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While we watch Ukraine.
Humanitarian catastrophes are unfolding in Yemen and Afghanistan — where the Biden administration could immediately change the outcomes.
Last night, anxiety brewing over Russian aggression toward Ukraine over the last few weeks finally erupted. Vladamir Putin ordered troops into two territories in eastern Ukraine that he formally recognized as independent. In an emotional, nearly deranged speech, he claimed that Ukraine was a country “created by Russia,” and invoked the USSR, making his greed for eastward expansion clear to the world.
To be sure, post-Soviet U.S. foreign policy has given Putin pretext he can exploit on his warpath. But let’s be clear: Vladamir Putin is a power-hungry autocrat. These actions are nothing more than the realization of his narcissistic ambitions for the region.
To their credit, the Biden administration has been remarkably transparent as they have attempted to bring a diplomatic end to the crisis. Critically, President Biden has taken war off the table. Though this may limit his capacity to deter Russian aggression, as some warhawks have bemoaned, avoiding war with Russia — another nuclear power — is of global, perhaps even existential, importance.
The administration is correct that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would strike a major blow against democracy and human rights around the world. But while we watch the Ukrainian border with bated breath, we cannot ignore several other crises over which the U.S. actually has control.
For the better part of a decade, U.S.-made bombs have been falling all over Yemen at the hands of a Saudi regime that is anything if not the antithesis of democracy and human rights. The same regime that brutally murdered and dismembered The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has been leading a war effort in Yemen that has creatd some of the world’s most shameful human rights catastrophes. Indeed, the U.N. called the famine in Yemen one of the worst in decades — the result of a Saudi-led blockade of the country.
The United States has backed the Saudi war effort since 2015, when the Obama administration agreed to provide technical and weapons assistance to assuage Saudi criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. The Trump administration, always cozy with dictators, stepped up support. Indeed, Trump vetoed a bipartisan bill aimed to end U.S. military involvement in Yemen.
President Biden initially sought to reverse course. He took an important step to facilitate food aid for Yemen by reversing the Trump-era designation of Houthi rebels as a terrorist group. He also announced that he would seek an end to U.S. involvement: “This war has to end. And to underscore our commitment, we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales.”
Fast forward nearly a year and it appears Biden’s mind has changed. Last fall, the administration authorized $650 million worth in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. This past January, he announced a reversal of the terrorist designation. “This would have massive humanitarian consequences,” tweeted Oxfam America’s policy advocacy director. “The Biden admin[istration] lifted the designation last year - in spite of Houthi attacks - to spare Yemenis from even higher food, fuel, and healthcare prices. Also, it didn't create any useful leverage.”
Meanwhile, the blockade continues. The World Food Program estimates that 16 million Yemenis are food insecure, and 20 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.
That’s not the only ongoing humanitarian crisis the U.S. is actively perpetuating. Our abrupt exit from Afghanistan also ended foreign aid to the country, which accounted for nearly 75% of its government spending. Worse, the U.S. government froze $9 billion in Afghan government assets after the Taliban took over. All of this because the administration has not figured out how to differentiate between the Taliban as a terrorist organization and erstwhile adversary and the government of Afghanistan that is failing to provide basic needs for their population.
The result? Nearly 95% of the country is food insecure. Millions of Afghans are on the brink of starvation.
To add insult to injury, a judge recently ruled that part of the seized funds should go to 9/11 families following a 2012 ruling holding the Taliban — not the government of Afghanistan — responsible for billions in damages. The Biden administration has attempted to split the baby by offering up half of the Afghan government’s assets to 9/11 families and half for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. However, the administration’s own sanctions are preventing aid from entering the country in the first place. While making 9/11 families whole is an obvious responsibility, it shouldn’t come at the cost of starving the people of Afghanistan.
New York Times columnist Ezra Klein summarizes the situation well: “When we left, we withdrew the aid on which [Afghanistan] depended. When the Taliban took over, we turned the sanctions and financial weapons we’d wielded against them against the government and country they now controlled. We comfort ourselves by saying we are the largest donor to the Afghanistan relief effort, but we are also a major reason the crisis is dire in the first place, and we continue to be.”
As the world watches Ukraine and the Biden administration works to diplomatically avert Putin’s adventurism, it’s worth remembering the consequences of our own. Whether it’s backstopping the brutal military assault on Yemen, or averting the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan we left behind, defending democracy and human rights abroad isn’t simply about protecting countries from foreign strongmen, but it’s also about correcting our own failures.