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Afghanistan is struggling without aid, but unfreezing funds to the country is tricky

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

International aid agencies say Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian disaster. Billions of dollars in international aid has dried up since the Taliban seized control nearly four months ago, leading to widespread shortages of money, food and health care. Unfreezing those funds would help, but as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, that's not easy to do.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Even before the Taliban retook control in August, Afghanistan was in bad shape. Four decades of war had left its economy fragile. There was widespread drought and COVID was racing through the country. But now the situation is much worse.

AMANDA CATANZANO: Over half of all Afghans are expected to be in crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity in the coming year. Over half of the kids under age of 5 are expected to be acutely malnourished next year.

NORTHAM: Amanda Catanzano is the acting vice president for policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee. She says Afghanistan's economy is in freefall. Roughly $5 billion of foreign aid from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international donors used to make up the bulk of the government's budget, but that was suspended after the Taliban victory.

CATANZANO: So that means the ability to pay salaries, to keep clinics open, to keep clean water flowing is really, really sapped right now because there's literally no money to do it.

NORTHAM: The U.S. also froze about $9 billion of Afghanistan's central bank assets that was being held in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Mark Weisbrot is with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a D.C.-based think tank. He says that $9 billion represents about 18 months of imports that the Afghan economy needs.

MARK WEISBROT: There's nothing legal or legitimate about this. Imagine you had a bank account and the bank just decided to take your money. That is what they're doing. There's no legal excuse for that.

NORTHAM: The Taliban wants that money. But the U.S., like most countries, does not recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government of Afghanistan and doesn't want them to have access to any foreign funding, says Annie Pforzheimer, who did two stints as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

ANNIE PFORZHEIMER: Since the Taliban have seized control of the central bank, there's no way to release those sorts of funds without the Taliban gaining control of them. If money went to the Taliban, there's absolutely no indication that they would spend it well or fairly.

NORTHAM: Pforzheimer says the Biden administration needs to find creative ways to help the people of Afghanistan without lining the pockets of the Taliban. But complicating the issue are punishing U.S. and U.N. sanctions on the Taliban and its leaders. Pforzheimer says, many international aid organizations and companies are concerned about violating those sanctions.

PFORZHEIMER: They do have the example of other sanctions in the world, such as Iran, where even well-intentioned flows of money are going to be subject to litigation.

NORTHAM: But there is some movement. In September, the Treasury Department issued two sanctions exemptions for humanitarian aid. There's a $4 billion appeal from the U.N. for help, and the World Bank is also looking at ways to get humanitarian aid into Afghanistan. But Catanzano, with the International Rescue Committee, says that's not enough.

CATANZANO: Even if we can deliver more aid to more people, we can't replace a functioning public sector. People need banks and markets in order to survive. If families can't buy food, we can't break that cycle of malnutrition.

NORTHAM: Thomas West, the special representative for Afghanistan, tweeted recently that the U.S. had warned the Taliban that aid would stop flowing into the country if the Islamist group claimed power by military force rather than at the negotiating table. Catanzano says it's the Afghan people who are paying the price.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly say Annie Pforzheimer twice served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Although she was stationed in Afghanistan two times, she was deputy chief of mission once, in 2017-2018.]

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK FRIEDLANDER'S "NIGHT WHITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 7, 2021 at 8:00 PM AKST
In this story, we incorrectly say Annie Pforzheimer twice served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Although she was stationed in Afghanistan two times, she was deputy chief of mission once, in 2017-2018.