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There isn’t a single country in the world that recognizes the Taliban as a legitimate government. And neither do many Afghans. One year after the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan, reporter Najib Aminy checks back in with a teacher from Kabul named Aysha, who fled to the U.K. She was one of the 120,000 people airlifted out of the country as the Taliban took control. Like many other Afghan refugees, she’s frustrated that the Taliban’s leadership has resulted in having to leave her home country behind. 

While the Biden administration has claimed to welcome refugees from both Afghanistan and Ukraine, the process for people fleeing the two countries has been unequal. To gain temporary entry to the United States, more than 66,000 Afghans applied through a process called humanitarian parole. But the hurdles for Afghans are huge, including monthslong wait times, piles of paperwork and a steep cost ($575 per person). In contrast, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States created a special humanitarian parole process for Ukrainians caught in the conflict – it can be filed online and has no application fee. Government records reveal that only 123 Afghan humanitarian parole applicants have been approved, compared with 68,000 Ukrainian applicants. 

Guest host Ike Sriskandarajah and Aminy then head to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where $7 billion in assets belonging to Afghanistan has sat frozen since the Taliban took control of the country last year. Aminy talks with Shah Mehrabi, an economist who sits on the governing board of the Afghan central bank, who says that without access to those assets, the country’s economy is headed toward collapse. The Biden administration is in a complicated position as it considers whether to release the money – and how to do it without aiding the Taliban. 

Obaidullah Baheer is a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan who is trying to bring the Taliban and its critics together to chart a future for the country. For Baheer, Afghan politics is personal – his grandfather served as prime minister of the country and is accused of committing war crimes that killed thousands of civilians. With that weight of personal history, Baheer is organizing Afghans to figure out how to resolve the conflicts at the heart of the country today. 

Clarification: In our original broadcast, we used a late July figure for the number of Uniting for Ukraine applications U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had received. As of early August, USCIS had received 97,000 U4U applications and approved more than 68,000.

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Listen: For 20 Years, I Saw No Peace (Reveal)

Explore: Afghanistan humanitarian parole data

Credits

Lead producer and reporter: Najib Aminy | Editors: Jenny Casas and Maryam Saleh | Data analysis: Dhruv Mehrotra | Data editor: Soo Oh | Legal assistance: Shawn Musgrave | Fact checkers: Nikki Frick and Kim Freda | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Ariana Martinez | Score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post-production team: Claire Mullen, Kathryn Styer Martínez and Steven Rascón | Interim executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Guest host: Ike Sriskandarajah

