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Opinion How the U.S. is helping vulnerable Afghans without recognizing the Taliban

Mahmad Ali, a disabled war veteran, right, slowly accompanies the wheel barrow of donated food he has just received in Kabul on Jan. 4. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)
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As the winter chill envelops Afghanistan, the Biden administration is moving to remove some obstacles to providing humanitarian aid, education and other basic services for the people of that ravaged country.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken talked Friday with two key leaders of the Afghan relief effort: Martin Griffiths, the U.N. undersecretary of humanitarian affairs, and Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The two urged Blinken to support international efforts to provide cash for basic needs as Afghanistan’s economy and financial system collapse under Taliban rule.

Griffiths and Maurer told me after their meeting that Blinken had given “unequivocal approval” to their request for American help to avoid what could become an unmanageable humanitarian catastrophe this winter. They said Blinken had pledged, specifically, that the United States would support a World Bank plan for a “humanitarian exchange facility” to ease the liquidity crisis that has strapped Afghanistan’s ability to pay teachers, doctors and humanitarian workers.

The State Department’s expanded commitment to aid comes after sharp criticism in the past several months that the administration wasn’t taking the plight of the Afghan people seriously enough. Relief groups will welcome the news of Blinken’s comments to leaders of the relief community.

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A State Department official on Monday outlined the broad effort the Biden administration is planning, headed by Special Representative Tom West, to help the Afghan people without formally recognizing the Taliban government. The administration has spoken with some senior Senate Democrats and Republicans, who have expressed tentative support for this broader effort.

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Helping the Afghan people survive this winter of suffering is complicated by a thicket of legal rules imposed by sanctions against the Taliban. The administration began to clear that thicket in late December, after the U.N. Security Council passed an exemption from Afghanistan sanctions for humanitarian relief and basic needs. The Treasury Department quickly approved new licenses to facilitate payment for health, education and other basic needs.

The administration has also provided $474 million in direct humanitarian aid through USAID, and an initial commitment of $308 million toward the United Nation’s $4.4 billion Afghanistan appeal for 2022. It has been difficult, however, to get this cash into the hands of people who need it.

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Keeping Afghanistan’s schools open, including for women and girls, has been a key goal. The country has about 220,000 teachers, more than 60 percent of the civil service, but providing support for their salaries has been difficult because they work for the Taliban government. Administration officials hope that recent promises to open all schools to girls, made by Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s deputy minister of culture and information, will prove reliable. The U.S. government wants humanitarian organizations such as UNICEF to verify that these promises are being kept.

To pay teachers and other civil servants, the State Department has encouraged the World Bank to make money available from the $1.5 billion Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. An initial payment of about $280 million was released in recent weeks. State Department officials expect that an additional $400 million will be released by the end of this month, with more to be delivered in April.

The State Department also plans to reassure humanitarian organizations and other service providers that they can meet with Afghan officials to facilitate humanitarian work, despite continuing sanctions. The aim is to remove obstacles that cause needless suffering, without condoning a Taliban regime that hasn’t met international norms.

The trickiest part of the Afghan relief effort is the collapse of the country’s financial system. Without a functioning central bank, Afghanistan can’t provide cash that allows banks to pay salaries and fund relief projects. These problems can’t be fully resolved until the Taliban government installs a professional, independent central bank that accepts international norms against money laundering and terrorism financing. But for now, some emergency measures are underway.

One new source of liquidity will be the World Bank’s humanitarian exchange facility, which will allow donors to convert their dollars and euros into the local currency, known as “afghanis,” to pay doctors, nurses, aid workers and others who are essential parts of the social safety net. The facility is likely to begin operating in mid-February and is expected to send $20 million to $40 million into the country each month.

Afghanistan has little cash to conduct transactions. To help fix that, the Biden administration is encouraging a cash infusion program that, so far, has shipped about $150 million to ease the liquidity crunch, mainly through a financial services company based in Europe. The aim is to provide about $120 million to $150 million a month, through private aid donors, to ease the liquidity squeeze and to enable relief groups to expand, pay their staffs and, hopefully, relieve suffering.