More Afghans May Die From US Sanctions Than at the Hands of the Taliban

We look at how much more Afghans could die due to U.S. sanctions than the Taliban’s actions in Afghanistan, which is facing a grave humanitarian crisis. The U.S.’s attempts to block support for the new de facto government have prevented vital funding from flowing to the nation’s civil servants, particularly in education and the health sector. Dr. Paul Spiegel claims that conditions in Kabul’s hospitals are rapidly deteriorating. He visited them as part of an emergency team from the World Health Organization. “There’s been a drought. There’s food insecurity. And all of this has been exacerbated due to this economic crisis and due to lack of the U.N. and NGOs being able to pay people in the field,” says Spiegel. “What we see now is that it’s not the Taliban that is holding us back. It is the sanctions,” says Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The United Nations launched a $5 billion aid appeal this week for international donors to Afghanistan. Martin Griffiths, U.N. Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator said that Afghanistan faces a full-blown humanitarian disaster if it does not receive immediate assistance.

MARTIN GRIFFITHS:One million children could be at risk of severe acute malnutrition. A million children. Figures are so hard to grasp when they’re this kind of size, but a million children in Afghanistan at risk of that kind of malnutrition, if these things don’t happen, is a shocking one.

AMY GOODMAN:In Washington, D.C., The Congressional Progressive Caucus is requesting that the Biden administration lift the economic sanctions imposed on Afghanistan after the Taliban overran it in August. The caucus tweeted, if the current U.S. economic policy toward Afghanistan continues, quote, “there could be more civilian deaths this year than there were in 20 years of war.”

For more, we’re joined in Oslo, Norway, by Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. And in Baltimore, Maryland, we’re joined by Dr. Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Last month, he returned from Afghanistan for a five week visit as a consultant to World Health Organization. Washington Post opinion piece headlined “Hospitals are collapsing in Afghanistan. At this rate sanctions will kill more people than the Taliban.”

We are happy to welcome you both. Democracy Now! Dr. Spiegel, let’s begin with you. You just returned from Afghanistan. Explain exactly what’s happening there and how that relates to U.S. sanctions.

DR. PAUL SPIEGEL: Thank — excuse me. Amy, thank you.

What is happening is there’s a country in freefall, economic freefall, which is affecting all aspects of their lives, and particularly on the health situation. All salaries were stopped when the Taliban took control of the country on August 15. And while there has been some now salaries being paid for basic healthcare, the hospitals are not being — the salaries are not being paid. Healthcare workers are still coming, but there’s no medicines, no — no medicines, no heat. And what we’re seeing are people can’t even afford to get to the hospitals, even if there were medicines to be had.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk specifically about the West’s approach to the Taliban right now.

DR. PAUL SPIEGEL: Right. We call — we were told to call them the de facto authorities. What has happened in the West? They have severe sanctions that prevent any funds from reaching the West. de factoAuthorities, but in a very broad manner. It means that money cannot be received by government-run hospitals. Schools run by the government cannot receive money. Ministries of health, for technocrats, they’re not able to receive money. And so you have a healthcare system — particularly the higher levels, because there are some differences in the lower levels — that are not receiving funds whatsoever. But these civil servants are required to ensure that healthcare services and educational services are running, just as in the U.S. Everything is falling apart. And it’s not just the sanctions, but it’s also a huge issue in terms of the banking system, the central bank and a massive liquidity problem. So even though I was there, we were paying measles workers and polio workers to try to get vaccinations, there wasn’t enough money to pay them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in terms of the population, the U.N. reports Afghanistan’s population, nearly 23 million people, are facing extreme hunger. A minimum of a million children are at high risk of starvation.

DR. PAUL SPIEGEL: Yes, yes. And I would add that it’s not — the crisis is already happening. It’s not as if we can stave off or we can prevent this from happening. What we need to be able to do is minimize the incredibly negative effects that we’re seeing. There’s been a drought. There’s food insecurity. All of this has been made worse due to the economic crisis as well as the inability to pay U.N. agencies and NGOs personnel in the field, especially those who are involved with the environment. de factoBecause of the extremely strong U.S. sanctions, authorities are unable to make decisions.