Special thanks: Cynthia Rodriguez, Aura Bogado and Kevin Sullivan 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Ike Sriskandara…:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Ike Sriskandarajah filling in for Al Letson. Last August, we brought you a story from a young teacher living in Kabul named Aysha. We’re only using her first name for her and her family’s safety in Afghanistan. Almost a year ago to the day, Aysha was at home standing on her balcony listening to children running around below in the courtyard.
Aysha:The kids are playing regardless of the threats and dangers that is coming towards them. They’re playing hide-and-seek, running after each other. “Do. Don’t. You catch me. You didn’t catch me. This is not fair.” [inaudible].
Ike Sriskandara…:The US was finalizing it’s withdrawal from Afghanistan while the Taliban was capturing more and more of the country. Aysha was hunkered down with her family and she shared recordings with us of what life was like just as the Taliban closed in on Kabul.
Aysha:So much happened in 24 hours. Every second was news. Every single second, there was a rumor that would turn into a breaking news. The first thing that I heard was that the banks are getting closed. If anyone has any assets or money, they should take it out. Later on, I discovered that Taliban had started removing female women’s pictures from the public. I packed my clothes to nowhere. I have no place to go. I told my mom, “Mom, if I die, give this to the beggars. If I go somewhere, then I will take them with me.” She told me, “Keep quiet. Don’t say such things,” but I packed my clothes. I kept myself busy and then my brother came in. He picked me up because he told me the Taliban are here from north and south. From two sides, they are coming inside. So he said, “Come, let’s go.” I held his hand and I ran with him.
Ike Sriskandara…:The Taliban would take over the presidential palace with little resistance and Aysha, like thousands of other Afghans, handed to Hamid Karzai Airport to flee the country. A year ago, we focused on the last days of America’s longest war. Today on Reveal, we’re looking at how Afghanistan’s future hinges largely on one question, “Do you recognize the Taliban,” and how every yes, no, or maybe comes with a price. There isn’t a single country in the world that recognizes the Taliban as a legitimate government, and neither does Aysha. She left Afghanistan last August and has been living in a hotel in England ever since, waiting to be rehoused by the British government. For work, she’s cooking meals for other newly arrived Afghans at the hotel where she lives.
Najib Aminy:First of all, [Arabic], Aysha. How are you doing?
Aysha:[Arabic]. I’m doing good. Thank you for asking.
Ike Sriskandara…:Reveal’s Najib Aminy has stayed in touch with Aysha over the past year. He checked back in with her a few weeks ago.
Najib Aminy:Where did you just come from?
Aysha:I came from my work actually.
Najib Aminy:How long have you been cooking?
Aysha:Eight months.
Najib Aminy:Eight months? But before, was it something that you would do or is this a new thing for you?
Aysha:I would have never thought to become a cook in my life because I was a teacher and I have this life in Afghanistan. I barely cooked anything in my home also. Today is a different life.
Najib Aminy:Have you had any favorite dish?
Aysha:Nothing.
Najib Aminy:Oh, geez. I’m sorry to hear. How do you like the fish and chips?
Aysha:I haven’t had it yet. I’m cutting carbs.
Najib Aminy:Is that why?
Aysha:The food in here is very different, Najib. The food of Afghanistan was very tasty, very natural. Gather hundred of strawberries in here and it will taste the amount of one strawberry back in Afghanistan. The only thing that tastes in here is good Wifi.
Najib Aminy:Yeah. Unfortunately, you can’t taste that.
Aysha:Nothing more. Nothing more.
Najib Aminy:What has your last year been like?
Aysha:Unpredictable. My life experience is maybe a lesson of what stuff will a woman face to have her freedom as an Afghan woman.
Najib Aminy:Do you remember packing your bag?
Aysha:Of course I remember packing my bags and I still have that bag with me.
Najib Aminy:What was in the bag?
Aysha:My computer, my charger, some family photos, two pens and my notebook of poems, some memories from my niece and nephews, and a pair of clothes. I packed my memories with me.
Najib Aminy:What made you want to leave the country and not recognize an Afghanistan under Taliban control?
Aysha:The history, the past, the way that they took the country was an obvious reflection of how will they be ruling the country. It was not a peaceful matter. There was no negotiation and there was no recognition for the woman. I felt it that I am not welcomed. I knew that the moment that they step in this country and they take over, we are doomed.
Najib Aminy:Was there any point over the last several months where you either felt vindicated or like you made the right decision?
Aysha:I think I made the right decision. It hurts me. It does hurt me that I am not where I’m supposed to be. I am not where I was planning to be, but I feel grateful also to be away and safe and having a bed to sleep, a roof to be under it, and food to eat without any tension of anything that’s around me. But of course, the country is in my heart. Afghanistan is always in my heart and it’s my blood. We can’t get rid of our blood.
Najib Aminy:When you talk to your friends who are still there and they might be down, they might be talking to you about, “Oh, this Taliban member did this,” what do you say to them to try and lift up their spirits?
Aysha:Good days will come. We have faced the worst and this will pass also. It’s just a matter of time.
Najib Aminy:And you believe that?
Aysha:I believe that.
Najib Aminy:Are there days where you don’t?
Aysha:I don’t want to be among the people who lose hope. In the history, no brutal government has ever been able to continue. Maybe it will take a couple of years, maybe a century, but it will finish one day. If I was not able to step back to a peaceful Afghanistan, I’ll make sure my daughter does.
Ike Sriskandara…:Aysha is applying to Master’s programs in international law. Her goal, to work for the United Nations helping immigrants and refugees. Last August, she was one of more than 120,000 people who were evacuated during the US-led airlift, but those who didn’t have the connections or the luck to catch a flight had to find other ways out. One option many Afghans turned to was something called humanitarian parole or HP. It gives temporary entry into the US for humanitarian reasons. Many Afghans who feared being targeted by the Taliban applied thinking they would be eligible, but earlier this year, Najib filed a FOIA and started learning that it was a little more complicated than that.
Najib Aminy:As I’d been looking in to the Afghan HP applications, I’ve talked to a lot of people who have helped others file for it, lawyers and advocates like Wogaii Mohmand. Last year, like a lot of other people in the Afghan diaspora, she was being contacted in every way possible from people trying to leave Afghanistan.
Wogai Mohmand:For me, I’m the only lawyer in my family so it became like everyone I’ve ever known, everyone I’ve ever spoken to is sending me a message on Instagram, is finding my number, is emailing me.
Najib Aminy:The application is a burdensome process that requires a lot of paperwork: proof of danger, proof of identification, a US sponsor.
Wogai Mohmand:For a lot of Afghans, they couldn’t have done this process without a lawyer because the forms are so confusing and this process is not done very often.
Najib Aminy:And this already difficult administrative process is harder because there’s no active US embassy in Afghanistan. It closed last August and has remained closed because the US doesn’t recognize the Taliban. The HP application requires fingerprints and security checks, things that can only be done at an embassy.
Wogai Mohmand:And there’s the fee. It was a $575 fee for every single application. So if you have a family of five, that’s thousands of dollars right away.
