“Smart” Sanctions On Afghanistan

James Ingalls

The United Nations
Security Council voted on December 19, 2000 to intensify the existing
sanctions against the Taliban militia that currently rules Afghanistan. The
goal of the sanctions, according to United States Ambassador to the UN, Nancy
Soderberg, is “convincing the Taliban leadership to turn over the terrorist
that we seek.” The terrorist is Osama bin Laden, the Saudi businessperson
wanted by the U.S. in connection with the bombings of its embassies in Kenya
and Tanzania in 1998, and now suspected of plotting the October 12 attack on
the USS Cole. The UN resolution was initiated by the U.S. and Russia,
and was co-sponsored by India, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. It passed, 13-0,
with China and Malaysia dissenting, but abstaining. Ambassador Soderberg
hailed the Council vote as a “strong stand against terrorism and for the
maintenance of international peace and security.” The Canadian ambassador said
he voted for the resolution “because of the strong anti-terrorist message it
sent.” The ambassador from the Netherlands explained that, “it was important
that the Council should send a political signal and send it with one voice.”

In addition to
reinforcing the October 1999 Security Council ban on flights and closure of
offices of Ariana, the national airline of Afghanistan, the current sanctions
introduce an arms embargo against the Taliban. When asked if the people of
Afghanistan would suffer, Ambassador Soderberg dismissed the suggestion.
“These sanctions, we have very specifically targeted to not have an impact on
the humanitarian situation on the ground.”

It is true that
the wording of the resolution is targeted only at the Taliban, and does not
literally impose hardships on ordinary Afghans. In fact, the resolution seems
to do what should have been done for years to the Taliban—eliminate their
ability to wage war and to produce and sell opium. Unfortunately, the Taliban
are not the only armed militia in Afghanistan. Their adversaries, the United
Front, fundamentalist extremists and terrorists in their own right, are as
guilty as the Taliban of war crimes, from the bombardment of residential areas
to summary executions and ethnic cleansing. To cut off weapons flows to the
Taliban and not to the United Front legitimizes the behavior of the latter
group, and ignores the plight of their victims. Human Rights Watch argued in a
letter to the Security Council prior to the vote, “it is particularly
unfortunate that the present discussion is limited to the Taliban’s role in
harboring Osama bin Laden…and does not directly address the grave abuses
that continue to be perpetrated against the country’s own civilian
population…[by] all warring factions.”


Other Issues
are Left to Others

In Secretary-General
Kofi Annan’s  November 20 report to the UN General Assembly and Security
Council, he lamented that, “the tendency persists to see Afghanistan as a
series of compartmentalized problems, be they narcotics, terrorism or
refugees, and to seek to solve them in isolation rather than through a
comprehensive approach. It is to be hoped that the Security
Council…resolutions and decisions…will be…taken in the context of,
rather than being a substitute for, a comprehensive strategy to bring about a
lasting solution to the Afghan conflict.”

The new
sanctions show the contempt in which the Security Council must have held
Annan’s words. Indeed, Soderberg saw no problem with a compartmentalized
approach, admitting that the sanctions constitute, “a single-purpose
resolution aimed at terrorism. The other issues [we leave] to others.”

“Other issues”
left to others include diplomacy and humanitarian aid. According to Annan the
sanctions are “not going to facilitate peace efforts, nor our humanitarian
work.” It is significant that the sanctions were imposed only one month after
Annan’s Personal Representative, Francesc Vendrell, had obtained the first
ever written commitment by both the Taliban and the United Front, “to seek a
political settlement through an uninterrupted process of negotiations under
United Nations auspices.” The Economist predicted that Vendrell’s
“tenuous effort at peace-broking…is likely to be an early casualty” of the
sanctions. Indeed the Taliban immediately shut down the UN mission in
Afghanistan and exited from negotiations. Sergei Lavrov, the current president
of the Security Council, somehow excused this by blaming the Taliban for
promising “on many occasions to begin the negotiating process, and each
time…[breaking] their word.” Thus, the Security Council has effectively
rendered United Nations negotiators as untrustworthy as the Taliban.

