DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Afghanistan is facing a looming humanitarian crisis as aid organizations struggle with ways to pay doctors, nurses and others on the ground because there is currently no way to transfer salaries to bank accounts there, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
ICRC President Peter Maurer's comments echo those of the U.N.’s special representative for Afghanistan, who warned this week that the country is “on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe” and that its collapsing economy is heightening the risk of extremism. The country’s economy is estimated to have contracted by 40% since the Taliban took control in August.
The Geneva-based ICRC, which has operated in Afghanistan for over 30 years, is temporarily carrying in bags of cash to the impoverished nation and converting dollars into the local currency, the afghani, in order to pay some of its staffers. The ICRC has been able to do this with regulatory approval by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The ICRC also has an agreement with the Taliban-run Health Ministry that allows donor-funded payments to pass through the ICRC and bypass the Taliban, who have yet to be officially recognized by any nation.
"The main problem in Afghanistan is not hunger. The main problem is the lack of cash to pay salaries to deliver social services which have existed before,” Maurer told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday during a visit to Dubai.
“Let’s not forget that most of these medical doctors, nurses, operators of water systems and electricity systems are still the same people. It is the leadership which has changed, but not these people," he added.
Afghanistan's aid-reliant economy was thrown into deep turmoil following the Taliban takeover of the capital, Kabul, in August and the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government just weeks before the U.S. withdrew its last troops.
The Taliban leadership, which recently banned all foreign currency transactions, has urged the U.S. Congress to ease sanctions and release Afghanistan’s overseas assets in order for the government to be able to pay teachers, doctors and other public sector employees. After the Taliban takeover, the U.S. froze nearly $9.5 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan Central Bank and stopped shipments of cash.
Since the Taliban's ascension to power this past summer, it's not been possible for international aid organizations to wire transfer payments to accounts in Afghanistan as currently international currency cannot be changed into local currency by a network of banks in the country.
Maurer said humanitarian organizations cannot “fix an implosion of a whole country.” He said what’s needed is an agreement on a sufficient injection of liquidity — something he believes is possible without formally recognizing the Taliban. The ICRC's budget until mid-2022 has increased from $95 million to roughly $163 million to address Afghanistan's increasingly urgent needs.
Hunger is just one of many problems facing millions in the country. The World Food Program has warned that nearly 9 million people in Afghanistan are at risk of facing “famine-like conditions.” An additional 14.1 million are suffering acute food insecurity.
Maurer said the country could slide into a hunger crisis if drought impacts food production and if the disruption of the economy continues, but he stressed the immediate crisis facing Afghanistan remains paying salaries to keep basic services functioning.
“People who don’t get enough food will get sick,” Maurer said. “If the health system is not able to deal with the fragility of health, then this is again a problem. So I’m concerned about the interconnectivity of the food, health, water, sanitation, electricity and educational system.”
The Swiss-born former diplomat traveled to Kandahar and other areas of Afghanistan in early September, just days after the U.S. withdrawal. During that visit he met with one of the top Taliban leaders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
The ICRC says Maurer's visit and meeting with Baradar reflects the aid organization's principle of neutrality and was aimed at sending a clear message that the group would continue providing services to those in need on the ground, regardless of who is in power. The international aid organization has been providing assistance in Afghanistan since 1987, working closely with the Afghan Red Crescent Society.
The ICRC has around 1,800 staffers across Afghanistan, nearly all of them locals. They've provided assistance to victims of war at ICRC-assisted hospitals, helped ensure food and medicine reaches people in need and have worked on reuniting families in the aftermath of the hurried U.S.-led evacuation of more than 120,000 people in August. Hundreds of thousands more fled to neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran, which already host large populations of Afghan refugees.
The ICRC, founded in 1863, also works on the protection of prisoners of war. Maurer said the Taliban have been receptive to its requests to visit detainees in Taliban-run prisons, an issue he raised in his meeting with Baradar.
“We didn’t have to knock (on) the doors 20 times to get access again (to prisons)," he said. This is in part because the Taliban were themselves visited by the aid group when they were detainees, Maurer added.
“I think this has allowed us to make a case that the type of work of which they could also take advantage (of) as detainees in the past, would be reasonable policy to develop also as they move in to the power,” Maurer said.