Najib Aminy:Even so, a lot of Afghans have still applied, more than 66,000 from July 2021 to May this year. That’s according to FOIA data from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services or USCIS.
Wogai Mohmand:There are a lot of people who have applied for humanitarian parole. It’s the teachers. It’s the former government workers. It’s the judges, the lawyers, the city workers, just your regular run-of-the-mill people in your neighborhood who are now under threat because of a Taliban-controlled government.
Najib Aminy:From start to finish, USCIS says it should take 90 days to process an HP application. The FOIA data shows it’s taken more than twice as long for the Afghan HP applications, twice as long if the application has been decided on at all. The USCIS numbers show that most applications haven’t been fully processed which means a lot of people are still in limbo.
Nulufar:Me and my family are living in very bad conditions. Our only hope was getting approved in humanitarian parole.
Najib Aminy:I spoke to one Afghan HP applicant named Nulufar. She used to be a teacher and she’s still living in the country, and her father-in-law worked for the previous government. It’s why she applied for HP, why she feels under threat, and why we’re only using her first name.
Nulufar:It has been a long time since we applied for HP, but still we do not hear any response from USCIS, even the positive or negative. We are still waiting.
Najib Aminy:What is that waiting like?
Nulufar:We are in our homes. We don’t go out. We don’t go shopping. We don’t go to park. We don’t go anywhere. We are just stay at home in a very bad situation and really bad economy and also mental situation. We do not know how long we can continue to stay safe.
Najib Aminy:So why is this all taking so long? If you asked USCIS, the agency is drowning in applications. In a typical year, USCIS receives fewer than 2000 HP applications from all over the world. In the 10 months of data we looked at, Afghan applications alone were more than 30 times that and Afghans are still applying.
Wogai Mohmand:There’s not like a significant percentage of these applications that have been processed. So even then people, I think, have been holding onto like, “Well okay. They haven’t gotten to our application yet. There’s still a chance. There’s still a chance.” People are still applying for it and then they see news of the Ukrainian program and they keep applying for it because if you Ukrainians can get those benefits, then why can’t we?
Joe Biden:Today, I’m announcing a program, Unite for Ukraine, a new program to enable Ukrainians seeking refuge to come directly from Europe to the United States. This new humanitarian parole program will complement-
Najib Aminy:Two months after Russia invaded Ukraine and more than eight months after the fall of Kabul, President Biden announced Uniting for Ukraine or U for U. It’s an HP program specifically for Ukrainians caught in the conflict.
Joe Biden:This program will be fast. It will be streamlined.
Najib Aminy:The U for U process requires only one form. It can be filled out online and doesn’t require an in-person interview. Ukrainians don’t need to prove that they are in danger and they need to apply through a US sponsor. Plus, it’s free. There’s no application fee.
Joe Biden:I want to ensure the United States honors its commitment to go to the people of Ukraine and need not go through our southern border.
Najib Aminy:As of early August, USCIS received more than 97,000 U4U applications. And it approved more than 68,000. The agency didn’t collect any money in application feesThe agency didn’t collect any money in application fees. Compare that to the Afghan HP. The 10 months of data we looked at showed USCIS collected nearly $20 million from Afghan applications. More than 66,000 people applied and out of thousands of applicants, just 123 were approved. They’re hard numbers to stomach for legal advocates like Wogai even though she fully supports the U for U program.
Wogai Mohmand:Of course we want that program for Ukrainians. We’re so happy to see it. We’re so happy that a pathway like that exists. It’s the exact same thing we’ve been asking for for Afghans.
Najib Aminy:We reached out to the Department of Homeland Security which oversees USCIS to ask about the discrepancy. The spokesperson we heard back from wouldn’t answer our questions about the HP programs. Instead, they pointed to the tens of thousands of Afghans who were evacuated to the US after the fall of Kabul. The spokesperson added, “We are prepared to welcome additional Afghans over the coming weeks and months.” What do you think it says about the USCIS approach or the Biden administration that this is the handling of Afghans seeking humanitarian parole? What to you, what is it saying?
Wogai Mohmand:I think it’s really obvious what it’s saying. USCIS, the Biden administration, they don’t want brown immigrants in the country. To see it so explicitly is difficult. It’s hard. We don’t know what to tell people. We don’t know what to tell our clients other than these systems are racist. Our community has been through so much and it’s seemingly not stopping. Right? As if 20 years of occupation and war wasn’t enough.
Ike Sriskandara…:Najib Aminy reported that story with data help from Dhruv Mehrotra. They figured out just what a tiny, tiny percentage of Afghan HP applications got approved, especially when compared with the Ukrainian program. If you want to see the numbers we got from the government for yourself, visit revealnews.org. Coming up, we take a trip.
Najib Aminy:Eight stories below where we’re standing sits the world’s largest stockpile of gold.
Ike Sriskandara…:And bring our recognition question to an economist.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:Frozen funds and sanctions equal to misery, hardship, cruelty, and punishment.
Ike Sriskandara…:The cost of saying no. That’s next on Reveal.
Steven Johnson:Hey, I’m Steven Johnson, the new host of the Ted Interview podcast. In each episode, I’m going deep with the most fascinating thinkers on the planet and grappling with the most provocative ideas of our time. I’ll talk dark matter with theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, explore gaming and fiction with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan, and discuss Russia and Putin with political activist and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. Check out the Ted Interview wherever you listen.
Ike Sriskandara…:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. This Ike Sriskandarajah, guest hosting for Al Letson and coming to you from downtown Manhattan, the Financial District, to meet my colleague Najib Aminy. I see Najib. What’s up, Najib?
Najib Aminy:Ike, you made it.
Ike Sriskandara…:Yeah. I’m here. Met you at this building, at [inaudible] on Liberty.
Najib Aminy:Ike, this isn’t any building. This is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. You’re looking at a 14-story building. You see these arches that are covered in iron. I mean it just looks like a fortress. In fact, eight stories below where we’re standing sits the world’s largest stockpile of gold.
Ike Sriskandara…:This certainly is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. I can see that on the plaque, but I want you to tell me why we are here right now.
Najib Aminy:The reason why we’re here is because inside this building sits about $7 billion, $7 billion that belongs to the Afghan people. So for the past year, it’s been frozen, untouchable, inaccessible, just sitting here in this building.
Ike Sriskandara…:Okay. First of all, why is Afghanistan’s money in a fortress in New York?
Najib Aminy:So it’s actually not uncommon for foreign governments to place their money in this building. They store their money here because it’s safe, it’s secure, and you get good returns.
Ike Sriskandara…:So what’s the holdup?
Najib Aminy:Why is it frozen?
Ike Sriskandara…:Yeah. Why is it frozen?
Najib Aminy:So it has a lot to do with that question that we asked at the top of the show.
Ike Sriskandara…:Do you recognize the Taliban as the leaders of Afghanistan?
