The normally reserved International Committee of the Red Cross recently made a surprisingly direct statement about the unfolding economic and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. They said, “Can the international community” — meaning the U.S. — “hold 39 million people hostage to the fact that they do not want to recognise the authorities that are now in place in Kabul and in Afghanistan?”
Masood Shnizai is a journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan. He joins Ryan Grim to discuss the devastating effects of the ongoing U.S. sanctions, and why the calls for help seem to be falling on deaf ears in the Biden administration.
Ryan Grim: Typically on this show, I like to offer up a decent amount of context before jumping into an interview. But today I want to save that for afterwards, because I don’t want to get in the way of Masood Shnizai, our guest today. He’s a journalist and fixer in Afghanistan, and was courageous enough to share with us what life has been like under Taliban rule coupled with debilitating U.S. sanctions.
After his interview, I’ll offer a little more global background.
RG: Masood Shnizai, welcome to Deconstructed. Thank you for being here.
Masood Shnizai: Thank you, Ryan. It’s good to be here.
RG: And so this past summer here in the United States, Afghanistan was the only thing anybody wanted to talk about on the news for about a week or two. And after that week or two ended, the situation in Afghanistan essentially has faded entirely from view here in the United States.
Tell us a little bit about how this summer was for you. Where were you when the Taliban finally took over Kabul?
MS: Well, when the Taliban took over Kabul, I was in Herat and Herat fell to the Taliban before Kabul.
Newscaster: The Taliban capture Afghanistan’s third biggest city, Herat, with reports they’ve taken Kandahar, too.
MS: So I was in Herat, and on a Thursday, Herat fell to the Taliban and then on a Sunday, two days later, Kabul fell to the Taliban. And everybody was scared to death and the situation was very chaotic; people were fleeing, people were trying to leave the country. The evacuation in Kabul airport, it was disastrous.
Newscaster: Outside the last remaining U.S. base at Kabul airport, chaos continues. [Sounds go gunshots.] Shooting, violence, Taliban whips.
Newscaster: The death toll following yesterday’s devastating bomb attack at Kabul Airport has risen to 170. There’s now heightened Taliban security around the airport.
RG: So what were the immediate first days under the new Taliban rule like, both for you and for the city?
MS: Well, the immediate few days, nobody knew what’s going to happen and what’s happening, what will be happening next. It was chaotic. And it was a dark future.
The Taliban formed a new government, but they didn’t have any plans for how they will run the new government, the new administration, and how they will treat the people, how they will treat the previous government employees and the American allies. And the situation remains still very uncertain. We don’t know what will happen in the spring or next summer, so nobody knows the future.
RG: The Taliban went on an international tour, so to speak, saying that they were going to be a different Taliban than they were the last time that they were in power. Some people said this is all just PR; don’t believe it from them.
How much of that was PR and how different are they from the last Taliban?
MS: Well, they are different in a way that now they are allowing certain things that they did not allow the first time they took over. Like, for example, they allow shaving beards, they are not chopping off the hands of robbers, they are not executing people for adultery. We have not seen any executions yet. We have not seen any cutting hands. And also they are allowing, to some degree, women to go to work, to go to school, to go to universities. So they look different. They are saying that: We are now more experienced than 20 years ago.
RG: When it comes to just the material conditions that people are living under, was there a slow decline or was it more rapid once the Taliban came into power?
MS: It was a rapid decline because with the fall of the government of Afghanistan, the economy was dependent mostly on foreign aid and foreign military expenditure. So it was heavily dependent on foreign dollars. So once the government collapsed, and the foreign aid stopped, the military expenditure stopped, the previous government expenditure stopped, a lot of people lost their jobs.
And the country was already in a very bad economic situation because of a drought and because of the coronavirus pandemic. So, and after the collapse, the economic challenges got doubled and tripled, and all of the business people, the business class, and the rich people were evacuated. The banks collapsed, people did not have cash to buy food or other necessities, necessary items. So it was very rapid, you know.
RG: And what does that look like in real life day to day? If you walk around, how many shops are open that used to be open? Are there any banks that are still open? How many people you know were thrown out of work?
MS: So many of them. So many of them. So many shops, maybe 30 percent of the shops, are not running anymore. The businesses, the big businesses like hotels and manufacturing companies, they’ve stopped operations. Banks have stopped providing services. Azizi Bank, one of the biggest banks. They are not able to provide cash to their customers who want to withdraw their money.
