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A year after the U.S. military left Afghanistan, our troops, embassy staff and Afghan interpreters are long gone. But the question remains, is America’s role in Afghanistan over?
As New Yorkers and American women of diverse faiths with long-term commitment to the well-being of women in Afghanistan, we went this spring to Kabul to find out for ourselves. As the first all-women civil society delegations from the U.S., we brought aid in cash, met with government and religious leaders, and visited schools, domestic violence shelters and NGOs.
We saw what many people already know: The human rights crisis for Afghan girls and women and the acute hunger facing almost half the nation are crippling the long-term prospects for stability and peace and unwinding 20 years of progress in health and education.
Our respective faith traditions and sense of civic responsibility tells us that our country’s work is unfinished. They also give us the hope and imagination to envision a new way forward. When the British needed help fighting Hitler, Winston Churchill exhorted President Franklin Roosevelt: “Give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job.”
The tools Afghanistan needs are not pieces of military equipment but economic, diplomatic and humanitarian investment. These tools come with a price tag in the millions, not trillions. And their effects will be generational — for us and for Afghanistan.
For almost a year, the Biden administration has frozen more than $7 billion of Afghan Central Bank Funds held in the Federal Reserve, not wanting the funds to fall into the hands of the Taliban. Now, the administration has reportedly decided that it will not release any of the funds and has suspended negotiations with the Taliban after a U.S. drone strike killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul.
Rather than hurting the Taliban, this decision will disproportionately punish the people of Afghanistan. Small businesses have lost funds. Individual Afghans have lost their savings. The government can’t pay the salaries of teachers and health workers. Millions are struggling to afford food.
At one point during our delegation’s week in Kabul, we met a woman and her family at a World Food Program food distribution site. She spoke to us through an interpreter. Her husband was a day laborer and he struggled to support their family of eight.
Did any of her children go to school under the Taliban government, we asked? No, she replied through an interpreter. The reason did not have to do with the government’s new restrictive policies about girls’ education. Rather, she couldn’t enroll them because she couldn’t afford the pencil and notebook required for learning.
Days-long lines for bread outside bakeries, families selling their possessions in pop-up bazaars in Kabul, and worst of all, an increasing number of young girls sold into forced marriages so their families could eat: These were all the results of the fragile economy decimated by sanctions and frozen Central Bank funds.
The president must reverse his decision and negotiate a responsible mechanism to release the Afghans’ central bank money. According to at least one proposal, we can release the funds in tranches each month. Basic oversight will tell us quite quickly if the funding is going to the correct place. And if it isn’t, then we stop and refreeze it.
In our visit, we also attended the opening of the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce. Sitting next to the Taliban official who presided was a Chinese official. The Chinese, like the Europeans, had a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. We need smart members of the U.S. foreign service on the ground applying their intelligence to the very real challenge of how to maintain influence without officially recognizing the Taliban. Engagement is the only path forward.
Among other things, diplomats could put more pressure on the Organization of Islamic Conference Countries to lean harder on a fellow Muslim-majority state to educate girls. Afghanistan is the only Muslim-majority country that has a policy of not allowing high school-aged girls to go to school.
Finally, we need to give more humanitarian aid. The UN’s pledging conference in March fell $2 billion short of the urgent humanitarian assistance Afghanistan needs. The war cost us approximately $300 million a day for two decades. We can help close the $2 billion gap.
Employing all these tools serves our veterans who put their lives on the line. It serves our own long-term security interests by making it more difficult for ISIS and Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations to find haven and regroup.
And it serves a generation of Afghan women and girls who went to school and ran for office over two decades. As long as their work is unfinished, so is ours.
Breyer, an Espiscopal priest, is director of The Interfaith Center of New York. She first went to Afghanistan in 2003 for an interfaith effort to rebuild a bombed mosque. Messinger is the former president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS). She is a former New York City Council member and Manhattan borough president.