Najib Aminy:Right. The assets are frozen because the US doesn’t recognize the people in power in Afghanistan. The Biden administration blocked access to the money when the Taliban took control of the country to keep them from using it. Quick context, Ike. Afghanistan’s annual GDP is around $20 billion. So not being able to access assets worth $7 billion, it’s a big deal.
Ike Sriskandara…:I think to anybody, let alone a cash-strapped nation, not having $7 billion is a problem. If I was one of those people living in that country, I’d want to know when am I going to get my money back.
Najib Aminy:I want to tell you the story about one Afghan economist who has spent the last year trying to convince the US to unfreeze these assets.
Ike Sriskandara…:Well why don’t we get off this corner and why don’t you tell us about it?
Najib Aminy:Sounds good. There are only a handful of people who know the ins and outs of Afghanistan’s economy better than Dr. Shah Mehrabi. By day, he’s a professor.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:Hello, class. This is macroeconomics, ECON 201.
Najib Aminy:He teaches economics at Montgomery College in Maryland.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:Come to class with positive attitude, relax, and enjoy learning economics. I look forward to seeing you.
Najib Aminy:But it’s Dr. Mehrabi’s other role, his nonacademic one, that’s made the last year so busy. He sits on the Supreme Council for the Afghan Central Bank, Afghanistan’s version of the Federal Reserve.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:My whole purpose is I’m Afghan American, I have family in Afghanistan, and [inaudible] Afghans, their security, their financial wellbeing is of concern to me. It is in my role as a member of the Supreme Council to make sure that we adhere to the main function of the Central Bank. That purpose to help the Afghans and to make sure that they are not suffering as a result of economic miscalculation.
Najib Aminy:His work there for the last 20 years has made him the go-to guy on all things related to the Afghan economy which, even before the Taliban took over, wasn’t doing that great.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:First, you had COVID. Second, you had drought. Agricultural sector was in total disarray and it was an artificial economy ran by donors. Obviously when the new government came, all of it disappeared.
Najib Aminy:This was the economic landscape and then came the news about the Central Bank assets.
Speaker 9:The US government has frozen nearly all the foreign currency reserves.
Speaker 10:The assets were frozen when the Taliban took control in August.
Speaker 11:As it tries to keep the Taliban from accessing government money.
Najib Aminy:The United States froze the Central Bank reserves to keep the Taliban from using them. Dr. Mehrabi argues that the Central Bank is set up to operate independently of whoever runs the country. Independent or not, the Central Bank can’t function without its assets which Dr. Mehrabi says all but guarantees an economic collapse. So he starts ringing the alarm bells and talks to anyone who will listen.
Speaker 12:We’re fortunate to be joined now by Professor Shah Mehrabi.
Speaker 13:He’s Shah Mehrabi.
Speaker 14:An interview with Dr. Shah Mehrabi.
Speaker 15:You’re on mute, Dr. Mehrabi. You should unmute yourself.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:Good morning. I’m sorry.
Najib Aminy:He goes on a media tour to warn the world about what’s coming.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:You will have food shortages, double digit inflation, a decline in imports, prices will increase, immense poverty, hunger and starvation, and famine.
Najib Aminy:And he proposes a solution, have the US slowly release the funds.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:Allow access to $150 million per month.
Najib Aminy:Monitor all the transactions.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:These funds are used exclusively for stabilizing the economy.
Najib Aminy:And if the US sees any hint of improper use-
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:They can cut off the funds at any moment.
Najib Aminy:Dr. Mehrabi says this way, Afghanistan could start to get its economy back on track and the US could feel secure that the Taliban wasn’t using the money for “illicit purposes.” By the end of 2021, all the media attention gets Dr. Mehrabi a bunch of meetings with members of Congress. Those lawmakers turn around and write a letter to President Biden urging his administration to unfreeze the Afghan Central Bank assets, but at the same time Dr. Mehrabi was making all this progress, there’s another group of people working to release the funds, just not to the Afghan people. Years after the 9/11 attacks, some surviving family members filed lawsuits against the Taliban. Not surprisingly, the Taliban never showed up in court and the families won their cases, but they had a slim chance of ever collecting any money. That is until last August when the Taliban rose to power.
Scott Anderson:The plaintiffs’ argument basically was that when the Taliban took control of the state of Afghanistan, that they essentially became the owners of the government of Afghanistan’s various assets.
Najib Aminy:Scott Anderson is a former attorney for the State Department. He has a lot of experience working on cases related to victims of terrorism and he’s been following the lawsuits against the Taliban closely.
Scott Anderson:What they’re arguing is directly contrary to the United States’ recognition policy. US policy says, “Hey, we don’t recognize the Taliban as having any claim to these assets whatsoever,” and the plaintiffs are saying, “Yeah, but because they’re in control on the ground, the Taliban controls these assets just as much as if it’s their own and that’s what allows us to attach them.”
Najib Aminy:No Afghans were directly involved in the 9/11 attacks and not all the families of 9/11 victims support how the plaintiffs are going after the Afghan Central Bank assets. One group called Peaceful Tomorrows is made up of roughly 275 family members. They appeal to President Biden in a petition stating, “We all lost loved ones on September 11th and call upon you to release the Afghan Central Bank funds to the Afghan people. This is their money, not ours.” Regardless, the lawsuits are moving forward and the Biden administration had a choice: get involved, go against the 9/11 plaintiffs and stomach the bad political optics ahead of the midterms or allow the lawsuits to proceed and watch the economic free fall of one of the world’s poorest countries. This February, the Biden administration chose both.
Speaker 17:On Friday, President Biden signed an executive order to split the money.
Speaker 18:$3.5 billion will go to humanitarian projects and other basic Afghan needs.
Speaker 19:Another $3.5 billion will compensate victims of the 9/11 attacks.
Scott Anderson:It’s a little Solomonic. It’s a little bit splitting the baby there, but I think it was kind of a Biden administration saying, “Let’s just try and find an equitable way to save at least some of this money, make it available to Afghans sooner rather than later while this litigation continues for the remaining assets.
Najib Aminy:The executive order was back in February, but the assets still haven’t been released, not to the Afghan people or to the plaintiffs.
Scott Anderson:The plaintiffs are no more or no less likely to get access to this money than they were before the executive order. They are simply now only arguing over $3.5 billion, not $7 billion.
Najib Aminy:I’m just trying to gauge how often does something like this happen.
Scott Anderson:As far as I am aware, the executive order on Afghanistan is pretty much unprecedented. I’m not aware of another case where we have seen a long designated terrorist group that has been the subject of litigation, extended litigation in the United States over the last 20 years suddenly become the de facto controller of facts on the ground in Afghanistan, if not its recognized government.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:I was very disheartened when I heard the news.
