Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Afghan Women Aren’t Liberated by Humanitarian Catastrophe

Continuing to deny aid to Afghanistan is an anti-feminist policy choice.

By , the founder and president of the Afghan chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and , the executive director of Madre, a global women’s human rights organization and feminist fund.
Afghan women chant slogans and hold placards during a protest for equal rights in Kabul on Dec. 16, 2021.
Afghan women chant slogans and hold placards during a protest for equal rights in Kabul on Dec. 16, 2021.
Afghan women chant slogans and hold placards during a protest for equal rights in Kabul on Dec. 16, 2021. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan last August, the United States and others in the international community immediately locked up billions of dollars in financial assets and aid that had been earmarked for the deposed Afghan government. To continue to provide the country with funding, many U.S. policymakers reasoned, would signal complicity with an illegitimate regime and the Taliban’s long track record of human rights violations against its own people, particularly against women and girls.

Six months later, Afghanistan is mired in an economic and humanitarian catastrophe. Aid groups have warned that as many as 1 million children could starve to death in the coming months, and 60 percent of Afghanistan’s population suffers from acute hunger. Some have suggested that this urgency forces wealthy nations holding Afghan assets to grapple with an unfortunate but strategically necessary choice: offer economic relief to Afghanistan, normalizing the Taliban in the process, or withhold aid to create economic leverage that could eventually compel the Taliban to respect women’s rights.

This is a false choice. Economic relief must go hand in hand with women’s rights advocacy. Otherwise, countries risk limiting the impact of any potential economic relief and humanitarian aid on Afghanistan and worsening the humanitarian crisis for millions of Afghans—particularly women, who often carry the responsibility for meeting their families’ needs for food, health care, and other essentials.

When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan last August, the United States and others in the international community immediately locked up billions of dollars in financial assets and aid that had been earmarked for the deposed Afghan government. To continue to provide the country with funding, many U.S. policymakers reasoned, would signal complicity with an illegitimate regime and the Taliban’s long track record of human rights violations against its own people, particularly against women and girls.

Six months later, Afghanistan is mired in an economic and humanitarian catastrophe. Aid groups have warned that as many as 1 million children could starve to death in the coming months, and 60 percent of Afghanistan’s population suffers from acute hunger. Some have suggested that this urgency forces wealthy nations holding Afghan assets to grapple with an unfortunate but strategically necessary choice: offer economic relief to Afghanistan, normalizing the Taliban in the process, or withhold aid to create economic leverage that could eventually compel the Taliban to respect women’s rights.

This is a false choice. Economic relief must go hand in hand with women’s rights advocacy. Otherwise, countries risk limiting the impact of any potential economic relief and humanitarian aid on Afghanistan and worsening the humanitarian crisis for millions of Afghans—particularly women, who often carry the responsibility for meeting their families’ needs for food, health care, and other essentials.

When U.S. policymakers and Beltway organizations frame the present impasse as a zero-sum dilemma, the harm goes both ways. Women are thrown under the bus, vilified as a cause of the humanitarian catastrophe. In reality, the best way for policymakers to ensure their actions promote an effective economic recovery is to center the voices of Afghan women leaders and heed their recommendations.

This false choice is grounded in historical hypocrisy. For over two decades, U.S. policymakers have used women’s rights to justify perpetuating the war on Afghanistan—despite spending almost 1,000 times more on military expenditures than on promoting women’s rights and enabling the exclusion of Afghan women from peace negotiations. Now, we see policymakers again uplifting the defense of women’s rights as a rationale for cutting off the country’s financial assets, perhaps hoping that argument will carry greater moral weight than the murkier claims of countering terrorism or reasserting U.S. leadership.

As one of us, Jamila Afghani, has previously said, “We are not supporting Afghan women by starving them.” What’s more, if we don’t consult with women during policymaking to resolve Afghanistan’s myriad crises, all recovery efforts will suffer.

Economic relief must go hand in hand with women’s rights advocacy.

As Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis has deepened in recent months, Afghan women across the country have mobilized their networks to provide essential local aid to their communities. They have delivered food aid to displaced families, assisted families pushed into poverty by the economic collapse, and supported the urgent relocation of women human rights activists threatened by Taliban retaliation. These women, with their deep and broad connections, know best how to ensure that humanitarian supplies and cash assistance meet the needs of their communities.

Instead of treating Afghan women as rhetorical tools to be marshaled for or against some policy proposal, policymakers in donor countries like the United States should turn to them as vital advisors in navigating crucial questions such as how to ensure unfrozen funds and humanitarian aid reach the most vulnerable and marginalized, and what effective strategies might be used to build leverage in negotiations with the Taliban.

By now, this type of policy consultation with women leaders should be common sense, and indeed is even enshrined in U.S. law through such measures as the Women, Peace, and Security Act.

But too often, the U.S. policymaking apparatus reacts to crises by reaching for the most punitive option. It imposes economic sanctions on entire populations to extract concessions from geopolitical opponents while claiming to act in the name of human rights. It ignores the well-documented ways in which sanctions erode human rights, especially for vulnerable women and girls, by stripping away the resources countries need to maintain essential services—like those that provide health care and clean water—and increasing women’s caregiving burdens in the process. It also skips over the steps of local consultation and deprioritizes the inclusion of women’s voices in policymaking that has a direct impact on their lives.

Right now, the world needs to open multiple spigots to channel resources to Afghan people in danger. This means devising ways to unfreeze Afghan assets, launching mechanisms like United Nations-managed trust funds that could provide salaries and direct cash assistance to Afghans, ramping up humanitarian aid to Afghan civil society organizations, and supporting local people’s innovations around alternative financial avenues through remittances and cryptocurrency transfers. All of these priorities lie in arenas in which female Afghan grassroots activists and civil society leaders have essential expertise they can provide while keeping women’s rights considerations front and center.

Many Afghan women leaders have been forced to flee their country. Yet they maintain their connections with on-the-ground networks and other women leaders still operating inside Afghanistan. But instead of being sought out for their expertise by international policymakers, these Afghan women leaders have been too often shut out from discussions about their country’s future. A recent letter to ministers of foreign affairs and ambassadors of donor states written by dozens of Afghan women in exile shares how visa restrictions, temporary housing in host countries, lack of travel documents, and limited financial assistance to asylum-seekers have isolated them at a moment when their expertise is desperately needed to ensure effective delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people.

Furthermore, many Afghan women have worked as politicians, civil servants, and community leaders in Afghanistan, navigating questions of economic policy and law, and thus can advise on effective ways to move assets and manage trust funds. Afghan women have also pushed for inputs in the now-defunct peace negotiations in Doha, Qatar, many with direct experience dealing with the Taliban that dates back years. These women can guide U.S. and international policymakers on how to negotiate with the Taliban to leverage change.

States need not recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. But to promote enduring peace and economic stability, the United States and international community must devise a coherent long-term political strategy to engage with the Taliban as a de facto power in order to advance protections for human rights and gender justice.

U.S. diplomacy and economic relief aren’t dependent on friendly governmental relations. In fact, only about 20 percent of U.S. aid goes to governments. Especially in repressive and corrupt contexts, U.S. aid is often delivered through nongovernmental organizations, private channels, and multilateral institutions. All of these avenues and others are available, or could become available, for U.S. aid to flow to Afghanistan.

The United States cannot allow its policy options to become trapped in a false choice between two unacceptable options: either freezing assets forever or legitimizing the Taliban’s human rights abuses. Ending this stalemate and providing Afghanistan with economic relief is not about sacrificing women’s rights for the greater good. It is about recognizing that fully integrating Afghan women into the discussion around economic and humanitarian policymaking in their country is not only a human rights imperative—it also leads to policy outcomes that can better meet the needs of all Afghan people.

Jamila Afghani is the founder and president of the Afghan chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In July 2019, she was part of an 11-woman delegation to the intra-Afghan peace dialogue in Doha sponsored by Qatar and Germany. Twitter: @jamilaafghani

Yifat Susskind is the executive director of Madre, a global women’s human rights organization and feminist fund. She leads its combined strategy of community-based partnerships and international human rights advocacy with partners from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Twitter: @YifatSusskind

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.