also predicted that another “casualty of the American and
Russian plan to get tougher with the Taliban…is likely to be the UN’s own
humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan.” The Chinese ambassador abstained from
voting because Afghanistan is “facing a serious humanitarian situation,” and
the sanctions “would undoubtedly make that situation even worse.” The
situation is indeed grave. Kofi Annan summarizes: “The accumulated and direct
effects of conflict, compounded by extreme poverty and profound
underdevelopment, contribute to a situation that has resulted in Afghans being
amongst those who are least able to enjoy their rights, including the right to
life.” According to a 1997 UNICEF study, children in Afghanistan are twice as
likely to die before their first birthday than those in other South Asian
countries and Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate is the second highest in
the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization has declared Afghanistan to
be one of the three hungriest countries in the world. Around 70 percent of
Afghans are undernourished—this is more than twice the pre-war figure from
1979. During 1999 and 2000, at least 140,000 Afghans have been displaced
internally due to armed conflict. Afghans in Pakistan, Iran, and other nations
have constituted the largest single refugee group in the world since 1979.
Nearly 50,000 new refugees have fled to Pakistan since September alone,
although the numbers dwindled after the border was closed on November 7.

Millions of
Afghans depend critically on international humanitarian organizations for much
of their food, health care, and shelter needs. These organizations are
unanimous in their opposition to the new sanctions. Oxfam warned that the
resolution, “threatens to deepen this already desperate humanitarian crisis.”
Eight French aid groups, including Action Against Famine, Medecins du Monde,
and International Medical Aid, have sent a letter to French Prime Minister
Lionel Jospin, expressing fears that the sanctions “will worsen the
humanitarian situation” in Afghanistan. The UN Coordinator for Afghanistan
Erick de Mul complained, “The ability of ordinary Afghans to withstand any
kind of deterioration in their situation after twenty years of war is
extremely limited, and seemingly innocuous actions can have a serious impact
on the lives of millions of people.”

A report
published on December 8 by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian
Affairs (OCHA), “Vulnerability and Humanitarian Implications of UN Security
Council Sanctions in Afghanistan,” studied the effects of the earlier 1999
sanctions on the people of Afghanistan. The report found that, “the direct
impact of sanctions on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is limited
but tangible.” In particular, the ban on Ariana flights has “cut the main
supply link” between the Indira Gandhi Paediatric Hospital in Kabul and the
outside world. The hospital was built and equipped in 1968 by the Indian
government, who donated medicines and medical equipment until just before the
sanctions took effect. Because of the war, malnutrition, and drought, the
hospital continues to operate at full capacity, but under less than optimum
conditions. The report notes that, “Sanctions have contributed to a
deterioration of the standard of care provided in the hospital. The loss of
the airlink seems to have constrained the hospital from restocking with
essential drugs from its previous main supplier. Children’s families are being
asked to purchase medicines themselves at a time of economic crisis, when the
majority of the Kabul population barely has the means to obtain food, let
alone medicine.” Before the sanctions were imposed, an estimated 10 percent of
the medicines used in the hospital were bought by patients. Now 50 percent of
the medicines must be bought from the bazaar and the rest must be donated by
aid agencies.


Sanctions as

Clearly, the sanctions
will not improve the lives of ordinary Afghans. But why cause increased
hardships just to take a “strong stand against terrorism?” The U.S. government
has shown in the past that it is not above letting innocent civilians suffer
to make a point. In Iraq, sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in 1990
are “the most comprehensive, total sanctions that have ever been imposed.”
Since then, it is estimated that over 1 million people have died as a direct
result, because of the lack of proper nourishment, health care, and
sanitation. Most of the deaths are of children. A 1999 UNICEF study found that
children under five are dying at over twice the rate they were ten years ago.

Another example
is Cuba, where unilateral sanctions by the U.S. have been in place for over 40
years, and are still being intensified. In 1997, the American Association for
World Health attributed “malnutrition, poor water quality, the denial of
access to medical equipment” to the sanctions, calling them “the deliberate
blockading of the Cuban population’s access to food and medicine.” A Harvard
professor wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, “the Cuban and
Iraqi instances make it abundantly clear that economic sanctions are, at their
core, a war against public health.”