I personally have some cash in Azizi Bank, and I’m not able to withdraw for three months now. Because there are long long queues in front of the banks, and then you have to wait for a week just to withdraw $200. That’s a very difficult situation. The consumption of people has been reduced by 50 percent. And on the other hm the African currency lost its value, 30 to 35 percent of its value against the dollar, the food prices, the commodity prices have spiked by 40 to 50 percent. So, the situation, right now, is very bad. And we have very vulnerable people in Afghanistan, like more than half of the population. You have people who do not have shelter, who do not have food, who do not have access to basic health services.
RG: If you do have cash, or you have U.S. dollars, or you can access them at the bank, what’s available to buy?
MS: Well, things are available, food is available in the market. But the prices have spiked. The fuel prices were around 40-45 AFNs before the fall, and now, it’s gone up to 75 AFNs. It’s nearly doubled.
These commodities are available in the market, but people don’t have enough cash to buy. That’s why they have reduced their consumption.
RG: And if somebody does work a typical working-class type of job in Herat or in Kabul, what type of income can they expect at this point compared to what the prices are that you’re just talking about?
MS: Well, the income as compared to the prices is very less. One person in a month cannot earn 50 to 60 percent of their expenses.
The incomes are different. The laborers, they are making $2, $3, $4 per day if they find work. Or NGOs or United Nations organizations or other humanitarian NGOs, the salaries are around $1,000.
RG: For the month?
MS: For the month. Yeah. So those people are doing better off. But the people who are farming or doing labor work, they are not able to cover their costs with their income.
RG: And what’s the effect of the U.S. sanctions on the situation, the U.S. seizure of Afghan government money? Is it noticeable? And do people understand it as related to the economic conditions?
MS: Yes, it is understood that now that the banks have collapsed, and they don’t have cash to pay to their customers is because of the dollars that are frozen by the U.S. government, and also the devaluation of that currency that lost its value against the dollar is also because of the U.S. sanctions. And the dollar inflow that’s cut has also affected our trade with other countries. We don’t have enough dollars to purchase from our trading partner countries.
And also, right now, Afghanistan banks, the wire transfers are not working; the credit cards are not working. Because all of these international money transfer transactions are approved in the United States, in New York. So that’s why even with countries like Turkmenistan, and the Central Asian countries from whom Afghanistan buys its fuel and gas, they cannot make banking transactions. So it’s become very difficult.
RG: And also if relatives of those who are still in Afghanistan want to send money to help, is that possible? Or is that being blocked by sanctions, too?
MS: A bank-to-bank wire transfer is not possible. Western Union was working for some time, but then that also stopped working. MoneyGram also stopped working. Local exchangers are there who are transferring through the hawala system, which is a local system. So that’s possible, but that [is] also very costly.
RG: Right. So, in other words, they’re taking a big chunk out of it.
MS: Yeah. Yeah.
RG: Right. There’s reporting that the U.S. is blocking international organizations like the IMF and the World Bank from offering assistance. Is that something that people talk about there as well?
MS: Yes, the World Bank, they were implementing a lot of development projects in Afghanistan. And there were big, big projects, a lot of people were employed on those projects, and it was a source of income for so many people, and it was also taking a part in the economy of Afghanistan — all those projects are stopped now. And it has created a new economic problem, which has added to unemployment.
RG: And as this gets reported here in the United States, people talk about the potential of tens of millions of people starving over the winter. But I’m curious, do you think that there are already people, children or adults, who are starving to death today, at this point?
MS: Yes, there are. It’s very cold right now. It’s -7 to -8 degrees Celsius. And there are people who are without a shelter, and who don’t have enough food to eat
Last month, I was in Herat, and I saw a town with hundreds of internally displaced families living on the plain ground without a roof on top of them, and they were not having any cash. They were not having, like plain bread. So those people, I fear, that they will be starving right now.
RG: So the United States, under pressure, just recently announced that it would be sending some $300 million in aid, but it would be routing it around the Taliban to nonprofits in Afghanistan. How was that news received and what effect do you think it would have?
