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Taliban, US officials meet for talks amid ongoing relief efforts in Afghanistan

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People search for survivors amid the wreckage of a house destroyed by an earthquake in Jayan, Afghanistan, on June 23. Ali Khara/Reuters

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

The earthquake in southeastern Afghanistan killed about 770 people, according to United Nations figures, although the Taliban put the death toll at nearly 1,150, and thousands were injured. The United Nations says 155 children were among the dead, in what was the deadliest earthquake to hit the impoverished country in two decades.

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

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

Exhausted aid agencies say last week’s earthquake has highlighted 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 wages on time or import what the country needs.

Taliban government officials and US officials are scheduled to meet in Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday to discuss the Afghan economy and banking sector, among other issues, said Taliban foreign ministry spokesman Hafez Zia Ahmed. He said the Afghan delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Maulvi Amir Khan Mottaki, will meet with the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and officials from the US Treasury.

The Washington Post first reported on Tuesday that top Biden administration officials are working with the Taliban leadership on a mechanism to allow the Afghan government to use central bank reserves to deal with the country’s severe hunger and poverty crises while instituting safeguards to ensure that funds are not misused. .

After the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan last summer and the collapse of the US-backed government there, about $9.1 billion in Afghan foreign reserves were frozen, with the Biden administration freezing $7 billion of that. The rest are largely held in Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland, where they have not been released to Afghanistan’s new rulers.

No government has yet recognized Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Former insurgents have resisted international pressure to preserve the earlier rights of Afghan women, instead imposing restrictions on women’s clothing and limiting teenage girls’ access to schools.

Central Bank of Afghanistan official Shah Mehrabi confirmed to The Associated Press that talks have been going on for some time to agree on mechanisms to release some Afghan foreign reserves to support the Afghan currency. This will help stabilize prices and allow the country to import vital commodities to stave off hunger and economic collapse, he said.

“The reserves are for the Afghan people to use for the purposes of achieving stable prices,” said Mehrabi, an economics professor at Montgomery College in Maryland and a member of the Afghan Central Bank’s top board. He also chairs its audit committee.

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

“We have to look at restoring confidence in the private sector,” he said. “Reserves will play an important role in allowing companies to pay for important imports.”

In February, President Joe Biden signed an order dividing $7 billion from Afghanistan’s reserves, half of it for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan and another $3.5 billion for prosecutor fees for 9/11 victims. Afghans criticized the move, saying that the money belonged to the people of Afghanistan.

Without access to the country’s foreign reserves, the value of the Afghani plummeted and Afghans had difficulty withdrawing money from local banks. International sanctions have also halted international bank transfers to the country, with some exceptions for aid agencies. The Taliban sought ways to collect taxes and other fees to keep the government running.

The United Nations warns that 1.1 million children under the age of five are likely to face the most severe forms of malnutrition this year. Already, increasing numbers of families are reporting multiple children in the same household dying from malnutrition.

Families are so desperate that some parents have sold their underage daughters for marriage, using the down payment to feed other children to avoid starvation. Severe drought and climate change have exacerbated the crisis, with some 22.8 million people – more than 55 percent of Afghanistan’s population – suffering from high levels of acute food shortages.

Even before the Taliban seized power last year, the Afghan economy was heavily dependent on foreign aid. The ICRC pays healthcare staff salaries and operating costs for more than 30 hospitals across the country, including one that treated earthquake victims.

The quake struck a remote, deeply impoverished region of small towns and villages nestled among the rugged mountains near the Pakistani border, collapsing houses built of stone and brick and in some cases killing entire families. The survivors had to dig through the wreckage with their bare hands to search for their missing loved ones while the ground still shook with more aftershocks.

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