EXPLAINER: Why efforts to help Afghanistan are failing

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FILE – People gather near a makeshift clinic in a sprawling settlement of mud brick huts housing people displaced by war and drought, near Herat, Afghanistan. As winter deepens, a grim situation in Afghanistan worsens. Freezing temperatures are adding to the downward spiral of misery that accompanied the fall of the US-backed government and the Taliban’s rise to power. Aid groups and international agencies estimate that around 23 million people, half the country, are facing severe starvation and nearly 9 million are on the brink of starvation. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov, File)

PA

As winter deepens, a grim situation in Afghanistan worsens. Freezing temperatures are adding to the downward spiral of misery that accompanied the fall of the US-backed government and the Taliban’s rise to power.

Aid groups and international agencies estimate that around 23 million people, more than half of the country, face severe starvation and nearly 9 million are on the brink of starvation. People have resorted to selling goods to buy food, burning furniture for warmth, and even selling their children.

The US government this month announced $308 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and is working with the UN and organizations such as the World Bank to provide additional assistance. The Biden administration has also sought to clarify that US sanctions against the Taliban should not block humanitarian aid. But there is growing pressure to do more, such as unfreezing Afghan government funds held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

A look at the situation:

HOW DID CONDITIONS IN AFGHANISTAN GET SO BAD SO QUICKLY?

Life in Afghanistan was precarious before the Taliban takeover in August, with more than half of people surviving on less than $2 a day. About 80 percent of the US-backed Afghan government’s total budget came from international donor funds. According to the UN, more than half of all children under the age of 5 are expected to face acute malnutrition In addition to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country was suffering from a prolonged drought, devastating in a country where agriculture accounts for 25% of GDP.

The withdrawal of the United States after 20 years of war meant the end of 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 Taliban took over. Since then, around half a million Afghans have lost their jobs, including many women forced out of the labor market by the Taliban.

Afghans back home can only get limited amounts of the money they have in bank accounts due to a shortage of foreign currency. Meanwhile, those abroad are struggling to send aid to their families 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 cannot afford it, said Ciaran Donnelly, head of crisis response at the International Rescue Committee. “This is a humanitarian crisis, economic collapse and state failure all rolled into one,” Donnelly said. “And they feed off each other.”

WHAT HAS THE UNITED STATES DONE SO FAR TO HELP?

President Joe Biden has said the United States will continue to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan after the withdrawal, which was triggered after a peace deal signed with the Taliban under President Donald Trump. The administration notes that the United States is still the largest provider of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and is contributing to a UN effort to raise more than $5 billion for the country.

But the United States did not recognize the new government or lift sanctions against the Taliban and their top leadership for providing haven for al-Qaeda while plotting the September 11, 2001, attacks. This created at least a perception that it is forbidden to send money or do business in Afghanistan.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal political discussions, acknowledged that there is a perception that the sanctions are broader than the Taliban leadership. The official said the United States had sought to dispel it in part with so-called “special licenses”, issued in December to assure international organizations, other nations and NGOs that it could provide a humanitarian aid despite the sanctions.

The official said the United States was also working with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to take money that had been set aside for Afghan reconstruction before the Taliban takeover and use it for the humanitarian aid.

Roya Rahmani, a former Afghan ambassador to the United States, said she was not in favor of recognizing the new government, but said the issue needed to be ‘untangled’ from discussions on humanitarian aid, which is crucial even if part of it ends up in the hands of the Taliban.

“There’s a very powerful and real disaster brewing in Afghanistan, and people are suffering now,” she said.

WHAT ABOUT AFGHAN MONEY FROZEN IN THE US?

There are nearly $7 billion in Afghan funds at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that have been frozen since the Taliban takeover in August. The Taliban have claimed the money, but it cannot be transferred to them because of the sanctions. To complicate matters, the families of those killed in the September 11 attacks have filed a request for funds to pay the judgment in a lawsuit they filed against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

A letter sent Thursday to Biden, with the signatures of 41 members of Congress, mostly Democrats, urged the president to “ensure that a substantial part” of the frozen assets is used for humanitarian aid, arguing that the Deteriorating conditions will lead the country “once again to become a breeding ground for terrorist organizations” like al-Qaeda.

Shah Mehrabi, an economics professor at Montgomery College in Maryland and a board member of the Central Bank of Afghanistan, said some of the frozen funds should be used to help stabilize prices in the country, pay the salaries of civil servants and help maintain the private sector. living area. Otherwise, he warns, the economy could go into freefall.

“I don’t think it’s in our interest and in the interest of the United States,” Mehrabi said. “And I think the United States knows that as well.”

The senior administration official said the administration was discussing the fate of the frozen funds but must let the legal process involving the lawsuit filed by the families of the 9/11 victims proceed.

IS THERE MORE THE US AND OTHERS CAN DO?

Aid groups and others have urged the Treasury Department to issue “comfort letters” to companies and governments assuring them they will not face legal consequences for doing business in Afghanistan, although the official stated that blanket licenses were intended to accomplish just that.

The administration could also encourage the unfreezing of Afghan government assets in banks outside the United States. 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 life easier for Afghans. abroad to bring money to their families.

Either way, it shouldn’t take long, says Rahman.

“Hamine and suffering breed despair,” she said, “and despair breeds extremism, terrorism and much worse.”