Exclusive: World Bank works to redirect frozen funds to Afghanistan for humanitarian aid only – sources

Reuters
29 November 2021
A mother shops with her children at the market in Kabul, Afghanistan October 29, 2021. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

A mother shops with her children at the market in Kabul, Afghanistan October 29, 2021. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

WASHINGTON, Nov 29 (Reuters) – The World Bank is finalizing a proposal to deliver up to $500 million from a frozen Afghanistan aid fund to humanitarian agencies, people familiar with the plans told Reuters, but it leaves out tens of thousands of public sector workers and remains complicated by U.S. sanctions.

Board members will meet informally on Tuesday to discuss the proposal, hammered out in recent weeks with U.S. and U.N. officials, to redirect the funds from the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), which has a total of $1.5 billion.

Afghanistan’s 39 million people face a cratering economy, a winter of food shortages and growing poverty three months after the Taliban seized power as the last U.S. troops withdrew from 20 years of war.

Afghan experts said the aid will help, but big gaps remain, including how to get the funds into Afghanistan without exposing the financial institutions involved to U.S. sanctions, and the lack of focus on state workers, the sources said.

The money will go mainly to addressing urgent health care needs in Afghanistan, where less than 7% of the population has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, they said.

For now, it will not cover salaries for teachers and other government workers, a policy that the experts say could hasten the collapse of Afghanistan’s public education, healthcare and social services systems. They warn that hundreds of thousands of workers, who have been unpaid for months, could stop showing up for their jobs and join a massive exodus from the country.

The World Bank will have no oversight of the funds once transferred into Afghanistan, said one of the sources familiar with the plans.

“The proposal calls for the World Bank to transfer the money to the U.N. and other humanitarian agencies, without any oversight or reporting, but it says nothing about the financial sector, or how the money will get into the country,” the source said, calling U.S. sanctions a major constraint.

‘NOT A SILVER BULLET’

While the U.S. Treasury has provided “comfort letters” assuring banks that they can process humanitarian transactions, concern about sanctions continues to prevent passage of even basic supplies, including food and medicine, the source added.

“It’s a scorched earth approach. We’re driving the country into the dust,” said the source. Crippling sanctions and failure to take care of public sector workers will “create more refugees, more desperation and more extremism.”

Any decision to redirect ARTF money requires the approval of all its donors, of which the United States has been the largest.

A State Department spokesperson confirmed that Washington is working with the World Bank and other donors on how to use the funds, including potentially paying those who work in “critical positions such as healthcare workers and teachers.”

The spokesperson said the U.S. government remains committed to meeting the  critical needs of the  Afghan people, “especially across health, nutrition, education, and food security sectors … but international aid is not a silver bullet.”

BYPASSING TALIBAN

Established in 2002 and administered by the World Bank, the ARTF was the largest financing source for Afghanistan’s civilian budget, which was more than 70% funded by foreign aid.

The World Bank suspended disbursements after the Taliban takeover. At the same time, Washington stopping supplying U.S. dollars to the country and joined in freezing some $9 billion in Afghan central bank assets and halting financial assistance.

A World Bank spokesperson confirmed that staff and executive board members are exploring redirecting ARTF funds to U.N. agencies “to support humanitarian efforts,” but gave no further details. The United Nations declined to comment.

Initial work has also been done on a potential swap of U.S. dollars for Afghanis to deliver the funds into the country, but those plans are “basically just a few PowerPoint slides at this point,” one of the sources said. That approach would deposit ARTF funds in the international accounts of Afghan private institutions, who would disburse Afghanis from their Afghan bank accounts to humanitarian groups in Afghanistan, two sources said.

This would bypass the Taliban, thereby avoiding entanglement with the U.S. and U.N. sanctions, but the plan is complex and untested, and could take time to implement.

One major problem is the lack of a mechanism to monitor disbursements of funds in Afghanistan to ensure Taliban leaders and fighters do not access them, a third source said.

Two former U.S. officials familiar with internal administration deliberations said that some U.S. officials contend that U.S. and U.N. sanctions on Taliban leaders bar financial aid to anyone affiliated with their government.

Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Andrea Shalal; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool
Exclusive: World Bank works to redirect frozen funds to Afghanistan for humanitarian aid only – sources
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Are US-led sanctions worsening Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis?

Al Jazeera

Aid groups, experts say international sanctions on the Taliban have led to the collapse of the aid-dependent economy.

International aid organisations and experts say the US-led sanctions on the Taliban government are hurting the Afghan people, and called for “explicit humanitarian exemptions” for the delivery of aid to prevent a “catastrophe”.

Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on August 15, the aid-dependent country was cut off from international financial institutions, while nearly $10bn of its assets were frozen by the US, triggering a banking crisis.

Millions of dollars in international aid were also halted due to the sanctions.

The UN and other aid agencies have been trying to navigate the sanctions to deliver much-needed aid to the country, with more than half of Afghanistan’s 38 million population facing imminent food shortages in the harsh winter months.

“The US government, and other sanctions imposing entities like the UN Security Council (UNSC), should do all they can to ensure that Afghans have access to the humanitarian assistance to which they are entitled,” said Eileen McCarthy, the Advocacy Manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

“They should ensure sanctions and other restrictive measures comply with international humanitarian and human rights law and do not impede impartial humanitarian activities,” she told Al Jazeera.

