- Masuda SultanAfghan American women’s rights activist, part of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council and a founding member of Unfreeze Afghanistan.
- Phyllis Rodriguezmember of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows whose son Greg was killed in the World Trade Center attack.
- Medea Benjaminco-founder of CodePink and Unfreeze Afghanistan.
President Biden is facing mounting criticism for seizing $7 billion of Afghanistan’s federal reserves frozen in the United States. Biden is giving half of the money to families of September 11 victims while Afghanistan faces a humanitarian catastrophe. We speak to two of the founders of a new campaign called Unfreeze Afghanistan, a women-led initiative to lift sanctions and other economic restrictions on Afghanistan, and a woman who lost her son in the World Trade Center attack, who says the money should stay in Afghanistan. “The suffering of the Afghan people at the hands of the United States and its allies is reprehensible. This is adding insult to injury,” says Phyllis Rodriguez, a member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, whose son Greg was killed in the World Trade Center attack and who says 9/11 families want “information, not remuneration.” Afghan American activist Masuda Sultan says continued lack of access to money and basic services in Afghanistan will inspire a new wave of underground terrorism in the country, “endangering the entire world.” Biden’s order is gravely hypocritical, adds Medea Benjamin, critiquing the administration for “putting themselves forward as these great saviors of Afghanistan” for releasing Afghan-owned assets as “aid” while taking no punitive action against Saudi Arabia, whose citizens led the 9/11 attack.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Afghanistan’s central bank is condemning President Biden’s decision to seize $7 billion of Afghan assets frozen in U.S. banks. On Friday, Biden signed an executive order to split the money between the families of 9/11 victims and humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan. The United States froze the money after the Taliban seized power six months ago today. The United Nations and many aid groups had been calling on the Biden administration, as well as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, to unfreeze all Afghan funds in order to stem Afghanistan’s growing economic and humanitarian catastrophe.
Congressmember Ilhan Omar blasted Biden’s decision. She tweeted, “There wasn’t a single Afghan among the hijackers. Meanwhile, we are giving BILLIONS of dollars to the governments of Saudi Arabia & Egypt who have direct ties to the 9/11 terrorists. Even if this weren’t the case, punishing millions of starving ppl for these crimes is unconscionable,” she said.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai also criticized Biden’s decision.
HAMID KARZAI: The Afghan people are as much victims as those families who lost their loved ones are, and that withholding money or seizing money from the people of Afghanistan in that name is — is unjust and unfair and an atrocity against the Afghan people. … This money does not belong to any government. This is the property of the Afghan people, and the Afghan people are the rightful owners of this property. I request President Joe Biden to reconsider his decision and to return the totality of Afghan assets reserves back to the people of Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, spoke about the connection between U.S. sanctions and the crisis in Afghanistan.
REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: After our withdrawal from Afghanistan, U.S. sanctions on the Taliban have impacted the broader functioning of the entire Afghan government, including schools and hospitals, which cannot buy food for the patients or gas to heat their buildings. The New York Times reports that, according to aid organizations, starvation could kill 1 million children this winter. These fatalities could far exceed civilian deaths resulting from 20 years of war. The United States has frozen $9.4 billion of the Afghan central bank’s foreign reserves, making it impossible for the country’s financial system to function and threatening to collapse the entire economy.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by three guests. Phyllis Rodriguez is a member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Her son Greg was killed in the World Trade Center attack. Masuda Sultan is with us, an Afghan American activist who has helped start a new group called Unfreeze Afghanistan along with Medea Benjamin of CodePink, who’s still with us. They co-wrote a new article headlined “Biden’s $7 billion Afghan heist.” It was published on the Responsible Statecraft blog.
Masuda Sultan, let’s begin with you. It’s great to have you back with us. In a moment, we’re going to play a clip of you back in our studios two decades ago, after you had been to see your family — or who remained — after they were bombed by the U.S. military when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. Now you’re starting this group called Unfreeze Afghanistan. Can you talk about what your demands are?
MASUDA SULTAN: Thank you, Amy. It’s good to be back with you after 20 years.
Unfreeze Afghanistan was founded by a group of women activists, Afghan and American activists, to address the challenge Afghanistan was going through with the U.S. troop withdrawal. While we welcomed President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, what we were worried about and what we were hearing is that teachers, healthcare workers and others had not been paid for months, even under the Ghani administration. And as women who care about girls’ education and healthcare in Afghanistan and helping that country get back on its feet, we decided to try and do something about it.
Now, we were also concerned that 75% of the government’s budget also left with the donors, as well as all of the externally funded donor projects. This has been devastating for Afghanistan. Afghanistan is set to see its worst recorded year in history. This is one of the worst famines in history. In addition to taking away all the money that they were relying on — we built that economy on aid — we also froze their central bank assets, as well as personal assets of individuals who had their money in the banks. NGOs, corporations, everything has come to a standstill. And millions and millions of people are starving right now through the winter, and a million children are expected to die this winter as a result of our policies. So we came together to address that and to see what we could do to help.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Masuda, could you talk about why so much of the reserves of the central bank of Afghanistan were in the United States or in Europe? Now, it’s known that the central bank, when the United States was still involved in Afghanistan, had lots of corruption problems. There were some big scandals that developed over how bank officials were using the money. But that’s an extraordinary amount of money to be basically in foreign hands, to begin with.
