Taliban and US officials to meet amid quake relief efforts

Afghan finance and central bank officials from the Taliban-led government left for Qatar on Wednesday to meet with US officials, the Taliban said. The meeting follows last week’s deadly earthquake, which highlighted how relief and emergency aid efforts have stumbled under the weight of the country’s mounting economic difficulties.

The earthquake in southeast Afghanistan has killed around 770 people, according to UN figures, although the Taliban have put the death toll at more than 1,150, with thousands injured. According to the UN, 155 children are among those killed in what was the deadliest earthquake to hit the impoverished country in two decades.

Several thousand houses were destroyed or badly damaged in the provinces of Paktika and Khost. Despite international aid efforts from UN agencies and countries in the region, survivors say they need more help to survive.

“We are asking for help because all our houses are destroyed and we cannot live there. People need help, we don’t have tents or a place to sleep,” said Khost province resident Tawar Khan.

Overstretched aid agencies say last week’s earthquake underscored the need for the international community to rethink its financial cut off from Afghanistan and the freezing of the country’s reserves. Nearly half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people cannot meet their basic food needs. The government is unable to pay public sector salaries on time or import what the country needs.

Taliban government officials and US officials were due to meet in Doha, Qatar on Wednesday to discuss Afghanistan’s economy and banking sectors, among other things, Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesman Hafiz said. Ziya Ahmad. He said the Afghan delegation, led by Foreign Minister Maulvi Amir Khan Muttaqi, was meeting with the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and US Treasury Department officials.

The Washington Post first reported on Tuesday that senior Biden administration officials were working with Taliban leaders on a mechanism for the Afghan government to use its central bank reserves to address severe hunger crises and of poverty in the country while putting safeguards in place to ensure that the funds are not misused. .

Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last summer and the collapse of the US-backed government, some $9.1 billion in Afghan foreign exchange reserves were frozen, l Biden administration by freezing $7 billion. The rest are largely held in Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland, where they have also not been handed over to the new Afghan rulers.

No government has yet recognized the domination of the Taliban over Afghanistan. Former insurgents have resisted international pressure to maintain the rights previously won by Afghan women, instead imposing restrictions on women’s dress and limiting access to schools for adolescent girls.

Afghan central bank official Shah Mehrabi confirmed to The Associated Press that talks have been underway for some time to agree on mechanisms to release some of Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves to support the Afghan currency. This, he said, would help stabilize prices and allow the country to import vital goods to stave off hunger and economic collapse.

“The reserves belong to the Afghan people to be used for the purpose of stabilizing prices,” said Mehrabi, a US-based economics professor at Montgomery College in Maryland and a member of the Supreme Council of Afghanistan’s central bank. He also chairs its audit committee.

Mehrabi said he was involved in the conversations about Afghanistan’s financial reserves, although he was not part of the Qatar meeting. He suggested that one way to build trust between the two sides would be for the US Treasury Department to release a limited and controlled amount of $150 million per month to help the Afghan economy and meet the needs of ordinary Afghans. Mehrabi said Afghan central bankers like him work independently of the Taliban or any Afghan leader.

“We need to be able to consider restoring confidence in the private sector,” he said. “Reserves will play an important role in enabling businesses to pay for essential imports.”

In February, President Joe Biden signed an order sharing $7 billion of Afghanistan’s reserves, half for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and the other $3.5 billion for costs. victims of September 11. The move has been criticized by Afghans who say the money belongs to the Afghan people.

Without access to the country’s foreign exchange reserves, the value of the Afghani plummeted and Afghans found it difficult to withdraw money from local banks. International sanctions have also stifled international bank transfers to the country, with some exceptions for aid agencies. The Taliban have been looking for ways to collect taxes and other fees to run the government.

The UN warns that 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are likely to face the most severe form of malnutrition this year. Already, a growing number of families are reporting that multiple children in the same household are dying of malnutrition.

Families are so desperate that some fathers have sold their underage daughters into marriage, using the down payment to feed other children to stave off starvation. Severe drought and climate change have exacerbated the crisis, with an estimated 22.8 million people – more than 55% of Afghanistan’s population – experiencing high levels of acute food shortages.

Even before the Taliban takeover last year, the Afghan economy was deeply dependent on foreign aid. The International Committee of the Red Cross pays the salaries of health personnel and the running costs of more than 30 hospitals across the country, including one that treated victims of the earthquake.

The earthquake struck a remote and deeply impoverished region of small towns and villages nestled in steep mountains near the Pakistani border, collapsing stone and mud-brick houses and, in some cases, killing entire families. Survivors had to dig with their bare hands through the debris to search for missing loved ones as the ground continues to rumble with more aftershocks.

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Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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