Afghanistan’s economy, emergency services suffer as U.S. debates Taliban diplomacy

It has been four weeks since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. As the militant group cements control in the absence of U.S. military forces — restricting the rights of women and minorities — the lives of millions more afghans lie in the balance. The specter of famine looms, and global efforts to deliver emergency aid accelerated Monday. Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is now four weeks since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

    And as the militant group cements control, restricting the rights of women and minorities, the lives of so many millions more Afghans lie in the balance. The very real specter of famine looms, and global efforts to deliver emergency aid accelerated today.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, in a Kabul market where the Taliban flag flies, where fighters are traffic cops, the furniture's on sale, so families can avoid starvation.

  • Jamshid Jan, Seller (through translator):

    I brought my household items here for sale because there are no job. How will we eat? We sold these today. What will we sell tomorrow?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Afghanistan's economic crisis continues to push Afghans to flee. Thousands tried to cross the Friendship Gate along the Southern border with Pakistan. Afghans say Pakistan hasn't been very friendly, but, today, allowed more refugees entry.

    For Afghan health care, the crisis is acute. Most hospitals are propped up by international organizations that have now frozen $600 million; 31 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces are at risk of losing health services entirely. And Afghan officials fear a fourth COVID wave. Only 1 percent of people have been fully vaccinated.

    Today, I spoke with Dr. Wahid Majrooh, Afghanistan's minister of public health during the previous government, who stayed on after the Taliban took over.

    Dr. Wahid Majrooh, Afghanistan Minister of Public Health: Approximately 150 mothers will be deprived of Caesarean sections every day. Patients who are admitted in the hospitals, unfortunately, are not provided with food at least, with oxygen.

    If health service delivery in contribution to the sector is politicized, we will witness the human price. We will witness a collapse.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, at a U.N. conference, donors pledged more than $1 billion in urgent humanitarian assistance. Thousands of Afghan health care personnel have worked without pay.

    Majrooh urges the international community to fund the Health Ministry through or outside the Taliban government.

  • Dr. Whaid Majrooh:

    It doesn't matter for me what the political agenda is. What matters for me is how we can reach the children in need, the mothers in need.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why did you stay on? Why are you still in the same position, despite the fact that the government is now controlled by the Taliban?

  • Dr. Wahid Majrooh:

    It was and it is a challenging decision to make.

    I mean, I had to weigh my safety and safety of my family and safety of 35 million people who are in need of emergency care. I'm very happy I could stay to ensure that the Health Ministry remains operational, the health facilities remains functional.

    My purpose and my ultimate goal is ensuring service delivery to our patients.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But so many Afghans need so much help. The U.N. warned today millions could run out of food and a million children are at risk of starvation and death.

    As for Dr. Majrooh, Judy, he will soon give way to a Taliban-appointed minister, who will have to lead a ministry that is still dependent on foreign aid to exist.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to watch there.

    Nick, first of all, welcome back from parental leave. Very exciting.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're a dad.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you very much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're so happy for you.

    Let's shift over to Congress, what we were reporting on what happened today. And that is the first testimony by a Biden administration official since the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan.

    Secretary Blinken, how did he defend what the administration's done?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the main criticisms is the withdrawal itself, of course, because of what happened, that Taliban takeover.

    The administration has argued that its hands were tied by the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed during the Trump administration. But Republicans Steve Chabot today pointed out what many have pointed out, that the Biden administration actually rejected other Trump policies.

  • Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH):

    This was the one Trump policy that he had to follow.

    Do you understand why this is pretty hard to fathom for a lot of people?

    Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State: The agreement reached by the previous administration required all U.S. forces to be out of Afghanistan by May 1. In return, the Taliban stopped attacking our forces, our partners, and it didn't commence an onslaught of the Afghanistan cities.

    Had the president not followed through on the commitments that his predecessor made, those attacks would have resumed. We would have re-upped the war in Afghanistan after 20 years for another five, 10 or 20 years. We would have had to send more forces back in.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But that black-and-white answer doesn't acknowledge that the military was willing to stay in Afghanistan for a longer time with a small number of troops.

    And it also does acknowledge the administration could have argued the Taliban weren't pledging their part of the agreement, so the U.S. could have decided not to follow through on its agreement to withdraw.

    As elsewhere, Judy, it got much more heated. Republicans accused Secretary Blinken of passing the buck to the Trump administration and demanded he resign. He refused.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And there was also criticism of the execution of the pullout, leaving Afghans behind. Tell us about that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, it's Afghans who are eligible for visas and refugee status. It's also Americans. About 100 Americans who were in Afghanistan who want to leave are still there, as well as thousands of green card holders.

    And this was the criticism during the day from Chairman — sorry — Ranking Member of the House foreign affairs committee Republican Mike McCaul.

  • Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX):

    To make matters worse, we abandoned Americans behind enemy lines. We left behind the interpreters who you, Mr. Secretary, and the president both promised to protect.

    I can summarize this in one word, betrayal. Our standing on the world stage has been greatly diminished. Our enemies no longer fear us and our allies no longer trust us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Secretary Blinken vowed to take out all of the Americans from Afghanistan, once again blamed the Trump administration for — quote — "stalling" the visa problem — the visa program, rather.

    But lawmakers from both parties, Judy, as you know, over the last few weeks have accused the Biden administration of not evacuating early enough.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of talk about that.

    What is known, Nick, at this point about what the Biden administration plans are diplomatically in terms of dealing with this new Taliban government and also the humanitarian crisis that we have been reporting on?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, this is the dilemma.

    The U.S. needs to work with the Taliban to get those Americans, to get those Afghan allies out and to confront the humanitarian crisis, but doing so without supporting or propping up the Taliban government.

    The administration is considering its future relationship with the Taliban. And Blinken today laid out U.S. demands.

  • Antony Blinken:

    We expect the Taliban to ensure freedom of travel, to make good on its commitments on counterterrorism, to uphold the basic rights of the Afghan people including women, girls and minorities, to name a broadly representative permanent government.

    The interim government named by the Taliban falls very short of the mark that was set by the international community for inclusivity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That last line about the interim government is a bit of an understatement.

    It has as its interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is perhaps singularly responsible for the worst attacks on American forces in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.

    But the Taliban desperately need money in order to avoid state collapse, in order to confront some of that humanitarian crisis. And that gives the West, that gives the U.S. leverage. That money, though, needs to be delivered quickly. There are millions of Afghans who are undergoing that humanitarian crisis that we talked about who have nothing to do with these politics, who are simply suffering and could suffer very dramatically in the coming months.

    Their lives are at stake. Right now, the West and the world needs to figure out how to get humanitarian aid into Afghanistan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very tough decisions to make about getting that aid in, but under what conditions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin, thank you. And, again, welcome back.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks very much.

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