Women’s Delegation Urges US and Europe to Unfreeze Afghan Funds Amid Crisis

Women in Afghanistan are protesting against a variety of Taliban gender-based restrictions, including an order in march to close down public high schools for girls. U.S. officials cancelled talks with Taliban leaders in Doha and continue to freeze billions of Afghan assets, while Afghanistan spirals into economic disaster. We speak to Masuda Sultan, and Medea Benjamin, co-founders, of Unfreeze Afghanistan, which advocates for Afghan civilians funding. They recently visited Afghanistan as part of a U.S. women’s delegation and say the U.S. has a responsibility to alleviate the suffering there, which it had a major role in causing over two decades of war. “It seems that every time there is a showdown between the Taliban and the international community, it’s the Afghan people that suffer,” says Sultan. “We are now having a kind of economic warfare against the Afghan people,” adds Benjamin.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to Afghanistan, where women have led protests in response to the Taliban’s order in March to shut down public high schools for girls. Other restrictions were also issued by the Taliban. Women are prohibited from flying alone without a male companion. On the same day, both men and ladies will not be allowed to use public parks. Or risk being fired, all male government workers must grow beards.

Khadija, a 16-year-old girl from Kabul, was one of many students who was told she needed to go home after she arrived excitedly for her first day of school.

KHADIJA: [translated]It was a day of sorrow, a very sad day. It was like losing a friend. Everyone was in tears. The girls were hugging each other and crying as they said goodbye. … Even if it would be very difficult, I still wanted to be a doctor. I like doctors’ white coats. But now, I can’t do it. My future is destroyed.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is a schoolteacher at a protest outside Afghanistan’s Education Ministry in Kabul.

SCHOOLTEACHER: [translated]Taliban are afraid of a girl who is educated. A family that is educated will have a girl. A nation will be educated if a family is educated. An educated nation will never, and ever, support terrorists’ motivations.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. government decided to cancel talks with Taliban leaders in Doha last Month to address the economic crisis in Afghanistan. This was due in part to U.S. sanctions placed on Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control last August.

Meanwhile, aid groups continue to demand the Biden administration and European leaders release frozen reserves from Afghanistan’s central bank, warning, without the funds, Afghanistan faces total collapse. Last month, U.N. Secretary-General Guterres warned the nation’s already dire humanitarian situation is worsening, as a U.N. donors’ conference for Afghanistan raised barely half of the $4.4 billion goal.

SECRETARYGENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: 95% of people don’t have enough food and 9 million are at risk of starvation. UNICEF Without immediate action, it is estimated that more than a million severely malnourished kids are at risk of starvation. The war in Ukraine has caused food prices to soar worldwide.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Dubai by Masuda Sultan, Afghan American women’s rights activist, part of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, founding member of Unfreeze Afghanistan. Medea Benjamin, a long-standing antiwar activist and co-founders of Unfreeze Afghanistan and CodePink, is joining us in Washington, D.C. They’ve both just returned from a trip to Afghanistan with a women’s delegation.

We are happy to have you back. Democracy Now! Masuda, let’s begin with you. You go to Afghanistan, your country of origin. Tell us what you found and what you’re calling for.

MASUDA SULTAN: Amy, Medea, and I, along with six other American women activists, had been working in Afghanistan for over 20 years and 25 years, and were eager to travel to Afghanistan to help reopen schools. We all heard that girls aged 7-12 years old were being stopped just before we left. We all saw the images, with girls crying and being sent off. We had to decide what we were going on doing. Believe me, that day that that happened, March 23rd, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was crying as well as the Afghan girls and women. We made the decision to go to Afghanistan because we wanted to support these girls. We had been advocating for increased aid and the release of central bank assets.

And I’m really glad we went, because, you know, what I learned on this trip is that Afghanistan needs engagement. The Taliban government and United States need to work together for the Afghan people. You know, if we’re going to throw a fit and decide to isolate them every time they do something which is abhorrent, we’re going to further isolate the suffering people of Afghanistan. Already as it is, 95% of people don’t have enough to eat. When you drive around Kabul, it’s sometimes not as easy to understand what’s going on, until you start talking to people. And when you talk to people, you realize that so many of them have lost the dignity of their jobs, of having work, that the neighbors and the friends that used to support them don’t have the income, either, to support them, and that many people are suffering silently in their homes. Even the aid that supposed to be getting there, the food distribution, we found that families were not getting food, even in Kabul, and that’s the capital. That’s where all the international community is. So that’s very concerning. I’m very concerned about people in the provinces, as well. The sanctions and the scarcity of cash only compound the economic crisis. It seems that every time there’s a showdown between the Taliban and the international community, it’s the Afghan people that suffer. One Afghan woman said to me, “We got one slap by the Taliban and another slap from the international community.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Medea, can you talk about your meetings and what you discussed with the Taliban leaders and the whole issue of central bank moneys being seized by the U.S. Clearly, this whole issue of — globalization is taking a big blow these days, because if countries have their money seized because it’s outside the country, that’s going to push the whole move for globalization further and further back.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: [inaudible]After seeing the horrors of Ukraine, it was easy to see that the United States has dropped over 85,000 bombs into Afghanistan over the past 20 years. However, they have never been held responsible for any of this. The world community will request that Russia pay reparations once the war in Ukraine is concluded. The United States did not pay any reparations. Instead, $7 billion worth of Afghan funds was stolen by the U.S. The Biden administration could have released that money right away and didn’t, and, in fact, has now separated out $3.5 billion as possible compensation for 9/11 families. Kelly Campbell from 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows was with us on the trip. She spoke very persuasively in Afghanistan about how all that money, including every penny, belonged the Afghan people. The $3.5billion remaining is supposed back to Afghanistan. It hasn’t gone back.

