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Hindsight Up Front: Afghan Voices on Afghanistan’s Future

Date & Time

Nov. 9, 2021
11:00am – 12:30pm ET


Two months after the U.S. withdrawal, Afghanistan’s future appears grim. It faces severe economic stress, a humanitarian crisis that the UN warns could soon become the world’s worst, and a relentless threat of terrorism. The government is led by a brutal Taliban organization that will struggle to address these complex challenges, and international assistance has been scaled back. This event, the latest for the Wilson Center’s Hindsight Up Front initiative, convene a group of Afghan experts to discuss the future of politics, governance, security, rights, media, and aid policy in the country. They focused on the challenges as well as how to address them—and how to avoid worst-case scenarios.

Key Takeaways

  • Given the scale of Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis, the international community has no choice but to engage with the Taliban, despite its brutality.
  • Afghanistan’s economic challenges are too complex for quick fixes or silver bullets. Incremental and grassroots efforts are the way forward.
  • Humanitarian assistance is not sufficient to bring relief to Afghanistan—broader development interventions and structural changes are needed too.

Key Quotes

Masuda Sultan

“The Afghan civilian population is going through a complete free-fall, an economic collapse unlike what they’ve seen probably in dozens of years. What is happening right now is levels of hunger and famine that we have not seen. The World Food Program, as you mentioned, Mr. Beasley, has said there (are) twenty-three million Afghans marching toward starvation. It’s going to be hell on Earth, this is really a real tragedy for Afghans. It is a tragedy that the international community hasn’t been able to act sooner. Just on August 15th—I remember during the fall—I had given an interview and I was concerned about fourteen million Afghans facing starvation and now the number is twenty-three million Afghans.

So just in these few months, things have gotten so much worse and all we hear is that this winter we have 3.2 million children that will suffer from hunger. One million children could die this winter if nothing is done sooner, and we know that there are pledges being made by the international community—a little over a billion dollars pledged by the U.N. The problem is that that’s not enough and it is not coming fast enough.

Given the tremendous challenges faced right now on the ground due to the collapse of the government, the collapse of the security forces, the collapse of all public workers are not being paid and so people are not able to go to work. The Afghan government, de facto government, cannot pay the electricity bill to Uzbekistan as you know so the lights have effectively been turned off as the troop withdrawal has happened. And the Aid community has completely been, I think, been caught by surprise as has everyone.

We absolutely need to think about what we can do given the circumstances. Humanitarian aid, a billion dollars or so, is really not enough. Afghanistan had a budget of eight and a half billion dollars before, seventy-five percent of it was paid by the international community so if the international community is helping with this billion, that’s good but how will it get there? There’s a cash shortage, there’s a shortage of Afghani cash notes as well as a shortage of dollars which is what is causing a real problem on the Afghanistan end.

So, in other words, when you transfer money to Afghanistan—and that’s assuming you do because OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) now allows you to—there (are) the general licenses fourteen and fifteen, many people are unclear on that so even those transfers are few and far between. But for NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) for example who transfer money to Afghanistan hoping to pay salaries or buy food or medicine for folks, they’re really having a hard time because on the other end there’s this limit of two hundred dollars a week. I understand now it has just been upped to four hundred dollars a week, but that’s really not enough for an NGO to be operational. (I mean) I know several NGOs who have contacted me begging for help to get money on the ground to people, their own staff are starving. Forget about the beneficiaries that we’re talking about that they serve, their staff are starving.

I know women who are in shelters in Afghanistan currently who don’t have food and don’t have heat. The NGOs again are sitting on cash that they can deploy but the problem is on the other end because of the shortage of cash to central bank decree to limit the withdrawals because what can they do on that side? So we absolutely need to look at solutions to this problem and there are several, a lot of this is related to political will I believe. At Unfreeze Afghanistan where a group of women activists and civil society leaders (who) have been working on these issues, particularly our first concern which we heard from our friends a few months ago was that the teachers were not getting paid. Teachers have not been getting salaries since June, that’s pretty much the case across the public sector. It’s the same for healthcare workers and so we’ve been talking to folks in Washington and other places to see what can be done for unfreezing their assets and we know that for health care workers the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) has announced that they’re going to pay twenty-five thousand healthcare workers through a novel mechanism that avoids going through the Taliban, out of seventy thousand estimated health care workers in Afghanistan, so that’s a good step. But the money hasn’t actually reached the ground yet and that’s a whole other piece of this that we can talk about later.

The point is the money is not coming fast enough, it’s not coming in the levels that we need, there is a cash shortage, and there’s a liquidity crisis that we absolutely need to address in order to address the humanitarian challenge.”

View Clip

Michael Kugelman

“Many could make the argument that the right thing to do is end these sanctions, and we’ve heard this argument from several of our panelists. But my own view is that it’s very unlikely that the U.S. government (at the least) is going to make that move.

I think there’s a tendency to look at the Taliban as not just a brutal regime but as an entity that has close ties to Al Qaeda and many other terrorist groups, and it does things that no other government does such as...essentially not have a blanket policy that allows older girls to school that yes, you have had some provinces allowing older girls to go to school but you still have so many Afghan young women that are not allowed to go to school and that’s something that not even Saudi Arabia does.