MS: Well, that was welcomed by the people and that aid will be channeled through U.N. organizations, and U.N. organizations, they are not responsible to the government or to anybody in Afghanistan. So it will be good, it will be dollars coming to Afghanistan. But also the U.N. projects are not so effective because they’re spending a very big portion of the aid on their admin costs. So a big part of that will go to their admin costs, to their own salaries, and all those things, and some part will be distributed among the people who need the assistance
RG: So the United States is causing all of this extraordinary amount of suffering, already likely causing a significant amount of death. And what is the sense of why? If you talk to people in Afghanistan, what’s their sense of why we are doing this? Like what is the outcome that we hope for? Is the expectation that we are trying to topple the Taliban?
MS: No. There are different opinions about this. Everybody has his own opinion. Like some people will say that the U.S. is pressuring the Taliban to form an inclusive government to include American allies, like the ones in the previous government, and some think that the U.S. is planning to remove all the sanctions and recognize the new Afghan government, but they are looking for some reasons to convince their own public. So there are different opinions.
And some, on the extreme, are saying that the U.S. is an enemy, and they will never be a friend. And so there are different views about this.
RG: Do you have a view? You’ve met a lot of Americans. You probably understand our government as well as I do. I can’t really put my finger on why they’re doing it. My only guess is spite at this point. But I’m curious what your own take is, why the United States is causing so much misery?
MS: Well, in my point of view, one thing is that the United States wants to pressure the Taliban to form an acceptable government to the United States, to the international community, to include other factions in the political environment of Afghanistan.
And secondly, I think that Biden administration, they do not want to recognize the Taliban, because they fought with Taliban for 20 years and now after they gave the power to the Taliban, and it was like a surrender, and now their recognition, it will tarnish Biden’s reputation, and it will reduce his chances of winning in the next United States presidential elections. So that’s what I think the reason is.
RG: Do you think there’s anything that the Taliban is capable of doing that would satisfy the United States, to meet both those conditions?
MS: Yes. They can do some things, like form a transitional government with all the political factions of Afghanistan.
But they will not do that. They will not accept elections, democratic elections. They will never accept that. If they do a democratic election, they give women their rights — like the fighting against ISIS they are doing right now, and the U.S. will be satisfied with that, I think. But other things, like women’s rights, and human rights, and democratic transfer of power, if they do that they will be able to convince the U.S. government to recognize them.
RG: And where does this go from here, in your sense, if there’s a stalemate in the sense that the things that the United States wants to see aren’t things that the Taliban is willing to do, then what are we going to see? Millions of people starve to death?
MS: Well, the problem is that the Taliban were against a democratic process, they were against elections, they were against all this. And now, they will not be able to reach a consensus among themselves to accept such a big change. That’s the biggest problem. Like women’s rights, they’re flexible right now. They are allowing women to go to work and school. The only thing is that they’re not giving ministers or directors positions to women right now, but there are still women working in some government departments, like in the health and education sectors.
RG: Where’s the public placing the blame relative to the United States or the Taliban? Is the Taliban taking the brunt of the blame? Or is that being channeled more to the U.S.?
MS: The public is divided. Some are blaming the United States, some are blaming the Taliban, some are blaming the previous Afghan government.
RG: And how is that affecting the Taliban? And what are the factions within the Taliban right now that are dominant?
MS: Well, according to their official statements, they are just one Islamic Emirate, they are just one movement. But people are talking that there are two factions in the Taliban.
RG: What are the two factions and which one is ascendant, if either.
MS: Well, there’s the Haqqani Network, and then there is the Emirate, the Islamic Emirate Kandaharis. So these are the two factions that the media and people are talking about.
The Taliban is dismissing this, and they’re saying these are just allegations, and these are foreign propaganda. So actually, nobody knows what is the reality.
RG: And what have they been able to stand up in by way of an actual government? Is it even fair to call them at this point, a government? I mean, in other words, who is responsible, day to day, for the kind of basic services that people expect government to take care of?
MS: Well, actually, they are a government right now, they are an administration. They are providing security right now, they are fighting ISIS. They are providing justice.
But they are not a proper government: they are not able to pay the salaries of teachers, they are not able to pay the salaries of their own police, they are not able to pay the doctors of the hospitals that are run. Most of the hospitals, they are collapsing, and the health system is on the verge of collapse, and now that the U.N. the World Health Organization, and other international organizations have stepped in, like UNICEF and others, they are paying the salaries to the doctors, to the nurses in the hospitals.
And also there is a shortage of electricity. They are very inexperienced in running a proper administration and a proper government. They have fired most of the previous government employees and they are appointing their own movement members who do not have the expertise and the required qualification and experience. So they are very successful in running a proper administration.
