Negotiating with the Taliban to save lives in Afghanistan
When the U.S. pulled up stakes in Afghanistan this past August, the Biden administration didn't expect the Taliban to seize control of the country so quickly. Twenty years of nation building and an Afghan military crumbled within days.
To contain the Taliban's power, the international community acted quickly – freezing Afghan assets, shutting down foreign aid and extending sanctions. Now, the country is facing mass starvation and economic collapse.
We went to Afghanistan; reported from it's provinces and capital and had a rare conversation with a Taliban minister. We also met with humanitarian groups who have been left to pick up the pieces while negotiating with the Taliban.
As our team arrived into the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, we weren't sure what we'd find.
It was just four months ago that the world watched as scenes of unforgettable desperation and chaos played out here after the Taliban seized control.
The lucky escaped, but for the 38 million Afghans that remain the anguish continues. Right away, we saw their new reality.
Armed Taliban forces are everywhere. We noticed many of them have abandoned their traditional turbans and now wear the uniforms and gear that western forces left behind.
We see women and children dodging traffic to beg for cash and men waiting in long lines for free food.
Mary-Ellen McGroarty: I've been with WFP for a long time, 20-plus years, and I've never seen a crisis unfold and escalate at the pace and scale that we are seeing.
Mary-Ellen McGroarty is the director of the United Nations World Food Program in Afghanistan. From its warehouse in Kabul, she's overseen the delivery of over 117 tons of food to nearly 9 million Afghans since August. She explained to us why the country is now facing mass starvation.
Mary-Ellen McGroarty: 72% of the population were already living below the poverty line before all this, before the fall of the government.
Sharyn Alfonsi: And now, what is the need like?
Mary-Ellen McGroarty: And now it's just staggering. You know, we have 22.8 million people in what we call "severe food insecurity."
Sharyn Alfonsi: That's more than half the country right now.
Mary-Ellen McGroarty: That is more than half the country. People don't have jobs, they can't access cash. You know, food prices are going up. The currency is depreciating. So for us, we're now really in a race against time.
Ravaged by war, drought, COVID and the economic crash that followed the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan is on the verge of collapse.
According to UNICEF, 1 million children in Afghanistan are now at risk of dying of starvation,
Inside the children's hospital in Kabul, the beds were full and rooms quiet.
One mother told us her 5-month-old daughter was starving. She weighs just 7 pounds.
Doctors say all of the children in this room are suffering from malnutrition. They can't offer them medicine because they've run out. They can't offer them food because even the hospital doesn't have any. None of the staff here has been paid in four months.
The hospital had been supported by international aid that was cut off when the Taliban took over.
30 years ago, the Taliban first rose to power after a 10-year war with the Soviets and the collapse of the country's communist regime. Islamic extremists, they ruled with an iron fist - banishing women from the workplace, schools and public life – executing those who didn't follow their strict laws.
Today, there are women on the streets, but not many. When the Taliban marched into Kabul, they urged women to stay home until they taught their fighters, "how to deal with them."
Which makes what Mary-Ellen McGroarty is doing even more surprising. She's been personally negotiating with the Taliban so her drivers can deliver food to the needy.
Sharyn Alfonsi: When you say you have to, you know, reach out to the Taliban and talk to them, how does that work as a woman?
Mary-Ellen McGroarty: Being a woman in Afghanistan at the moment is, yeah-- it's challenging. But I think they realize I'm the head of a U.N. organization, so they do have to meet with me. And that's the way it is.
Sharyn Alfonsi: And for the person sitting at home who says, "Well, how could they be engaging with the Taliban? They're an extremist group," how do you answer that?
Mary-Ellen McGroarty: With humanitarian work, you know, the humanity comes first and being able to save lives comes first. We remain impartial with a clear focus on the humanitarian imperative.
McGroarty told us humanitarian groups have worked with the Taliban for much of the last decade. They had to – because even when there was a democratically elected government sitting in Kabul, the Taliban controlled 60 to 70% of the country.
Manuel Fontaine, a director for UNICEF, first came to Afghanistan after 9/11. He explained how their relationship with the Taliban has evolved over the years.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Has the Taliban said to you, "We want you here. We need you here. Help us"?
Manuel Fontaine: Yes. Absolutely. From the beginning. And we've said from the beginning that we will be uncompromising when it comes to girls' education, when it comes to making sure that women can work.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Since August 15th have they been more or less receptive to what you have to say and what other NGOs have to say?
Manuel Fontaine: They are receptive now in the sense that they realize that with power comes the responsibility to do something for the population of Afghanistan. They realize they have that responsibility and in that sense, they're willing to have those discussions.
Because of those discussions, UNICEF is now able to access communities previously off limits.
We traveled with them and their government mandated Taliban escorts to one of those places.
Sharyn Alfonsi: So we are in Wardak Province which is about two hours from Kabul and the reason that this road is so bumpy is because there were so many IEDs here – this was a Taliban stronghold for about a decade so groups like the U.N. would never have dreamed of coming out here.
