As the US freezes funds, a harsh winter awaits cash-strapped Afghans

In his latest report to the United States Congress, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has detailed Washington’s decision to cut off the Taliban government’s access to billions in funds and assets that has led to the devastation. nationwide cash-strapped.

The main surveillance report says that during the 20 years of US occupation, Washington spent $ 146 billion rebuilding Afghanistan, including $ 89 billion in training and support for the country’s National Security Forces “which no longer exist.” .

The report goes on to say that “other reconstruction goals, such as helping women and girls or establishing the rule of law, are under direct threat from the new Taliban regime.”

After the Taliban overthrew the Western-led government in mid-August, the United States, along with international bodies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), decided to cut off Afghanistan’s access to more than $ 9.5 billion in assets and loans. .

The decision has had a devastating effect on Afghanistan’s healthcare and other sectors, all of which are struggling to continue operations amid cuts to international aid.

According to the World Bank, an estimated 14 million people, one in three Afghans, were on the brink of starvation due to aid cuts until the end of last month.

Sulaiman Bin Shah, a former Deputy Minister of Industry and Commerce, said that decisions by the United States, the World Bank and the IMF led to a greater engagement of the United Nations and the European Union in the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

“The UN immediately jumped into action and restarted its efforts. That did a lot for the image of the UN and its perception among the Afghan people, “Bin Shah told Al Jazeera from Kabul.

He also cited last week’s announcement by the EU to reopen its embassies in Kabul in November. “That was one of the few positive developments out of all this,” Bin Shah said.

Bank withdrawal limit

However, with the harsh winter fast approaching, Bin Shah said the Afghan people “are paying a huge price due to the slow pace of diplomatic processes and negotiations.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, most banks, already dealing with a huge flood of people desperate to withdraw their money, closed their doors. It took them weeks to reopen.

When they did, banks put a $ 200 weekly limit on withdrawals, leading to long lines of men and women waiting outside for hours, if not days, to withdraw as much cash as they could.

Bin Shah is concerned that Afghanistan’s economic development could be affected in a cash-driven economy. “No one is presenting a comprehensive vision of what the economic future of Afghanistan will look like,” he said.

Other Afghans, including those abroad who are still trying to send aid and services to the nation, say the cuts and the lack of a clear economic plan have greatly inhibited their ability to reach those in need.

Makiz Sherzai, an Afghan-American who has worked with international aid agencies in Kabul, said limits imposed by banks and other financial services have made it difficult for even Afghans abroad to try to help their people, including their own families. , at home.

Sherzai offers the example of a food drive she had recently organized with the financial help of other Afghans in the United States.

“I just needed to send a couple thousand dollars, but I couldn’t send it directly to the person doing the food drive in Afghanistan,” Sherzai said.

That forced her to find a tortuous route to get the money into the country. “I had to send it to someone in Europe, then that person sent it to someone in Pakistan and from there the funds went to the person in Afghanistan.”

In the past, Sherzai and other Afghans abroad simply sent money via Western Union or Moneygram. But both services have imposed the same limit of $ 200 on transfers to the country.

Some Afghans living in California, USA, told Al Jazeera that they were rejected from Western Union while trying to send money to friends and family in Afghanistan.

“They told us, ‘We can’t transfer money to Afghanistan because the banks told us they don’t have money to hand over,'” said an Afghan-American woman, who did not want to be identified.

Women, children suffer

Sherzai said that watching Afghan children starve from afar is absolutely heartbreaking.

He wants to start another fundraiser to provide children with food, blankets and warm clothing as temperatures across the country continue to drop, but figuring out how to send money to Afghanistan is a “big challenge.”

Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-American businessman who has worked with organizations trying to help women in Afghanistan, said the funding freeze is especially puzzling because NGOs like USAID had allocated resources to Afghans, not the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban.

“We must find ways to get help to them, no matter who their government is. We work with governments around the world with whom we do not agree or with whom we do not agree, ”Sultan said.

Bin Shah agrees with that assessment, saying that the people of Afghanistan are dealing with “unprecedented uncertainty” and fear what could happen to them if the current financial system, though flawed, also fell.

“This is the system we have now, and if it were overthrown, we don’t know what would come in its place, or if it would be worse than this.”

This fear is why Bin Shah says the international community must “find a way to work with the system to ensure that the Afghan people are not the one who continues to pay the price for a government that few externally support.”

Sultan especially fears that any delay in financial assistance to Kabul will set back any gains that the 20-year foreign presence led to, something SIGAR also addressed in its report.

SIGAR said the US State Department and USAID intended to “condition assistance for future reconstruction in Afghanistan to ensure continued progress for Afghan women and girls.”

“USAID has done incredible work in Afghanistan and investments in girls’ education and women’s and children’s health are cited as the brightest spots of the American intervention,” Sultan told Al Jazeera.

There are already indications that any progress made in restoring women’s rights may be curtailed under the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban.

Although small groups of women in cities such as Kabul, Herat and Zaranj continue to hold protests demanding their right to work and education, as well as their inclusion in government, recent decisions by the Taliban have done little to increase people’s confidence.

Teenagers have not been allowed back to school for more than a month. Taliban leaders have also sent mixed signals about the return of women to work. Shortly after taking power, they asked all government workers to stay home until they were sure that the group’s fighters on the ground would not pose a threat to the safety of these women.

Sultan said it is imperative to get the international community to see the scale of the humanitarian crisis in the country and that funding cuts are affecting teachers and health workers, not so much the Taliban leaders.

“I am terrified that they are all asleep at the wheel as humanitarian needs increase,” he said.

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