Friday, September 22, 2023
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Not good enough

WASHINGTON (AP) – As winter deepens, a grim situation in Afghanistan is getting worse. Freezing temperatures are compounding misery from the downward spiral that has come with the fall of the United States (US)-backed government and the Taleban takeover.

Aid groups and international agencies estimate about 23 million people, more than half the country, face severe hunger and nearly nine million are on the brink of starvation. People have resorted to selling possessions to buy food, burning furniture for warmth and even selling their children.

The US government this month announced USD308 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and is working with the United Nations (UN) and organisations such as the World Bank to provide additional help.

The Biden administration has also sought to clarify that US sanctions on the Taleban shouldn’t block humanitarian aid. But there is growing pressure to do more, such as unfreezing Afghan government funds held at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. A look at
the situation:


Life in Afghanistan was precarious before the Taleban takeover in August, with more than half the people surviving on less than USD2 a day.

About 80 per cent of the entire budget of the US-backed Afghan government came from international donor funds.

A nurse checks the weight of a child in the makeshift clinic organised by World Vision at a settlement near Herat, Afghanistan. PHOTOS: AP
ABOVE 7 BELOW: A family prepares tea outside the Directorate of Disaster office where they are camped in Herat; and hundreds of Afghan men gather to apply for the humanitarian aid in Qala-e-Naw

More than half of all children under five were expected to face acute malnutrition, according to the UN. In addition to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country was suffering through a prolonged drought, devastating in a country where agriculture makes up 25 per cent of GDP.

The withdrawal of the US after 20 years of war meant an end to the military and other support that made up about half of the economy.

Most government employees had not been paid in the two months before the Taleban takeover. Since then, about half a million Afghans have lost their jobs, including many women pushed out of the workforce by the Taleban.

Afghans at home can get only limited amounts of any money they have in bank accounts because of a currency shortage.

Meanwhile those abroad are having trouble sending help to family back in Afghanistan, in part because banks are reluctant to do business in a country whose leaders are under US sanctions.

There is food in the markets, but many people can’t afford to buy it, said head of crisis response at the International Rescue Committee Ciaran Donnelly.

“This is a humanitarian crisis, an economic collapse and a state failure all wrapped up in one,” said Donnelly. “And they’re feeding off each other.”


President Joe Biden said the US would continue to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan after the withdrawal, which was set in motion after a peace deal signed with the Taleban under President Donald Trump.

The administration notes that the US is still the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and is contributing to a UN effort to raise more than USD5 billion for the country.

But the US has not recognised the new government or lifted sanctions on the Taleban and its senior leaders for providing a haven to al-qaeda while it plotted the September 11, 2001, attacks. That has created at least a perception that sending money or doing business in Afghanistan is off-limits.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy discussions, acknowledged there’s a perception that the sanctions are broader than the Taleban leadership.

The official said the US has sought to dispel it in part with what are known as “special licences”, issued in December to assure international organisations, other nations and non-government organisations (NGOs) that they could provide humanitarian aid despite the sanctions.

The official said the US also is working with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to take money that had been set aside for Afghan reconstruction before the Taleban takeover and use it for humanitarian relief.

Former Afghan ambassador to the US Roya Rahmani said she doesn’t support recognising the new government but said the issue must be “untangled” from discussions of humanitarian aid, which is crucial even if some of it winds up in the hands of the Taleban.

“There is a very potent and real catastrophe boiling up in Afghanistan, and people are suffering now,” she said.


There is nearly USD7 billion in Afghan funds at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York that have been frozen since the Taleban takeover in August.

The Taleban has demanded the money, but it can’t be transferred to them because of the sanctions.

Complicating matters, families of people killed in the September 11 attacks have filed a claim to the funds to pay the judgement in a lawsuit they filed against al-Qaeda and
the Taleban.

A letter sent last Thursday to Biden, with the signatures of 41 mostly Democratic members of Congress, urged the president to “ensure that a substantial share” of the frozen assets is used for humanitarian relief, arguing that deteriorating conditions will lead to the country “once again become a breeding ground for extremist organisations”.

Economics professor at Montgomery College in Maryland Shah Mehrabi, also a board member of the Afghanistan Central Bank, said a portion of the frozen funds should be used to help stabilise prices in the country, pay the salaries of civil servants and help keep the private sector alive.

Otherwise, he warned, the economy could go into free fall.

“I don’t think that’s in our interests and in the interests of the US,” Mehrabi said “And I think the US knows that as well.”

The senior administration official said the administration is discussing the fate of the frozen funds but has to let the judicial process play out involving the legal claim filed by the September 11 victim families.


Aid groups and others have urged the Treasury Department to issue “comfort letters” to businesses and governments assuring them they won’t face legal consequences for doing business in Afghanistan, though the official said the general licences were intended to accomplish just that.

The administration could also encourage the unfreezing of Afghan government assets in banks outside the US. Rahman, the former ambassador, said the international community should sit down and come up with “creative” solutions such as some form of mobile banking to make it easier for Afghans overseas to get money to their families.

Whatever is done, it should be soon, Rahman said.

“Starvation and suffering fosters hopelessness,” she said, “and hopelessness fosters extremism, terrorism and much worse”.

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