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“Famine Is Coming”: NGO Leader Jan Egeland in Kabul Demands Taliban Lift Ban on Women Aid Workers

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We go to Kabul to speak with Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, where at least five people died Wednesday in a suicide bombing near the Foreign Ministry. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Meanwhile, pressure is growing on the ruling Taliban to reverse bans on women attending university or working with nongovernmental organizations. In recent weeks a number of major international aid agencies, including the Norwegian Refugee Council, have suspended operations in Afghanistan due to the ban, potentially worsening the humanitarian crisis in the country, where the United Nations estimates more than 28 million Afghans, or over 70% of the population, require humanitarian assistance. “We need to help the same 28 million people in need that the NATO countries left behind,” says Egeland, who recently met with Taliban leaders to urge them to lift restrictions on women’s rights.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, at least five people died in a suicide bombing near the Foreign Ministry in Kabul. More than 40 people were wounded. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Meanwhile, pressure is growing on the ruling Taliban to reverse bans on women going to university or working with NGOs, nongovernmental organizations. In recent weeks, a number of major international aid agencies have suspended operations in Afghanistan due to the ban. This could lead to an even greater humanitarian crisis there, where the United Nations estimates more than 28 million Afghans, or over 70% of the population, need humanitarian assistance. Over 1.1 million children aged under 5 are acutely malnourished.

Some Afghan women have publicly spoken out against the Taliban’s new policies. A university lecturer in Afghanistan named Bakshki recently spoke to Reuters but asked to be only identified by her surname for security reasons.

BAKSHKI: [translated] I’m so upset that according to the new decree of the Taliban, no women can continue their duties and activities as part of the society. And this situation that women have no place in Afghan society is so disappointing. …

I urge the international community not to abandon and forget Afghan women. Afghan women must not be sanctioned anymore. They must not be sentenced to imprisonment. When you talk about human rights, then please support them and do not abandon them. …

I kindly request all women not to lose hope, and struggle for the rights that God and human society have given to them.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Kabul. We’re joined by Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the independent Norwegian Refugee Council, which recently suspended operations in Afghanistan, like many aid groups. Jan Egeland traveled to Kabul this week to meet the Taliban to press them to reverse their ban on women working with NGOs.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! We just saw you tweeted that you weren’t quite able to make it to Kandahar because of weather, or plane service canceled, to meet with the Taliban there, but you have been meeting with them in Afghanistan’s capital. Can you talk about why you feel this is important to talk to them rather than isolate them? And what are your demands?

JAN EGELAND: Well, I’m here because we need to help the same 28 million people in need that the NATO countries left behind when they went for the door one-and-a-half years ago. It’s the same women and children, really. But the only way we can serve them, help them, save the lives of them, is by using our female and male staff alike.

So, this Taliban government that is now in charge has now an edict from their emir that they have been transmitting to all NGOs — it may go way beyond the NGOs, by the way — saying that all of female staff has to work — cannot work anymore. We stopped work immediately. We neither can nor will provide humanitarian aid through males only. It would be bad aid. It wouldn’t reach women. And it would also be fundamentally against our own values of equality between men and women.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Jan, your assessment of how these conversations with Taliban leaders have gone so far? If you could say who exactly you met and what kind of response you’ve received to your demands?

JAN EGELAND: Well, we met — I met the minister of economy, who is the minister that transmitted the ban to us. As NGOs, we are all registered under that ministry. I met the minister for refugees and repatriation, one of the Haqqani ministers. And I was meeting the deputy foreign minister in the Foreign Ministry, where, 24 hours later, the bomb exploded that you referred to.

All of the Taliban leaders told me, paradoxically, that they agree with us. They agree that there should be education for women and girls. They agree that we should be able to employ female professionals, as we need to. But they refer to Kandahar and the emir, and it’s an edict from him, and they have to transmit it.

At the same time, they say, “We’re working hard to have another decree that would enable your work. So, start working with males only.” And we say, “No, we have to wait until this new decree comes that will enable male and females alike. Only then can we do principled humanitarian work here, even though, for us, it’s terrible to see so much suffering that we cannot anymore meet in this country.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In fact, you were told that the decision was made by a single Taliban leader and that most people whom you spoke to, Taliban members, did not agree with this decision. So, do you think that makes it more likely that the decision will be reversed, if it’s coming just from one man?

JAN EGELAND: Well, but it’s not any man. It’s the emir. It’s the supreme leader.

It was so horribly frustrating today and yesterday. We’ve now tried for 36 hours, in spite of the snowstorms and minus-15-degrees Celsius and ice and snow, to get there, but all — all — flights were canceled. We were even inside one of the planes when we had to turn back. Because we need to go to Kandahar to meet the Ulema Shura Council, the Council of Islamic Scholars, so-called, that advise the emir. They were waiting for us. So was the governor of Kandahar, who speaks to the emir. It was impossible.

