January 29, 2023

The Outrages against the People of Afghanistan

Vijay Prashad

IN January 2023, three important leaders from the United Nations (UN) visited Afghanistan. Amina Mohammed, deputy secretary-general, Sima Bahous, director of UN Women, and Khaled Khairi, assistant secretary-general for the UN’s peacekeeping operations, spent four days in the country, meeting Taliban leaders in Kabul and Kandahar. The UN officials ‘conveyed the alarm over the recent decree banning women for national and international non-governmental organisations, a move that undermines the work of numerous organisations helping millions of vulnerable Afghans’. The visit by these UN officials followed that of Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who raised the issue of the five hundred women working for his NGO to provide much-needed relief to the Afghan population. ‘I’m here to tell Taliban leaders and anyone who can influence them that we need to be able to resume work with female workers. If not, lives will be lost’, said Egeland.

The Taliban brushed Egeland aside but told the UN officials that they would allow some exemption, such as for female health workers to resume their operations. ‘My message was very clear’, said the UN’s deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed. ‘While we recognise the important exemptions made, these restrictions present Afghan women and girls with a future that confines them in their own homes, violating their rights, and depriving the communities of their services’.

When the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, indications from their government came that they would not push for policies that restricted women’s access to education or employment. These indications were simply not credible, given the character of the Taliban’s leadership. Since 2016, the Taliban has been led by Hibatullah Akhundzada, who – like his predecessors – is known as the commander of the faithful (Amir al-mu’minin) and is very reclusive.  During the previous Taliban government, from 1996 to 2001, Akhundzada was a judge in a Sharia court and had the reputation for being exceedingly harsh in his judgments; in Pakistan from 2001, Akhundzada ran the shadow courts in Quetta. Only the credulous would have imagined a Taliban government with a liberal attitude towards women’s rights.

The Taliban’s long-standing views on the right of women to education and employment have initiated debates amongst Muslim scholars and in countries with Muslim-majority populations. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reacted strongly to the Taliban’s decision, calling it ‘inhumane and un-Islamic’. Turkey asked the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to hold an extraordinary meeting to discuss this issue. That meeting – held on January 11, 2023 – resulted in the publication of a strong statement that expressed the OIC’s ‘disappointment over the suspension of female education in Afghanistan and the decision ordering all national and international non-governmental organisations to suspend female employees until further notice’. In June 2022, the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA) had sent a delegation of Islamic scholars and jurists to Afghanistan to make the case for women’s education and employment within the Islamic tradition. Now, the OIC asked the IIFA to send a second delegation to impress upon the Taliban that the ruling by Akhundzada is not in keeping with ‘noble Islamic shariah’.


While attention has rightly been focused on the ghastly ban on women’s education and employment in Afghanistan, there has been virtually no attention on the continued US seizure of Afghan central bank funds that had been held in New York. Over $7 billion, a considerable amount for a poor country like Afghanistan, was sequestered by the United States after its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Half of that money was turned over to a fund that pays the families of the victims of the attack on the United States in 2001 by al-Qaeda. It is important to note that neither the Afghan government nor the Afghan people had been involved in a direct way in the attack on the United States, so this seizure of funds is more vindictive rather than legally precise. The other half of the money has now been turned over to the Afghan Fund, which will be maintained in the Bank for International Settlements, based in Geneva (Switzerland). This money will be entrusted to people who are supposedly going to ensure its use for the Afghan people, while bypassing the Taliban. Two senior US officials told CNN that the United States will not be releasing the funds immediately because they do not have a trusted counterparty in Afghanistan. That means that these funds will sit in Geneva for the time being.

When the Taliban came to power in August 2021, they were told by officials at Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), the country’s central bank, that $7 billion of the $9.4 billion in reserves were held at the New York Federal Reserve, mostly in US Treasury bills and in gold. The New York Fed holds the external reserves of several countries, who imagine that their own money will be safe there as part of international agreements and as part of the integrity of the Fed. The aggressive and illegal sanctions policy of western banks (the Bank of London continues to hold seized Venezuelan gold) has called into question the safety of these institutions. Without access to these funds, the Taliban government had few tools at their disposal to handle a perilous economic situation.

From 2001 to 2021, when the US effectively ran Afghanistan, it created an economy that was totally dependent on international aid from the foreign governments and from humanitarian organisations. Three-quarters of government funds and almost half of the country’s gross domestic product was from the flow of aid into the country, with shipments of dollars coming in on US military aircraft. Apart from agriculture – both production for the domestic food needs and for the international narcotics market – most of Afghanistan’s economy relied on aid. It had become an aid-driven economy, with the state utterly reliant on the United States as its patron. In twenty years, the US occupied the country but did nothing to build up any elements of self-reliance (the country is estimated to have $1 trillion reserves of cobalt and gold, lithium and chromite). When the Taliban took over, the US government told the World Bank to stop its $2 billion disbursement to DAB through the Afghanistan Reconstructive Trust Fund, which essentially allowed DAB to provide liquidity to local banks and to pay the salaries of millions of health workers, teachers, and other professionals. All funding dried up, the country’s professionals either fled or had to find new ways to survive.

The United Nations has designated Afghanistan as one of the world’s ‘complex humanitarian emergencies (CHEs)’, with 28.3 million people – or two-thirds of the country’s population – in need of humanitarian assistance and with 17 million people facing acute hunger. This situation of humanitarian collapse has been in evidence long before the US withdrawal and the Taliban seizure of power, since the US occupation created a country entirely dependent on foreign aid. The withdrawal of aid since August 2021 resulted in the almost immediate and catastrophic decline in income for four out of five Afghan households (according to the UN’s World Food Programme). Even before the Taliban took power, the World Health Organisation reported that less than 20 per cent of health-care clinics in the country were functional. The US government’s watchdog agency (SIGAR) found that annual per capita income in Afghanistan had fallen from $650 in 2021 to $500 in 2020, before the US withdrawal, and had been expected to fall to the very low $350 by 2022. These steep declines in the fortunes of the Afghan people began long before the US withdrew, and the Taliban came to power. However, with the cessation of aid, the conditions deteriorated sharply.

The focus on women’s employment and education in Afghanistan is absolutely correct, but it is a shallow focus if it ignores the devastation faced by the Afghan people due to the construction – during the US occupation – of an aid-based economy, and the even deeper devastation as a consequence of the loss of the aid and of Afghanistan’s own reserves. NGOs – like the Norwegian Refugee Council – and UN agencies treat Afghanistan as a permanent crisis, which has been generated by a long history of war, occupation, and the construction of an aid-based economy. Afghanistan cannot hope to exit from this crisis if it cannot develop its own economy, using its own considerable resources and its significantly important location. But it cannot do so if it remains between the anvil of US imperialism and the hammer of Taliban’s obscurantism.