US Sanctions Worsen Afghanistan’s Humanitarian Crisis as Taliban Targets Women

One year after the Taliban seized power again in Afghanistan, we look at the new government’s crackdown on women’s rights while millions of Afghans go hungry. Matthieu Aikins (journalist) visited Kabul’s capital for the first time since the U.S. evacuated it one year ago. He writes the country is being “kept on humanitarian life support” in his recent article for The New York Times Magazine. The Biden administration’s economic sanctions are causing Afghanistan to spiral into a financial crisis, making the U.S. “at once both the largest funder of humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan and one of the main causes of the humanitarian crisis with these sanctions,” says Aikins.

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

AMY GOODMAN:Monday will mark one-year since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. This was nearly two decades after the U.S. invasion in 2001. Afghanistan today is facing what the United Nations says is the world’s largest humanitarian disaster, with more than half the country’s residents facing starvation. The Taliban continues to enforce human rights violations and has banned girls from high school for the last year. The Taliban is also being accused of harboring al-Qaeda leaders. The United States announced last week it had killed al Qaeda leader Ayman alZawahiri in a drone raid in Kabul. This all happens as Afghanistan faces a serious economic crisis. In part, this is because the Biden administration has seized $7 billion in Afghanistan foreign reserves that were held in U.S. banks.

We’re joined now by the award-winning reporter Matthieu Aikins, who has reported on Afghanistan since 2008. He was in Kabul when the Taliban overtook it last year, and he returned to Afghanistan in may to report on the current situation. He’s just written a pieceFor The New York Times Magazine titled “The Taliban’s Dangerous Collision Course With the West.” Earlier this year, Matt Aikins published his first book, The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees.

Matt Aikins, welcome back to Democracy Now! Why don’t you lay out your findings as we mark this first year of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, hi, Amy. As always, thank you for having me.

I went back in order to understand what had happened during the Taliban’s first year in power. And as you recall, the girls’ school issue was really a litmus test for whether they had changed, whether they would govern differently this time than they did during their first government in the ’90s, where they didn’t allow women to be educated. And they did allow girls to go back to elementary schools, to universities, but they hadn’t opened girls’ public high schools yet. They had promised that they would. They said it was temporary. This was going to happen on the 23rd of March, which was the first day for Afghan schools. And the girls went to class. Because this was supposed be a hopeful day, they were filmed going into class. And then word came out that day that, no, the schools wouldn’t open. The girls were sent home weeping. It was embarrassing for the government. And I remember at the time not just being — not only being very disappointed and heartbroken, but baffled. Why would the Taliban suddenly change their mind at such a moment? So that’s what I went back to find out.

And in my interviews and meetings with Taliban officials in Kabul, including at the Education Ministry, what I actually discovered was that many of them had been in favor of reopening the girls’ schools. They saw it as something they were interested in, not least because of the billions of dollars that the international community was spending to prevent humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan. So they had prepared a plan to reopen the schools, but at the last minute word came from Kandahar that the schools would not reopen, because it turned out that it wasn’t really up to the officials in Kabul. Kandahar, with its supreme leader and the Leadership Council, holds the true power in the movement.

AMY GOODMAN: So, who really controls what’s happening in Afghanistan within the Taliban?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, you know, it’s really interesting how mysterious and opaque some of this decision-making is. Even some of the senior Taliban officials that I spoke to admitted to me in private that they weren’t fully sure how these decisions were being made or what exactly the role of the supreme leader, Sheikh Hibatullah, was.

But, in essence, to understand how power works in the Taliban, you have to look back at the first government in the ’90s, when you had sort of two governments. You had the formal cabinet in Kabul, and then you had another government led by the — then the supreme leader, Mullah Omar, who never left Kandahar, who stayed in Kandahar and governed with a close council, or shura, of other senior Taliban leaders, a kind of shadow government. That became the Quetta Shura, the leader of the insurgency over the last 20 years, when they went underground to Pakistan. The Taliban seized power last summer and, surprise to many, this government was grafted onto Kabul’s current administration.

You now have the supreme leader of Kandahar. There is a small group of people around him who operate on the basis of consensus. And some of the hard-liners in that group, who are opposed to reopening girls’ schools, essentially were able to block what much of the officials in Kabul, including some of the deputies, like Siraj Haqqani, Mullah Yaqoob, the defense minister — they were in favor of reopening girls’ schools, but the hard-liners, in essence, blocked it.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Afghanistan overall, Kabul and the more rural areas, and what this divide looks like, how it’s playing out. And then we’ll get into this humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, perhaps the worst in the world, as so much of the country faces hunger.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: So, the Taliban, again, in their first government in the ’90s, they were really trying to bring back this idea of the virtuous village lifestyle. This was a time of chaos, corruption, and civil war. And in these rural villages, which are very conservative, particularly in the south, in Pashtun areas, women don’t really leave the house. It’s a very strictly gender-segregated society. And this is the model that they tried to impose across Afghan society as a whole in the ’90s with a lot of repression and brutality.

