Opinion | Sanctions also kill


AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Joe Biden speaks outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Sept. 1.

By Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger, Staff Columnist

Many Americans talk as if the atrocities of the Gulf War are over and the Cold War is a thing of the distant past. However, the technical withdrawal of armed forces from occupied zones does not mean an end to warfare.

By 1992, U.S. sanctions killed a minimum of  300,000 Iraqi children. It is estimated that in the next year, sanctions imposed by the Biden administration will have killed more Afghans than the last twenty years of U.S. military occupation. While these projections have gone relatively unremarked upon in the wake of all the controversy surrounding the administration’s removal from the region in 2021, they speak to the larger issue of widespread acceptance of sanctions as opposed to traditional military warfare. 

Biden blocked $7 billion from Afghanistan’s central bank — money that was sorely needed to try to repair some of the damage that the U.S. military and CIA-backed ‘mujahid’ groups, members of which eventually formed both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, caused in the last quarter century — to “pay back” the families of 9/11 victims. There are few examples of American chauvinism and self-mythologization as extreme as the appropriation of billions from a battered country for a symbolic payout, especially when the money is taken directly from complete innocents.

Ignoring the U.S.’ creation and long-term funding of several ‘mujahideen’ through Operation Cyclone is typical for anyone raised on classic American historical revisionism. It is harder to accept the non-recognition of the significance that the U.S. killed at least 243,000 Afghans since 2001, with the deaths of 9/11 used as a constant, blanketing justification. The people of Afghanistan were never to blame for the actions of Al Qaeda, and — despite whatever warmongers from either party may have to say about the recent withdrawal of troops — the Afghans are still paying for it.

The Biden administration has the temerity to suggest that the $3.5 billion that do not go to the families of 9/11 victims will be used “for the benefit of the Afghan people” pending judicial decision. Joe Biden personally secured sufficient votes for the 2002 invasion of Iraq that led to the staggering death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea that he has ever had the “welfare” of people in the Middle East in mind is a profound delusion. 

Even if the U.S. weren’t almost singularly responsible for the violence that has ravaged Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, the idea that the seizure of money or the imposition of sanctions on trade, insurance and energy will somehow curtail the chaos and the widespread abuse is thoroughly ridiculous. Sanctions in Afghanistan will not make the Taliban recede or disband, will not create a pathway toward any discussion and will not generate any progress. All that sanctions do is starve and deprive the most vulnerable civilians while creating opportunities for the U.S. to give farcical sermons on human rights. 

This situation in Afghanistan is just one among many. The U.S. has a legacy of sanctions in Venezuela, Cuba, Iraq, Iran and Palestine, all of which have documented disastrous effects on the healthcare and social welfare of innocents. The American government is also actively imposing sanctions on impoverished countries in the global south to prevent the nationalization of their own industries and as such deepen their debt, priming them for neoliberal interventionist development through the World Bank, IMF and other like-minded organizations. Since they cannot pass off this act of repression in a convincingly heroic way, these sanctions get next to no news coverage. Every second that the American government goes unchecked, it actively harms one-third of the world

Sanctions on Russians are less contested than others, given the visibility of the conflict in Ukraine, and the relative mildness of the sanctions themselves. However, the general premise it forms is deeply concerning. It is terrifying to see such widespread acceptance of the concept that if the U.S. disagrees with the actions of a country, the citizens of the offending country will be targeted economically in response. This practice does not consider the fact that those people are already living under a repressive regime and, in many instances, are already against the war themselves. 

Iran and Cuba have also been subjects of recent debates on sanctions, after the killing of 22-year-old Masha Amani by the Iranian “morality police” and the devastating effects of hurricane Ian on Cuban infrastructure. While some Americans find it easy to recognize the hypocrisy of sanctions in Iraq or Afghanistan, it is harder for many to grasp that sanctioning remains harmful even if they disagree ideologically with the state it is applied to. It is harder still to accept the fact that the U.S. does not seem to sanction in an earnest attempt to bring about social progress, but in order to seemingly attempt to control nuclear power and weaken leftism in the global south, both with little other obvious purpose than serving its own interests. 

According to their own memos the U.S. embargo on Cuba served to undercut the revolutionary government’s support among the people through “disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” While the U.S. did not manage the ideological transformation they sought, they did manage to restrict life-saving medical care and supplies, food and water purification treatments for more than half a century, all the while blaming the Cuban government for the poor living conditions they created. Every country in the U.N. General Assembly has called for an end to the embargo for the last 30 consecutive years, save for the U.S. and Israel. 

Sanctions in Iran have already led to a doubling, and even tripling, of medication prices. It’s almost impossible to calculate the negative effects of these skyrocketing prices on the healthcare industry. It is difficult to understand why people in the U.S. maintain a steadfast belief that their government’s deprivation of basic necessities will translate to more freedom for Iranian women. These sanctions will kill them, too. 

Furthermore, if the U.S. maintains that they are restricting access to necessary materials as a genuinely hopeful punitive act, why are they not sanctioning Saudi Arabia for the multiple instances of murder and abuse of the last few years? Or perhaps the actions of another U.S. ally, as in 2021 the Israeli state killed at least 313 Palestinians in 2021, 71 of which were minors. Where are their sanctions? 

The sheer ludicrousness of the U.S. positioning itself as a sort of moral authority with the right to dictate access to necessary goods becomes even more blatant when one realizes that U.S. police killed 970 people this year alone, or when one considers that between 2005 and 2013, 405 American police officers were charged with rape. As of 2021, 11.6% of Americans live below the poverty line. And there is still no known figure for all the thousands who died because of government neglect in hurricane Katrina. 

The U.S. routinely violates human rights laws that it helped to write. Even the accusation of violation of these laws by part of a country that holds imperial interest for the U.S. is considered justification for horrific repression. The idea that restriction and deprivation bring forth progress is one that must be done away with, particularly if the arbiter of these matters is a state whose own record is one of unparalleled harm. 


Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger writes about politics and international and domestic social movements. Write to her at [email protected]