Sanctions are
the weapon of choice for the United States. Between 1945 and 1993, of 116
cases of sanctions used, 80 percent were initiated by the U.S. alone. (Mark
Sommers, “Sanctions are Becoming ‘Weapon of Choice’,” Christian Science
, August 3, 1993) The countries sanctioned unilaterally by the U.S.
represent over 40 percent of the world’s population. Before 1990 the U.S.
operated outside of the UN Security Council, mainly because of the threat of a
Soviet Union veto. In fact, in its first 45 years, the Security Council had
only imposed sanctions twice: against the white-supremacist settler regime in
Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1966 and against apartheid South Africa in
1977. These sanctions regimes were generally considered a success, which is
unusual. Both the U.S. and Britain were against the South Africa sanctions for
over ten years, until an international grassroots campaign forced them to vote
in favor of a Security Council resolution. Since the fall of the Soviet Union,
Washington and London seem to have lost their fear of using the Security
Council to impose sanctions. In the last decade, 12 countries have been
subjected to Security Council sanctions: Iraq in 1990; Yugoslavia in 1991;
Libya, Somalia, and Liberia in 1992; Haiti and Angola in 1993; Rwanda in 1994;
Sudan and Burundi in 1996; Sierra Leone in 1997; and Afghanistan in 1999.
Almost all of these countries are impoverished and war-torn Third World

Sanctions are
rarely “successful,” by any reasonable definition of success. “Even the most
optimistic” of commentators “point to only about a third of all sanctions
having even ‘partial’ success, while others…have come up with a 5 percent
success rate, and a dismal 2 percent success rate for sanctions against
‘authoritarian regimes.’” Since the Taliban certainly qualify as an
“authoritarian regime,” this has ominous implications for the people of



Of course, sanctions are
not the only weapon the United States may bring into play against Afghanistan.
With the largest military arsenal in the world, the U.S. is more fond than
most nations of using “conventional” weapons (literally) to send messages to
the people of the Third World. In the last ten years, four of the twelve
countries sanctioned by the UN Security Council have also been bombed by
Washington (Iraq, Yugoslavia, Sudan, Afghanistan), and two have experienced a
major military action (Somalia, Haiti), led by the U.S. Afghanistan and Sudan
were both subjected to cruise missile attacks in 1998 as a “response” to the
Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings attributed to Osama bin Laden. The missile
attacks were meant to show, in the words of Defense Secretary William Cohen,
that “There will be no sanctuary for terrorists and no limit to our resolve to
defend American citizens and our interests, our ideals of democracy and law
against these cowardly attacks.” It is interesting that the embassy bombings
are “cowardly attacks,” while the cruise missile “responses” that, in the case
of Sudan, targeted the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant and eliminated one half
of the medicine production for that poor country, are considered acts of

In an October
20, 2000 interview for the Afghan version of the “Voice of America” radio
program, Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering said, “human rights
remains…an important pillar of our approach…. We do not support any side
or any faction in Afghanistan. We believe that the only solution to the
continuing problem is through a negotiating process, not through military
action.” He unintentionally revealed important truths about U.S. foreign
policy. The interview happened eight days after the bombing of the USS Cole,
when government representatives were making no secret about planning a “very
severe military response” against Afghanistan. “We are going to find out who’s
responsible, get the U.S. public behind the response, and that response will
be very, very heavy,” said a “U.S. Navy official.” A U.S. diplomat in
Washington told the Far East Economic Review, “We are determined to
make life very, very difficult for the Taliban in every field—political,
economic, military, and in terms of their foreign relations—unless they hand
over bin Laden.” How do we interpret the seeming contradiction with
Pickering’s words? By realizing that there is no contradiction. Pickering was
probably telling the truth when he said he believed the only solution was
through negotiations, not through military action; any sane human being would
agree. The sanctions, and the planned “military response” are “not crafted to
end the country’s civil war or to succor its distressed population.” Rather,
their sole purpose is “to apply pressure on the Taliban in a manner reflecting
the lowest common denominator of narrow, short-term Russian and U.S.


The U.S.
Government: A Friend of the Afghan People?

