Pundits Whose Hearts Bled for the “People of Afghanistan” in August Now Silent About U.S. Sanctions Causing Mass Starvation of Afghans
Once again, humanitarian concerns mysteriously track with the immediate needs of U.S. strategic interests.
Countless pundits who appeared Deeply Concerned for the Afghan people—namely the health and safety of Afghan women—upon the U.S. military withdrawal last August are mysteriously indifferent to the primary cause of an emerging, widespread starvation crisis in Afghanistan.
A number of humanitarian organizations, for months, have been warning about a severely worsened humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan caused, in large part, by the U.S. freezing Afghanistan’s overseas assets totaling more than $10 billion, $7.1 billion of it held in the U.S. Federal Reserve. In addition, U.S. and other NATO countries have cut off the aid that props up most of the Afghan economy, helping provide basic services and fuel to the people of Afghanistan. The U.S. and its western allies have chosen to, instead, channel paltry “aid” to wildly insufficient NGOs supposedly operating outside the reach of the Taliban.
As the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein reports, this system of trickling in token assistance while cutting off cash flow and government-managed foreign aid has been broken for months and helped usher in an unprecedented hunger and energy crisis. Stein reports, “The United Nations has warned that the country’s banking system is at risk of a ‘colossal’ failure that would lead to a 30 percent contraction of the Afghan economy. UNICEF has estimated as many as 1 million children could die of ‘severe acute malnutrition’ as the country’s economy deteriorates.” Forty Democrats are urging the Biden White House to ease its sanctions and free up the billions commandeered from Afghanistan’s coffers and inject desperately needed cash into the economy.
An urgent, profound humanitarian crisis is unfolding as we speak, but the ramp of media concern is virtually nonexistent. A report here and there over the past weeks, but nothing remotely close to the nonstop moralizing and calls to “do something” we saw during the last few weeks of August upon the U.S. withdrawal.
There are dozens of examples of selective outrage over the plight of the Afghan people, but for the purpose of streamlining the point we will focus on three of the most high-profile: CNN’s Jake Tapper, the Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan, and NBC’s Richard Engel, none of whom have mentioned the U.S.-led sanctions regime that has played an outsized role in devastating the whole of the Afghan economy.
This past summer, CNN’s Jake Tapper did numerous segments on the alleged humanitarian costs of the U.S. withdrawal while openly scolding U.S. officials for “leaving” their allies behind, lamenting Biden’s “Saigon moment,” and profiling women victims of the Taliban—all but explicitly lobbying for the U.S. to remain in Afghanistan under the auspices of concern for its civilians. In the past month, Tapper hasn’t mentioned the U.S.-driven humanitarian crisis once.
In one 7 minute, 53 second segment from a November 1 episode of Tapper’s show, “The Lead,” reporter Anna Coren covered the humanitarian crisis, centering families so desperate they were selling their young daughters into “forced marriage.” In a post-report interview with Tapper, Coren vaguely discussed the cutting off of aid and freezing of billions but made no mention of U.S. sanctions or the U.S. role in it, referring only to “the international community” “freezing billions of dollars in reserves.” The primary culprit is said by Tapper to be the Taliban, which he tells Coren has made the practice of selling children “worse.” (The report has since been disputed, with allegations from the Afghans in the video that Coren had made up the story.) This has been the extent of Tapper covering the crisis. a single report that omits the U.S. role in creating the humanitarian disaster.
The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan, too, tweeted nonstop about the plight of Afghan women (which he has since ceased doing entirely) and wrote a scolding piece in the Atlantic entitled, “The Week the Left Stopped Caring About Human Rights,” where she accused anti-war liberals of being hypocrites who don’t care about human rights if the U.S. military is the one doing the protecting and upholding. Never mind that subsequent reporting has exposed as a self-serving lie that the U.S. occupation was good for women, when it was, in fact, no doubt good for some women but very disastrous for many, rural Afghan women who were left out of the moral equation altogether. Flanagan’s missive even mischaracterized the position of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, insisting she was lobbying for continued U.S. occupation when she was, in fact, doing the opposite.