… You cannot hold the entire Afghan population hostage.

DOMINIK STILLHART, THE ICRC

‘Humanitarian catastrophe preventable’

More than 100 days into the Taliban’s rule, Afghanistan’s economy has nearly collapsed, for which the UN envoy for Afghanistan blamed on the financial sanctions. Deborah Lyons told the UNSC last week that the “humanitarian catastrophe” in the country was “preventable”.

There have been alarming reports of public hospitals unable to afford essential medical supplies or to pay staff salaries, and families offering their young daughters for marriage in return for a brideprice to help them survive.

The Taliban government, which has not been recognised by any country or the United Nations, has banned foreign currency among other measures to revive the economy, but the sudden drying up of millions of dollars in aid flow crippled banks and businesses and sent food and fuel prices rocketing.

While they blame the unfolding crisis on the Taliban for not pursuing a political settlement, experts say Afghanistan’s crisis was the result of international sanctions, making millions of dollars of aid that supported the previous West-backed Afghan government inaccessible to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate.

The increasing economic crisis has pushed low-income Afghans to sell their household goods as they face increasing unemployment and poverty [File: Bilal Güler/Anadolu Agency]

“The total absence of liquidity in Afghanistan’s system is the result of the suspension of direct bilateral aid and freezing of the money of the central bank after the departure of international troops,” said Dominik Stillhart, operations director at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), referring to the withdrawal of US-led NATO troops after 20 years of war.

“There is a political legitimacy crisis… but you cannot hold the entire Afghan population hostage,” he said, explaining it was impossible for an aid organisation to operate in a country without engaging with the de-facto authority.

“If you want to provide or maintain basic services, you have to work with the system in place,” Stillhart told Al Jazeera.

Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft agreed: “It was one thing to navigate sanctions on the Taliban when they weren’t the de facto government. But now they are sitting in Kabul and the question becomes, ‘how do you conduct business or provide aid in a country without touching the government?’”

Afghan people sit besides sacks of food grains distributed as aid [File: Javed Tanveer/AFP]

Aid dependence

Sulaiman Bin Shah, Afghanistan’s former deputy minister of industry and commerce until August 15, said the collapse of the Afghan economy was an expected development because it was heavily dependent on international aid.

“Afghanistan was so dependent on aid and donor money in the past 20 years that the economy has been somewhat artificially created on that premise,” said Bin Shah. “Now that money has vanished.”

Weinstein, who also served as a US marine in Afghanistan, said because the country’s infrastructure and economy have been built by Washington and the international community, they cannot continue without them.

“Afghanistan is aid-dependent and grants account for 75 percent of public spending. This made the country completely reliant on the international community’s willingness to continue that aid,” he told Al Jazeera.

Bank account holders gather outside a closed bank building in Kabul [File: Aamir Qureshi/AFP]

Recognising the need to circumvent sanctions on Afghanistan, the ICRC said it has continued humanitarian assistance using “creative solutions” of channeling funds directly to the health, education, and municipal service sector.

“The solution we found was to channel salaries directly into the pockets of 5,100 staff employees and to pay for running costs instead of through the ministry,” said Stillhart, referring to 18 hospitals throughout the country that carry out half a million consultations a month.

Still, he said more needed to be done, calling for “explicit humanitarian exemptions in the UNSC regime that would allow us to deliver aid without fear of violating UN sanctions.”

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA
Are US-led sanctions worsening Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis?
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EU Calls on Islamic Emirate to Form Inclusive Govt

The Islamic Emirate said it is committed to upholding and respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.

European Union delegates during a two-day meeting with delegates of the Islamic Emirate in Qatar called on the Islamic Emirate to take actions to form an inclusive government that would pave the way for national reconciliation and that would include women.

The meetings were held on November 27 and 28, during which both sides discussed humanitarian aid, security, the EU’s humanitarian presence in Kabul, human rights, women’s rights, fighting terrorism, and the formation of an inclusive government.

The EU External Action Service in a statement said that the meeting does not imply recognition of the Islamic Emirate, saying that it has been part of the EU’s operational engagement and is in the interest of both the EU and the Afghan people. “This weekend the EU held a two-day dialogue in Doha with members of the Taliban-declared interim Afghan government (‘the Afghan delegation’). This dialogue does not imply recognition by the EU of the interim government,” the statement reads.

The EU delegation pointed to the importance of democracy in Afghanistan and called for any possible constitutional reform to be implemented through a transparent and participatory process. “It called on the interim government to take swift, meaningful and concrete steps towards an inclusive government that represents the richness of Afghan society in terms of ethnic, political and religious affiliation and with both women and men in senior positions, and which should pave the way for national reconciliation,” the statement reads.

The two sides expressed their concern about the worsening humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and the EU delegates expressed their willingness to continue providing humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. They also said it is necessary to have both men and women on the ground to deliver aid to the people. The Islamic Emirate said the humanitarian assistance will not be subjected to taxation. The Islamic Emirate also said it will resume the payment of salaries to all civil servants who in many cases have not received salaries since May.