We will keep pushing. I’ve pushed now through Qatar, Turkey and Iran, who have representations here and in Kandahar and have influence. They will help. We urge anyone to help us, really, because we need — we need a reversal of these decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jan Egeland, can you describe the situation on the ground? I assume you’ve spoken to a number of women on the ground, all of the aid organizations that have suspended operations right now. What is the humanitarian crisis, the dimensions of it?

JAN EGELAND: Well, the unanimous view of the U.N., the Red Cross, Red Crescent, the nongovernmental organizations, our own 1,500 aid workers, that are now being paralyzed, is that the crisis is just catastrophic. It’s a population in freefall, really. Again, it’s minus-15 Celsius, but people are out in the open. People have been now hungry for months. Famine is coming and will engulf 6 million, is the estimation. Water and sanitation is lacking for people. Epidemic disease is threatening. It couldn’t be worse, really.

And at that point, we need to be enabled to do our work, so [lifting] the ban on female education and female workers is fundamental to enable effective work. But I think I’ve discussed before with you on Democracy Now!, we also need back development money. We need the frozen assets of the Afghan people to be released for the people. There are a lot of things that also should pertain to the West, that went for the door one-and-a-half years ago.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jan, are you the only leader of an international NGO that is in conversation — who’s in conversation with the Taliban? Are other organizations who also suspended operations there attempting to speak to the Taliban? And you said Turkey, Iran and Qatar are there placing pressure on the Taliban. Are there other countries doing the same?

JAN EGELAND: Yeah, there are also other Islamic countries. When Qatar goes with the United Arab Emirates, I think Saudi will also help. There is a lot of Islamic countries that are telling them that there is nothing in Islam against female education or against female work, as we also have obeyed all of the traditional rules for the use of the hijab, the mahram, I mean, male chaperones on longer travel, the separation of men and women in the workplace. We’ve done all of that. So, yes, the Islamic countries can and will help us.

I think the U.S. and Norway and others, who still have direct and indirect contacts with the Taliban, need also to intensify their diplomacy. I must say I feel a little bit alone here as a humanitarian. Why is it really only us here working for the same millions of women and children that were so important for the NATO countries until one-and-a-half years ago? And I’m the first to come. Many more will come from the humanitarian side and the U.N. side. But we need help from others.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jan, of course, there is this massive humanitarian crisis, which we’ve covered extensively on the program, including with you, which is worsening, but there is also — of course, you were there yesterday in Kabul. In fact, as you said, you had meetings at the Foreign Office itself, which is where the suicide attack happened. Could you describe the scene on the ground, and also what you’re hearing about the levels of violence in Afghanistan?

JAN EGELAND: Well, I mean, there are these attacks. And it’s bad, and it seems to be building. There is also tension within the Taliban. There’s many people who would like to have a moderate line. Of late, it’s been the extremist line that has undertaken these edicts. A lot of tension.

But again, we’re here. I find it strange that there are not diplomats from more countries, including Western countries, here. It’s an important place, and it’s a place where tens of millions are suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the refugee situation, because, Jan Egeland, you met with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. Can you talk about prioritizing refugees, and what’s happening to them as they face discrimination in the U.S. and other countries, even those that worked with the U.S. forces while they were there in Afghanistan trying to escape, and reports that Pakistan is sending back hundreds of Afghan refugees as tens of thousands attempt to flee?

JAN EGELAND: Yeah, indeed. I mean, the worse the crisis becomes for the Afghan people, the harder it is, really, to escape the crisis. It’s very difficult to reach any of the neighboring countries. And the neighboring countries have returned people. And the NATO countries that employed so many here are not even willing to take many of them. I always get a lot of WhatsApp messages from former employees, you know, interpreters, guides, etc., from NATO countries saying, “Why were not we evacuated? Why couldn’t we escape?”

But, of course, the solution to Afghanistan’s problems is in Afghanistan. It’s not that everybody leaves. So, again, I return to this point. We need to be enabled to do fully our work, and that means Taliban need to change their patterns. But we need also the resources and an enabling environment. It’s still very difficult to transfer even aid money to the country, because of all of the financial transactions are so difficult because the banks are derisking and fearing sanctions, that have largely been lifted for Afghanistan, but it’s still difficult.

AMY GOODMAN: Jan Egeland, we thank you for being with us, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, joining us from Kabul, where he has met with several Taliban officials.

Next up, we look at a new investigation into how CIA-backed death squads killed hundreds of Afghan civilians in nighttime raids, and the push for accountability. Stay with us.

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Night Raids: Victims of CIA-Backed Afghan Death Squads Known as “Zero Units” Demand Accountability

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