Pressure has mounted for the US government to unfreeze billions of dollars of Afghan assets held in US banks. The USA has recently taken steps to unfreeze some of the assets, but civil society is calling for their full release as part of the urgent action need to avert a worsening economic and humanitarian crisis. The deteriorating situation is disproportionately affecting women and girls, already denied rights by the Taliban, including the right to education. Beyond responding to immediate economic and humanitarian needs, states should work with Afghan civil society to keep up the pressure on the Taliban to respect women’s and girls’ rights – starting with reopening schools.

Afghanistan’s economic and humanitarian crisis is in danger of getting much worse as winter approaches. Some 24 million Afghans, over half the country’s population, need humanitarian assistance of some kind, including food, shelter and medication. Around 19 million people, including three million badly malnourished children, risk acute hunger. Martin Griffiths, the United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, has warned that many could die.

The UN put out an urgent appeal to raise the estimated US$4.4 billion needed to respond to the emergency. But an international pledging conference held earlier this year fell US$2 billion short of the target.

Economic crisis

The immediate origins of the current crisis lie in the Taliban’s second takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021.

No state recognises the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. The US government designated the Taliban as a terrorist organisation in 2001 and they have remained on the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list since. To prevent them accessing funds, in August 2021 the US government froze around US$7 billion in Afghan central bank assets held in the USA and stopped shipments of cash to Afghanistan. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank also suspended their aid.

Sanctions complicated the efforts of international aid organisations to provide help to people in Afghanistan. In one case, a UN agency wasn’t able to use the money it held in a bank in Afghanistan. The collapse of the Afghan economy was described by the UN Development Programme’s representative in Afghanistan as ‘an economic contraction that we’ve never seen before, ever’.

Women and girls denied rights

Afghanistan is also experiencing a human rights crisis under the Taliban’s harsh rule, with the rights of women and girls under particular attack. An assault on the status of women began as soon as the Taliban seized power. Women have been prevented from working unless they hold a job that can’t be performed by a man, and secondary schools have been shut down so girls can’t learn anything beyond primary school basics. Clothing and behaviour rules are being strictly enforced. Women have been relegated to the condition of dependent minors, not allowed in public without the company of a male guardian. They have largely disappeared from public spaces.

The crackdown on women’s rights is being accompanied by attacks on minority ethnic groups, such as Hazara people, and on LGBTQI+ people and the secular, rights-oriented civil society that developed in Afghanistan between the two periods of Taliban rule.

Despite the risks, women and other embattled groups have continued to resist, including through protests. With public protests provoking a violent Taliban response, people have found other ways to resist, such as by holding small indoor protests.

Human rights have become a red line in international negotiations with the Taliban. The international community has made it clear that, if the Taliban want recognition and assistance, they need to commit to upholding human rights, and particularly the rights of women and girls.

Voices from the frontline

Arash Azizzada is co-founder and co-director of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, a grassroots civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to bringing about transformative change for Afghans in the USA and beyond.


International philanthropy and the international community should support a fledging Afghan civil society, and especially the women’s groups that remain operational within the country, by ensuring wide-ranging sanctions relief.

The entire Afghan population is on the receiving end of collective punishment due to the sanctions imposed on the Afghan state. As the world has become hostile to doing business in the country, the World Bank and other international institutions should continue to focus on funding economic development projects and ensure the healthcare system remains functional.

The international community should work hard to differentiate between targeted sanctions that focus on individuals within the Taliban and projects that ensure Afghans have a chance at survival.

The UN appeal for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan still remains US$2 billion short of its target. There is a strong need for donor countries to fill that gap. Much of it should be filled by the NATO member countries that occupied Afghanistan for 20 years.

A core demand remains the non-recognition of the Taliban government, which is deepening its repression and remains unrepresentative of the Afghan population. It is important that the international community listens to the voices of Afghan civil society, and specifically those of Afghan women leaders and the minority Hazara and Shia communities.

The most vital thing at this moment is a strengthened mandate by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to document and monitor human rights violations as well as support accurate and free media. Significant UN presence on the ground will be key as Afghanistan faces a deteriorating human and women’s rights situation.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Arash. Read the full interview here.

Girls’ access to secondary education is a particular point of contention. The Taliban have tried to reassure the international community that it is less extreme than before. Time and again the regime has vaguely promised to let girls back into schools, but it hasn’t kept its word. In May, girls showed up at secondary schools they had been told would reopen only to be turned away as the Taliban changed their minds.

This pointed to an ongoing disagreement between different Taliban factions, resulting in mixed signals. Last month, the Taliban’s deputy foreign minister said no religious reason prevented girls returning to school, and called for schools to open for girls as well as boys.

But when the new school year started in September 2022 and five schools in Paktia province in the country’s east opened their doors to female students, the Taliban in the capital enforced their ban and shut them down. This led to some protests involving students and teachers, repressed by security forces. A further thousand girls studying at three vocational training institutes in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan were told they were no longer welcome either.

