On April 25, 2022, UN human rights experts called on the US government to unfreeze the foreign assets of Afghanistan’s central bank — Da Afghanistan Bank — citing concerns that existing US policy has worsened the humanitarian crisis for Afghan women and girls. However, the US State Department spokesperson denied that US actions had increased hardships faced by Afghan women under Taliban rule and claimed the UN report contained “serious mistakes.”
US denial is demonstrably false and continues the dystopian pattern of the US blatantly and aggressively lying to the public about the impacts of its policies in Afghanistan. Today, Afghan women and girls are facing twin crises. The first is the systemic violation of their fundamental human rights by the Taliban regime. The second is an economic crisis caused by US sanctions and President Joe Biden’s executive order to freeze and distribute the assets of Afghanistan’s central bank. While the Biden administration has no control over what the Taliban does within Afghanistan, it can alleviate the economic hardship of Afghan women by releasing the country’s assets immediately.
THE IMPACT OF THE LIQUIDITY CRISIS
When the Taliban banned women from air travel without a male family member, the liquidity crisis caused by US policies left women trapped in Afghanistan without financial resources to survive. In Kabul, an Afghan woman told Refugees International: “From what I know, the worst humanitarian situation is in the more rural areas. But even in Kabul, no one has money, and with no money, how do you buy food?… We need food assistance, even in the cities, and we need cash.”
When the Taliban banned secondary school students from attending school, the liquidity crisis driven by US policies left girls unable to access alternative and online schools to pursue their education. Rabia,* a 15-year-old in Afghanistan, attends an online school but has to navigate power outages, internet outages, language barriers, and a lack of support from a trained teacher while striving for a college education abroad.
The State Department may be flatly denying that US policies in Afghanistan are not having the intended outcome because our history of US policy in Afghanistan is to mislead the American public about its policy outcomes.
Afghan women business owners made incredible gains in their economic independence and security over the past two decades. According to the Afghanistan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry report, nearly 57,000 businesses were opened and operated by women over the last two decades. However, since the US withdrawal and the Taliban takeover in August 2022, most women-owned and women-led businesses have closed their doors because of Taliban threats. And US sanctions have lessened the likelihood of their return and jeopardized their ability to continue operations, manage expenses, and pay staff. After meeting with women business owners in Mazar-e-Sharif, UN Development Programme chief Achim Steiner said, “The women small business owners I spoke with are tenacious in their determination to continue earning an income and providing for their families and communities against all odds.”
The liquidity crisis also has cascading effects on the safety of Afghan women and girls. Desperate to survive, Afghan girls are becoming a form of currency for their families. Girls, younger and younger, are being sold as child brides. Parwana, a nine-year-old, was sold to a 55-year-old for approximately $2200. After an international outcry, she was rescued and returned home, but what about the other Afghan girls sold without international media attention? Zahra, a 3-year-old, was purchased by a 50-year-old man for approximately $500. While there is no comprehensive data available, UN Children’s Fund head Cornelius Jones describes what is happening as “a commodification of girls” where “child marriages [are] becoming more of a transaction.”
Unfortunately, the gendered burden of conflict is not specific to Afghanistan. The State Department has repeatedly reported on the particular threats women and girls face amid humanitarian and economic catastrophes. But the impact of the frozen assets is something that the Biden administration and Congress can — and should — collectively work to address, in order to alleviate the hardship on Afghans, especially women and children.
In a press release issued on Mar. 10, 2022, for International Women’s Day, the State Department explicitly said:
“Today, the world is facing several significant challenges that disproportionately impact women and girls, including … humanitarian emergencies and conflict in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Yemen, and in so many other places, including the significant curtailment of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.”
So, why would the State Department flatly deny that an economic and humanitarian crisis has a worse impact on Afghan women and girls?
It may be an admission that they, like previous administrations, have objectified Afghan women for their own policy goals instead of listening to Afghan women political leaders who warned that the result of US economic policies toward Afghanistan would be an economic crisis that would harm Afghan women and girls the most. As Jamila Afghani, the president of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) Afghanistan said, “we are not supporting women by starving them.”
WILPF Afghanistan, the Afghan Women’s Advocacy Group, and the US diaspora group Afghans for a Better Tomorrow quickly condemned the executive order to freeze and distribute Afghanistan’s assets, citing humanitarian and legal concerns. The US currently holds approximately $7 billion in Afghanistan assets as foreign currency reserves, while the European Union has an additional $2 billion. These assets, as described by the Afghan Women Advocacy Group, are “the reserve fund of Afghanistan’s central bank for the protection of Afghanistan’s currency, support of its financial and banking sector, and facilitation of international transactions… it belongs to the people of Afghanistan.” The former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, called the executive order “an atrocity against Afghan people.” They have been joined by 80 leading national and international human rights organizations condemning the executive order.
The State Department may be flatly denying that US policies in Afghanistan are not having the intended outcome because our history of US policy in Afghanistan is to mislead the American public about its policy outcomes. The Afghanistan papers, an investigative report from the Washington Post, “described explicit efforts by the US government to deliberately mislead the public” throughout the war, “making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false.”
While the US hangs its hat on the idea that humanitarian exemptions allow aid to flow into Afghanistan, aid organizations have clearly said that the aid exemptions are not enough to avoid a humanitarian disaster. Jan Egeland, the Norwegian Refugee Center director, warns that “the unresolved liquidity crisis is a key driver in what is becoming the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world….” She has urged the US Treasury and other Western financial authorities to enable the transfer of aid money to allow the Norwegian Refugee Center to work effectively. Aid cannot be enough when the global funding appeal for Afghanistan has a $2 billion funding shortfall, and only 14% of the $4.4 billion in funds asked for have been received.
IT’S TIME TO LISTEN TO AFGHAN WOMEN
We need US foreign policy grounded in the expertise of directly impacted communities and an urgent desire of US policymakers to change and adapt policy when confronted with critical evidence and expertise that our policy is harming, not helping, frontline communities and US interests abroad. There is no clear path forward for US policy in Afghanistan without incorporating the concerns, policy expertise, and recommendations of Afghan women leaders, which is the vision of US foreign policy captured by The Foreign Policy for the 21st Century Resolution, introduced by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).
When the Taliban reversed its decision to allow girls to attend secondary school and closed the doors on Afghan girls, women and girls led protests throughout Afghanistan demanding reforms. To build a robust civil society, they need all the support they can get, including an end to the liquidity crisis that limits their options for adaptation and survival.
It’s time for US policymakers to listen to UN independent experts and Afghan women civil society leaders united in their recommendation: Unfreeze Afghanistan’s assets and be more accountable partners in policymaking, especially with Afghan women and girls.
Note: All names with * are pseudonyms.
Kate Alexander is the policy and campaigns officer of MADRE and a board member of the Peace Action Fund of New York State.