So this is to articulate the thinking of many in the government here that to justify the view that it’s not the time to end those sanctions. But I guess the related question to that is if we assume that some of the ten billion dollars or whatever it is in foreign reserves that have been frozen, if we assume that some or all of that money were to be released, if you were to have development assistance flow into the government in Afghanistan, you know you’re looking at a government that’s very inexperienced and does not have experience crafting economic recovery plans. It seems like there would need to be some very structured, very formal, very clear strategy on the part of the international community to work very closely with the Taliban government to make sure that all of that money comes in, is absorbed, and is distributed and gets to the right people and there’s a lot of mistrust for sure within the U.S. and the west when it comes to the Taliban on the whole.

So, I guess the question, I know that you know Masuda and Obaidullah maybe got into this a little bit you know very briefly, what would come after that? What would have to come after the money is released? After the sanctions are ended, hypothetically, to allow there to be relief for the Afghan people at this point?”

View Clip

Obaidullah Baheer

“The whole concept of sanctions is extremely counter-intuitive in a situation where you have an authoritarian regime (right), so the whole goal of sanctions is to put pressure on the general populace to eventually achieve behavior modification from the regime. But in a situation where the Taliban have, unfortunately, achieved total victory and they are here, there’s no way the general populace can influence the Taliban’s behavior so all that you’re doing is making them suffer and at the end of the day, the question here is are we going to make millions of Afghans starve for the grander politics of things because there is a huge misconception with regards to the unfreezing money as well.

When I wrote a piece for the Washington Post highlighting the need for aid for Afghanistan, I did mention that it wouldn’t get solved unless structural changes are done unless the economy is revived, and that happens with the 9.4 billion dollars, the lion’s share, of which is in the U.S. is released into the economy because issue was I had the misconception that people understood that Afghan federal reserves meant Afghan federal reserves. The comments that I got on that piece, (was) a lot of the people were commenting their thought that the money that was being released was U.S. taxpayer money that was being given to the Taliban. That’s not true because at the end of the day, the fact that we stand in line, start standing in line at four in the morning, only to get four hundred bucks at 2 p.m. in the day is showing you that we have no access to our own money that is upon federal reserves.

At the end of the day, unless that money is released and I think the point five billion that are in Switzerland and the point six billion that are in two banks in Germany, they seem to be releasing sometime soon but it really hurts the momentum that we are trying to generate for unfreezing the money when we have previous republic elites going around, using much larger influential circles, to advocate for further sanctions.

We saw Iraq, you have this example of Iran, these are both authoritarian regimes where the governance or the regime barely ever feels the pain of the sanctions. It’s the common people who end up paying a price and that in a situation where Afghanistan’s already facing a drought, where the collapse of the regime means the institutions are gone, means that there is huge joblessness, and those (that) who have jobs aren’t getting paid. I am a lecturer that has barely gotten paid in three months, I don’t know why I’m teaching maybe it’s just because I’m a really good person. But, that just shows you the challenges that common Afghans are facing, at the end of the day they have to go back and feed their families.”

View Clip

Qadir Habib

“A booming media market had developed during the last twenty years with most outlets being privately owned. Before (I guess) 2021, there were dozens of TV networks and more than one hundred and seventy FM radio stations, and now almost three months of the Taliban takeover more than seventy percent of the outlets nationwide had closed according to the National Union of Afghan Journalists.

Our financial problems and restrictions on media freedom were among the main reasons given, and Taliban officials spoke of 'media freedom’ within the framework of Sharia, Islamic law, and national values. However, we can see that there was significant criticism of the group in the media since they have seized the power on August 15th. Human Rights Watch in a statement on October 4th said that despite the Taliban’s promises to allow media that respect Islamic values to function, the new rules are suffocating media freedom in the country.

The Taliban, as you know, announced eleven new journalism rules on September 19th that forbid journalists to publish stories that are contrary to Islam, or insult national figures, or violate privacy. Right(s) groups have said that the vaguely worded rules could be used to persecute journalists. When we are talking to Afghan journalists inside the country and following local media we can see enormous changes in the free media environment in the country.

However, the Taliban policies are different from Kabul and (the) provinces as you mentioned, that we are getting less information from there. For instance, journalists in some provinces have been told not to report about particular issues like women’s rights, but in some other provinces, the head of (the) Culture and Information Departments told the journalists they should send their reports for approval before publishing. However, a Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid denied asking local officials to require journalists to obtain pre-approval for stories in a statement and blamed it on the official’s inexperience. We can see that the Taliban (somehow) when they are in Kabul and press conferences they are saying they are committed to free media and criticism, but we have reports on the contrary.”

View Clip

Taliban Fighters in Humvee

Afghanistan: Hindsight up Front

Afghanistan’s future is more uncertain than ever. Implications of the U.S. withdrawal cannot be ignored. The Wilson Center’s new initiative — Hindsight Up Front — will keep you informed about the future of Afghanistan, its people, the region, and why it matters.

Learn More


Obaidullah Baheer

Lecturer, American University of Afghanistan

Qadir Habib

Afghan Service Director, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Masuda Sultan

Women’s Rights Activist and Co-founder, All in Peace

Zala Zazai

Former Investigation Officer, Kabul Police Command

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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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