International pressure is increasing on the Biden administration to loosen restrictions on aid and financial flows to Afghanistan amid mounting concerns that current efforts to ward off humanitarian catastrophe are not enough.
In a report issued Thursday, the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the largest nongovernmental organizations working there, warned that “aid agencies are unable to operate at scale in the country because formal payment channels are almost completely unavailable to them.”
The report — compiled with input from other humanitarian agencies — followed a United Nations Security Council meeting on the subject Wednesday, in which UN Secretary General António Guterres said that “for Afghans, daily life has become a frozen hell.”
In a reference to ongoing sanctions, Guterres urged the suspension of “rules and conditions that constrict not only Afghanistan’s economy, but our lifesaving operations.” In the meantime, he said, over half of all Afghans face extreme levels of hunger, and “some families are selling their babies to purchase food.”
At the same meeting, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said the administration was continuing “to examine various options to ease the liquidity crunch” that has resulted from a collapse of the Afghan banking system, including the country’s Central Bank, after foreign aid ceased with the Taliban takeover in August.
But it remained unclear what additional steps the administration is prepared to take about what has become a heated political issue in this country, where a number of lawmakers have voiced opposition to any flexibility in dealing with Afghanistan under the Taliban.
In addition to stopping aid that provided up to three-quarters of Afghan national income, the United States and its allies have frozen more than $10 billion in Afghanistan reserve funds, most of it held in the New York Federal Reserve.
The administration has declined to address the question of the reserves, saying that the issue is involved in current litigation. Victims and their families of the Sept. 11, 2001 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks, planned in Afghanistan, have sought to claim the money in judgments against the Taliban. The Justice Department was due to submit a statement in federal court Friday specifying its national security interests in the outcome of the case.
No country in the world has recognized the interim Taliban government installed in September, although Russia, China, and some others have maintained their embassies in Kabul. The United States and many of its allies, while contributing billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance that aid agencies have said can be distributed without providing Taliban access to the funds, have said the situation will not be normalized until the militants fulfill their commitments to an inclusive government, full rights to minorities and women, and severing of relations with all terrorist groups.
While commending the Treasury Department for recent measures allowing Afghans outside the country to send personal remittances, and for issuing licenses that waived some US sanctions restrictions, the Norwegian report concluded that significant remaining barriers hamper their “ability to respond at an appropriate scale and speed to pressing, and mounting, humanitarian needs of the Afghan people.”
Aid agencies and a number of allied governments have called for the release of more funds, including for essential services and salaries, the easing of sanctions, and unfreezing of assets. The lack of currency, and banking, has meant that few among those who still have employment are getting paid.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store, who presided over the UN session, met Thursday with President Biden and separately with national security adviser Jake Sullivan to press the issue.
“I respect the complexities” of any dealings with the Taliban, Store said in an interview before the meetings, “but I think we have to move… How America puts its feet here has huge implications for other countries, especially in the financial system.” Banks in other countries have been reluctant to do business with Afghanistan out of fear of US sanctions.
“All of this is not about US money,” Store said, but “the decisions the American government makes on frozen money, and on capital flows, of course have huge impact. Because there are other donor countries who will not move until the US moves on some of these issues.”
Store and others maintain that the international community has shown that it can provide funds without directly propping up bad actors, as it has done in the Palestinian territories and in Yemen. “We have to move in that direction,” he said. “Of course it has to be done with the appropriate conditionality. Because we don’t want to fund the Taliban.”
But “this is possible. We just have to move along,” Store said. “I think we have to be just very aware of the time frame here and what may be the consequences if we don’t act.”
Earlier this week, Norway hosted a meeting in Oslo among Taliban officials, Afghan civil society representatives — including delegates from women’s groups within and outside the country — and special representatives for Afghanistan from the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States.