The Real Target is Peace, as Afghans Suffer

Z Magazine, March 2001
Dr. James Ingalls

One-Sided Arms Embargo

The United Nations Security Council voted on 19 December 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 businessman wanted by the US in connection with the bombings of its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and now suspected of plotting the 12 October attack on the USS Cole. The UN resolution was initiated by the US 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."(1)

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. Unlike many other sanctions regimes, these "smart" sanctions were supposedly calculated to not affect the dire humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. 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." (2)

Other Issues are Left to Others

In Secretary-General Kofi Annan's 20 November 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.(3)
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." (Annan) The Economist predicted that Vendrell's "tenuous effort at peace-broking...is likely to be an early casualty" of the sanctions (4). Indeed the Taliban immediately shut down the UN mission in Afghanistan and exited from the 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.

The Economist 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% 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 have dwindled after the border was closed on 7 November.

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 that, "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 8 December 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% of the medicines used in the hospital were bought by patients. Now 50% of the medicines must be bought from the bazaar, and the rest must be donated by aid agencies. The new sanctions, with their more stringent bans on Ariana flights, are sure to make life even more difficult. (5)

Sanctions as Weapons

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 US 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 10 years ago. While most of the world condemns this policy, and two UN Coordinators for Iraq in a row have resigned, it is maintained by the US and Britain, who as Permanent Members have veto power over all new resolutions of the Security Council. When asked in 1996 about the deliberate harm inflicted upon innocent Iraqis, then-Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright said, "we think the price is worth it."

Another example is Cuba, where unilateral sanctions by the US 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."(6)

Sanctions are the weapon of choice for the United States. Between 1945 and 1993, of 116 cases of sanctions used, 80% were initiated by the US alone. (Mark Sommers, "Sanctions are Becoming 'Weapon of Choice'," Christian Science Monitor, 3 August 1993) The countries sanctioned unilaterally by the US represent over 40% of the world's population. Before 1990 the US 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 US and Britain were against the South Africa sanctions for over 10 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, twelve 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 countries. (7)

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 per cent success rate, and a dismal 2 per cent success rate for sanctions against 'authoritarian regimes.'"(8) Since the Taliban certainly qualify as an "authoritarian regime," this has ominous implications for the people of Afghanistan.

Military "Solutions"

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 US 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 US. 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 "defense."

In a 20 October 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."(9) He unintentionally revealed important truths about US 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 US public behind the response, and that response will be very, very heavy," said a "US Navy official."(10) A US 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."(11) 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 US obsessions."(12)

The US 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."(13) 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."(14)

US 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 US 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 US! The UN Consolidated Appeal for Afghanistan has been consistently underfunded, and the year 2000 was no exception. Despite the large US contribution, the 2000 Appeal received less than 53% of what was needed, and many Afghans remain without basic services. If the US had shown the generosity of Sweden, the Appeal would have been more than fully funded.

What is worse, current US aid to Afghanistan is little more than 10% 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 Interservices 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,"(15) because of the Mujahed onslaught. US 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 US government cared about Afghans.

Taking a Strong Stand Against Terrorism

...the international community must stand firm against terrorism. And with this important action today, the Security Council sends an unequivocal message to the Taliban: end your support for terrorism.
Nancy Soderberg, US Ambassador to the UN, 19 December 2000

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 US 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."(16) 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 US 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..."(17) According to a US 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."(18)

Sheehan 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 Mujaheddin 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." (19)

By focusing on Osama bin Laden, drugs, and the terrorist associations of the Taliban, the US government effectively blocks discussion of its own considerable role in decimating Afghan society. The new sanctions do nothing to 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."(20) 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."(21) 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 that, "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 US and other countries that have fostered these fundamentalist parties to apologize to the Afghan people and take steps toward healing old wounds."(22)

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 US 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.

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 (http://www.afghanwomensmission.org).


1. UN Press Release SC/6979, 19 Dec 2000.

2. Human Rights Watch, "Afghanistan: Ban Weapons To All Warring Factions," 15 December 2000; See http://www.hrw.org/press/2000/12/afghanban1215.htm

3. Annan, K., The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security, 20 November 2000

4. The Economist, 16 Dec 2000.

5. Office of the UN Coordinator for Afghanistan, Vulnerability and Humanitarian Implications of UN Security Council Sanctions in Afghanistan, December 2000

6. Bossuyt, M., The Adverse Consequences of Economic Sanctions on the Enjoyment of Human Rights, 21 June 2000, and references therein.

7. Paul, J.A. and Akhtar, S., Sanctions: An Analysis, 1998

8. Bossuyt, op cit, note 6

9. US Department of State, Pickering: Military Means Cannot Gain Peace in Afghanistan, 30 June 2000.

10. UPI, 20 Nov 2000

11. Rashid, A., "The Hard Road To Revenge," Far East Economic Review, 7 December 2000

12. Editorial, "Off-Target Sanctions", Boston Globe, 26 December 2000

13.US Department of State, Op cit., note 9.

14.Office of the UN Coordinator for Afghanistan, Op cit., note 5.

15. Burns, J., "With Kabul Largely in Ruins, Afghans Get Respite From War", New York Times, 20 February 1995

16. Sheehan, M., Testimony Before House International Relations Committee, 12 July 2000; http://www.usembassy.org.uk/terror117.html

17. Cooley, J., Unholy Wars, 1999, (London: Pluto Press), pp 5, 129

18. McCoy, A., 1994, "Opium History Up To 1858 A.D."; website http://www.opioids.com/opium/history/. See also his The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, 1991, (Brooklyn: Lawrence Hill & Co.)

19. Cooley, Op cit, note 17, p 145, quoting an unnamed source.

20. Annan, Op cit, note 3

21. Cooley, Op cit, note 17, p 3

22. Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA); website http://www.rawa.org

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