Facing pressure to prevent a humanitarian and economic catastrophe in Afghanistan, the Biden administration on Wednesday took steps to allow more aid to flow into the Taliban-led country.
The measures exempt aid groups from stringent economic sanctions that were imposed against the Taliban before they seized control of the government and have been strangling Afghanistan’s economy under its leadership. But diplomats and activists said that easing the restrictions might not be enough to rescue the country from what one U.N. official on Wednesday called “shocking” need and suffering.
At the same time, some Republicans said the Biden administration risked legitimizing and even funding Taliban leaders.
The U.S. actions and mixed response underscore the challenge that Afghanistan continues to pose for the Biden administration four months after the last American troops withdrew from the country. Administration officials have been struggling to address the dire humanitarian needs without empowering the Taliban.
The United States fought a 20-year war against the Taliban and does not recognize them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. After the group’s takeover in August, the Biden administration halted most aid to Afghanistan, froze $9.5 billion of its foreign reserves and pressured the International Monetary Fund to delay emergency support.
A combination of the coronavirus pandemic, a severe drought, the loss of foreign aid and frozen currency reserves have left Afghanistan’s fragile economy on the brink of collapse, with aid groups warning that the harsh winter could lead to mass starvation and a refugee crisis.
After weeks of calls for swifter action, the Treasury Department said on Wednesday that it was issuing new “general licenses” that would make it easier for nongovernmental organizations, international aid groups and the U.S. government to provide relief to Afghans while maintaining economic leverage over the Taliban to prevent human rights abuses and terrorist activity.
The actions came soon after the United Nations Security Council passed a related resolution, sponsored by the United States, that exempts humanitarian activities in Afghanistan from international sanctions for a year.
Biden administration officials note that the United States remains the world’s top provider of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, even after it cut off most assistance after the Taliban takeover.
“We are committed to supporting the people of Afghanistan,” Wally Adeyemo, the deputy Treasury secretary, said in a statement.
The department’s general licenses allow financial transactions involving the Taliban and members of the Haqqani network, who share power in the new Afghan government, as long as the money is used for purposes such as projects to meet basic human needs, civil society development, environmental and natural resource protection and similar efforts. The United States considers both groups terrorist organizations.
The Treasury move expands the type of relief activity that can take place in Afghanistan and broadens the level of contact that international groups can have with the Taliban. It also allows the Taliban to collect taxes related to that assistance.
Alex Zerden, the Treasury Department’s financial attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from 2018 to 2019, called the move “absolutely a step in the right direction,” saying it addressed requests for clarity from private sector and nongovernmental organizations about how to operate in Afghanistan without violating U.S. sanctions and providing the Taliban with illegal revenue.
But many close observers said far more remained to be done.
“We need a bigger humanitarian response, but without a functioning economy and banking system, we are facing terrible odds,” David Miliband, the president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, wrote on Twitter. “Need massive economic stabilization package to stop the rip current.”
The United States provided Afghanistan with $3.95 billion in foreign aid last year, about two-thirds of which was security assistance for the former government’s fight against the Taliban. U.S. humanitarian aid for the country and for Afghan refugees in the region has totaled nearly $474 million so far this year.
“We’re very conscious of the fact that there is an incredibly difficult humanitarian situation right now, one that could get worse as winter sets in,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a news conference on Tuesday.
He added that the United States was determined to ensure “that the Taliban make good on the expectations of the international community,” including by respecting women’s rights, not carrying out reprisals against political enemies and denying safe haven to international terrorist groups.
Morgan Ortagus, a State Department spokeswoman during the Trump administration, condemned the U.S. actions as “extremely dangerous.” She said on Twitter that the Treasury Department licenses “send the signal that if you take over enough territory with enough people in it, you too can gain legitimacy.”
The Security Council resolution, which was adopted unanimously, seeks to reduce the legal and political risks of delivering aid to Afghanistan. It exempts humanitarian activities such as payments and delivery of goods and services from U.N. sanctions for a one-year period, and requires updates to ensure that aid is not diverted to the Taliban.
China on Monday blocked a broader version drafted by the United States that would have allowed development assistance on a case-by-case basis, in addition to the exemptions for humanitarian assistance approved on Wednesday.
After passage of the measure on Wednesday, China’s U.N. ambassador, Zhang Jun, said on Twitter that the new resolution “can only fix the faucet, but to keep the water running, the international community need to make joint efforts.”
Citing “shocking levels of need and suffering,” the top U.N. official for emergency humanitarian efforts, Martin Griffiths, said the effect that the 160 aid organizations working in Afghanistan could have “depends on the cooperation of the de facto authorities in the country and on the flexibility of the funding we receive.”
Governments and international organizations have been accelerating their efforts to provide assistance in recent weeks.
The World Bank has said that the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund donors would transfer $280 million to UNICEF and the World Food Program by the end of the year to provide humanitarian aid.
The Treasury Department this month issued a license allowing personal remittance payments to be sent to people in Afghanistan. And the United States on Wednesday announced that it would donate another million Covid-19 vaccine doses to Afghanistan, bringing the total U.S. contribution to 4.3 million doses.
But the need remains enormous. Three former U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan and several former ambassadors and other officials this month signed a letter, published by the Atlantic Council, calling on the Biden administration to show “the courage to act” and expedite creative steps to prop up the Afghan economy and feed the hungry without benefiting the Taliban.
“We believe the United States has a reputational interest and a moral obligation in vigorously joining efforts to help the Afghan people preserve at least some of the social and economic gains made over the last 20 years,” the authors wrote. “We believe that ways to do so can be found, while erecting barriers to assistance being diverted to purposes other than those for which it is intended.”
Such admonitions came as Taliban officials pleaded for swift international relief, which they said was also in the West’s self-interest.
“The impact of the frozen funds is on the common people and not Taliban authorities,” the Taliban’s deputy foreign minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, said on Sunday, according to Reuters.
Mr. Stanikzai warned that if “the political and economic situation doesn’t change,” Afghan refugees would pour into neighboring countries and Europe.
Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.