Najib Aminy:Again, that’s Dr. Mehrabi.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:I remember that this is a $3.5 billion for and the exact quote was, “For the benefit of the Afghan people.” This is half of amount of money. I wanted this whole $7 billion to be released. This money is not the money that belongs to Taliban. It is money that belongs to the Afghan Central Bank.
Najib Aminy:The remaining $3.5 billion are still held up in negotiations. One of the sticking points is over who would control the Afghan Central Bank assets if they are unfrozen. The Taliban has appointed someone the US doesn’t trust to help oversee the Afghan Central Bank, a senior Taliban military leader who, since 2011, has been listed as a specially designated global terrorist. He’s on the US sanctions list like a lot of other Taliban members.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:United States have sanctions on Afghanistan. What it did, it choked off access to financing. It criminalized all the transactions that involve Taliban.
Najib Aminy:US sanctions on the group go back to the late ’90s. After 2001, the sanctions were targeted against specific members of the group, but now that they’re running the country, the sanctions are impacting every person living in Afghanistan.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:Frozen funds and sanctions equal to misery, hardship, cruelty, and punishment.
Najib Aminy:Meanwhile in Kabul, Afghans are feeling US policy decisions in their markets and in their wallets.
Zikriah:Hello. My name is Zikriah. Currently, I’m in Mundai in Kabul City.
Najib Aminy:Zikriah is an aid worker with one of the few humanitarian groups still operating in Afghanistan. For his safety, we’ll only be using his first name. He sent me recordings of himself moving around Kabul. This one is from the Mundai market a few days before the Eid al-Adha holiday.
Zikriah:The Mundai in Kabul City is one of the most popular and crowded bazaars in all Afghanistan.
Najib Aminy:Eid al-Adha marks the final days of the religious pilgrimage to Hajj for Muslims around the world and it usually means big business for local vendors.
Zikriah:Usually, the Mundai bazaar is very, very crowded during Eid days, but this year, it looks very different. There are less people.
Najib Aminy:Zikriah talks to a few shopkeepers who say they haven’t sold much, if anything.
Zikriah:They told me it’s because so many people have lost their jobs, their work, and their income.
Najib Aminy:Zikriah leaves the market and passes by a number of banks.
Zikriah:Kabul Bank, upon United Bank, and upon [inaudible] International Bank, we saw hundreds of people standing there to cash out their money. We searched a lot for ATM machines, but couldn’t find any being operated. They were all closed.
Najib Aminy:Some employers have found a way around the collapsed banking sector. The company that Zikriah works for pays some of its employees in cryptocurrency.
Zikriah:[Arabic].
Najib Aminy:On his way home, Zikriah strikes up a conversation with a taxi driver waiting for passengers. He gets to asking about the man’s holiday plans.
Zikriah:[Arabic].
Najib Aminy:The taxi driver tells Zikriah he’s avoiding guests during Eid.
Zikriah:I asked why.
Najib Aminy:The taxi driver tells him it’s because he and his family have nothing to offer their guests.
Zikriah:[Arabic].
Najib Aminy:The World Bank reports that inflation for basic household goods is 50% in Afghanistan. The UN predicted that, by this year, more than 95% of the country will be living on less than $2 a day. This is why Dr. Mehrabi says it’s so important to unfreeze the Afghan Central Bank assets. He believes that engagement with the Taliban is the only path forward.
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:You have to separate recognition from engagement. If you don’t recognize that does not mean that you can go ahead and abandon this country. It is in the self-interest of the United States to be actively engaged with Taliban.
Najib Aminy:But this kind of philosophical question … I don’t mean to be crass, but if there is this sense of acknowledgement or normalization of this group, of the Taliban, does it not kind of also project this idea that you as a group can potentially suicide bomb your way into power?
Dr. Shah Mehrab…:Well it’s a political question that I don’t particularly want to go ahead and be in a position to address that. So I think if you would accept my lack … I’ve always said that when it comes to political issues, I would not make comments and stick to what I know best and that is economics.
Najib Aminy:But economics and politics, they go hand in hand and earlier this month, the politics behind unfreezing the money hit another obstacle-
Speaker 21:A CIA drone strike killed Ayman al-Zawahiri over the weekend.
Najib Aminy:… when a US drone strike killed the leader of Al-Qaeda at a safe house in Kabul.
Speaker 21:The Taliban claimed they had no idea that the leader of Al-Qaeda was hiding out right there in Kabul, living in the same fancy upscale neighborhood where senior Taliban officials live. The Taliban condemned the operation and accused the United States of violating its peace deal with them.
Najib Aminy:The US State Department and the Taliban have met at least twice this summer about the frozen assets, but the Biden administration has since described al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul as a game-changer. A spokesperson for the State Department who responded to us over email said that engagement with the Taliban continues to be necessary. “We cannot achieve our objectives with a policy of pure isolation. None of these engagements should be seen as legitimizing the Taliban or its so-called interim government, but are a mere reflection of the reality that we need to have such discussions in order to advance US interests.”
Ike Sriskandara…:That was Reveal’s Najib Aminy. Since the US drone attack that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, there has been no movement on unfreezing the Afghan Central Bank assets. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the Taliban violated its agreement with the US by allowing the leader of Al-Qaeda to stay in Kabul. He added that they “betrayed the Afghan people and their own stated desire for recognition.” When we come back, we hear from someone who says that, for Afghans living in the country, recognition is all just a matter of perspective.
Obaidullah Bahe…:I hate to quote Kanye West here, but what’s a king to a god? What’s a god to a nonbeliever?
Ike Sriskandara…:That’s next on Reveal.
Nadia Hamdan:Hi, y’all. My name is Nadia Hamdan and I’m a producer here at Reveal. Reveal is a nonprofit news organization and we depend on support from our listeners. Donate today at revealnews.org/donate. Thanks.
Ike Sriskandara…:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Ike Sriskandarajah filling in for Al Letson. All this hour, we’ve been raising a question key to the future of Afghanistan. Do you recognize the Taliban? We’re ending the hour today with someone who says yes, but with some caveats.
Obaidullah Bahe…:I think any short answer to this question is unfair to the question. It’s a loaded question, but do I recognize them as a government? Not yet. Do I recognize them as legitimate actors within the Afghanistan political sphere? Yes, and that’s where the need for reconciliation comes.
Ike Sriskandara…:Obaidullah Baheer is a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan where he teaches peace and conflict resolution.
Obaidullah Bahe…:I study, eat, breathe peace and conflict resolution and that’s what I’m hoping to achieve here.
Ike Sriskandara…:Inside and out of the classroom, he’s working towards bringing Taliban and non-Taliban voices together to chart a future for the country. Part of Obaidullah’s commitment to reconciliation is practical.
Obaidullah Bahe…:Due to lack of alternatives and due to the large cost of replacing or removing the Taliban now, they’re just another less than ideal entity ruling a country. I think it’s hypocritical to impose some of the worst possible sanctions in modern history on Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power when the world chooses to engage with Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, when it chooses to engage with North Korea, with China, with Russia, with Iran. Unlike the international community who could opt out of the Taliban rule, the common Afghan person cannot. Right? So if you can’t escape or get out of Afghanistan, you are forced to live under this regime.