The Islamic Emirate delegation also said it will fulfill its commitment and will facilitate the safe passage of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave the country. Keeping the airports open for safe passage of Afghans wishing to leave was discussed, and the Islamic Emirate delegates requested assistance in keeping the airports operational.

The EU said that amid the suspension of its development assistance to Afghanistan, it will consider providing substantial financial assistance for the direct benefit of the people of Afghanistan and such support will be channeled through international organizations.

“In the meeting, the Afghan delegation confirmed its commitment to upholding and respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the rights of women, children, and persons belonging to minorities as well as freedom of speech and of the media, in line with Islamic principles,” the statement reads. The EU also welcomed the intention of the Islamic Emirate to provide equal access to education for girls and boys at all levels and for women to work in different sectors.

The Islamic Emirate delegation also reiterated it will fight terrorism and will not allow any attack to be staged from Afghanistan against any country. The EU delegates said they will have a humanitarian presence in Kabul. And underlined that the “possibility of establishing a minimal presence on the ground in Kabul, which would not entail recognition, will directly depend on the security situation, as well as on effective decisions by the de facto authorities to allow the EU to ensure adequate protection of its staff and premises,” the statement said.

EU Calls on Islamic Emirate to Form Inclusive Govt
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Women Activists Seek Govt, Society Inclusion

29 Nov 2021

Amnesty International said on November 25 that the international community must stand by its long-term commitment to support women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Holding a gathering in Kabul, several women activists discussed ways for women to gain a political and social presence in the society, urging the Islamic Emirate to let women contribute within the structure of the new government.

To mark this year’s “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence,” women called on the Islamic Emirate to give them a role to play in various sectors of the society based on Islamic values and rules.

“Many challenges lay in front of women in the previous government; right now, the women do not have access to their rights either–rights to education or to work. We ask the Islamic Emirate to fulfill their commitments that they promised earlier,” said Diana Azizi, a women’s activist.

The participants also talked about the place of women in Islam religion.

“If we carefully study our religion and sharia, both our homes and society will become full of prosperity, our Islamic commandments clearly say this about the rights of women,” said Abeda Majidi, a university teacher.

Amnesty International said on November 25 that the international community must stand by its long-term commitment to support women’s rights in Afghanistan.

“These stories offer a powerful and timely reminder of just how far Afghan women had come over the past twenty years in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They also provide a sobering insight into how life has transformed for women and girls since the Taliban’s return,” said Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner. (put it in English please. This is English?)

“We urge the Taliban to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of women and girls. We call on the international community to engage directly with Afghan women to understand their reality, listen to their pragmatic recommendations, and work with them to support women’s rights,” said Hamidi.

Since taking control of Afghanistan, the Islamic Emirate imposed some restrictions on women and girls, but recently the Islamic Emirate Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund said that the government is committed to respecting women’s rights in accordance with Islamic values.

Women Activists Seek Govt, Society Inclusion
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Where Afghanistan’s New Taliban Leaders Went to School

The New York Times

Darul Uloom Haqqania in Pakistan argues that the madrasa and its graduates have changed. Some worry they could be the source of new radicalism.

AKORA KHATTAK, Pakistan — The Taliban have seized Afghanistan, and this school couldn’t be prouder.

Darul Uloom Haqqania madrasa, one of Pakistan’s largest and oldest seminaries, has educated more Taliban leaders than any school in the world. Now its alumni hold key positions in Afghanistan.

The school’s critics call it a university of jihad and blame it for helping to sow violence across the region for decades. And they worry that extremist madrasas and the Islamist parties linked to them could be emboldened by the Taliban’s victory, potentially fueling further radicalism in Pakistan despite that country’s efforts to bring more than 30,000 seminaries under greater government control.

The school says it has changed and has argued that the Taliban should be given the chance to show they have moved beyond their bloody ways since they first ruled Afghanistan two decades ago.

Leaders of the seminary, which has graduated more Taliban leaders than any school in the world, say it does not promote radicalism.
Credit…Saiyna Bashir for The New York Times

“The world has seen their capabilities to run the country through their victories on both the diplomatic front and on the battlefield,” said Rashidul Haq Sami, the seminary’s vice chancellor.

A Taliban softening is far from assured, given a surge of violence earlier this year, reports of reprisal killings inside the country, limits on girls going to school and clampdowns on free expression. But Mr. Sami argued that the Taliban takeover could have been even bloodier, signaling that they “would not repeat the mistakes of the 1990s.”

Darul Uloom Haqqania, about 60 miles from the Afghan border, has had an outsize effect there. The seminary’s alumni founded the Taliban movement and ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. Pakistan’s powerful military often uses its leaders to influence the Taliban, experts say.

Its late chancellor, Samiul Haq, who was murdered at his residence in Islamabad in 2018 and was Mr. Sami’s father, was known as the “Father of the Taliban.”

“Being the alma mater of scores of Taliban leaders, Haqqania certainly commands their respect,” said Azmat Abbas, author of “Madrasa Mirage: A Contemporary History of Islamic Schools in Pakistan.”

Rashidul Haq Sami, the vice chancellor of the seminary.
Credit…Saiyna Bashir for The New York Times

Sirajuddin Haqqani, 41, who led much of the Taliban’s military efforts and carries a $5 million bounty from the American government on his head, is the new acting interior minister of Afghanistan and an alumnus. So is Amir Khan Muttaqi, the new foreign minister, and Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the higher education minister.