So there is a liquidity crisis in the nation right now. We met with members of the central bank, and they told us how difficult it is to run an economy when you can’t get access to your accounts, when people can’t get access to their own accounts. We met with women at the reopening of the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce, and women business leaders said to us they can’t even get the money to pay the salaries of their employees. We met a very poor woman on the street who came up to us crying, saying she can’t get her pension.

So we are now having a kind of economic warfare against the Afghan people, and that’s why it’s so important for us to demand from the Biden administration and from our members of Congress that all of that money be released and that the U.S. be much more generous in giving humanitarian aid and development aid. The Taliban has issued a new decree stating that they will cease poppy production. This is something that the U.S. tried unsuccessfully for 20 years. They are now asking for international assistance to help farmers grow alternative crops. This is an excellent opportunity for the international community, to get involved and help reshape Afghanistan’s economy. Right now, it is absolutely wrong to provide development assistance and conditioning aid.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Masuda, once again, this whole issue. When you met with Taliban officials about it, what did they say to you?

MASUDA SULTAN: Well, we also met people from the Ministry of Education who were very clearly committed to girls’ education, were saying that as soon — you know, this is the problem, is that this decision came at the last minute from the top down, from the emir himself. And the reports are that there were some people within the leadership council, a minority, that convinced him to not allow these high school girls to go to school — which doesn’t make any sense, because women in college and universities are still going and attending university. So, it’s just this particular set of young women that are being held back. And it’s unfortunate, because from our discussions with everyone that we talked to among the Taliban, they said they wanted girls to go to school, and they were waiting for the emir to decide — or, to continue. They believed it would happen at any time, at any hour. I can’t say that they said this, but it seemed that they were upset about it. And they said, “If the emir says at 11:00 that we can go ahead, the Education Ministry is ready at 11:01 to go ahead and reopen these schools.”

It seems like everyone is watching this person to make the right choice. And we hope that that comes soon enough, because these girls can’t wait. It’s very unfortunate. Lots of fathers told us that they didn’t know what to tell their daughters when their son goes off to school in the morning. I believe that many Afghans are very disturbed by all this. In fact, there’s been protests. And there’s just — you know, we need pressure on the emir, it seems, to reverse this decision. The good news is that there is a lot of opposition within the Taliban movement, including comments and tweets urging that the decision be reversed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering, Musada — also we’re seeing all the reports of the billions of dollars in humanitarian and military aid that the West is providing to Ukraine right now, as well as the welcoming of all the refugees. But yet, here in Afghanistan, Secretary-General António Guterres has said that there’s only — so far the U.N. has only been able to raise from its donors’ conference half of its $4.4 billion goal to aid Afghanistan. What about the fate of Afghan refugees who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took power? How are Afghan refugees being handled right now?

MASUDA SULTAN: Well, it’s a good point that you bring up about the aid, because, look, what happened in Afghanistan, this humanitarian catastrophe, it’s not just a normal humanitarian catastrophe. It’s one that the United States has played an active role in causing. And on the one hand, yes, we are the largest donors to Afghanistan, but on the other hand, we have completely crippled their economy, and we supported — remember, we supported a government previously, the Ghani regime, that was kleptocratic, abusive and corrupt. And we have seen — we have talked to lots of people who talked about corrupt NGOs, corrupt government officials, abuses committed by the previous officials and the army and the police. These people have really suffered because of our policies. And now that they’re trying to get on their feet, we literally have the entire country in a strangulation.

The United States is responsible for the events in Afghanistan. We should share our responsibility with other countries. Remember that it was a coalition comprising 40-plus countries who invaded Afghanistan. All of us have a responsibility towards helping that country succeed. What’s happening there — you know, what’s happening in Ukraine is obviously very awful. We feel for the peoples of Ukraine. But we can’t forget our responsibility to the people of Afghanistan, who are now rated as the highest level of suffering in the world. According to a Gallup poll 94% of Afghans feel they are suffering. In fact, most people just want to leave the country, because they don’t think that the United States is interested in fixing this. Everyone we talked to said, “The United States and the Afghan authorities, we need them to cooperate. And we need groups like you, civil society people, normal Americans, to come and engage.” If we wash our hands of this country and isolate it again, we’re just going to be repeating the mistakes of the 1990s, and we all know how that ended.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, we just have 10 seconds, but you’ve heard the repeated description of Vladimir Putin as a war criminal by President Biden. What are your thoughts about Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: The U.S. refused to allow the International Criminal Court even to investigate possible war crimes committed in Afghanistan by the U.S., and there were many. The U.S. has never been a party to the International Criminal Court. It would be nice to have a judgement against those who led us into the War in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, Masuda Sultan, thank you so much.