Ike Sriskandara…:The other part of his commitment to reconciliation is personal. Obaidullah comes from a family with a long history at the top of Afghan politics. His grandfather, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, served as prime minister and led a campaign during a civil war in the ’90s that killed tens of thousands of civilians. Human rights groups accuse him of committing war crimes.
Obaidullah Bahe…:So I just wish that past hadn’t happened and I just hope that we never repeat that. I’m not a member of my grandfather’s party and neither do I carry his legacy. I do my own bit and I’ll keep doing it. That also includes trying to make up for whatever baggage that I carry and I try and I do that day in, day out.
Ike Sriskandara…:Part of coming to terms with that family baggage is using it. His family clout lets him criticize the Taliban in a place where people can disappear for doing just that, and he can still talk directly with them. After Kabul fell, he and a few other academics and journalists started hosting a series of conversations in something like an online town hall on Twitter.
Obaidullah Bahe…:We started taking up themes for every week. So every week, we would talk about things like girls’ education, women’s right to work, the importance of constitution, moral policing and what it means in the modern world.
Ike Sriskandara…:He says thousands showed up. It was a chance for regular Afghans to ask the people in charge about the thorniest issues facing the country.
Obaidullah Bahe…:We even had a space in which we were having a heated discussion about due process and what policing should look like, and at that time news broke that the Taliban had barged into women activists’ homes and taken them away. It was in that space that we appealed to Taliban officials who were there to step up and find out what had happened to this woman and get her released as soon as possible. Look, it might not have made a difference, but the fact that we were raising those concerns and not raising those concerns as opponents of the Taliban, but as genuine Afghan citizens who demanded things of the Taliban now that they were in power, I think that makes a difference. That’s how Afghanistan is going to move forward.
Ike Sriskandara…:When you’re organizing these spaces, who’s more open and who’s less open to reconciliation? Is it the average Taliban member or an average Afghan citizen? Who do you have to spend more time convincing to come have these conversations?
Obaidullah Bahe…:I mean there are Taliban members who still believe that anything that does not follow their ideology is un-Islamic, is unacceptable. Then there are people in the diaspora that believe that the Taliban are an absolute evil that should not be reconciled with, that reconciling with is a morally questionable stance. I think that’s where a lot of energy is consumed, but yeah, look. You lock up two people who hate each other in one room long enough, they will find something in common, they will work it out.
Ike Sriskandara…:Really? I thought there would only be one person left at the end.
Obaidullah Bahe…:Yeah, just don’t leave any sharp objects in the room, but no, I mean look. When there is no other option but to learn to live together … And that’s why whenever I’m asked about what would happen next, I very often say that the ball is in the Taliban’s court because the Taliban have to make a decision. Do we implement an absolute version of what we believe Islamic society to be like and alienate a large chunk of the population? Do we keep using coercion as our favorite governance tool and risk that this does not stay long? I feel like the Taliban sometimes are still stuck with their social contract to their followers only and it has to expand. They have to realize that now they’re ruling a country and their social contract isn’t to the few hundred thousand followers they have, but 35 million Afghans.
Ike Sriskandara…:Obaidullah, do they have to expand though? I don’t mean to be too cynical, but they took over the country so fast and they’re in charge. I could see the question is like what do they have to gain by coming to the table and making concessions and compromising?
Obaidullah Bahe…:I hate to quote Kanye West here, but what’s a king to a god? What’s a god to a nonbeliever? I think if you pick up Afghanistan’s history, you would realize that there have been much, much bigger and stronger forces that have attempted to rule Afghanistan with iron fists and they have failed. I mean if the Afghan people are famous for one thing, it’s that when they have enough grievances, they do something about it. The Taliban will very soon be faced with that situation unless they choose to accommodate Afghans and what they want. Right? So that’s why it’s up to them. They don’t have to, yes. Maybe they can choose to go down the road that they’re going and choose to not accommodate anyone, but that would be a very short-lived regime or they can use this opportunity of the active conflict ending after 40 continuous years of war and build something sustainable. But that would have to include others beyond them.
Ike Sriskandara…:We started our conversation by asking you if you accept the Taliban and it sounds like that has to go both ways. From what you’re seeing on the ground and what you’re saying, that acceptance is starting to happen and is mutual.
Obaidullah Bahe…:Yeah. I mean the Taliban that I sat across from two months ago, they wouldn’t have wanted to sit across me. I wouldn’t have wanted to sit across them, but we did. Right? The Taliban fighters and the way that we interact now at checkpoints and how we interacted one year ago, those are very different. So things are changing and I’m hoping that it keeps happening for the better.
Ike Sriskandara…:Finally, we asked Obaidullah if our question, do you recognize the Taliban, was even the right one to be asking.
Obaidullah Bahe…:We don’t need to deal in absolutes. It doesn’t need to be a binary between recognition and nonrecognition because this is the reality of all of Afghanistan. I guess recognition is something that has to be contingent on internal legitimacy. Internal legitimacy has to be contingent on them creating a setup that is representative of Afghanistan. Once that internal legitimacy happens, international recognition can follow, but meanwhile while all of this happens, engagement is fundamental and vital.
Ike Sriskandara…:That was Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan. Our lead producer and reporter for this week’s show is Najib Aminy. Jenny Casas edited the show with help from Maryam Saleh. Dhruv Mehrotra and Soo Oh provided the data analysis for today’s show and Shawn Musgrave helped FOIA for the data. Special thanks to Cynthia Rodriguez, Aura Bogado, and Kevin Sullivan. Nikki Frick is our fact-checker. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy Mostafa. Score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda. By the way, welcome baby Magnolia. Our post-production team this week also includes Claire Mullen, Kathryn Styer Martinez, and Steven Rascon. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our CEO is Kaizar Campwala. Sumi Aggarwal is our editor-in-chief. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Our theme music is by Commorado Lightning.
Ike Sriskandara…:Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation. I’m Ike Sriskandarajah. Next week-
Speaker 24:They had pig masks on.
Speaker 25:Yeah, we brainwash them because their brain is dirty.
Ike Sriskandara…:… drug therapy that is work with no pay.
Speaker 26:To me, it was like free labor, like slave labor.
Ike Sriskandara…:We revisit our investigative series that exposed the cultish origin of a form of drug treatment that is now ubiquitous. Returning to American rehab on the next Reveal.
Speaker 27:From PRX.