MASUDA SULTAN: Well, you know, that’s a good point. The central bank reserves of Afghanistan were kept in the United States for safety reasons. Typically, a lot of developing countries, a lot of countries keep their money in the United States. As, let’s say, teachers, individuals, businesswomen, they put their money in the local banks, and the local banks then kept a portion of their reserves in the central bank, just like you would have in a normal country. The central bank then would keep those reserves in other countries for safety and interest-earning purposes. It was just normal practice to keep the money secure. Had the money not been in the United States, it would not have been seized. The irony of this is that Afghanistan has lost out on this money by keeping it in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring in —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like —
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, go ahead, Juan.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to bring in Phyllis Rodriguez. Your reaction to what is happening, what the Biden administration is doing, partially in the name of the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks?
PHYLLIS RODRIGUEZ: It’s outrageous, and it’s so saddening to me, because about 20 years ago, a little more, soon after the attacks, my husband and I published a letter called “Not in Our Son’s Name,” calling on the administration not to retaliate against the people of Afghanistan for the attacks of 9/11. It’s beyond my imagination that it should have come to this. We wish no harm to anybody. We have gotten the whole — the whole story about what it is to lose a son and to be with people who have lost family members cannot — let me put it this way: The suffering of the Afghan people at the hands of the United States and its allies is reprehensible. This is adding insult to injury. The fact that there are 9/11 families who are lobbying for some of these funds is — it’s shocking, because why don’t they have — why don’t we Americans have a clear idea of the privilege that we have in this country? I cannot imagine living in a war-torn country where there’s constant devastation and loss of life.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, years ago, 20 years ago, in December of 2001, Masuda, we spoke to you on Democracy Now! when you were in Afghanistan about a U.S. air raid that killed 19 members of your family. We want to play the clip.
MASUDA SULTAN: They described this scene where they were running with their kids in their arms, dodging bullets left and right, while they saw balls of fire falling down to the earth. … There were women and children running for their lives, being shot at by a helicopter hovering over their homes. And these people were not Taliban supporters. They weren’t al-Qaeda fighters. They were simple Afghans trying to stay safe in their own country.
AMY GOODMAN: After Masuda Sultan came back to New York — we’re talking now about 2002 — she came on Democracy Now! with Rita Lasar, a colleague of Phyllis Rodriguez. Rita, who has since died, lost her brother Abe Zelmanowitz at the World Trade Center. It was a remarkable moment in the firehouse studio down at Downtown Community Television when Rita and Masuda Sultan met for the first time.
RITA LASAR: I live on the 15th floor and ran to my neighbor’s house, and she has a clear view of downtown Manhattan. And I looked out her window and saw the second plane hit the second building. And it dawned on me: My brother works there. … I went down to the hospitals to see if his name was on a list. And then I realized he had died. And because he had stayed behind to stay with his quadriplegic brother — I’m sorry, friend, who couldn’t get out, although he was on the 27th floor and he could have saved himself, he died. … And then President Bush mentioned him in the National Cathedral speech and cited him as being a hero. And I realized that my government was going to use my brother as justification for killing other people, and that had a tremendous impact on me. I didn’t want that to happen, not in my brother’s name.
MASUDA SULTAN: First of all, I want to express my condolences to Rita. I did before, but I think your brother is a hero, and you’re a hero for continuing his legacy. And it’s amazing to me that someone who’s lost so much isn’t as revenge-hungry as some of the other people that seem to want to, you know, go start bombing whoever, wherever.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Masuda Sultan 20 years ago in our studios with Rita Lasar. Rita and Phyllis then formed, along with other people, 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. You lost, Masuda, 19 members of your family 20 years ago. It is now two decades later, and we see this suffering intensify throughout Afghanistan. You and as well as Medea Benjamin have formed Unfreeze Afghanistan. Have you been able to speak to members of the Biden administration? A number of progressive Democrats in Congress have supported this call to get the money to the people of Afghanistan.
MASUDA SULTAN: Amy, yes, after that show 20 years ago, Medea, Rita and the rest of Peaceful Tomorrows group went to Congress and worked to get aid appropriated to civilian victims of the war. And as you may know, as a result of 20 years of war, one of the drivers of the Taliban coming back to power were these civilian casualties. People were harmed. Innocent people were harmed and decided to fight against United States. To a lot of people, you know, Amy, this war is not over. In Afghanistan, the innocent people who are suffering now from these economic sanctions feel that the United States is out to hurt Afghanistan, and more so than the 20 years of bombs and bullets and attacks they have endured.
