A group of 46 mostly Democratic lawmakers Monday wrote a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden, pressing him to “conscientiously but urgently” take steps to help avert a looming humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan.
The lawmakers asked Biden to quickly ease ongoing punitive sanctions and unblock the Afghan central bank’s foreign reserves, which Washington withheld immediately after the Taliban militarily seized control of the country from the U.S.-backed government in mid-August.
“We are also deeply concerned that sanctions against Taliban officials now in charge of governmental functions are creating a chilling effect for financial institutions and aid organizations serving Afghanistan,” the letter read.
The White House responded later in the day that its hands are tied regarding frozen funds but that the United States continues to support humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan.
The sanctions and abrupt suspension of international assistance have left the Afghan economy, which heavily depended on external aid over the past 20 years, on the brink of collapse.
The crisis has increased humanitarian needs, stemming from years of war, drought and extreme poverty in Afghanistan. The United Nations estimates more than half of the nearly 40 million population face starvation, with 1 million children at risk of dying of “sever acute malnutrition.”
“The U.S. confiscation of $9.4 billion in Afghanistan’s currency reserves held in the United States is contributing to soaring inflation and the shuttering of commercial banks and vital private businesses, plunging the country…deeper into economic and humanitarian crisis,” the lawmakers wrote.
They argued “punitive economic policies” will not weaken Taliban leaders but will rather hurt innocent Afghans who have already suffered decades of war and poverty. “We fear, as aid groups do, that maintaining this policy could cause more civilian deaths in the coming year than were lost in 20 years of war.”
The Afghan economic “pain and humanitarian collapse” both threaten to trigger a new refugee crisis throughout the region, the letter warned.
Aid agencies working in Afghanistan are calling for scaling up relief efforts, but they say the financial sanctions are hampering their operations.
Congressional Republicans say the U.S. must not allow the Taliban to access any amount of funding, the Washington Post reported.
The United States has not recognized the Taliban government nor has the rest of the world.
The Biden administration is pressing the Islamist group to cut ties with terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, end reprisals against Afghans affiliated with the deposed government, rule Afghanistan inclusively, uphold human rights, and allow women to fully participate in public life and girls to seek an education.
The letter deplored the Taliban government’s grave human rights abuses, crackdowns on civil society and repression of women.
“However, pragmatic U.S. engagement with the de facto authorities is nevertheless key to averting unprecedented harm to tens of millions of women, children and innocent civilians,” it added.
“Ongoing engagement with the Taliban to coordinate access to urgently needed hard currency can provide the necessary leverage to secure human rights improvements,” argued the letter from U.S. lawmakers.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, responding to a VOA question about the letter, told reporters that the status of the Afghan reserves was the subject of an ongoing litigation brought by victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks and other terrorist attacks “who hold judgments against the Taliban.”
Psaki stressed the legal proceedings cannot be disregarded and the administration continues to face difficult questions like how the funds can be made available to directly benefit the people of Afghanistan while ensuring the Taliban do not benefit from them.
“The Taliban remain sanctioned by the United States as a specially designated global terrorist group. That certainly has not changed, but this is, of course, complicated by the ongoing litigation over those funds,” she argued.
Washington has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan this year and vowed to work with international partners to facilitate the delivery of relief assistance to Afghans.
The U.S. Treasury decided earlier this month to allow personal and non-personal remittances to be made to Afghans while donors agreed to transfer $280 million from the World Bank-administered Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund.
However, the U.N.-led relief community says the scale of the rapidly deteriorating Afghan humanitarian emergency requires much more than what is currently being done.
“Afghanistan's economy is now in free fall, and that if we do not act decisively and with compassion, I fear that this fall will pull down the entire population with it,” U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths warned on Sunday.
Griffiths told an Afghanistan conference of Islamic countries in neighboring Pakistan that Afghan health facilities are overflowing with malnourished children, some 70% of teachers are not being paid, and millions of Afghan children are out of school, noting that prices of key commodities continue to rise.
Anita Powell contributed to this report.