RG: How have things been for you personally? Have you had times when you’ve been unable to buy the food you need? Have you been able to keep your home heated?
MS: I lost my job with the collapse. And I, for some time, was having difficulties. I had some cash in the bank, and once in a while, I was able to withdraw some cash in order to cover my daily, my monthly expenditures.
But then I started working as a fixer and a freelance journalist with some foreign media and it’s better now. In the summer, it was very bad, and I was having economic problems, and my salaries were all stuck in the bank — my savings, everything — and I was having a lot of difficulties. But now I’m OK.
RG: And now that you’ve been able to get at least back on your feet, is it the kind of situation where you’re helping out a ton of people in the community, I would imagine that the few people who were able to make it at this time, people in the community know who’s able to make it.
MS: Yes, exactly. There are a few lucky ones who are able to have some income, and they have the social obligation or responsibility to help others, like relatives. We have to help each other. We are in a tribal country,
RG: What’s your hope for how or when the United States might finally ease these sanctions?
MS: Well, I hope by the spring, they will reach an agreement and they also agree on a proper, inclusive government in Afghanistan, and also they lift their sanctions, and recognize the new government. But I also have the fear that the Biden administration might not recognize and might not remove the sanctions until the end of his term.
RG: What would the consequences of that be? What would three years of this do to the country — three more years, I should say?
MS: If the U.S. does not remove its sanctions and does not recognize the new government, nobody else will. The closest friends of the Taliban were Iran, and Pakistan, and Russia, and China — they have not yet come forward to recognize the new government. So all the countries, including Europe, including Russia, everybody’s waiting for the United States to first recognize the Afghan government and then they will recognize it.
So if it takes three years, it will go on like this, the economic situation will get worse every day, and the value of the currency will go to —
MS: Evaporate, yeah. And we will have no dollars to import commodities from other countries. And so people will be starving, and there will be great, great migrations from Afghanistan to Europe, to other countries. And it will be a disaster — a real disaster.
RG: Have you seen migration start to start to pick up? And if so, where are people headed? And how successful have they been in getting there?
MS: Well, right now, hundreds of thousands of people have already left, and right now they are leaving. They are leaving to Iran, and from Iran they’re trying to go to Turkey, from there go to Europe; some people are going to Pakistan and from Pakistan, they’re trying to find ways to go to European countries, to Australia, to anywhere they are able to. Like people are going to countries like Cyprus to Romania; everywhere is better than Afghanistan, because there are no jobs, the political situation is unclear, the security situation is not clear, the future is not clear. So nobody knows what will be the security situation next year. So people are leaving.
RG: And if you ask the United States government, they’ll say: Well, it’s unfair to blame us, because we have put in place exemptions for humanitarian aid and so it’s not the case that what we’re doing is producing all of this misery.
What would people say if they heard that was the United States’ position?
MS: Well, I would say that the humanitarian assistance is like, how much? It’s like $300 for a whole family for a month — or maybe $400, $300, for the neediest families. It’s not going to provide jobs to everyone, to those people who lost their jobs this year. It’s not creating any employment. It’s just some instant cash for their immediate needs. And that that money is also getting spent on food and on imported commodities. And those dollars exit Afghanistan very instantly.
RG: Masood — and this is by no means any type of long-term solution — but if people do want to help out, if American people do want to help out, is there anything they can do charity-wise, aside from a political pressure on the United States, or is it just the case that the sanctions are making it basically impossible to get money into people who need it?
MS: Well, there is a way to get money to the people who need it, that’s through the United Nations, but that’s not very effective. That’s not very efficient. The best way is for the international community, for the United States, for the World Bank, for all these big donors to come back and take part in the reconstruction and resuming all the projects that they stopped, to complete all those projects, and people will get back on their jobs and we we will not need so much emergency aid. It’s better to help us in the reconstruction. Now that there is no war, we can build this country in a short time.
RG: Well, Masood, thank you so much for taking some time. I really appreciate it.
MS: You’re most welcome. Thank you so much.
RG: That was Masood Shnizai, and he made a number of points worth unpacking.
First, on the question of the banks, he is dead right that it’s become a central problem, a main driver of the economic collapse. Because of the sanctions and the seizure of Afghanistan’s money, banks don’t have the cash they need and importers can’t pay for imports. The $9 billion we’re holding amounts to something staggering like 18 months worth of imports.