The justice minister, the chief of the Afghan water and power ministry and a variety of governors, military commanders and judges also passed through the Haqqania seminary, school administrators say.

“We feel proud that our students in Afghanistan had first broken the Soviet Union and now sent the U.S. packing,” Mr. Sami said. “It is an honor for the madrasa that its graduates are now ministers and hold high positions in the Taliban government.”

Many of the alumni adopt the name Haqqani as a symbol of pride. The Haqqani Network — the Taliban’s military wing, responsible for hostage taking of Americans, complex suicide attacks and targeted assassinations — is named after the madrasa and retains connections there.

More than 4,000 students, mostly from poor families, attend the sprawling seminary, a collection of multistory concrete buildings in a small, riverside town just east of the city of Peshawar. Courses range from the memorization of the Quran to Arabic literature.

Students looking through Islamic books at a stall on campus during an evening break.
Credit…Saiyna Bashir for The New York Times

On a recent visit, a scholar delivered a lecture on Islamic jurisprudence to a packed hall of 1,500 final-year students. They burst into giggles at one instructor’s jokes. Other students lined up outside for lunch and played volleyball or cricket.

Among them, the Taliban victory is a source of great pride.

“The Taliban have finally defeated the U.S. after struggling for almost 20 years, and the entire world accepts this fact,” said Abdul Wali, a 21-year-old student. “It also shows the farsightedness and commitment of our teachers and former alumni about Afghanistan.”

Mr. Wali praised Haqqania as a premier place to memorize the Quran, which some Muslims believe will get them and their families into heaven. “Haqqania is one of the few prestigious madrasas in the country where students consider studying an honor because of its history, the prominent scholars teaching there and its quality Islamic education,” he said.

Pakistan has long had an uneasy relationship with madrasas like Haqqania. Leaders who once saw the seminaries as a way to influence events in Afghanistan now see them as a source of conflict within Pakistan. The country has its own Taliban movement, the Pakistani Taliban, or T.T.P., which has been responsible for a slew of violent attacks in recent years. The two sides reached a cease-fire this month.

Students walking in front of their dormitories after prayers on campus.
Credit…Saiyna Bashir for The New York Times

Renewed signs of radicalism in madrasas have appeared, especially since Kabul’s fall. Students have held pro-Taliban rallies. At the Red Mosque in Islamabad, the site of a deadly raid by security personnel 14 years ago, Taliban flags were raised above a girls’ madrasa next door.

Meanwhile, the usefulness of the madrasas has declined as Pakistani officials have more recently taken a more direct role in Afghanistan’s affairs, said Muhammad Israr Madani, an Islamabad-based researcher focusing on religious affairs.

Amid those pressures, Pakistan’s government has tried a mix of financial support and behind-the-scenes prodding to dial down radicalism within the seminaries.

The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan gave the Haqqania seminary $1.6 million in 2018 and $1.7 million in 2017 for “mainstreaming” it. The funds helped the madrasa construct a new building, a badminton court and a computer lab, among other projects.

A packed lecture at Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary.
Credit…Saiyna Bashir for The New York Times

Experts on education in Pakistan say that the effort has had some success and that Haqqania doesn’t advocate militancy like it once did.

Still, they said, such madrasas teach a narrow interpretation of Islam. Lessons focus on how to argue with opposing faiths rather than critical thinking, and stress enforcement of practices like punishing theft with amputation and sex outside marriage with stoning. That makes some of their students vulnerable to recruitment from militant groups.

“In an environment of widespread support for the Taliban, both with the government and society, it would be naïve to hope that madrasas and other mainstream educational institutions would adopt a teaching approach other than a pro-Taliban one,” said Mr. Abbas, the author.

The school’s syllabus may be less influential than individual instructors.

“Whenever a madrasa student is found engaged in an act of violence, the wider approach is to hold the madrasa system and its syllabus responsible for the ill and no attention is paid to the teacher or teachers who influenced the student,” Mr. Abbas said.

Students relaxing on campus at Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary.
Credit…Saiyna Bashir for The New York Times

Graduates who had studied at Haqqania in 1980s and 1990s said they did not receive any military training. Some, however, said teachers often discussed jihad openly and encouraged students to join Afghanistan’s insurgency. One, named Ali, said students could easily slip into Afghanistan to fight during seminary vacations. He requested that only his last name be used, citing security concerns.

Mr. Sami, the vice chancellor, said students were neither trained for combat nor obliged to fight in Afghanistan.

School administrators point to recent statements by some groups in Afghanistan as reflective moderate teachings. After the Taliban captured Kabul, the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam-Sami party, founded by Mr. Sami’s father, urged them to ensure the safety of Afghans and foreigners, particularly diplomats, protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and allow women access to higher education.

In any case, Mr. Sami said, the world has little choice but to trust the Taliban’s ability to govern.

“I advise the international community to give a chance to the Taliban to run the country,” he said. “If they are not allowed to work, there will be a new civil war in Afghanistan and it will affect the entire region.”