And today there’s a battle playing out within the movement over whether that vision still holds. And the fact of the matter is that even if the Taliban haven’t changed, Afghan society has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. You know that millions of girls have been educated and have gone to school. Their families have seen the advantages of that education. Some of the more pragmatic Taliban I spoke to in Kabul understand that this reality has changed and are trying to adapt. They have their own strict Islamist vision, but they see that girls can go to school, they can go to the office, as long as they’re veiled, as long as they’re separated from men.

So, that is essentially the tension between, you could say, the city and the countryside that’s playing out within the Taliban movement itself. We can see that the hard-liners have won for now. It is important to remember, however, that there are internal dynamics within the movement that could lead to further reforms in the future.

AMY GOODMAN:According to the United Nations estimates, nearly 1.1 Million Afghan children under 5 years old will suffer severe malnutrition this calendar year. This is Melanie Galvin who is the chief nutritionist at UNICEF, speaking in Kabul

MELANIE GALVIN: I think we need — in the longer term, we’re still going to need a great deal of funding to just treat these children. In 2023, I will have a problem — I will have a gap in supply, for example, if there isn’t additional resources that come into the country. So, we’ve done everything we can with the donations we’ve had, and we’re so grateful for them, but this need will continue. It’s not going to stop.

AMY GOODMAN:According to the U.N. half of the population is now at risk of hunger. Talk about the resources the Taliban have access to — for example, the U.S. freezing billions of dollars of Afghan money, and what that means, how that plays out in Afghanistan.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Sure. Well, I think it’s important to understand that even though the U.S. and its allies spent more than $100 billion on development aid in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, it remained one of the poorest and most aid-dependent countries in the world. This was partly due to corruption that thrived in this uncontrolled spending, a lot of it by contractors.

So, when aid was abruptly cut after the Taliban took power in August, it had the predictable result of causing an economic crash. Government salaries are going unpaid — teachers, medical workers. So, the country is currently facing an economic crisis. It’s being kept on humanitarian life support by a massive humanitarian surge. There’s now more aid workers working for these agencies in Afghanistan today than there was before the collapse of the government last August, the withdrawal of U.S. forces. This means that the U.S., along with its allies, are funding these humanitarian efforts. They’re cooperating with the Taliban.

But, of course, the U.S. did also seize the Afghan bank assets that were held in the U.S., $7 billion, and they’ve earmarked half of that for victims of 9/11, their families. The U.S. is in a strange position because it is simultaneously the largest humanitarian funder in Afghanistan and the main cause of the humanitarian crisis resulting from these sanctions.

AMY GOODMAN:What is the U.S. doing then with all that money?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Right now it’s on ice. And there is talk about returning the other $3.5 billion to the Afghan — you know, to Afghans. Now, they haven’t — they’re not going to give it to the Taliban, but they’re in negotiations right now to set up maybe some sort of trust fund, or something like that, that could be used to recapitalize the financial sector.

One of the biggest problems facing Afghanistan is its economy being paralyzed by sanctions and many other knock-on effects. You know, other banks don’t want to do business with Afghan banks because of some very genuine concerns, for example, over terrorism and money laundering. But what that means, in essence, is that the Afghan economy isn’t able to stand on its own feet. It’s dependent right now on external aid. The U.N. is actually flying in pallets of $100 bills, more than a billion dollars to date that they’re flying into Kabul, and that’s essentially keeping the economy on life support.

You know, one thing that I have realized about the U.S. and its allied countries is that the Afghan crisis has been somewhat contained. You know, it’s been contained through this massive humanitarian surge through these agencies that are cleaning up after political messes, not just in Afghanistan but in places like Somalia or Yemen. It’s feeding Afghans hand to mouth. All the border walls that have kept Afghans in their country have stopped them from fleeing to Europe. So, even despite the massive suffering in Afghanistan, I think that there’s a sense it’s been contained. The Taliban played a surprising role in stabilizing that. And I think there’s been, actually, a normalization of the relationships with a lot of countries in the region, who see the Taliban as possibly just keeping a lid on things in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the U.S. drone killing of Zawahiri — were you surprised by this, the killing of the al-Qaeda leader? — and the fact that he was in a house owned by Haqqani, and what that means.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Yeah. I mean, I used to go jogging, basically, right by that street every morning when I was in Kabul — the mornings I got up early enough, anyways. And so it’s right in the middle of the city. It was quite surprising to see the drone strike in that house, which used to be rented. USAIDContractors in fact, and in areas that were occupied by warlords following 2001.