AMY GOODMAN:Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, is someone I’d like to bring into this conversation. You have been to Afghanistan many times since 1996 when you were deputy foreign ministry of Norway in Afghanistan. Can you discuss how the current situation compares to what you believe is necessary?

JAN EGELAND: Well, there hasn’t been this kind of a dramatic collapse in the economy of Afghanistan within months ever before, I think. What really happened in August was that the Taliban took control and the economy of Afghanistan crashed. NATOCountries fled the country, leaving behind 40 million civilians. These were the same 40 million civilians that they had protected with a multi-billion-dollar military campaign for the past 20 years. These were the same women, children, doctors, nurses, and teachers who were left behind.

So, what we’ve seen — and I have 1,400 colleagues on the ground. Norwegian Refugee Council has 1,400 aid workers on the ground. What we see now is that it’s not the Taliban that is holding us back. It is the sanctions. It’s that there is no banking at all and that the teachers and nurses and doctors and so on are not being paid because their salaries are sitting in Washington, and it’s with the World Bank. This money is not being released by the U.S. or any other member of the World Bank. Without causing massive loss of life, there are many things that must happen tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for a suspension of rules blocking the use of international funding in Afghanistan. In response to the Taliban rule in August, $9.5 billion in Afghan central banks reserves are still blocked from outside the country. This is mainly here in America. Guterres also addressed Taliban.

SECRETARYGENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES:I appeal to the international community for more support for Afghanistan’s people. I also urge the Taliban leadership to recognize the rights of women, girls, and other fundamental human rights. Women and girls in Afghanistan are being expelled from schools and offices. A generation of girls is witnessing their dreams and hopes crushed. Women scientists, lawyers, and teachers are being locked out, wasting talents and skills that will benefit the whole country and the entire world. A country cannot thrive if it denies the rights to all its people.

AMY GOODMAN:To be clear, he was calling on the lifting of the blockade of sanctions against Afghanistan. Jan Egeland, can you speak about the Taliban and the U.S. approach as well?

JAN EGELAND:Number one, I’m referring to the Taliban. We need to engage at all levels so that Afghanistan has a gender equality comparable with other Islamic countries. We are doing this. At the end of September, I met with the Taliban’s top leadership. This was just a few weeks after their takeover. I also mentioned that female staff should have the same freedoms as their male colleagues. It is not necessary for a male guardian to accompany this. In Kabul, I received a yes and a no. Then we negotiated with the 14 provinces that have the same. We have already started schools for girls in all 14 provinces. But we have yet to get the secondary and tertiary education. We need to fight for this, really. It would be a terrible insult to these girls and their moms if they had to starve and freeze to die before we can get to all the local Taliban commanders about all these issues.

So, that’s the message also to the U.S. We’ve never held money back from starving people because there has been discrimination from the authorities. I constantly hear the phrase “not a penny, not a cent to the Taliban.” I agree with that. It’s not the Taliban that are receiving this funding. It’s going through international organizations, the United Nations, the international nongovernmental organizations, the local nongovernmental organizations, NRC, my own organization, directly with the people. We are fully operational at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get Dr. Paul Spiegel’s response to State Department spokesperson Ned Price describing the U.S. as “the world’s humanitarian leader for the Afghan people.” At this point, would you agree?

DR. PAUL SPIEGEL: Yes. They continue to provide a huge amount of money to Afghanistan. The problem is that we’re talking hundreds of millions when billions are needed. The problem is that it should be doubled. There must be enough liquidity in the system. And it gets — when you get into the details, it’s complicated, because the afghani, the currency, there isn’t sufficient supply, so it needs to be — there needs to be printed more money, actually, coming into the country. My concern is that that’s going to take far too long. It must be done quickly.

But on top of that, I would say, in terms of you can — the U.S. can still provide humanitarian assistance. It should be much more. And as Jan Egeland said, it’s not a black-and-white situation. You need to be able to — it’s no good to ensure that women have equal rights, but they’re dead. It is so dire that humanity must be prioritized, while ensuring sufficient safeguards to ensure that no money goes to the Taliban or Taliban leadership. The communication of where the money is going is not clear at the moment. This is why many organizations, including most, are anxious to give money to civil servants, hospitals, and government-run schools. That has to change.