A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 26, 2021, Section A, Page 9 of the New York edition with the headline: Pakistan Madrasa Taught the Leaders of Afghanistan’s Taliban.
Where Afghanistan’s New Taliban Leaders Went to School
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Afghan prime minister defends Taliban’s rule amid crisis

By Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s Taliban prime minister defended the group’s rule in a public address Saturday, saying it was not to blame for a worsening economic crisis and is working to repair the corruption of the ousted government. He also dismissed international pressure for the formation of a more inclusive Cabinet.

The half-hour audio played on state-run media was the first such public address by Mohammed Hassan Akhund since the Taliban captured Kabul and secured their rule over the country three months ago. The Taliban takeover led to a shut-off of international aid to the government and the blocking of billions of dollars in Afghan assets held abroad, worsening an already crumbling economy.

Akhund said the problems of worsening unemployment and the financial meltdown had begun under the previous, U.S.-backed government, adding that Afghans should not believe claims that the Taliban were to blame.

The ousted government had run “the weakest system in the world,” he said, pointing to pervasive corruption. In contrast, he said, the Taliban are eliminating corruption and have brought security around the country.

“We are trying as much as possible to solve the problems of the people. We are working overtime in every department,” Akhund said, adding that the group had formed committees to try to the resolve the economic crisis and pay salaries to government employees, who have largely gone without pay for months.

U.N. officials have warned of a humanitarian crisis with millions of Afghans plunging deeper into poverty and facing hunger — with increasing numbers on the verge of starvation. Afghanistan has been hit by one of its worst famines in decades, and the economic collapse has meant many people are unable to afford food.

The United States and other countries have refused to recognize the Taliban government until it includes more of Afghanistan’s ethnic and political spectrum — as well as women — and until it guarantees women’s rights.

All the ministers in the current Cabinet come from the Taliban’s ranks. The Taliban have not completely barred women from the public sphere as they did during their previous rule in the late 1990s. But they have ordered most women government employees not to come to work and have not let high school girls return to school, though they allowed younger girls.

Akhund dismissed the demands, saying the government has members from around the country. He insisted the Islamic Emirate — as the Taliban call their government — “has saved women’s dignity.”

Afghan prime minister defends Taliban’s rule amid crisis
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‘We will start again’: Afghan female MPs fight on from parliament in exile

The Guardian

From Greece the women are advocating for fellow refugees – and those left behind under Taliban rule

The inaugural session of the Afghan women’s parliament in exile
The inaugural session of the Afghan women’s parliament in exile. Photograph: Joel van Houdt/The Guardian

It is a Saturday morning in November, and Afghan MP Nazifa Yousufi Bek gathers up her notes and prepares to head for the office. But instead of jumping in an armoured car bound for the mahogany-lined parliament in Kabul, her journey is by bus from a Greek hotel to a migrants’ organisation in the centre of Athens. There, taking her place on a folding chair, she inaugurates the Afghan women’s parliament in – exile.

“Our people have nothing. Mothers are selling their children,” she tells a room packed with her peers. “We must raise our voices, we must put a stop to this,” says Yousufi Bek, 35, who fled Afghanistan with her husband and three young children after the Taliban swept to power in August. Some around her nod in agreement; others quietly weep.

Yousufi Bek, from the northern Takhar province, is one of 28 female MPs who have found refuge in Greece, a country most had never visited before. Until recently, these women made up more than 40% of Afghanistan’s female MPs. Now they are confronted with an unrecognisable alphabet and an uncertain future.

Left to right: Nazifa Yousufi Bek, MP for Takhar province, with Fawzia Hamidi, MP for Balkh province, and Homa Ahmadi, MP for Logar province.
Left to right: Nazifa Yousufi Bek, MP for Takhar province, with Fawzia Hamidi, MP for Balkh province, and Homa Ahmadi, MP for Logar province. Photograph: Joel van Houdt/The Guardian

They want to combat an illegitimate regime that has stripped women of basic rights and plunged their country deeper into poverty and hunger amid an economic meltdown caused by the American withdrawal and sanctions.

November sunshine pours through the windows as the room buzzes with energy. The women take turns speaking, standing up to address their peers. They express opposition – to the Taliban, to what they described as Pakistan’s outsized influence on recent events – as they would in parliamentary sessions in Kabul, by rhythmically drumming their fingers on the table.

During meetings with Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, the MPs have pushed the country’s authorities to advocate for Afghan women with other EU member states. They have also petitioned several ambassadors, including the US envoy, to pressure their governments to consider human rights when working with the Taliban.

Shagufa Noorzai came up with the idea for a parallel parliament in exile with Yousufi Bek. A teacher before becoming a legislator, while in office Noorzai focused on improving the financial status of women and set up a foundation aimed at supporting homeless children and widows in her native Helmand province. “I want women in Afghanistan to think, ‘Shagufa didn’t forget us. Shagufa wants to do something for us’,” says Noorzai, who at 24 became the youngest member of parliament when she was elected in 2018. Many of the MPs have seen fierce opposition when seeking election; Yousafi Bek’s campaign was the target of a deadly suicide bomber.

In the coming weeks, the MPs will hold virtual sessions with Joe Biden’s administration, US Congress members and UN security council officials, which will be facilitated by Mina’s List, a non-profit that supports women’s political leadership and is working with the Afghan female lawmakers.

