February 16, 2022

Demonstrators in Palmer Square Urge U.S. Action to Combat Afghan Famine

END AFGHAN FAMINE: A small group of demonstrators, under the leadership of the Coalition for Peace Action, gathered in Palmer Square on Monday evening, February 14, to urge the Biden administration to do more to help Afghanistan avoid widespread famine. (Photo by Patricia A. Hall)

By Donald Gilpin

A small, hardy band of demonstrators gathered in 20 degree temperatures at Palmer Square at 5 p.m. on Monday, February 14, calling on the United States to increase aid to Afghanistan and to end asset freezes and sanctions policies that are exacerbating famine conditions and contributing to the crisis in Afghanistan.

Participants in the hour-long Valentine’s Day vigil, sponsored by the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action (CFPA), held signs saying “End the Famine,” “End Afghan Sanctions,” “Unfreeze Afghan Funds,” and a Valentine’s message, ”Send Love to Afghanistan.”     

As the sun set, the demonstrators traded their posters for battery-powered candles, which they held for the last 15 minutes of the vigil “to demonstrate our care and compassion by
asking policymakers to extend some love and support to the people of Afghanistan,” a CFPA press release stated.

CFPA Executive Director the Rev. Robert Moore emphasized the urgency of the current crisis in Afghanistan, where more than a million Afghan children under age 5 are in imminent danger of dying from starvation.  “Our harsh economic sanctions, freezing of the government’s assets, and cut-off of aid have left the Afghan people in dire straits. Nearly 23 million people are facing potentially life-threatening starvation this winter.”

He added, “We’re encouraging members of Congress to press the administration to change course and ensure that aid gets to Afghans and the Afghan economy has the liquidity it needs to stay afloat.”

Last week President Joe Biden decided that half of the $7 billion in Afghan assets frozen in the United States would be made accessible to families of 9/11 victims and the other half would be set up in a trust fund for humanitarian relief for Afghanistan. Moore applauded the announced release of funds, but pointed out that the process of setting up the new structure of a trust fund would delay the urgent need to provide liquidity to the Afghan central bank and food to starving Afghans.

“Some Afghans do have financial resources, which they could use to feed themselves, but they can’t get them because the central bank doesn’t have liquidity,” said Moore. “The $3.5 billion should be released to the central bank. That’s the fastest way to do this.”

Moore noted that the United Nations, the International Red Cross and other leading international relief and humanitarian organizations have also emphasized that the central bank is “the only realistic way to get the money to where it’s needed.”

He went on, “There are ways of doing this in a controlled release of funds to make sure none of it goes to the Taliban government for whatever nefarious purposes they might have.”

About 75 percent of the budget of Afghanistan had been coming from international sources before the Taliban takeover last fall, and with all of that disappearing, Moore said, current U.S. policies are punishing the Afghan people not the Taliban. “Everybody understands that none of us find the Taliban to be an attractive government, but this is about the central bank, and banks are an agent of the financial world, not the government,” he pointed out.

“There are ways to put controls on this and proven means of distributing the funds to the people who need them, and the international agencies with the know-how are all saying that this is the way it should happen,” said Moore. “There are UN and Red Cross people on the ground there who could oversee this.”

In a February 11 letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Edward Marky (D-Massachusetts), along with 22 other U.S. senators and representatives, echoed many of the CFPA’s calls for more humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.

Stating that 97 percent of Afghans are in danger of falling below the poverty line, the lawmakers’ letter noted, “Experts warn that, without urgent action, more Afghan civilians will die in the coming months than died in the last 20 years of war.” 

“We share your concern that humanitarian relief alone will not be sufficient to prevent innocent Afghans from dying of starvation as drought and harsh winter conditions intersect with a complete paralysis of the financial sector,” the letter continued. “We request that the State and Treasury Departments continue to adopt measures to address Afghanistan’s liquidity problem and isolation from the international banking system, which will be imperative in both the short and long term to stave off what is fast becoming the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.”

Moore urged vigil participants and others to contact their representatives in Congress, especially senators, and call on them to continue to press the Biden administration to help avert the crisis of famine in Afghanistan.

Moore added, “There are signs that there is some movement on the part of the Biden administration, but there needs to be more. This is about saving the lives of people who are in grave danger.”