A Conversation with Ray Offenheiser and Aref Dostyar

Author: Ray Offenheiser

What’s happening in Afghanistan a year and a half after the U.S. withdrawal?

The United States’ exit from Afghanistan in August 2021 resulted in the Taliban regaining control of the country and creating a refugee crisis as many Afghans fled. It also led to a significant economic contraction, increasing food insecurity and widespread deprivation. At the same time, at the end of 2022, the Taliban regime ordered all non-governmental groups to suspend employing women, worsening hunger and further lowering Afghanistan’s growth prospects.

On Feb. 9, 2023, the Pulte Institute’s Inaugural Director, Ray Offenheiser, spoke with Aref Dostyar on what day-to-day life is like for families in Afghanistan.

Dostyar is a scholar in residence at the University of Notre Dame Keough School’s Kroc Institute for Peace Studies, where he leads the Afghan program for peace and development. Before the fall of the democratic government, Dostyar served as the Consul General of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Los Angeles and as Director for Afghanistan at the National Security Council.

An excerpt of the discussion is below:

(Ray Offenheiser) We hear a lot of dire scenarios about Afghanistan in the global media. Still, we really don't have a clear picture, even a year and a half after the departure of the United States from Afghanistan. I thought we might start today's conversation by focusing on what day-to-day life is like for families in Afghanistan. How has daily life changed for them, and what are some of the common challenges people face across classes and income levels?

(Aref Dostyar) What we hear from a variety of sources is true—except for when you speak with the Taliban or their sympathizers—anybody that you speak with would paint a very dire picture of the situation. First, there has been an economic collapse in the country. People from all income levels are experiencing financial difficulties right now. I spoke with a close friend the other day, and he told me that they had to cut their tree from their yard to burn this winter to keep warm. He's someone I would've never expected to reach that level of need. And imagine people who didn't have higher-paid jobs, who didn't have savings as my friend did. This friend also owns a home and does not pay rent. So, the challenges that the average Afghan faces are enormous.

(Ray Offenheiser) That people were running to the airport is quite striking. I hadn't heard that story. In terms of economic deprivation, which seems to be affecting urban and rural areas, are there shortages of particular things across the country because production has been curtailed or imports are curtailed?

(Aref Dostyar) There is not so much of a shortage, but people’s purchasing power is dramatically reduced. Prices have increased, so there’s inflation. Food is in the market because Afghanistan's neighbors can still export goods, food, and the necessities for daily life. But, people don't have jobs. They don't have an income, so they cannot really purchase what's available now. The other day I saw a video of a few trucks importing fruit from a neighboring country. And they were throwing that fruit away because nobody could buy it.

(Ray Offenheiser) Let's explore the whole economic situation more. Could you help us understand the complexity of what is happening? So, the US froze several billion dollars of Afghan government assets. But then, you end up with a kind of national liquidity crisis, so the banks do not necessarily have the backing for their currency. How does that all work in terms of the banking system and what people can get in terms of access to their cash?

(Aref Dostyar) That's right. There's been about 9 billion that's been frozen. Some of it belongs to ordinary people who had opened bank accounts and had just left their salary and savings. That segment of the people cannot access all of their money because there is a limit to how much they can withdraw per week. And that limit keeps changing. There are long lines still at the banks but a lot of people are continuing to put money in the banks because first of all, they have lost their trust in the banks.

The second reason is that these banks don't have a lot of relationships with the outside world. Even though the US, the UN, and some other countries have issued general licenses to allow international banks to deal with the banks inside of Afghanistan, people are still afraid to deal with the banks. So what happens is that the United Nations has been flying in cash—roughly 40 million a week, but we don't have much visibility into how that money is distributed and utilized inside the country. There has been a lot of criticism of that as well because it might actually benefit the regime.

(Ray Offenheiser) What about ethnic minorities in the country? From a security point of view, are they being singled out in any particular way? Or have they not been a focus of attention for the Taliban under this new regime?

(Aref Dostyar) I think the Taliban’s main fear comes from groups they think would rise against them. And those groups are not from the dominant ethnic group that the Taliban themselves come from. Therefore, some of these other ethnic groups certainly are under supervision, and in some instances, the Taliban is proactively going after them, even if they are not yet mobilized. Unfortunately, This occurs in the capital and other parts of the country, particularly in Northern Afghanistan. Those are the areas that the Taliban has been cracking down on, detaining people and making ordinary people disappear from the streets. The UN Special Report for Human Rights is tracking some of these reports. I have proposed that all of these reports become public so the numbers get out.

(Ray Offenheiser) So let’s shift to that question about education because that’s an area where there's a feeling there was a lot of progress over the last 20 years in terms of advancing elementary, secondary, and tertiary education in Afghanistan. What is the state of play in the education sector right now? Are the universities and secondary schools open or just primary-level education? Also, to what extent are girls in school at all?

(Aref Dostyar): Little can compare from 2001 to 2021. In 2001, when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, we had less than 10,000 university students—all males—across the country. When they came into power for the second time, we had over 300,000 university students enrolled in our universities nationwide, with at least 35% female participation. That is now zero. Around a hundred thousand women were going to universities, but now all of them, without exception, are at home.

In 2001, we had less than a million kids in our schools nationwide, and 100% were boys. In 2021, we had roughly 8 million kids, with around 35% girls. That has been significantly reduced because girls above grade six are not allowed to go to school. I think the argument that they are selling the international community is that if we do this ban, it actually helps with security. And we disarm. We counter their attacks and narratives on us. And the last is that they're using this as a negotiation tactic for whatever it is that they want to get out of the international community. Unfortunately, whatever the reason, hundreds of thousands of girls are deprived of their right to education right now.

(Ray Offenheiser) We've heard that there are some 150 NGOs in the country, and they basically went on hold in terms of any of their programs where women were playing leadership roles. There are some stories out there that some NGOs have been given exemptions from the women's decree, at least for some activities. I'm wondering when you hear, when you hear that these exemptions have been issued, how do you interpret that?

(Aref Dostyar) It's possible that a couple of things could be going on there. One is that some of these organizations rightly believe that doing something is better than doing nothing. Because you deal with almost half of the population needing immediate humanitarian assistance. And so some organizations and NGOs are trying to do whatever they can. The other thought is that they would probably want to create momentum. I haven't seen anything official that says anyone is exempt. The health sector is one area that is exempt by default, but not in writing. There has been a lot of pressure, lots of high-level meetings, and meetings of the local population with ministers of the Taliban to get them to issue official exemptions. They have not been able to get them. I understand that behind closed doors, some of these NGOs probably have been told that they would not be hurt if their staff in certain sectors—mainly the health sector—come to work. But other than that, there is no guarantee that that would actually be the case. And so people are concerned, even in those exempt sectors, that they could get hurt if they show up to work one day.

(Ray Offenheiser) So, a big moment is coming up soon about a UN vote in restoring this or sustaining the mission in Afghanistan. And what's at stake in that decision at the UN? Is that a moment when countries will be asked if they’re still committed to providing aid, or what is really involved in that forthcoming debate?

(Aref Dostyar) In my conversations with the UN colleagues, I hear that there's a high chance that the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan will get renewed in mid-March. There may not be many differences from what they were given to implement last year. They had a number of areas to work on in humanitarian coordination—delivery was one area. But then there were also other areas like the protection of human rights. We have significant redress in that we may have had some achievements in the humanitarian area, but in the human rights sector, in the political dialogues sector, and in the security sector, in all of those areas, we do not have any achievements to show.

The UN is in a very critical and difficult situation. It's a debate, and different countries might have different ideas about it. And, in the Security Council, Russia and China might have an idea that might differ from what the United States might say. So, because of all that, I think the mandate will probably remain as it is. The UN will not be able to implement it just like it was not able to implement last year. However, I believe it's important for the UN to keep an office on the ground because they must continue to deliver, coordinate, and interact with the local population. I hope that they increase their engagement level with various groups of people. But they are under a lot of pressure from the regime. One last point I would say that might be a determining factor and could make this debate even harder is if the Taliban issues another decree and bans international women from working at the United Nations offices and other embassies in Afghanistan.

(Ray Offenheiser) A final question is prospective and looking into the future. If you were to imagine sort of what you'd ideally like to see happen that might be both realistic and possible in the coming year, in terms of moving an agenda forward that would be favorable to the Afghani people, what would that be and what would your best hope for the next 12 to 24 months for some improved situation?

(Aref Dostyar) I would propose that we try to invest in and engage with all groups, not just the Taliban. The Taliban is one of many groups. Again, the situation and the conflict in an Afghani fund can sometimes be explained more simply in the international discourse, but it's much more complicated. What I see right now is a Taliban-only approach, and this is not going to work because we have seen in the past one and a half years that this approach has not worked. It has not worked in the past either and won't work in the future. Therefore, we would need to take an Afghanistan-inclusive approach. I'm not saying we should exclude the Taliban. We need to take a step back and see Afghanistan as a whole, look at all the players, look at it in its historical context, and then deal with it. Otherwise, we will be making the same mistakes or similar mistakes that we have made in the past, and a whole population of people is experiencing a right now. But we need to balance those engagement skills, invest in alternatives, and work with all different factions for some settlement in the country.