This really shows the limits of the containment strategy I just mentioned. And the fact of the matter is that if Afghanistan again becomes a threat to its neighbors, as it did in the ’90s because of groups like al-Qaeda, then you could see a, you know, intervention on the side of the armed resistance to the Taliban that could spark a new cycle of the civil war.

But at the same time, I do think that it’s important to remember that these groups have a long-standing relation with the Taliban. They became closer when they fought against the U.S. occupation for the past 20 years. And so, the Taliban are in kind of a tricky place, where they can’t reject these groups, but they can’t send them elsewhere, obviously. So, it’s possible that by keeping al-Zawahiri in Kabul, it was a way of keeping him under supervision. But we really don’t know the details. A senior U.S. official told me that many of the Taliban leaders were unaware that al-Zawahiri was visiting Kabul. It was also the work of a faction connected with Haqqani, the Interior Ministry in sheltering him.

AMY GOODMAN:Al-Haqani is again the interior minister.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: That’s right, yeah, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is, you know, long been held to be one of the fiercest opponents of the U.S., was responsible for many attacks, is designated as a terrorist by the FBI, has a bounty on his head — and also happens to be one of the most socially, quote-unquote, “progressive” of the Taliban. He and the group around him who occupy many ministries in Kabul have been some of the most vocal proponents of letting the girls go back to school, have helped out a lot of aid agencies, and they’ve had trouble with other elements of the Taliban over their female workers. It just highlights the many contradictions that exist in the country, and I believe it shows the need to better understand the dynamics.

AMY GOODMAN:Finally, you spend a lot time in your office. pieceIt is important to highlight maternal healthcare. The Taliban has a contradiction, because, on the one hand, many in the leadership, a number, don’t want girls and women educated, but they only allow women doctors and nurses to deal with women in maternity hospitals. Talk about it.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Yeah, so, that’s the irony, in essence. Because they only need women doctors to treat women, they also need women teachers. So, there will always be a core of Afghan women who are educated. Even in the ’90s, the Taliban allowed doctors, female doctors, to continue working in some areas.

So, today you have women working — you have a lot of women working in Afghanistan. It was important to highlight this. I went to the hospital that is being supported by Red Cross. ICRCI was fortunate to meet these women doctors, who do heroic, lifesaving work. They’re helping women who are coming in now from more distant rural areas because there’s peace in Afghanistan, at least. Because there is security on roads, women are coming in very rough from places where they would have died at home. They’re saving their lives. These women are hard working.

But the fact of the matter is, is if you don’t allow girls to go back to high school, then you’re not going to have girls in university, you’re not going to have girls in medical school school, and eventually this pipeline of Afghanistan’s nurses and doctors, women doctors, is going to run out. And so, that’s really, I think, the most compelling reason. It’s not for international aid or Western approval that the Taliban should allow girls to go back to school; it’s for the own country’s interest. It’s for the sake of their own daughters.

And I believe there are some Taliban who get that. They’ve been blocked by the hard-liners. But we can only hope that, especially with internal pressure from the many Afghans who are speaking up in favor of women’s rights, that they will see the light and allow the girls to go back to school.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Matthieu Aikins, 20 years — more than 20 years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, they left, and left it, would you say, in worse shape than the U.S., when they invaded Afghanistan? What do Afghans think about this?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Look, I think it’s unfair to say that it’s in worse shape than it was in 2001, when the country was ravaged, destroyed, impoverished. Over the past 20 years, there have been many gains. Afghans have rebuilt their country by themselves. But it was a costly decision in terms bloodshed and suffering. The war also caused severe damage to the fabric of society.

So, the fact of the matter is that today Afghanistan is again in crisis, but we don’t have the same tools to deal with it. And we’re not occupying it anymore militarily. The poster children of war in Afghanistan are no longer Afghan girls. And there’s a limit to what we can accomplish, but I don’t think that means that our obligation to the country has disappeared. We must continue to focus on Afghanistan, I believe. We must continue to support Afghans both inside and outside Afghanistan. They are still in great need of our help. That includes the girls who wish to go to high schools. This is why we must maintain our relationship with the country.

AMY GOODMAN:Matthieu Aikins is a contributing writer The New York Times MagazineAuthor of The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees. We’ll link to your new article, “The Taliban’s Dangerous Collision Course With the West.”

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