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Starving the Taliban — or the Afghan people?

We want women to go to school and persecutions of the innocent to stop. But we don't want regular people to freeze and starve, either.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Last month, the International Monetary Fund approved a historic $650 billion allocation of Special Drawing Rights to help jump start the global economic system battered by COVID. The IMF earmarked $450 million of this for Afghanistan, a country whose economy is collapsing and desperately needs an infusion of funds.

But Arkansas Republican French Hill corralled 17 of his Republican colleagues to pen a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urging her to intervene at the IMF to “ensure that no allocated SDRs are made available to a Taliban-led Afghanistan.” The IMF quickly complied. 

This is part of a larger effort to starve the Taliban of funds. When the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan at the end of August, it froze $9.5 billion of the Afghan Central Bank’s assets. The World Bank suspended the disbursement of money through its Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. Given that foreign aid to Afghanistan had previously been about $8.5 billion a year — nearly half of the country’s gross domestic product — the impact of freezing these funds has been catastrophic.

To be clear, there’s a good argument for non-cooperation with the Taliban. Since coming to power, the Taliban have said that they would allow girls to attend school. They kept their promise as far as elementary schools, but in most parts of the country girls are being kept out of grades 7-12. Most women enrolled in public universities have not been attending classes due to fear, canceled classes, or Taliban restrictions. Even though Taliban spokesmen insist that women can continue to work, there have frequent reports of Taliban militants ordering women to leave their workplaces, being denied freedom of movement outside of their homes, having strict compulsory dress codes imposed on them, and not being allowed to peacefully protest.

According to Amnesty International, Taliban members have been persecuting journalists and threatening the safety of human rights defenders. On August 30th, Taliban forces killed 13 ethnic Hazaras. Eleven of them were reportedly former government soldiers who were surrendering, and the other two, including a 17-year-old girl, were civilians attempting to flee the area as the Taliban opened fire. 

While we should all be outraged about the abuses and deterioration of rights that Afghans are experiencing, freezing Afghan funds is victimizing the victims. It is taking food out of the mouths of children. It is putting millions of lives at risk. 

Right now, the nation’s economy and public services are screeching to a halt. Banks have run out of money, civil servants have not been paid and food prices have soared. Let this sink in: The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 93 percent of Afghans are not getting enough food to eat.

The schools have no funds. There are about 220,000 teachers in Afghanistan, and since June, most of them have not been paid. On October 6, the 45,000-member Afghan Teachers Association put out an urgent appeal calling attention to their dire situation. “The Ministry of Education has very few resources, and it is hard to ask our teachers to keep working without salaries. Many of them are the sole breadwinners in their families, and they are really struggling. It will be difficult to keep the schools open if we have no funds.” How can we insist that the Taliban open all schools to girls but then refuse to pay the teachers?

The nation’s healthcare system is on the brink of collapse. Only about 15 percent of the country’s more than 2,000 health facilities are operational and most of the personnel who are working are doing so on a voluntary basis. If money is not released for salaries and supplies, a mass exodus of healthcare workers is imminent. “There is a risk that the Afghan people will have virtually no access to primary health services,” UNDP’s Asia-Pacific Director Kanni Wignaraja said. The UN Development Fund recently announced that it will start to directly pay salaries into the bank accounts of thousands of doctors and nurses, circumventing the central government. While this is a welcome development, it is not enough to revive the nation’s entire healthcare system.

The same is true of humanitarian relief; it is critical but not a solution. On October 12, the European Union announced a $1.2 billion aid package and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the US will provide more humanitarian aid (although his measly $64 million pledge is about one-fifth of the $300 million a day the US spent during 20 years of occupation). It will be nearly impossible to effectively distribute this aid while Afghan banks remain under US and UN sanctions, unable to access physical dollars. 

We understand the serious concerns about payment mechanisms, including not wanting to strengthen the Taliban or facilitate the kind of corruption that existed under prior governments. Promising options are being tested by UN agencies for direct payments to public service workers. But if the banking system and key ministries are to function, dogmatic opposition to any cooperation with the Taliban will be counterproductive. 

A harsh winter is approaching. Without quick action, there will be famine, death, and a destabilized country ripe for civil war. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS will find plenty of fertile ground. Millions of desperate Afghans will attempt to flee the country, exposing them to predatory smugglers and triggering a renewed flood of refugees to neighboring countries and Europe that could rival the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. Germany’s lame-duck Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters at the recent G20 meeting, “To stand by and watch 40 million people plunge into chaos….cannot and should not be the goal of the international community.”

After 20 years of military operations during which we squandered over $2 trillion and killed tens of thousands of Afghans, the U.S. should not retaliate against the Afghan people for the policies of their regressive, misogynist rulers. And we in the West who advocate for human rights must recognize the primacy of the right to eat. We must grapple with the complexities in Afghanistan today and become strong advocates for releasing funds now held by foreign banks and international institutions, funds that rightly belong to the Afghan people.

An Afghan woman cries at the site of a bomb blast after she heard her relative was among of the victims, in Kabul, Afghanistan December 15, 2020. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
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