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Afghan women wait for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) staff members to check their children for signs of malnutrition at a camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of Herat, Afghanistan on November 22, 2021. (Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

500K Jobs Lost, Starvation Looms as US Holds Afghan Funds Hostage

Sen. Bernie Sanders urged the Biden administration "to immediately release billions in frozen Afghan government funds to help avert this crisis, and prevent the death of millions of people."

Brett Wilkins

As a report published Wednesday revealed the loss of over 500,000 jobs since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan last August, critics of the Biden administration's policy of economic sanctions and freezing billions of dollars in Afghan government funds renewed warnings of a "U.S.-fueled genocide" in the starving, suffering, war-torn nation.

"The Taliban barely fired a shot in taking over the country last summer, but the U.S., with the press of a button, has flattened it."

The United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) reported that Afghanistan's economy has been "paralyzed" since the Taliban takeover, with more than half a million jobs lost in the third quarter of 2021, much of the decline attributable to a precipitous drop in "women's participation in the workplace."

The agency projects further employment losses of 700,000 to over 900,000 by mid-2022. 

However, a direr—yet connected—crisis is being largely blamed on the Biden administration's punitive policies that, while meant to target the Taliban, are causing grievous harm to ordinary Afghans.

The Intercept's Ryan Grim and Sara Sirota noted Wednesday that after the Taliban seized power, the United States—which as an occupying power controlled Afghanistan's foreign currency reserves—froze more than $9 billion in funds belonging to the country.

On August 14, $300 million was scheduled for transfer to the U.S.-backed Afghan government. However, the Taliban entered Kabul the following day, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stopped the transfer.

Back in November, Amnesty International warned that the freeze contributed to plunging the country into "a full-blown economic crisis."

Yamini Mishra, the group's South Asia regional director, said at the time that "without an urgent program of targeted international support and without permitting the use of Afghanistan government reserves to support the country's population, the scene is set for a human catastrophe over the coming months."

"The Taliban barely fired a shot in taking over the country last summer," wrote Grim and Sirota, "but the U.S., with the press of a button, has flattened it."

Grim and Sirota continued:

The economic fallout has been extreme, much as it would be if the U.S. Federal Reserve suddenly lost access to its own capital. The result has been bank closures, mass business failures, soaring unemployment, collapse of the currency against the dollar, soaring inflation, and death by starvation. Desperate Afghans have resorted to selling off their belongings for food or burning them to stay warm. A migration crisis is brewing. The Biden administration's sanctions have deepened the economic collapse, while the White House has also urged European partners and multilateral institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to similarly starve the nation of capital.

Vicki Aken, Afghanistan director at the humanitarian aid group International Rescue Committee, said last week that "the grim reality is that disease and child malnutrition are rising as health workers go without pay and hospitals go without medicine, while nine million Afghans are on the brink of famine conditions against the backdrop of massive economic collapse."

The World Food Program warned last month that, without urgent funding needs being met, 3.2 million Afghan children faced life-threatening malnutrition.

Common Dreams reported last week that the Biden administration has promised just over $300 million for humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, far short of the $5 billion urgently sought by the U.N. in its largest-ever single-country aid appeal.

Grim and Sirota noted that "congressional Democrats are divided over how to respond the Biden administration's continuing insistence on driving millions of people in Afghanistan to the brink of starvation and beyond, a policy that has produced a humanitarian catastrophe that threatens to morph into a U.S.-fueled genocide."

While moderate and right-wing Democrats are demanding that the Taliban meet certain conditions—including the administration's insistence upon a more inclusive government—before offering the Afghans sanctions and funding relief, congressional progressives are calling upon the Biden administration to immediately lift sanctions and release Afghan funds without preconditions.

"Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian catastrophe," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted Tuesday. "I urge the Biden administration to immediately release billions in frozen Afghan government funds to help avert this crisis, and prevent the death of millions of people."

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