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, centre, talks with Afghan women lawyers and judges who fled from Afghanistan.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, centre, talks with Afghan women lawyers and judges who fled from Afghanistan. Photograph: Eurokinissi/REX/Shutterstock

On the agenda: the women’s rights crisis under Taliban rule, ensuring aid reaches the millions of starving Afghans facing a cruel winter and keeping pressure on western nations to provide safe passage for Afghan women who worked as judges, prosecutors and activists, as well as those who served in the security forces.

“Our intention is to really leverage all of those networks, to amplify the women’s agenda, to amplify their platforms, to help them have opportunities,” says Tanya Henderson, Mina List’s founder and executive director.

Emotions were high when the women gathered for the first time at a community centre run by Melissa Network, a grassroots network for female migrants and refugees that played a role in their evacuation.

“You realise how much power lies with women,” says Nadina Christopoulou, an anthropologist and director at Melissa Network. Thousands of women have come through her doors in recent years, but this is the most high-profile group.

Shagufa Noorzai, MP for Helmand province, looks out from a balcony at the beach resort where she and her family share a small room.
Shagufa Noorzai, MP for Helmand province, looks out from a balcony at the beach resort where she and her family share a small room. Photograph: Joel van Houdt/The Guardian

“Women are half of society, so we are very important. You can’t hide us,” says Noorzai, in the small hotel room she shares with her mother, brother and sister just outside of Athens. Flowering pink bougainvillaea trees climb the whitewashed walls of a holiday resort that has seen better days. The MPs and their families are its only guests, filtering in and out of a food hall serving chicken gyros and chips before strolling along the beach at dusk.

It has not been an easy adjustment: the basic lodgings are a far cry from the opulent houses of many Afghan politicians in Kabul and their home towns.

Wiping away tears with her headscarf, long-serving MP Homa Ahmadi shows a recent photo on her phone of Taliban MPs in Kabul. Where she once sat surrounded by female peers and men in suits, there are now only men wearing turbans and sporting long beards.

Ahmadi, 46, represented eastern Logar province for 15 years, winning a seat in all three of the country’s elections.

No country has recognised the Taliban government, though senior officials from some, including the UK, have met the group’s leadership in recent weeks, where they advocated for women’s rights. But those delegations contained no women, sparking outcry from prominent Afghan women and causing German MEP Hannah Neumann last week to criticise such meetings as “counteracting the whole argument”.

The parliament in exile wants to bring to safety the nine female MPs who remain behind in Afghanistan. They are in hiding, a traumatic predicament the women know all too well.

“[Since August], the Taliban have killed schoolgirls, policewomen and women in government. The family members are too afraid to speak up,” says Fawzia Hamidi, 48, a lawmaker from northern Balkh province. Formerly a prosecutor for cases of violence against women, Hamidi describes recent murders in the region as the tip of the iceberg.

Noria Hamidi, MP for Baghlan province, addresses the parliament in exile. On the left is Zefroon Safi, and on the right is Hamida Ahmadzai.
Noria Hamidi, MP for Baghlan province, addresses the parliament in exile. On the left is Zefroon Safi, and on the right is Hamida Ahmadzai. Photograph: Joel van Houdt/The Guardian

Fearful of reprisal killings or torture by the Taliban, the MPs who fled first went into hiding before escaping to Greece, often in disguise or behind the anonymity of a face mask. Some flew through Iran and Georgia before arriving in Athens, in a complicated rescue effort that involved New York-based philanthropist Amed Khan.

Others, such as Halima Askari from central Wardak province, crossed overland to Uzbekistan. In her second trimester of pregnancy, a doctor in Tashkent told her the baby’s oxygen levels were severely depleted due to stress. Now in her third trimester, she will give birth in Greece.

Hamidi describes how she was separated from her five-year-old daughter, Hadia, as she entered Uzbekistan under the cover of darkness. “Hadia didn’t have a passport. So I was on one side of the border, and she on the other,” she says through muffled sobs. She is still waiting to be reunited with her daughter.

Most of the MPs in Greece are applying for asylum in other countries, such as Canada, the US and Britain.

The MPs have found unlikely protection in Greece, a country that recently extended a border wall with Turkey with radars and drones designed to deter Afghans from reaching Europe. They want to advocate on behalf of the thousands of Afghans in limbo in Greece, where they are the largest population of asylum seekers, with few job prospects and little opportunity for reintegration with society.

“Greece is only the beginning. We will start small, we will start again,” Noorzai says.

‘We will start again’: Afghan female MPs fight on from parliament in exile
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Afghan Economy Nears Collapse as Pressure Builds to Ease U.S. Sanctions

The New York Times

Afghanistan’s economy has crashed since the Taliban seized power, plunging the country into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

At a World Food Program health facility in Kandahar, Afghanistan, last month.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — Racing down the cratered highways at dawn, Mohammad Rasool knew his 9-year-old daughter was running out of time.

She had been battling pneumonia for two weeks and he had run out of cash to buy her medicine after the bank in his rural town closed. So he used his last few dollars on a taxi to Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in Afghanistan’s north, and joined an unruly mob of men clambering to get inside the last functioning bank for hundreds of miles.

Then at 3 p.m., a teller yelled at the crowd to go home: There was no cash left at the bank.

“I have the money in my account, it’s right there,” said Mr. Rasool, 56. “What will I do now?”