American diplomats like
to portray themselves as friends of the Afghan people. In a nostalgic moment,
Pickering said “those of us who have known Afghanistan over a long period of
time feel particularly close to the people of Afghanistan…. To be estranged
from them because a government stands between us and the people of Afghanistan
is a source of great sorrow for us. We would like to see that change, and we
hope it would. That, of course, remains something that the people of
Afghanistan must decide for themselves.” Pickering doesn’t describe how one
might enable the Afghan people to make such decisions, given that Taliban rule
is accompanied by a “high level of repression,” according to the UN OCHA
report. The expectation that the people should influence Taliban policy is
close to a fantasy, considering that “There is a lack of democratic
accountability at all levels” of government, and there are no “avenues for
advancing any popular demands regarding the implications of sanctions or
regarding policy in dealing with the international community on sanctions.”

U.S. proponents
of the sanctions have boasted of their country’s monetary aid for drought and
hunger relief, supposedly showing their sensitivity to the crisis and their
good will towards Afghans. Ambassador Soderberg noted that “We are the biggest
donor to Afghanistan, with our aid this year to the Afghan people totaling
$113 million dollars.” Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering echoed her
comments: “we are the largest supplier of humanitarian assistance to the
people of Afghanistan. It went up last year from $70 to $100 million.” Being
the richest country in the world, the United States would be expected to
contribute the most money to help Afghans. But the U.S. has given less as a
fraction of its total wealth (GDP) than six other countries (Sweden, Norway,
Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands, and Finland). As a fraction of GDP, Sweden’s
donation was four times more generous than that of the U.S. The UN
Consolidated Appeal for Afghanistan has been consistently underfunded, and the
year 2000 was no exception. Despite the large U.S. contribution, the 2000
Appeal received less than 53 percent of what was needed, and many Afghans
remain without basic services. If the U.S. had shown the generosity of Sweden,
the Appeal would have been more than fully funded.

What is worse,
current U.S. aid to Afghanistan is little more than 10 percent of the yearly
sum doled out during the 1980s to support the Afghan Mujaheddin. Lauded as
“freedom fighters” and “courageous rebels,” the Mujaheddin consisted of seven
ruthless groups of men armed by the CIA and trained by Pakistan’s
Inter-services Intelligence directorate (ISI) to fight the occupying army of
the Soviet Union. After the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, the Mujaheddin
warlords began fighting each other for rule of Afghanistan, devastating Kabul
and other cities. Tens of thousands of civilian casualties and hundreds of
thousands of refugees were the result of the 1992-1994 battles. Before the
Taliban even arrived in 1995, entire neighborhoods in Kabul looked “like
Hamburg or Dresden after World War II bombing raids,” because of the Mujahed
onslaught. U.S. military aid to the Mujaheddin was maintained at $700 million
per year from 1987 until around 1992, during the worst atrocities, showing the
extent to which the U.S. government cared about Afghans.


A Strong
Stand Against Terrorism


Much is made in recent
reports about the “geographic shift in terrorist activity” from the Middle
East to South Asia, specifically Afghanistan and Pakistan. Counterterrorism
Coordinator for the U.S. State Department Michael Sheehan, attributes this
shift to a “regional instability” that has roots in the war against the Soviet
Union. “This war destroyed the government and civil society of Afghanistan, at
the same time bringing arms, fighters from around the world, and narcotics
traffickers to the region.” It is interesting how Sheehan eliminates any trace
of human involvement—it is “this war,” not human beings, that brought “arms,
fighters…and narcotics traffickers” to Afghanistan and Pakistan. A more
honest account, that of ABC correspondent John Cooley, reminds us that, “many
billion dollars to fund [the war] came from the United States, the Saudi
treasury, and finally as the conflict was winding down, from the resources of
financiers like the Saudi construction tycoon Usama bin Laden [sic]….” Now
“the most wanted terrorist in the world,” bin Laden had been an American ally
in the war to oust the Soviets.