AMY GOODMAN: So Dr. Spiegel, your response to the Congressional Progressive Caucus demanding the Biden administration lift economic sanctions imposed after the Taliban took over, the congressional caucus tweeting, if the current U.S. economic policy toward Afghanistan continues, quote, “there could be more civilian deaths this year than there were in 20 years of war”? What was the Biden response?

DR. PAUL SPIEGEL: Yeah. I would nuance the idea of saying lifting sanctions versus ensuring there are sufficient humanitarian exceptions, as we’ve seen in Venezuela and as we’ve seen in Yemen, amongst other countries. So, whether it is completely stopping the sanctions — I think that’s a political decision. But regardless whether it’s stopped, there can be very clear humanitarian exemptions to be able to ensure the money, or at least the — yeah, the money flows, and the people are able to undertake their interventions.

Since I returned — I returned around mid-December — the Biden administration has made clear some of the humanitarian exemptions. And I’ve spoken to the field, and what they’ve said is there is more clarity, but it hasn’t yet trickled down to — let’s say, to the field and to the operations, number one. But there needs to be even, I would say, more clarity than the Biden administration has provided since — in December, particularly to ensure that funding can go to some of the technocrats in the ministries, because even if funding can go to the United Nations and the nongovernmental organizations, the ministries themselves are functioning, are the glue of how authorities and others respond to humanitarian emergencies. There were six concurrent diseases when I was there and the surveillance system is still not working. You can find out all the details here. COVIDFor example, COVID in that country, the disease system is not being funded, and it’s extremely difficult to know what is happening and prepare accordingly.

AMY GOODMAN: Jan Egeland, two quick final questions. One is: Is your organization pushing Norway and Europe to allow Afghan refugees to enter Europe through the Norwegian Refugee Council? But also, you’ve spoken to the head of the World Bank. You’ve spoken to the U.N. secretary-general. What were their responses to you? What are your demands?

JAN EGELAND:When I returned from Afghanistan in October, I wrote to Secretary-General Guterres and President Malpass of the World Bank. The question was: Could you please release the World Bank’s health money that is still there for the doctors, teachers, and so forth I met through the U.N. trust fund? The U.N. is actually funneling the salaries. And the answer back from the secretary-general was, “Yes, I can. We can, the U.N.” And some trust funds have been set up, and some of the public sector work has already been provided with some donor money. And the World Bank said, “Well, we’ll do it as soon as our member states say yes.” And it’s still not there.

And it’s the U.S. that has to be the leader. The U.S. is the global leader in international financial institutions such as the World Bank. The U.S. has to inform the risk-averse global bank system that they are allowed to start over to transfer money and establish banking on both sides. Our Norwegian aid money cannot be transferred to Kabul right now. We need to transport goods from Iran and Pakistan to Afghanistan, contributing to the economic decline. It’s not rocket science to do these things. It must happen tomorrow. Actually, next week we’re meeting virtually with the U.S. Treasury. And we’ll be very clear: Please, go ahead and give the green lights to all of these places.

And are we asking Europeans (including Norwegians) to open our doors to Afghans who might flee? Yes. Unfortunately, Europe is specializing in a European championship of barbed wire erection at the moment, a little bit like it was with the U.S. under the previous administration, so I’m not too optimistic. My country has announced that it will have a large quota of quota refugees. When I was in Iran, the Afghans there told me, “All of our relatives in Afghanistan have given up. They’re wandering towards the border to Iran. They’ll come here, and many want to go to Europe.” I think it will be a desperate situation. We must now bring back hope in Afghanistan. Millions of people will leave Afghanistan if this is not done. They will run into barbed wire along the way.

AMY GOODMAN:Jan Egeland, thank you for being here, secretary general of Norwegian Refugee Council and Dr. Paul Spiegel director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Next, the nation heads into Martin Luther King holiday weekend. Democrats appear to have stopped trying to pass major new voting rights legislation. We’ll look at a stunning new documentary titled Who We Are: A Chronicle on Racism in America. Stay with Us


AMY GOODMAN: Lara Downes performing “Troubled Water” by Margaret Bonds. Bonds was one the first Black composers to be recognized in the United States.