It was the first time UNICEF had been to this rural area in 12 years.
And the first time they were able to lay eyes on one of the results of their negotiations with the Taliban, a community-based school for girls.
Sharyn Alfonsi: For how many of you girls is this your first year at school? Raise your hand.
[All the girls raise their hands]
The youngest girl here is 6. The oldest 12. Many of them told us they hoped to be doctors. The school, and 4,500 like them, operate with the Taliban's blessing.
Sharyn Alfonsi: How did that happen? This was a province that was controlled by the Taliban for a decade. How do you get to them and say we wanna have a school here?
Manuel Fontaine: Talking to them, explaining the difference it makes. The discussions we're having with the Taliban don't start from scratch. That confidence was built over the years in the areas they controlled that trust has started to build.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What we saw in that school was heart-warming. But we know there are a million girls in high school who are not going to school. We know that there are no women being allowed really to attend college in any way. Are you making any ground in that area?
Manuel Fontaine: We are making some ground, but not enough. That's obvious. What we hear from Taliban is that they want to do it in a way that is keeping with the culture of the country. So we need to find a way to do that. This country needs everybody's strength.
After months of negotiations, we were granted access to meet Dr. Qalandar Ebad, the newly-appointed health minister of the Taliban. A 41-year-old physician, he was educated in Pakistan.
We were a little uneasy when he invited us to eat with him and other Taliban leaders in the basement of one of their buildings.
He agreed to speak to us about the health crisis facing the country, but he told us he didn't want to discuss politics. Taliban gunmen kept watch over the interview.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Some of the humanitarian workers we spoke to said that the country is on the verge of its worst humanitarian crisis ever. Do you believe that to be true?
Dr. Qalandar Ebad: We are on the edge of this crisis. Everyone knows that the funds are freezed by the international community. I think they can unfreeze the funds for the health sector of Afghanistan. It is very important for the need of the time.
Sharyn Alfonsi: The international community has spoken pretty clearly and said, they're "not gonna unfreeze funds unless there's a guarantee that all girls will be educated in Afghanistan." Is the Taliban willing to consider any kind of movement in that area?
Dr. Qalandar Ebad: I think-- it's a political issue. Education is a separate chapter and department and health is a different department.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What I hear you saying is you want to keep health separate from the idea of education.
Dr. Qalandar Ebad: Yeah. Why they are mixing the two different topics--
Sharyn Alfonsi: Well, because I think the idea that, you know, educating women is good for the health of the country.
Dr. Qalandar Ebad: Yes. There's no doubt.
But the minister would not go further on concessions for girl's high school and university education.
Nine days ago, the Taliban issued a decree banning both forced marriage and treating women as property, but there was no mention of allowing women to work outside the home.
Soon after, the world bank released $280 million in aid for Afghanistan. A small portion of the $1.5 billion frozen by the World Bank.
Vicki Aken has led the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee in Afghanistan for four years.
Vicki Aken: We need to figure out a system for continuing to support just basic services like education and health care. The previous government, 75% of their budget, you know, was funded by development donors.
Sharyn Alfonsi: 75% of the government budget was funded by donations? And so health care, education have dried up.
Vicki Aken: Yeah. And there's still no clear way forward.
Her staff of 1,200, mostly locals, interview families in the neediest neighborhoods. That's how they found Homira, 19 years old. She fled Eastern Afghanistan three months ago with her two children.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What kind of challenges have you faced?
Homira in Pashto (English Translation): I faced a lot of problems. I couldn't support my children to buy something like food or clothes.
The International Rescue Committee gave her about $400 to get blankets and food for winter. But they are fearful their funds could run out.
Sharyn Alfonsi: If the aid wasn't here, what would that mean to your family, if there wasn't this help?
Homira in Pashto (English Translation): I wouldn't be able to support my family or children. I'm really thankful for them.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What does $400 mean to a family in this moment?
Vicki Aken: It means everything in this moment. I mean, we see a lot of cases where people might send their children off to work, including as young as 5 or 6. You know, they might sell their daughters into marriage. And it's-- and I know it sounds horrendous. But when you have, a family of say eight people. And you have no means to feed everyone, and they see that as their only option.
Humanitarian leaders say without swift action, more people in Afghanistan could die of hunger next year than from the violence of the past 20 years of war.
Vicki Aken: If you look at what the effect of sanctions have been, they're really hurting the people of Afghanistan more than they're hurting anyone in the Taliban. The Taliban have had sanctions on them for quite some time. And they've always managed to survive those sanctions. But now they have to run a government.
Sharyn Alfonsi: I think a lot of people will say, "Well, we don't want to see aid go to Afghanistan because we don't want to give money to the Taliban. That's an extremist group."
Vicki Aken: So you want to make 38 million people suffer because of a few thousand? That math doesn't work for me.
Produced by Ashley Velie. Associate producer, Jennifer Dozor. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Craig Crawford.
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