The increased
drug production that Sheehan mentions was an expected consequence of U.S.
intervention, not a surprise result of “this war.” Apparently, “the CIA and
its allies…tolerated the rise of the biggest drug empires ever seen east of
the giant Colombian cocaine cartels” because they “regarded drug revenues as
an important way to finance the war…” According to a U.S. State Department
estimate, Afghanistan’s opium production was up to 900 tons by 1993, more than
twice that of Iran and Pakistan combined. Writing in 1994, before the Taliban
took power, Alfred McCoy predicted that “the Afghan crop will soon exceed
Southeast Asia’s, and nearly double the supply of heroin for the world
market,” which indeed happened in 1998. The reason was not mysterious: “a mix
[of] superpower confrontation and local ethnic conflict…facilitated
formation of drug networks that can continue to grow.”

describes the context of the rise to power of the Taliban. “The Soviet
withdrawal left a power vacuum, leaving the country in the hands of warring
groups of mujahidin [sic]…. Many of the current leaders of Afghanistan came
of age in training camps designed to create a generation of combatants to
fight wars inside and outside Afghanistan. Eventually, the Taliban, a radical
group with a world- view informed by the experience of war, gained power over
much of the country.” Sheehan’s version of events ignores the fact that the
training camps, located in Afghanistan and Pakistan, were set up originally by
the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI to train the Mujaheddin. When the Muja- heddin
factions began to fight each other, the ISI formed the Taliban, which they
intended “would be even more repugnant and unacceptable to the West and Russia
than… Khomeini’s successors in Iran.”

By focusing on
Osama bin Laden, drugs, and the terrorist associations of the Taliban, the
U.S. government effectively blocks discussion of its own considerable role in
decimating Afghan society. The new sanctions do not diminish that role. It is
unlikely that the Taliban will accept the Security Council ultimatum and hand
over bin Laden. It is also unlikely that the sanctions will hurt the Taliban
significantly. The real victims, as always, will be the Afghan people.


The Spark of
Afghan Civil Society

Although Kofi Annan was
pleased that the Taliban and the United Front had finally agreed to talk, he
was well aware that “the shaping of Afghanistan’s future cannot be left solely
to those who brandish weapons…Any lasting settlement must also involve the
participation of non-belligerent Afghans, from both inside and outside
Afghanistan.” Despite the fact that the Taliban offer “no avenues for
advancing any popular demands,” nonviolent political organizations do exist.
One such group, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
(RAWA) has been active since 1977. Founded to promote women’s rights, a
revolutionary notion in a strongly patriarchal society, RAWA is needed now
more than ever. Under the rule of the fundamentalist Mujaheddin, and now the
Taliban, Afghanistan has become a “prison for women.” The Taliban are
notorious for meting out “the harshest punishments systematically inflicted
since Europe of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition.” The most draconian laws
sharply constrain women’s behavior and dress. RAWA’s home-based classes in
literacy and nursing for girls and women inside Afghanistan are banned by the
Taliban, but they are still carried out in secret.

RAWA was forced
to refocus its priorities when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. In an
interview on Pacifica radio in June, RAWA member Sehar Saba explained, “We
cannot struggle only for women’s rights until we have our national
independence… we should struggle first for our country and for the whole
people.” To that end, RAWA is one of the few Afghan women’s groups that offer
a political message. Regarding sanctions, a statement published on their web
site admonishes, “UN sanctions on the Taliban will not solve the problems of
Afghanistan.” They suggest instead that the UN impose sanctions on the
governments that are “directly influencing the internal affairs of
Afghanistan,” providing military and financial support to either the United
Front or the Taliban. In RAWA’s view, both the Taliban and the Mujaheddin/
United Front are “war criminals,” and “it is the proper time for the U.S. and
other countries that have fostered these fundamentalist parties to apologize
to the Afghan people and take steps toward healing old wounds.”

The new
Security Council sanctions on Afghanistan have dashed hopes for a negotiated
end to the war between the Taliban and the United Front, and they will make an
already dire humanitarian crisis worse. By insisting on a “single-purpose
resolution aimed at terrorism,” the UN Security Council, led by the U.S. and
Russia, has focused attention on a narrowly-defined subset of the problems
facing the people of Afghanistan. In so doing, it has diverted attention from
both countries’ responsibility for creating the crisis in the first place.
More efforts should be made to listen to organizations such as the
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan and other nonviolent
Afghan groups. If there is a solution to this crisis, it is through empowering
the Afghan people to regain their voice.                  Z

James Ingalls is a staff scientist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis
Center, California Institute of Technology. He is also on the Board of
Directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission.