As humanitarian catastrophe looms, US opens door for more aid to Afghanistan

Facing pressure to prevent a humanitarian and economic disaster in Afghanistan, the Biden administration on Wednesday took steps to allow more aid to flow into the Taliban-ruled country.

The measures exempt aid groups from the strict economic sanctions that were imposed on the Taliban before they took control of the government and strangled the Afghan economy under its leadership. But diplomats and activists said easing restrictions may not be enough to save the country from what a UN official on Wednesday called “shocking” need and suffering.

At the same time, some Republicans have said the Biden administration risks legitimizing and even funding the Taliban leadership.

The US actions and the mixed response underscore the challenge Afghanistan continues to pose to the Biden administration four months after the last US troops withdrew from the country. Administration officials are struggling to meet urgent humanitarian needs without holding the Taliban to account.

The United States has waged a 20 year war against the Taliban and does not recognize them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. After the group took control in August, the Biden administration halted most aid to Afghanistan, froze $ 9.5 billion of its foreign exchange reserves and pressured the International Monetary Fund to delay. emergency aid.

A combination of the coronavirus pandemic, severe drought, loss of foreign aid and frozen foreign exchange reserves have left Afghanistan’s fragile economy on the brink of collapse, aid groups warning that the he harsh winter could lead to massive famine and a refugee crisis.

After weeks of calls for faster action, the Treasury Department said on Wednesday it was issuing new “blanket licenses” that would allow non-governmental organizations, international aid groups and the US government to come to the aid to the Afghans while maintaining economic leverage on the Taliban to prevent human rights violations and terrorist activity.

These actions came shortly after the United Nations Security Council adopted a related resolution, sponsored by the United States, that exempts humanitarian activities in Afghanistan from international sanctions for a year.

Officials in the Biden administration note that the United States remains the world’s largest provider of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, even after cutting most aid after the Taliban takeover.

“We are committed to supporting the Afghan people,” Wally Adeyemo, Assistant Treasury Secretary, said in a statement.

The ministry’s general licenses allow financial transactions involving the Taliban and members of the Haqqani network, who share power in the new Afghan government, as long as the money is used for purposes such as projects to meet basic human needs, the development of civil society, the environment and protection of natural resources and similar efforts. The United States considers both groups to be terrorist organizations.

The Treasury movement expands the type of relief activity that can take place in Afghanistan and expands the level of contact that international groups can have with the Taliban. It also allows the Taliban to collect taxes linked to this aid.

Alex Zerden, Treasury Department financial attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from 2018 to 2019, called the move “absolutely a step in the right direction,” saying it responds to demands for clarity from the sector. private and non-governmental organizations on how to operate in Afghanistan. without violating US sanctions and providing the Taliban with illegal income.

But many close observers said there was still a long way to go.

“We need a bigger humanitarian response, but without a functioning economy and banking system we face terrible challenges,” David Miliband, Chairman and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, wrote on Twitter. “Need a massive economic stabilization plan to stop the reverse flow.”

The United States provided Afghanistan with $ 3.95 billion in foreign aid last year, about two-thirds of which was security assistance for the former government’s fight against the Taliban. U.S. humanitarian aid for the country and for Afghan refugees in the region has totaled nearly $ 474 million so far this year.

“We are very much aware that there is currently an incredibly difficult humanitarian situation, which could worsen as winter sets in,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at a press conference Tuesday.

He added that the United States was determined to ensure “that the Taliban meet the expectations of the international community”, including by respecting the rights of women, not retaliating against political enemies and denying asylum. to international terrorist groups.

Morgan Ortagus, spokesperson for the State Department during the Trump administration, condemned the US actions as “extremely dangerous. ” She said on twitter that Treasury Department licenses “send the signal that if you control enough territory with enough people, you can gain legitimacy as well.”

The Security Council resolution, which was adopted unanimously, aims to reduce the legal and political risks of delivering aid to Afghanistan. It exempts humanitarian activities such as payments and delivery of goods and services from UN sanctions for a period of one year, and requires updates to ensure that aid is not diverted to Taliban.

China on Monday blocked a larger version drafted by the United States that would have allowed development aid on a case-by-case basis, in addition to the humanitarian aid exemptions approved on Wednesday.

After the measure was adopted on Wednesday, Chinese Ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, said on twitter that the new resolution “can only fix the tap, but for the water to continue flowing, the international community must make joint efforts”.

Citing “shocking levels of need and suffering”, senior UN official responsible for emergency humanitarian efforts Martin Griffiths said the effect the 160 aid organizations working in Afghanistan could have “depends on the cooperation of the country’s de facto authorities and the flexibility of the funding we receive.

Governments and international organizations have stepped up their efforts to provide assistance in recent weeks.

The World Bank has said donors to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund will transfer $ 280 million to UNICEF and the World Food Program by the end of the year to provide humanitarian assistance.

The Treasury Department this month issued a license to send personal payments to people in Afghanistan. And the United States announced on Wednesday that it would donate another million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to Afghanistan, bringing the total United States contribution to 4.3 million doses.

But the need remains enormous. Three former US military commanders in Afghanistan and several former ambassadors and other officials this month signed a letter, published by the Atlantic Council, calling on the Biden administration to show “the courage to act” and accelerate creative measures to support the Afghan economy and feed the hungry without benefiting the Taliban.

“We believe that the United States has a reputational interest and a moral obligation to vigorously join forces to help the Afghan people preserve at least some of the social and economic gains made over the past 20 years,” wrote the authors. “We believe that ways to do this can be found, while erecting barriers to aid being diverted for purposes other than those for which it is intended. “

The warnings came as Taliban officials argued for swift international aid, which they said was also in the West’s personal interest.

“The impact of the frozen funds is on ordinary people and not on the Taliban authorities,” Taliban Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai said on Sunday, according to Reuters.

Stanikzai warned that if “the political and economic situation does not change” Afghan refugees will flow into neighboring countries and into Europe.

Rick gladstone contributed to New York reporting.

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