Seven American women from various organizations visited Kabul last week despite a State Department advisory warning U.S. citizens against traveling to Afghanistan because of "civil unrest, armed conflict, crime, terrorism, kidnapping and COVID-19.”
The group, including one from a female-led grassroots organization called Code Pink, spent a week in meetings with Taliban officials, local people and women’s rights activists. They said they returned home “disappointed.”
“The purpose [of the trip] originally was to celebrate the opening of the girls’ schools,” Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink who was with the group, said in a phone interview from her home in San Francisco.
But two days before traveling to Afghanistan, the group was informed that the Taliban, contrary to earlier assurances, had unexpectedly extended their ban on secondary schools for girls.
“We debated whether we should still go and decided it was important to show our support for the girls and try to do whatever we could to persuade the Taliban that that was a very bad decision,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin said Taliban officials told the group during the visit that the school ban was temporary.
“There was so much heartbreak among the young women that we met with,” Benjamin said. “They told us about how their hopes and dreams had been dashed, and how disappointed they were that they weren't able to join with their brothers, and how important education is to them.”
The school ban has received universal condemnation, including among Islamic scholars inside and outside Afghanistan, who have called on Taliban leaders to reopen schools for girls.
Afghanistan has been grappling with massive hunger impacting about 94% of its estimated 36 million people, aid agencies say.
During their weeklong trip, the women witnessed the poverty on Kabul's streets.
“We saw signs of severe economic distress from malnourished children and very needy people at food distribution sites. … We saw women waiting for bread in bread lines and just signs of economic distress everywhere,” said Kelly Campbell, co-founder of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
To avert the looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the United Nations has called for $4.4 billion in aid for 2022. But donors have pledged only $2.4 billion.
While the United States has been the largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan with a commitment of $512 million to the U.N. appeal, the women said the U.S. can and should do more to alleviate Afghan suffering.
“The U.S. spent $300 million a day for 20 years on war and occupation, and yet hasn't even spent the equivalent of two days on the humanitarian appeal,” Benjamin said.
The U.S. war in Afghanistan, which lasted almost two decades, cost more than $2.3 trillion, according to research by the Watson Institute at Brown University.
Frozen Afghan funds
In the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover of power in August 2021, the U.S. government imposed a freeze on more than $7 billion of Afghanistan’s financial reserves in New York.
The funds are also sought by a group of 9/11 victim families through a lawsuit filed in New York that blames the Taliban for the terrorist attacks in the U.S. in 2001.
In February, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that split the Afghan funds — $3.5 billion to be released to an Afghan humanitarian trust fund and the other half to be held until the lawsuit is settled.
“These funds do not belong to 9/11 families. They don't belong to the U.S. They don't belong to the Taliban. They belong to the people of Afghanistan,” said Campbell, who lost a family member in the 9/11 attacks in New York. She added that the freezing of funds has contributed to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
Campbell said her organization has 275 active members, all family members of those killed in the 9/11 attacks, who strongly oppose the lawsuit filed by another group of 9/11 victim families.
“I haven't spoken to a single 9/11 family member who's excited about taking funds from starving Afghan people,” Campbell said.
Campbell and Benjamin said they would like to travel to Afghanistan in the future but until then will advocate for better U.S. policies toward the war-torn country.
“I don't think a failed state in Afghanistan is in the interests of the United States or the world community. We've already seen the results in the past,” Benjamin said.
“We have a lot of interesting information to share with our own government,” said Campbell.