Najib Aminy is a producer for Reveal. Previously, he was an editor at Flipboard, a news aggregation startup, and helped guide the company’s editorial and curation practices and policies. Before that, he spent time reporting for newspapers such as Newsday and The Indianapolis Star. He is the host and producer of an independent podcast, "Some Noise," which is based out of Oakland, California, and was featured by Apple, The Guardian and The Paris Review. He is a lifelong New York Knicks fan, has a soon-to-be-named kitten and is a product of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Aminy is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Jenny Casas is a radio editor for Reveal. She was previously a narrative audio producer at The New York Times developing shows for the Opinion Department. She was in the inaugural cohort of AIR's Edit Mode: Story Editor Training. She has reported on the ways that cities systematically fail their people for WNYC, USA Today, City Bureau and St. Louis Public Radio. Casas is from California and is based in Chicago.

Maryam Saleh is an investigative editor for Reveal. Previously, she worked at The Intercept, where she most recently edited stories about immigration, criminal justice and international human rights. She also worked as a reporter at The Intercept and was part of an award-winning team, with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, that exposed the misuse of solitary confinement at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. Saleh attended law school and has a graduate degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Washington, D.C.

Dhruv Mehrotra (he/him) is a data reporter for Reveal. He uses technology to find, build and analyze datasets for storytelling. Before joining Reveal, he was the investigative data reporter at Gizmodo and a researcher at New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. In 2017, he was an artist in residence at Eyebeam, a nonprofit art and technology center in New York City.