What’s wild, though, is that the U.S. could release the money and it’s not as if it would go directly to the Taliban. It would go to the central bank, which is a quasi-independent institution that still has Western board members on it. All of it is done electronically, so it could be tracked, unlike the way the previous Afghan government would just load stacks of cash onto airplanes and fly it out to Dubai.
Nearly 50 members of the congressional progressive caucus, in a December letter to president Biden, made a similar point. They write:
“Current and former Afghan central bank officials appointed by the U.S.-supported government advocate for providing Afghanistan’s central bank access to hard currency reserves. We urge you to consider these proposals, supported by private sector associations such as the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Investment and the Afghanistan Banks Association, to quickly ease restrictions on the country’s access to reserves. We also urge you to work with the IMF to similarly allow access to the emergency financing that was recently allocated for Afghanistan. No increase in food and medical aid can compensate for the macroeconomic harm of soaring prices of basic commodities, a banking collapse, a balance-of-payments crisis, a freeze on civil servants’ salaries, and other severe consequences that are rippling throughout Afghan society, harming the most vulnerable.”
The International Red Cross, meanwhile, has begun to get extremely aggressive in its rhetoric. The typically staid organization recently blasted the U.S., saying: “Can the international community” — and by that, they mean the United States — “hold 39 million people hostage to the fact that they do not want to recognise the authorities that are now in place in Kabul and in Afghanistan?” That’s not the kind of language the Red Cross typically deploys.
Here’s the BBC reporting on that statement, and talking with Jan Egeland, general secretary of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which does extensive work inside Afghanistan:
Jan Egeland: It’s not as bad as in our worst nightmares. It’s colder in Kabul than it is in Anchorage, Alaska. And the difference between Anchorage and Kabul is that there are hundreds of thousands who do not really have shelter, they do not really have food, they do not really have anything, really, to meet this cruel winter with.
RG: The U.N. is speaking up too.
Here’s António Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, speaking Thursday:
António Guterres: Freezing temperatures and frozen assets are a lethal combination for the people of Afghanistan. Rules and conditions that prevent money from being used to save lives and the economy must be suspended in this emergency situation.
RG: But back here in the U.S., many Democrats are still in a fantasy, offering up solutions that read like a cruel parody of liberal imperialism.
A letter signed by about 40 mostly moderate Democrats offered this as its first solution to the crisis: “[W]e recommend that the Biden administration release frozen Afghan assets to an appropriate United Nations agency to pay teacher salaries and provide meals to children in schools, so long as girls can continue to attend.”
Now, girls attending school is a good thing, and it’s good that the Taliban is largely allowing that. But you can’t go to school if you’ve died of starvation or frozen to death outdoors. And it’s harder to do homework if you’ve had to burn your tables and chairs for heat, as people are doing, or sell your table and chairs for food, as people are also doing. In a just world, Biden and the other administration officials involved in this crime against humanity would be tried for it at The Hague.
The U.S. media is of course not giving this the wall-to-wall attention they did back in the summer, when the fate of vulnerable Afghans dominated the news for weeks. But at least in the coverage it’s getting, the administration is being hammered for its wanton cruelty.
On The New York Times podcast The Daily, which is extremely influential among the most reliable Democratic voters and donors, Michael Barbaro, in reaction to some excellent reporting by their correspondent in Afghanistan, was simply stunned — or confounded, as he put it — at what the administration is doing:
Michael Barbaro: Christina, what you’re describing feels a bit confounding when it comes to the American decision-making. When it comes to the Afghan component of this economic collapse — drought — that feels difficult to plan for or to fix. But what the United States has done here in freezing money, stopping cash deliveries, leaning on donors and saying: Don’t let money into Afghanistan, it feels like any smart policymaker in the U.S. would have to understand that that would immediately destroy the Afghanistan economy.
So why would the U.S. let that happen?
RG: That episode felt like a modern day version of this famous Walter Cronkite clip;
Walter Cronkite: Well, it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.
RG: LBJ is said to have lamented after watching the program, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Now, Barbaro is no Walter Cronkite, but in today’s polarized political environment, if Joe Biden has lost Michael Barbaro, he’s lost his part of Middle America.
And we lost. Own it. Just lift the sanctions, and release the money.
[Credits theme music.]
RG: Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our podcast fellow is Truc Nguyen. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
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