As FAIR’s Julie Hollar noted in August, U.S. media’s concern for Afghan Women tracks almost entirely with their utility in justifying permanent U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Flanagan didn’t much care about women’s rights in Afghanistan before the withdrawal and hasn’t used her influential platform to lobby for them since. And she, of course, hasn’t mentioned the cruelty of U.S. sanctions and the urgent humanitarian crisis unfolding as we speak. The plight of Afghans was a fleeting concern, whose utility expired the second it was clear Biden was serious about ending the military occupation.
Like Tapper, NBC’s Richard Engel took the omission of the U.S. role in worsening Afghanistan’s hunger crisis one step further, not so much ignoring the issue but actually reporting on it while glossing over U.S. responsibility for helping create it. In one recent 4 minute, 21 second report from Afghanistan that aired online for NBC’s streaming show NBCNow on December 16, Engel discussed the starvation and economic ruin in harrowing detail—even calling it a “man-made crisis.” But which “men”? It’s not clear. Engel entirely ignored U.S.-led sanctions and stealing of billions in Afghanistan’s assets, making only vague reference to “dried up foreign aid.”
In an earlier November 22 report, “Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis deepens under Taliban control,” Engel pinned blame for the hunger crisis almost entirely on the misgoverning of the Taliban. Engel here again completely omits the U.S. government’s role in creating the crisis, making no mention of sanctions beyond one cryptic reference to “the Taliban is cut off financially, especially from the United States.” In the segment, which can be watched here, one is given the distinct impression that sanctions are incidental, and the primary blame rests with the Afghan government.
In other words, it’s the exact message the White House is stressing as it faces pressure from humanitarian groups and congressional Democrats to release the billions it's withholding from the cash-starved Afghan government.
Contrast this hand-wringing over an unclear, unnamed villain who is said to have “man made” the crisis, with Engel’s reporting at the time of the August pullout when he outright broke the fourth wall and directly editorialized on behalf of a continued occupation last August.
When it involves the U.S. withdrawal of troops, Engel speaks with a specific moralizing tone placing blame on U.S. leaders. But when it’s U.S. leaders sanctioning an enemy country, Engel omits or glosses over their role entirely and instead blames a nebulous “foreign aid” system that has simply “dried up.”
It’s no wonder then, upon revisiting the country and reporting on its collapse, Engel would need to downplay, if not outright omit, the role of U.S. sanctions, and steer blame towards the regime he openly lobbied the U.S. to continue fighting for an indeterminate amount of time.
But active sanctions aren’t considered an act of violence, only the absence of U.S. occupation is. This is because indiscriminate sanctioning of noncompliant countries is simply taken for granted as a U.S. divine right. Because these sanctions regimes, whose aim is openly said to be “crippling” Bad Countries’ economies, are so routine and bipartisan they are simply not worth commenting on. This is how the Trump administration was able to cause the deaths of upwards of 40,000 Venezuelans from 2017 to 2018, according to one estimate, using brutal sanctions that even pro-regime-change The Economist agreed were design to “starve” Venezuelans, while, at the same time, using Cold Warriors from the 1980s (who had previously been found to use foreign aid as a pretense to run guns to right-wing death squads), and hold them up as the face of a humanitarian convoy. And almost no one in U.S. media thought this the least bit suspect or cynical. Brutal, deadly U.S. sanctions are simply taken for granted, like gravity or the tides. The thousands of needless deaths they cause, ostensibly to “pressure” Baddie Countries into Not Being Bad, is, in the words of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “worth it.”
But now, today—at this very moment—these very same reporters, anchors, writers, and pundits could rally around the urgent cause of unfreezing government assets and preventing thousands of preventable deaths. This is something specific the Biden White House could do now that Tapper, Flanagan, and Engel could report on, debate, tweet nonstop, and pressure the U.S. government over just as they did while lobbying for continued occupation last August. But they’re not, despite the immediate, real benefits to millions of Afghans. Because the relevant moral criteria is not “what’s good for the Afghan people.” It’s, “what’s good for U.S. strategic interests,” with the former serving almost exclusively as a selective smokescreen for the latter. When “helping the Afghan people” doesn’t justify occupation and continued war, it’s an orphan cause relegated to press releases from powerless humanitarian groups, a few dozen congressional progressives, and a couple of brief “oh, dear” reports with no calls to action. No comparable media fervor similar to the one last August is forthcoming. Only b-roll of starving kids with no named cause, vague mention of "the international community,” deflection of blame unto the Taliban, and the constant implication that none of this would have happened if the Biden White House had just let them keep their war.