Three months into the Taliban’s rule, Afghanistan’s economy has all but collapsed, plunging the country into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Millions of dollars of aid that once propped up the previous government has vanished, billions in state assets are frozen and economic sanctions have isolated the new government from the global banking system.

Now, Afghanistan faces a dire cash shortage that has crippled banks and businesses, sent food and fuel prices soaring, and triggered a devastating hunger crisis. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization warned that around 3.2 million children were likely to suffer from acute malnutrition in Afghanistan by the end of the year — one million of whom at risk of dying as temperatures drop.

No corner of Afghanistan has been left untouched.

In the capital, desperate families have hawked furniture on the side of the road in exchange for food. Across other major cities, public hospitals do not have the money to buy badly needed medical supplies or to pay doctors and nurses, some of who have left their posts. Rural clinics are overrun with feeble children, whose parents cannot afford food. Economic migrants have flocked to the Iranian and Pakistani borders.

A secondhand market for household goods in Kabul. The market has been swelled by an influx of goods from families that want to leave the country.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
A camp for internally displaced people  in Kabul in September.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

As the country edges to the brink of collapse, the international community is scrambling to resolve a politically and legally fraught dilemma: How can it meet its humanitarian obligations without bolstering the new regime or putting money directly into the Taliban’s hands?

In recent weeks, the United States and the European Union have pledged to provide $1.29 billion more in aid to Afghanistan and to Afghan refugees in neighboring countries. But aid can do only so much to fend off a humanitarian catastrophe if the economy continues to crumble, economists and aid organizations warn.

“No humanitarian crisis can be managed by humanitarian support only,” said Abdallah Al Dardari, the United Nations Development Program’s resident representative in Afghanistan. “If we lose these systems in the next few months, it will not be easy to rebuild them to serve the essential needs of the country. We are witnessing a rapid deterioration to the point of no return.”

Under the previous government, foreign aid accounted for around 45 percent of the country’s G.D.P. and funded 75 percent of the government’s budget, including health and education services.

But after the Taliban seized power, the Biden administration froze the country’s $9.5 billion in foreign reserves and stopped sending the shipments of U.S. dollars upon which Afghanistan’s central bank relied.

The scale and speed of the collapse amounts to one of the largest economic shocks any country has experienced in recent history, economists say. Last month, the International Monetary Fund warned that the economy is set to contract up to 30 percent this year.

Day laborers gathering in central Mazar-i-Sharif every morning after the morning prayer, hoping to pick up some work and earn enough to feed their families.
Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times
The Amu river in Hairatan, north of Mazar-i-Sharif, last month. Across the river is Uzbekistan.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Thousands of government employees, including doctors and teachers, have gone months without pay. The wartime economy that employed millions and propped up the private sector has come sputtering to a halt.

By the middle of next year, as much as 97 percent of the Afghan population could sink below the poverty line, according to an analysis by the United Nations Development Program. Many people who were already living hand-to-mouth have been pushed over the edge.

One October morning in Mazar-i-Sharif, dozens of men gathered downtown, carrying shovels cobbled together with rough wood and rusted metal.

For years, day laborers have gathered there to pick up work digging wells, irrigating fields of cotton and grain, or doing construction around the city. The pay was modest — a couple dollars a day — but enough to buy food for their families and pay other small bills. These days, though, the men stay at the square until sunset hoping for even one day of work a week. Most cannot even afford to buy bread during lunch.

“There was work one day — and then suddenly there wasn’t,” said Rahmad, 46, standing in the crowd. “It was so sudden I didn’t have time to plan or save money or anything.”

Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan’s fragile economy was wracked by slow growth, corruption, deep poverty and a severe drought.

Afghanistan has long been dependent on imports for basic foods, fuel and manufactured goods, a lifeline that was severed after neighboring countries closed their borders during the Taliban’s military campaign this summer. Trade disruptions have since caused shortages of crucial goods, like medicine, while the collapse of financial services has strangled traders who rely on U.S. dollars and bank loans for imports.

At the Hairatan port along the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan border, a team of workers unloaded flour bags from a shipping container into trucks, sending clouds of white specks into the air. Since August, their company has slashed its imports in half; people can no longer afford basic goods.

A wholesale market in central Mazar-i-Sharif.
Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times
A currency exchange market in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

At the same time, the cost of doing business soared. Customs and traffic officers, who have gone unpaid for months, are asking for more in bribes, according to a manager for the company, the Bashir Navid Group.

“Everything is disorganized,” the manager, Mohammad Wazir Shirjan, 50, said. “Everyone is completely frustrated.”

To avoid a complete currency collapse, the Taliban limited bank withdrawals to first $200 and then $400 a week and have appealed to China, Pakistan, Qatar and Turkey to fill its budget hole, which is billions of dollars large. So far, none have offered the financial backstop that Western donors provided to the former government.

The Taliban have also pressed the United States to release its chokehold on the country’s finances or risk a famine, as well as Afghan migrants flooding into Europe in search of work.

“The humanitarian crisis we have now is the result of those frozen assets. Our people are suffering,” Ahmad Wali Haqmal, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Finance, said in an interview.