Unfreeze Afghanistan

The need for pressure to respect women’s and girls’ rights is as great as ever. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that depriving the central bank of the bare minimum of assets required for the economy to function is causing extreme human suffering and ultimately punishing those with the least access to rights – with girls being sold into child marriage as a desperate economic fix. An international campaign has mobilised, urging US President Joe Biden to unfreeze the Afghan central bank assets held in the USA.

In February 2022, President Biden issued an executive order splitting the frozen assets in two – ring-fencing half for possible legal compensation for a collective lawsuit brought by the families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist atrocity, while earmarking the other half for future return to Afghanistan.

In response, Unfreeze Afghanistan has mobilised as a women-led campaign demanding the immediate return of all frozen funds. The campaign has proposed a series of safeguards to address the US government’s stated concerns about the potential for the Taliban to misuse the money.

In August, marking the anniversary of the Taliban’s rise to power, 70 prominent economists sent Biden and his treasury secretary an open letter urging the release of the frozen international reserves.

International philanthropy and the international community should support a fledging Afghan civil society, and especially the women’s groups that remain operational within the country, by ensuring wide-ranging sanctions relief.


As well as returning the assets to help get the Afghan economy back on its feet, campaigners are calling for an urgent injection of aid required to avert a humanitarian catastrophe as the country goes into its harsh winter.

They are urging the USA to donate more. The US government is the world’s largest donor but has pledged just over US$500 million to the UN fund – around 11 per cent of the total needed. In the light of its long involvement in Afghanistan and the chaos caused by its sudden withdrawal, the US government should show greater responsibility.

Voices from the frontline

Hadiya Afzal is programme coordinator of Unfreeze Afghanistan, a women-led CSO formed by women from Afghanistan and the USA that advocates for the release of the frozen assets.


Central Bank assets are the people’s money, used to hold currency auctions in the country, safeguard against inflation and control price stability. Afghanistan needs its Central Bank reserves back to stabilise its economy and perform centralised banking functions again.

The assets frozen also included private monies, that is, accounts held by private individuals, companies and CSOs. People were unable to withdraw their own money from banks for months, with many still unable to do so due to lack of cash. Many Afghans sold off anything they owned to afford essential goods, the prices of which skyrocketed.

The USA has signalled that funds could be returned to Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), the country’s central bank, as long as three conditions are met: the establishment of independent monitoring mechanisms, the implementation of credible anti-money laundering regulations and controls to combat the financing of terrorism and DAB’s insulation from political interference – which meant replacing its top leadership, in the hands of Taliban officials, one of whom is under US and UN sanctions, with professionals.

DAB has already agreed on independent monitoring conditions, and experts have set out how pre-existing independent monitoring and electronic auditing could be restored. US claims that the new Afghan government lacks expertise and that capacity building is needed for the state to be able to perform central bank functions could be addressed by assistance from the international community. The law that outlines DAB’s function as a technocratic institution charged with responsibilities such as currency auctions and oversight of banks is still in place. DAB continues to have the same audit oversight committee, with the same members it had under the previous government. And the chair of the audit committee has been an outspoken advocate for the return of DAB’s reserves.

The Afghan government should ensure that the DAB law remains in place and that the institution will function separate from political considerations. Advocacy experts highlighted that the USA does not apply audit conditions as strictly to other countries as it does to Afghanistan. It does not seize their foreign assets due to limited monitoring capabilities.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Hadiya. Read the full interview here.

What may be a positive step forward came in September when the US government announced the establishment of the Afghan Fund, a fund containing US$3.5 billion of frozen assets to be used to stabilise the Afghan economy and pay for critical imports. This is protected from the Taliban, who would be unable to access it. The fund will be based at the Swiss Bank for International Settlements and managed by a board of trustees including the US ambassador to Switzerland, an official from the Swiss foreign ministry and a former chief of the Afghan central bank. But there’s been little detail about when funds will be released.

The announcement followed failed negotiations over the full release of the funds, stuck over major differences regarding assurances of the Afghan central bank’s independence and the Taliban’s involvement. The Taliban has condemned the launch of the Afghan Fund and threatened retaliatory measures.

Urgent action needed

There’s both a general need to restart the economy and provide humanitarian aid so people can access the basics of life, and a specific imperative to pressure the Taliban to respect rights, particularly for women and girls. Urgent action on the economic and humanitarian situation is needed, but aid beyond that should come with demands on rights. Proposals to link specific types of aid, such as funding for education, with a commitment to let girls attend schools may have some value.

There are clearly no easy solutions, given that a further priority is not to recognise or confer legitimacy on the Taliban as Afghanistan’s current rulers. But above all the need is to be guided by Afghanistan’s civil society and particularly its women’s rights movements, battling severe repression inside the country and among the diaspora. They should speak for Afghanistan, not the Taliban. Theirs are the voices that should guide the international response.


  • The US should urgently unfreeze all the Afghan assets it holds to avert an even worse economic and humanitarian crisis.
  • The Taliban must unreservedly commit to allow girls to resume their education and more broadly to respect women’s and girls’ rights.
  • The international community should continue to demand the protection of women’s and girls’ rights in all discussions with the Taliban and be informed by Afghan activists inside Afghanistan and in exile on the best strategies for engagement with the Taliban.

Cover photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images