Hundreds of Afghans protested outside a bank in Kabul on Saturday and others formed long lines at cash machines as a U.N. agency warned that a worsening drought could leave millions in need of humanitarian aid.
At the Kabul airport, thousands are still gathering in hope of fleeing the country, even after a suicide attack on Thursday killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members and amid warnings of more attacks. The massive U.S.-led airlift is winding down, with many Western nations having completed their own evacuation efforts ahead of Tuesday’s deadline.
The economic crisis, which predates the Taliban takeover earlier this month, could give Western nations leverage as they urge Afghanistan's new rulers to form a moderate, inclusive government and allow people to leave after the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces on Aug. 31.
Afghanistan is heavily dependent on international aid, which covered around 75% of the Western-backed government's budget. The Taliban have said they want good relations with the international community and have promised a more moderate form of Islamic rule than when they last governed the country, but many Afghans are deeply skeptical.
The protesters at New Kabul Bank included many civil servants demanding their salaries, which they said had not been paid for the past three to six months. They said even though banks reopened three days ago no one has been able to withdraw cash. ATM machines are still operating, but withdrawals are limited to around $200 every 24 hours, contributing to the formation of long lines.
The Taliban cannot access almost any of the central bank’s $9 billion in reserves, most of which is held by the New York Federal Reserve. The International Monetary Fund has also suspended the transfer of some $450 million. Without a regular supply of U.S. dollars, the local currency is at risk of collapse, which could send the price of basic goods soaring.
A U.N. agency meanwhile warned that a worsening drought threatens the livelihoods of more than 7 million people. The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization said Afghans are also suffering from the coronavirus pandemic and displacement from the recent fighting.
Earlier this month, the U.N. World Food Program estimated that some 14 million people — roughly one out of every three Afghans — urgently need food assistance.
The FAO said that crucial help is needed ahead of the winter wheat planting season, which begins in a month in many areas. So far, funding would cover assistance to only 110,000 families of farmers, while some 1.5 million need help, the agency said, adding that the current harvest is expected to be 20% below last year's.
President Joe Biden has said he will adhere to a self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing all U.S. forces. The Taliban, who control nearly the entire country outside Kabul's airport, have rejected any extension.
Italy said its final evacuation flight had landed in Rome but that it would work with the United Nations and countries bordering Afghanistan to continue helping Afghans who had worked with its military contingent to leave the country.
“Our imperative must be to not abandon the Afghan people,” especially women and children, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said Saturday. He said 4,890 Afghans were evacuated by Italy’s air force on 87 flights but did not say how many others were still eligible.
More than 100,000 people have been safely evacuated through the Kabul airport, according to the U.S., but thousands more are struggling to leave and may not make it out by Tuesday.
The Taliban have encouraged Afghans to stay in the country, pledging amnesty even to those who fought against them. They have said commercial flights will resume after the U.S. withdrawal, but it's unclear if airlines will be willing to offer service.
The U.S. and its allies have said they will continue providing humanitarian aid through the U.N. and other partners, but any broader engagement — including development assistance — is likely to hinge on whether the Taliban deliver on their promises of more moderate rule.
When the Taliban last governed Afghanistan, from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, they imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Women were largely confined to their homes, television and music were banned, and suspected criminals were maimed or executed in public.
This time, the Taliban say women will be allowed to attend school and work outside the home. They have been negotiating with senior Afghan officials from previous governments and say they want an “inclusive, Islamic government."
But even as the group's top leadership has struck a more moderate tone, there have been reports of human rights abuses in areas under Taliban control. It's unclear whether fighters are acting under orders or on their own.
Taliban fighters beat up a cameraman for the private broadcaster Tolo TV earlier this week in Kabul. Saad Mohseni, the CEO of the group that owns the channel, said the Taliban have been in touch with the station's management about the incident. He said the fighter has been identified, but it's unclear if he has faced any disciplinary action. There was no comment from the Taliban.