Millions of Afghans Face Starvation as US and the West Freeze Government Funds

Afghanistan is experiencing a rapid decline in its economic and humanitarian situation. More than half of Afghanistan’s population is currently suffering from acute hunger, according to the U.N. The U.S. and other Western countries have cut off direct financial support to Afghanistan’s government in the wake of the Taliban takeover in Aug. This has led to the country falling into an economic crisis. Taliban leaders are also unable or unwilling to access billions in Afghan national reserves, which are held in foreign banks. “Forty million civilians were left behind when the NATO countries went for the door in August,” says Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who recently visited Afghanistan and with refugees in Iran, where as many as 5,000 Afghans are fleeing everyday. “They told me very clearly, ‘We believe we will starve and freeze to death this harsh winter unless there is an enormous aid operation coming through.’”


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AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.orgThe War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, joined by Democracy Now! co-host Juan González in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Hi, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hi, Amy. We are glad to have you as our listener and viewer across the country and all around the globe.

AMY GOODMAN:Today we begin in Afghanistan, where the humanitarian and economic situation are rapidly deteriorating. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a video call with members of the AfghanEvac Coalition who said they need more help evacuating tens of thousands of people who could be targeted under the Taliban government and noted, “Winter is coming. There is a famine already.” The United Nations estimates 60% — that’s more than half of Afghanistan’s population — now suffer from acute hunger and the country faces a financial crisis after the U.S. and other Western countries cut off direct financial assistance to the government. The Taliban leaders are also unable access the billions of dollars of Afghan national reserves that are held in overseas banks. David Beasley, the Executive Director of World Food Programme, spoke to the BBCAfghanistan is currently the most severe humanitarian crisis on Earth.

DAVID BEASLEY:It is as terrible as you can imagine. We are currently facing the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth. Ninety-five percent of the people don’t have enough food and now we are looking at 23 million people marching toward starvation. Out of that, almost nine million are knocking on famine’s door. The winter months are approaching. We’re coming out of a drought. The next six months will be devastating. It will be hell on Earth.

AMY GOODMAN:According to the U.N., half a million Afghans could flee Afghanistan by the year’s end. Many Afghan refugees are crossing the border into Iran to seek refuge. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), as many as 5,000 Afghans flee into Iran each day. This could lead to another crisis in Europe. On Monday, the European Union approved new sanctions against Belarus. They were concerned about the 4,000 migrants who crossed the border to Poland from Afghanistan. They left them stranded in the freezing forests.

For more, we are joined by the NRC’s Secretary General Jan Egeland, who is in Oslo, Norway. He recently returned from a trip that he took to Iran, where he met Afghan refugees in a refugee camps. He recently tweeted “Iran alone hosts more displaced Afghans than 30 European countries combined. Despite this, nations in the ‘European Championship In Erecting Barbed Wire against Refugees’ give negligible funds for displaced Afghans elsewhere.” His recent New York TimesHeadlined: Op-ed Afghanistan Is Facing a Total Economic Meltdown.

Jan Egeland, we are glad to be back. Democracy Now!Describe the extent of the catastrophe in Afghanistan now and what you think should happen.

JAN EGELAND:I was recently in Afghanistan as well and sat down with mothers in the displacement camps in Kabul. I asked them, “What about the future? What do you think of the future?” They told me very clearly, “We believe we will starve and freeze to death this harsh winter unless there is an enormous aid operation coming through and unless there is a public sector again that is able to provide services.” It is as acute as that. When the war broke out, forty million civilians were left behind. NATOIn August, countries rushed to the door.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:Jan Egeland is the NATO countries not only went for the door, they took all of Afghanistan’s financial reserves with them as they left. They also frozen the assets of the Afghan government. Could you speak about the role of this issue, where all the money in Afghanistan was essentially being held hostage to the West nations that left?

JAN EGELAND: Yes. Yes. Seventy-five percent of Western development donor employees were teachers, nurses, doctors and other public workers. This was all cut in a matter of hours. I met teachers who were eager to restart girls’ education and boys’ education. They hadn’t been paid since May. We have taken over the banks’ paralysis due to the freezing assets. NRCNorwegian Refugee Council cannot transfer money to Kabul to our colleagues through the local banking system. They can’t even extract money there for salaries for the 2,000 aid workers who didn’t go for the door. This freezing of the economy has prevented them from being able to deliver and stay. I believe that the Taliban have a huge responsibility for good governance in the area they took over. NATO countries mustn’t forget they left behind 40 million people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:Could you please talk about Iran and Pakistan? These countries have essentially taken on an enormous refugee population, estimated at three million Afghans in Iran. The failure of the West to aid these countries in their efforts in assisting the refugees?

