Afghanistan’s economic crisis deepens as evacuations wind down

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Hundreds of Afghans have protested outside a bank in Kabul and others formed long queues at cash machines as a UN agency warned a worsening drought could leave millions of people in need of humanitarian aid.

At Kabul airport, thousands of people are still gathering in the hope of fleeing the country, even after a suicide attack on Thursday killed 169 Afghans and 13 US service members and warnings over further attacks.

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 US forces on August 31.

Afghanistan is heavily dependent on international aid, which covered around 75% of the western-backed government’s budget.

Afghanistan evacuation
A policeman directs the evacuees from Afghanistan after the arrival of the second flight with 95 passengers at the International Airport in Tirana (AP)

US central command said it carried out a drone strike against an IS member in Nangarhar believed to be involved in planning attacks against the US in Kabul. The strike killed one individual, and spokesman Capt William Urban said there were no known civilian casualties.

It is not clear if the individual killed in the strike was involved specifically in Thursday’s attack.

Afghan evacuees
Afghan evacuees from Afghanistan sit in a bus after the arrival of the second flight with 95 passengers at the International Airport in Tirana, Albania (AP)

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 dollars (£145) every 24 hours, contributing to the formation of long queues.

The Taliban cannot access any of the central bank’s nine billion dollars (£6.5 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 dollars (£327 million). Without a regular supply of US dollars, the local currency is at risk of collapse, which could send the price of basic goods soaring.

Meanwhile, a UN agency has warned that a worsening drought threatens the livelihoods of more than seven million people.

The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said Afghans are also suffering from the coronavirus pandemic and displacement from the recent fighting.

Earlier this month, the United Nations World Food Programme estimated that some 14 million people – roughly one out of every three Afghans – urgently need food assistance.

The FAO said crucial help is needed ahead of the winter wheat planting season, which begins in a month in many areas.

A queue in Kabul
Afghans wait for hours to try to withdraw money in Kabul (AP)

US president Joe Biden has said he will adhere to a self-imposed August 31 deadline for withdrawing all American forces.

The Taliban, which controls nearly the entire country outside Kabul’s airport, has rejected any extension.

Italy said its final evacuation flight had landed in Rome but that it would work with the UN 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.

He added that 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 US, but thousands more are struggling to leave and may not make it out by Tuesday.

The Taliban has encouraged Afghans to stay in the country, pledging amnesty even to those who fought against them. The militants have said commercial flights will resume after the US withdrawal, but it is unclear if airlines will be willing to offer service.

The US and its allies have said they will continue providing humanitarian aid through the UN 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.

Afghan evacuees
Evacuees disembark at the Torrejon military base (AP)

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 says 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 is unclear whether fighters are acting under orders or on their own.

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