At Gizmodo, he was on a team that was a finalist for the 2020 Gerald Loeb Award in explanatory reporting for the series Goodbye Big Five. Mehrota is based in New York.

Soo Oh is the enterprise editor for data at Reveal. She has previously reported data stories, coded interactive visuals and built internal tools at the Wall Street Journal, Vox.com, the Los Angeles Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2018, she was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, where she researched how to better manage and support journalists with technical skills. Oh is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Shawn Musgrave (he/him) is the First Amendment Fellow at The Center for Investigative Reporting. He graduated from Stanford Law School, where he researched government transparency and accountability issues, including oversealing of judicial documents, compliance with public records laws and misuse of the court system by litigation trolls. During law school, he worked at CIR, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a law firm that represents civilian whistleblowers. Before law school, Musgrave was an investigative reporter specializing in public records and government data, with work published in Politico, The Boston Globe, The Intercept and elsewhere.

Nikki Frick is the associate editor for research and copy for Reveal. She previously worked as a copy editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and held internships at The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and Washingtonpost.com. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was an American Copy Editors Society Aubespin scholar. Frick is based in Milwaukee.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Sarah Mirk (she/her) is a digital engagement producer for Reveal. Since 2017, she has worked as an editor at The Nib, an online daily comics publication focused on political cartoons, graphic journalism, essays and memoirs about current affairs. She works with artists to create nonfiction comics on a variety of complex topics, from personal narratives about queer identities to examinations of overlooked history. Before that, Mirk was the online editor of national feminist media outlet Bitch, a podcast host and a local news reporter. She is also the author of several books, including “Year of Zines,” a collection of 100 handmade zines, and “Guantanamo Voices,” a collection of illustrated oral histories of the world’s most infamous prison. Mirk is based in Portland, Oregon.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Kathryn Styer Martínez

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is a production assistant for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Brett Myers is an interim executive producer for Reveal. His work has received more than 20 national honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award, four nationalEdward R. Murrow Awards and multipleThird Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Competition awards. Before joining Reveal, he was a senior producer at Youth Radio, where he collaborated with teenage reporters to file stories for "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Marketplace." 

Prior to becoming an audio producer, Myers trained as a documentary photographer and was named one of the 25 best American photographers under the age of 25. He loves bikes, California and his family. Before that, he was an independent radio producer and worked with StoryCorps, Sound Portraits and The Kitchen Sisters. Myers is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Ike Sriskandarajah

Ike Sriskandarajah is a senior reporter, producer, and fill-in host for Reveal. He has worked on projects that have won an Emmy, two medals from Investigative Reporters and Editors, and awards from Third Coast, the Education Writers Association, and the New York Associated Press Association. He was a narrative audio producer at The New York Times, making investigative episodes for "The Daily." Sriskandarajah is from Wisconsin and reports from New York City.