And the reason why this is so important to return these reserves back to Afghanistan to their rightful owners, which is the Afghan people — and there been many proposals about this from economists and experts, and we’ve been in touch with many of them — yes, we are in touch with the administration. We have put forth proposals, as have others. Human Rights Watch agrees with us. The head of the U.N. agrees with us. The head of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, agrees with us. You talk to just about every humanitarian organization, any economist, they will tell you that a central bank’s reserves belong in the central bank. There’s the same audit committee that was there before. You know, using the excuse of corruption, it’s just an excuse, because the systems in place inside the central bank are such that transactions can be monitored. They’re electronic, these currency transactions, and they can’t be manipulated. So we could release a tranche of reserves. We haven’t even released $5 million, $10 million, to see what happens. And if anything was misused, we could stop that. But instead, we have just decided that Afghanistan cannot have its central bank reserves, that that economy will now be crippled. We just knocked the legs out of it. And the humanitarian crisis will just grow and grow. Afghanistan will be an aid-dependent country.
And worse, what I’m really worried about is the growth of terrorism. We are laying the foundation for Afghanistan to become a truly failed state, to collapse. These policies are going to endanger Americans. It is going to endanger the world to have an unstable Afghanistan with no economy. Everything goes underground when there’s no transparent banking. It will be back to the '90s, where there will be terrorist camps popping up everywhere, because what do — what do men do, young men, who were not even born on 9/11 and are now suffering extreme poverty, watching their brothers and sisters starve, their skin fall off their face, lose their voices? This is what they're witnessing, and it is directly because of the United States. We spent 20 years talking about how to win hearts and minds. This is the opposite of that. We are endangering the entire world with this policy. Please, President Biden, change this policy. It is wrong.
And to the 9/11 family members who say — there are many who say that this is a wrong policy. We invite you to come to Afghanistan, come with us, come see what’s going on, watch what the people are going through. We’ll take you around. Please contact us. Find us on Twitter. My handle is @MasudaSultan on Twitter. You can find us at UnfreezeAfghanistan.org. We will work with you to see the conditions on the ground, especially the conditions for women and children.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to ask Medea Benjamin, the hypocrisy of the Biden administration saying that it’s going to use some of the Afghan central bank moneys to compensate the 9/11 families, when 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, and Saudi Arabia has not yet been in any way held responsible for the many ties that some of its own royal family had with some of the hijackers.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, that’s right, Juan. You have the country with the richest sovereign wealth fund in the world — that’s Saudi Arabia — and the U.S. has not helped the 9/11 families to get all the FBI information about the connection between the 15 of the 19 hijackers who were Saudi and the royal family. And yet, in the meantime, they’re allowing billions of dollars to be taken from one of the poorest countries in the world. And I think it’s important to recognize that not only were there no Afghans involved in the 9/11 attack, but the majority of Afghans were not even born at that time.
The other thing that, Juan, is important is not only the section of money, the $3.5 billion, that the Biden administration is reserving for those lawsuits, but there’s the other $3.5 billion. And instead of it going to the central bank, what they’re saying is this will go for humanitarian aid. And they’re putting themselves forward as these great saviors of Afghanistan. But that aid will most likely go to international organizations that have huge overheads, so the majority of the money doesn’t even get to the people on the ground. It also means that those humanitarian organizations, they need a central bank. They need a place to transfer funds to use to pay their staff, to make purchases. So, aid organizations are crippled by the lack of a functioning central banks.
So, what we’re saying is that all of that money should be returned to Afghanistan. We’re asking the aid organizations to refuse to take that money. We’re asking lawyers — and we invite anybody listening to this who has expertise to join us in trying to find different ways to legally block the executive order of the Biden administration. And we’re calling on the American people to express their outrage, in saying, “This is morally bankrupt. We will not let this stand.” We know that if there’s enough pressure on the Biden administration, he can rescind this order.
And the backlash is something I don’t think that they expected. It’s coming from not only Afghans, who are united for the first time, all kinds of Afghans, inside Afghanistan and in the diaspora, all saying this is thievery, this is wrong. And it has to unite us in the United States to say we will not do this to the Afghan people.
AMY GOODMAN: And let me end with Phyllis Rodriguez. Have you spoken with the Biden administration? They’re talking about giving you some of that money for the loss of your son Greg.
PHYLLIS RODRIGUEZ: No, I have not. And I am not a party to any of the lawsuits that have been mentioned. There are people who I know, through Peaceful Tomorrows and not, who are party to one or more of the lawsuits that are still going on. They are opposed to the money coming to anyone in the United States whose family was victimized by the attacks. The purpose of these suits is to get information, not to get remuneration. And I’m very grateful to Masuda and Medea for what they’re doing.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much, all, for being with us. Phyllis Rodriguez of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows lost her son Greg Rodriguez on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center. He worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. And Masuda Sultan and Medea Benjamin, who have just formed the group Unfreeze Afghanistan. Masuda Sultan, Afghan American, lost 19 members of her family when the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan and bombed a farmhouse they had taken refuge in outside of Kandahar. Of course, Medea Benjamin with CodePink.
Coming up, we go to Texas, where early voting has begun in the state’s closely watched March 1st primary. It’s the first election since Texas passed a highly restrictive voting law. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “This Is It!” by Betty Davis. The funk pioneer died last week at the age of 77.