In late September, the Biden administration issued two sanctions exemptions for humanitarian organizations to ease the flow of aid, and it is considering additional adjustments, according to humanitarian officials involved in those negotiations. But those exemptions do not apply to paying employees like teachers in government-run schools and doctors in state hospitals, and the decision not to include them risks the collapse of public services and a further exodus of educated professionals from the country, humanitarians say.

Afghans waiting to withdraw money from a bank in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times
A convoy of Talibs at a gas station in Mazar-i- Sharif. 
Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

And the scope of the exemptions is limited in other ways. Many foreign banks that aid organizations rely on to transfer funds into Afghanistan have cut ties to Afghan banks for fear of running afoul of sanctions. And the liquidity crisis severely restrains the amount that organizations can withdraw to pay vendors or aid workers.

“The current economic restrictions and sanctions policy, if maintained and not adjusted, are on track to hurt the Afghan people — through deprivation and famine — more than the Taliban’s brutalities and poor governance,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Already in hospitals across the country are signs of a hunger crisis that could overwhelm the fragile health care system.

In a malnutrition ward of a hospital in southern Afghanistan, Shukria, 40, sat with her 1-year-old grandson, Mahtab, his mouth craned open but body too weak to let out a cry.

For weeks, the boy’s father had come home empty-handed from his mechanic shop as business dried up, and the family resorted to bread and tea for every meal. Soon his mother stopped producing milk to breastfeed, so she and Shukria supplemented his diet with milk from their family’s goat. But when they ran out of cash to buy food, they sold the animal.

“I’ve been asking this hospital to give me work,” Shukria said. “Otherwise after a week, a month, he will just end up sick and back here.”

At the malnutrition ward of Mirwais Regional Hospital in Kandahar.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Kiana Hayeri contributed reporting from Mazar-I-Sharif, and Yaqoob Akbary from Kandahar.

Afghan Economy Nears Collapse as Pressure Builds to Ease U.S. Sanctions
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EU Denies Recognition of Govt, Pledges Engagement

Tolo News

27 Oct 2021

The delegation of the Islamic Emirate is meeting with the representatives of the US and European countries on Nov 27th and 29th this month in Qatar.

The European Union said that it would not recognize the current Afghan government but pledged to remain engaged in order to avert economic and social collapse in Afghanistan. 

In a statement issued by the European Commission following the 13th ASEM Summit via videoconference, the EU’s president von der Leyen said that the world needed to stand by the people of Afghanistan.

“Finally, we have decided to strengthen our engagement on issues affecting regional stability. And this brings me to my last point: That is Afghanistan. The European Union does not recognize the new regime… but we need to prevent the imminent economic and social collapse that the country faces,” she said.

“We need to stand by the people of Afghanistan. This is why, last month, we announced a package worth EUR 1 billion, including EUR 300 million in humanitarian aid. The European Union will keep on engaging with the countries in the region,” Leyen added.

The summit was hosted by Cambodia, in which the leaders of 20 Asian governments and 30 European states participated.

The delegation of the Islamic Emirate is meeting with the representatives of the US and European countries on Nov 27th and 29th this month in the Gulf state of Qatar.

According to the foreign ministry, the reopening of the embassies would be part of the negotiations in the meeting.

The ASEM summit mainly focused on cooperation, interest and engagement between Europe and Asia.

The European and Asian leaders exchanged views on the Covid-19 outbreak and economic issues.

“For more than 25 years, the Asia-Europe Meeting has been the most comprehensive partnership forum between Asia and Europe. It has helped us tackle some of the big challenges of the day,” Leyen was quoted by the European Commission in a press release.  “In the years to come, this partnership will be even more important to recover from the pandemic. Together, we need to rebuild a more sustainable and equitable world, and we need to strengthen multilateralism. Because Asia and Europe are closely connected and together, we have significant weight in the world.”

EU Denies Recognition of Govt, Pledges Engagement
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Facing Economic Crisis, Govt Pledges to Develop Banking System

The UNDP in report said that 40 percent of the Afghanistan deposit fund would be lost by the end of this year. 

The Islamic Emirate announced that it has serious plans to develop the banking system of Afghanistan that would overcome the banking challenges.  

The Islamic Emirate made the remarks in reaction to a report issued by the UN Development Program.

The UNDP in report said that 40 percent of the Afghanistan deposit fund would be lost by the end of this year.

“The (banking system) of Afghanistan will not collapse. Our national assets are collected and will overcome (this condition),” said Zabiullah Mujahid, an Islamic Emirate spokesperson.

To overcome the banking crisis in Afghanistan, analysts believe that professional individuals should be appointed to the economic sectors.

“They should bring some Afghan experts in to take charge of the banking situation. It should be clear that the Afghan Central Bank is a money fund, not a politicized area,” said Toreq Farhadi, a political analyst.

Economists said that the World Bank should release some of the Afghan assets which have been frozen by the US Department of Treasury.

“The current restrictions can’t be justified, they must be adjusted. If the United Nations and other countries cannot recognize the Islamic Emirate as a government, then an alternative must be allowed. The governments at least must allow Afghanistan’s private banks to use the international banking system,” said John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch.

With the collapse of the former government, the Afghanistan Central Bank faces an overwhelming demand from customers seeking to withdraw their money.

Facing Economic Crisis, Govt Pledges to Develop Banking System
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