JAN EGELAND: Yes, indeed. Ninety percent of Afghan refugees — and there are many millions of them — accumulated over 40 years of fighting since the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan 40 years ago. 90% of these refugees reside in Iran and Pakistan. They are not in Europe. They are not found in North America. They are not in rich countries. They are in these two neighbouring countries. My experience in Iran was that refugees are receiving education and healthcare. However, Iranian host communities are not receiving much international assistance. The Taliban have brought over 4,000 to 5,000 Afghan refugees every day. This means that they are afraid for the future. They believe that whatever they have must be divided into smaller parts for all those who cross the border. It is necessary to invest in Afghanistan’s future, as well as in the two neighboring nations.

AMY GOODMAN:I would like to inquire about the conditions at the Afghan health centers. This is an excerpt of a France 24Program featuring Hasseebullah Barkzai, an administrator at Kabul’s hospital where patients must buy their own medicine, gloves, and syringes. The clip starts with Masood, a hospital nurse.

MASOOD: [translated] You see, we don’t have any medicine here. There used to be a cupboard with vitamins, painkillers, and antibiotics. But it is now empty. This cupboard contained medicine for heart patients. Now we don’t even have a tablet left. This water cooler doesn’t work anymore. Look, we don’t even have water to wash our hands.

HASSEEBULLAH BARAKZAI: [translated] We don’t have enough food for the patients. Winter is here and we don’t have enough fuel for the heating system.

AMY GOODMAN:Afghanistan was already in dire straits due to decades of war, drought, economic collapse, and the Taliban takeover. However, U.N officials have warned of a much worse humanitarian crisis, with 23 million people now facing hunger and nine millions on the brink. The greatest burden of the crisis is on children. The U.N. warned children that if humanitarian assistance is not urgently provided, they will die of malnutrition. The BBCWe spoke to a mother whose severely malnourished two children were admitted to the hospital.

MOTHER: [translated]I feel the pain he is feeling. Only God knows the pain I feel when I look at him. Two of my children are facing death because we don’t have any money. I want the world help Afghan people. I don’t want any other mother to see their children suffering like this.

AMY GOODMAN:These are just some of the voices for Afghanistan. Jan Egeland, as Juan just pointed out, when the Taliban toppled Afghanistan’s government, the country suddenly lost access to $9 billion in Central Bank reserves, frozen by the Biden administration. For those countries that are saying, “We will not support the Taliban so we will not give money,” what do you say to them?

JAN EGELAND: I say “Correct.” Money should not go to the military political group called the Taliban that took power by force. It is possible to funnel the money directly to the people. Number one, trust funds must be held by UN agencies. These funds funnel money directly into the hospitals you just shown where people are currently dying. It can be sent straight to teachers who were previously on the payroll of World Bank. It can be sent directly to them. The money can travel through us, international organisations, directly to the people. Second, free up the funds that will allow banks to function again. We are unable to buy any relief items for Afghanistan at the moment. We must ship them over, bring them from Iran and Pakistan. This means that Afghanistan is losing its jobs. Thirdly, donors, get off the fence. You can see that we are there. We are reliable funding channels. The money will be used to help the people. Transmit funding. Not just pledges. This will not become Switzerland overnight. To save lives this winter you will need to share the risk.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jan Egeland, isn’t it in the interest of NATOThe Western nations who were in Afghanistan to ensure some sort of orderly government? Because if the Taliban are not able to deliver basic services to their people, doesn’t that give the possibility for the rise of even more extremist groups within the country, like ISIS?

JAN EGELAND:This could be true. But anyhow, I would argue that nobody wants an implosion in Afghanistan where 40 million people see “I have no hope here. I need to leave.” People would then use the neighboring countries as a segue, a channel to go elsewhere, including to Europe where we have worked ourselves up in a hysteria for a very few thousand migrants on the Polish-EU border. Hundreds of thousands are now gathered at the Iranian/Afghan border on Afghan side with the intention to cross. Iranian refugees I spoke to said, “All our relatives have started to wander.” They want to come to Iran and they want to wander towards Europe. So it is in everybody’s interest to stabilize things in Afghanistan, and I just listed the three things that can be done. It’s not rocket science. It must happen tomorrow. There is no time before the great death.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to Hassan Esfandiar of the Iranian Red Crescent, who spoke to Al JazeeraThe difficulties in providing assistance for the thousands of Afghans that cross the border each day are what you have just described.

