. However what is unfortunately not being made clear to a mainstream audience is that Afghanistan is just a particularly egregious example of a larger way that the United States wages war throughout the world.

For more than half a century – decades before the United States began militarily occupying Afghanistan – the United States began perfecting its tactics of economic warfare on the people of Cuba. The trade embargo the United States placed on Cuba beginning in 1960 now forbids most US companies from doing business with Cuba and even includes laws that punish foreign companies from trading with Cuba. Though Cuba has managed to maintain high standards of healthcare and education in spite of the embargo, the United Nations estimates that over six decades the embargo has cost the Cuban economy $130 billion dollars, resulting in regular food, fuel, and medicine shortages.

Tensions began to ease for a short time with President Obama opening up relations with Cuba towards the end of his presidency. Sadly this opening was short-lived. The Trump administration went back on all progress made under the Obama administration and placed even more severe sanctions on the country, including a limit on remittances that Cuban Americans can send to their relatives in Cuba. This was especially cruel since remittances were long one of the few sources of income that the Cuban people could rely on. Trump’s economic warfare on Cuba also meant that when the Covid-19 pandemic came, Cuba was initially unable to purchase millions of syringes it needed to vaccinate its population. Instead the country had to rely on dozens of US based groups like CODEPINK raising funds, purchasing syringes, and shipping them to Cuba in order to meet the Cuban people’s needs.

The Trump administration had a special love of sanctions and Cuba was not the only victim of such economic warfare. In 2017 the Trump administration put sanctions on Venezuela, severely limiting the country’s ability to import food. A report published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in 2019 found that these sanctions resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Venezuelans. In 2018 the administration launched "maximum pressure" sanctions on Iran which deprived the country of medical resources. The sanctions cut especially into Iranian hospitals’ ability to treat cancer patients. The sanctions also resulted in the Covid-19 pandemic hitting Iranians especially hard. Amid a surge in Covid deaths in Iran, Trump actually increased sanctions on the country.

The Biden administration has maintained the cruel economic warfare that Trump was such a fan of. Biden has carried over Trump’s sanctions on countries like Venezuela and Iran and added his own sanctions on various countries including Nicaragua and Ethiopia. Whatever justifications he may provide, the cost of sanctions is always placed primarily on the average civilian. Even when sanctions are only placed on individuals within a country’s government, businesses tend to completely steer clear of countries where US sanctions are in place, resulting in the entire populations of sanctioned countries being economically cut off from the international community.

As the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan is demonstrating to many people, economic warfare can be just as deadly as traditional warfare, especially when it’s being done by the United States. Sanctions are often used by imperialist leaders because they can be sold to the public as a more peaceful way for the United States to inflict its will. But economic warfare is still warfare. People should be outraged at how the United States is inflicting starvation and deprivation on the Afghan people, and that outrage must expand. Humanity has an obligation to fight for an end to the economic siege of Afghans as part of a larger fight against economic siege on Cubans, Iranians, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Ethiopians, and any other people that find themselves on the receiving end of US economic warfare.

Sam Carliner is a journalist based in New Jersey. His writing focuses on U.S. imperialism and the climate crisis. He is also the weekend social media manager at CODEPINK.