Women in Afghanistan are protesting a number of gender-based restrictions from the Taliban, including an order in March to shut down public high schools for girls. In response, U.S. officials canceled talks with Taliban leaders in Doha, continuing to freeze billions in Afghan assets while Afghanistan spirals into economic catastrophe. We speak with Masuda Sultan and Medea Benjamin, two co-founders of Unfreeze Afghanistan, a coalition advocating for the release of funding for Afghan civilians. 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.
Editor’s note: Following our interview with Afghan American activist Masuda Sultan, the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council informed her that her membership in the organization had ended, accusing her of improperly “representing the Council.” Democracy Now! noted Sultan’s membership but did not identify her as a spokesperson for the group, and Sultan denies the allegation.
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. The Taliban have also issued a number of other new restrictions. Women have been barred from flying without a male companion. Men and women will no longer be allowed in public parks on the same day. All male government workers must grow beards or risk being fired.
This is 16-year-old Khadija from Kabul, one of the many students who was told she had to go home after she excitedly arrived for her first day of school last month.
KHADIJA: [translated] It was like a day of mourning, a very sad day. It was like losing a loved one. Everyone was crying. The girls were hugging and crying and saying goodbye. … Even if it would be very difficult, I still wanted to be a doctor. I like doctors’ white coats. But now I cannot do anything. My future is ruined.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is a schoolteacher at a protest outside Afghanistan’s Education Ministry in Kabul.
SCHOOLTEACHER: [translated] The Taliban are scared of an educated girl. When a girl is educated, a family will be educated. And when a family is educated, a nation will be educated. And finally, an educated nation will never, ever nourish the motives of terrorists.
AMY GOODMAN: The move prompted U.S. officials to cancel talks with Taliban leaders in Doha last month to address the economic catastrophe in Afghanistan, triggered in part by U.S. sanctions imposed after the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan 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.
SECRETARY-GENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: Some 95% of people do not have enough to eat, and 9 million people are at risk of famine. UNICEF estimates that a million severely malnourished children are on the verge of death, without immediate action. And global food prices are skyrocketing as a result of the war in Ukraine.
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. And joining us in Washington, D.C., longtime antiwar activist Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink and Unfreeze Afghanistan. They’ve both just returned from a trip to Afghanistan with a women’s delegation.
We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Masuda, let’s begin with you. You go to your home country, Afghanistan. Tell us what you found and what you’re calling for.
MASUDA SULTAN: Well, Amy, Medea and I and a group of six other American women activists who have been working in Afghanistan for the past 20, 25 years were hoping to go for the reopening of schools. And just before our trip, we heard that, as we all heard, that girls above the age of seventh grade to 12th were stopped. And we all saw the images of girls crying and being sent away. And we had to make a decision about what we were going to do. Believe me, that day that that happened, March 23rd, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was crying, as were the girls and women of Afghanistan, as was the world. But we made a decision that we needed to go to Afghanistan precisely because we wanted to advocate for these girls. And we had been advocating for the release of the central bank assets and increased aid.
And I’m really glad we went, because, you know, what I learned on this trip is that Afghanistan needs engagement. The Afghan people need the Taliban government and the United States to cooperate. 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 economic crisis is compounded by the sanctions, by the lack of cash. 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: And, Medea, could you talk about your meetings with the Taliban leaders, what you discussed with them, and also this whole issue of the central bank moneys that were seized by the U.S. and the Western powers? 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] having seen those horrific scenes in Ukraine, to recognize that the United States dropped over 85,000 bombs in Afghanistan over 20 years and was never held accountable for anything. And, in fact, when hopefully this war in Ukraine is over soon, the world community is going to ask Russia to pay reparations. There were no reparations paid by the United States. On the contrary, the U.S. has stolen $7 billion of Afghan funds. 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. We had Kelly Campbell from 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows on the trip with us, who made very compelling talks in Afghanistan about how that money, every single penny of it, belonged to the Afghan people. The other $3.5 billion is supposed to go back for Afghanistan. It hasn’t gone back.
And so there is a huge liquidity crisis in the country 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. There was a new decree that was put out by the Taliban that says that they will stop poppy production. This is something the U.S. had tried to do for 20 years totally unsuccessfully. And they are asking the international community for help to provide farmers with alternative crops. This is a tremendous opportunity for the international community to get involved and help to reshape the Afghan economy. Conditioning aid and development assistance is the absolute wrong thing to do right now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Masuda, again, this whole issue, when you met with Taliban officials, what did they tell 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 thought that it was going to come at any day, at any moment. 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.”
So it seems that, you know, all eyes are on this one person to make the right decision. 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. And I think a lot of Afghan people are feeling very disturbed about all of 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. But the good news is, is that within the Taliban movement itself, there seems to be quite a bit of dissent around this, including tweets and a lot of comments saying that that decision should 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. And, of course, what is the status of those who left Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power? How are the Afghan refugees being treated 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 as a result of our policies. And now that they’re trying to get on their feet, we literally have the entire country in a strangulation.
So, the United States bears a lot of responsibility for what has happened in Afghanistan, and we should be stepping up, as well with others around the world. Remember, it was a coalition of 40-plus countries that invaded Afghanistan, and we all have a responsibility to help that country get right. What’s happening there — you know, what’s happening in Ukraine is obviously very awful. We feel for the people 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. A Gallup poll says that 94% of Afghans rate themselves as 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. Your thoughts as you come out of Afghanistan in the context of the war in Ukraine?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Unfortunately, the U.S. would not allow the International Criminal Court to even investigate U.S. potential war crimes in Afghanistan, and there were many of them. And the U.S. is not even a party to the International Criminal Court. So it would be nice to have a judgment against those who took us into this War in Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, Masuda Sultan, thank you so much.