HASSAN ESFANDIAR:The current sanctions placed on the country mean that we are unable or unwilling to receive international donations assistance. Because the banks are blocked, we can’t receive humanitarian donations. The Iran Red Crescent tried to provide resources for Afghan displaced persons who are approaching the border. As it is mentioned by your colleagues in the report, the average number of the populations who are approaching the Iranian borders are between 2,000 to 7,000 per day, so it’s a huge number.

AMY GOODMAN:Jan Egeland, Iran has sanctions, so how can Iran help with the 4,000-5000 refugees who cross the border every day? What is getting the West’s attention is what is happening in Eastern Europe. Today, hundreds of asylum-seekers tried to cross a razor-wire fence erected at the Poland-Belarus border. This was when Polish border guards fired tear gas and water cannons at them. That’s 4,000 to 5,000 refugees there altogether. What’s happening in Iran is every day. It would be great if you could address both.

JAN EGELAND: As a European, I’m ashamed at what is happening in our part of the world. What Belarus is doing by using vulnerable migrants like chess pawns in some kind of a power play, and then Europe basically saying, “We’re not going to hear any asylum applications at all” in violation of international law. “We’re going to throw everybody out.” Then migrants in some kind of a stalemate with the Army on either side, wanting them to go in opposing directions. This is Europe with only a few thousand. We have between three and a quarter and four people in Iran. MillionAfghans are currently in the news. Three and a quarter to four million. I think that has to be sunk in — 4,000 or 5,000 more per day, and a very small international aid program.

Again, the United Nations is there UNHCR. They’re a refugee agency. NRCIt is there. We can do more. We need more money. We also request more freedom from the Iranian authorities in order to win the race against the winter, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iran as well as Pakistan. It is important to understand that there are many things at stake. It is not an isolated catastrophe. 23 million people are starving. They will wander. If I were in that situation, I would go. I would also go to the nearest food market to feed my children.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jan Egeland, the particular role of the United States in all of this as being the primary power that led the war in Afghanistan for so many years and then the Biden administration suddenly pulling out — what would you urge the Biden administration to do now?

JAN EGELAND:The U.S. should really lead, just like it did in the military project of the last twenty years. HumanitarianOperation of relief. Allow the public sector to reopen. The World Bank holds funds. When I wrote to the World Bank president, the answer back was, “Well, we’re willing to do things if the member states on our board, the U.S. and others, tell us to release money. We can’t release money.” It is sitting there for teachers and nurses and hospitals and whatnot in Afghanistan.

Also, let us as organizations work effectively and efficiently on both side of the border. It is difficult for us to do our work in some ways because of the Iran sanctions. The Norwegian Refugee Council couldn’t even transfer money for a full year after the Trump administration started these sanctions because there was no bank with a backbone strong enough to transfer aid money to our people because they were so afraid of one day coming in court in New York because of the potential break of these sanctions. It is paralyzing to those who are on the frontlines of humanity.

AMY GOODMAN:Jan Egeland is the U.N. The U.N. Climate Summit wrapped up in Glasgow today with a weakened pact. Scientists, governments, and activists all believe it falls short of what is necessary to prevent a climate disaster. You tweeted, “This deal is better than no deal, but far from achieving climate justice and avert disaster displacements. The negotiators have too many carbon-spreading stumbling blocks. The fight must now be taken to each and every big polluter.” Name names. Talk about what needs to be done and how climate refugees are created.

JAN EGELAND: I would start actually by going to those who intend to burn a lot of coal now that will lead to — and Afghanistan and Iran, that we are talking about, have both massive droughts at the moment. It is climate-driven. It is the major industrialized nations, including China and India, that have to do most. They are carbon-spreading and will continue to do so in the coming years. We must not call a spade “a spade”. Look at the source of the emissions and it all must come down dramatically. The Afghans are the first to starve, as they emit very little. Afghanistan has been in chaos because of the droughts and economic chaos. Similar in the Sahel belt. I was in places like Negev or Burkina Faso. [sp]And so on. You can see how vulnerable these people are. They have not emitted any in recent decades and are the hardest and most vulnerable.

AMY GOODMAN:Jan Egeland, thank you for being here, Secretary General of Norwegian Refugee Council. We will link to your article in The New York Times, “Afghanistan Is Facing a Total Economic Meltdown.” Speaking to us from Oslo, Norway.

Next, we will look at the U.S. China summit last night and examine U.S.-China relations more generally. We will be speaking to Alfred McCoy about his new book, out today. To Govern the Globe: World Orders, Catastrophic Change. Stay with Us