World wary of Taliban government, Afghans urge action on rights and economy

(Reuters) – Foreign countries greeted the makeup of the new government in Afghanistan with caution and dismay on Wednesday after the Taliban appointed hardline veteran figures to top positions, including several with a U.S. bounty on their head.

Small protests persisted in Afghanistan, with dozens of women taking to the streets of Kabul to demand representation in the new administration and for their rights to be protected.

More broadly, people urged the new leaders to revive the Afghan economy, which is facing steep inflation, food shortages exacerbated by drought and the prospect of overseas investment disappearing as the outside world eyes the Taliban warily.

The Islamist militant movement swept to power nearly four weeks ago in a stunning victory hastened by the withdrawal of U.S. military support to Afghan government forces.

It has taken time to form a government, and although the posts are acting rather than final, the appointment of a cabinet of hardline veterans has been seen by other nations as a signal that the Taliban are not looking to broaden their base and present a more tolerant face to the world.

The group has promised to respect people’s rights and not seek vendettas, but it has been criticized for its heavy-handed response to protests and its part in a chaotic evacuation of tens of thousands of people from Kabul airport.

“The announcement of a transitional government without the participation of other groups and yesterday’s violence against demonstrators and journalists in Kabul are not signals that give cause for optimism,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

The European Union voiced its disapproval at the appointments, announced late on Tuesday in Kabul, but said it was ready to continue humanitarian assistance. Longer term aid would depend on the Taliban upholding basic freedoms.

The U.S. State Department said it was concerned about the “affiliations and track records” of some of the people named by the Taliban to fill top posts.

“The world is watching closely,” a spokesperson said.

The new acting cabinet includes former detainees of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, while the interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is wanted by the United States on terrorism charges and carries a reward of $10 million.

His uncle, with a bounty of $5 million, is the minister for refugees and repatriation.

The Taliban’s sudden victory, which took even its leadership by surprise, has presented the rest of the world with a dilemma.

They want to keep aid flowing and to help those with the appropriate paperwork who want to leave, but they may have to engage with a movement that, until a few weeks ago, was an insurgency blamed for thousands of civilian deaths.

MORE PROTESTS

The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, women were banned from work and girls from school. The group carried out public executions and its religious police enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Taliban leaders have vowed to respect people’s rights, including those of women, in accordance with sharia, but those who have won greater freedoms over the last two decades are worried about losing them.

In Kabul, a group of women bearing signs reading “A cabinet without women is a failure” held another protest in the Pul-e Surkh area of the city. Larger demonstrations on Tuesday were broken up when Taliban gunmen fired warning shots into the air.

“The cabinet was announced and there were no women in the cabinet. And some journalists who came to cover the protest were all arrested and taken to the police station,” said a woman in a video shared on social media.

Zaki Daryabi, head of the daily newspaper Etilaatroz, said some of his reporters had been beaten while covering Tuesday’s protests, which came hours before the new government was revealed.

Taliban officials have said that protests would be allowed, but that they must be announced in advance and authorized.

For many Afghans, more pressing than the composition of the cabinet was the economic fallout of the chaos triggered by the Taliban’s conquest, including its impact on healthcare.

Shukrullah Khan, manager of a restaurant at Qargha Lake, a popular local resort near Kabul, said business had slumped to next to nothing.

“The business and bazaars compared to the previous government, has been decreased by 98%,” he said.

“The banks are closed, there’s no jobs, people no longer spend money. Where does the money come from so that people can have fun here?”

Aid flights have begun to arrive at Kabul airport, but many more will be needed over the coming months.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) appealed to other humanitarian organizations to return to Afghanistan and for the World Bank to unlock funds to support the tottering healthcare system.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Analysis: The West owes Qatar a favor over Afghanistan. That was the point

By Alexander Cornwell

DUBAI (Reuters) – Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world’s top diplomats have been beating a path to Qatar, long the gateway to the Taliban and now the essential go-between as the West tries to deal with the new Kabul government. This is no accident.

Analysts describe Qatar’s emergence as a broker in Afghanistan as a part of a carefully nurtured strategy by the tiny but rich state to bolster its own security, by becoming indispensable as a venue for international mediation.

The world’s biggest liquefied natural gas producer, the small desert peninsula country is one of the wealthiest nations per capita. It is home to barely 3 million people, 85 percent of them foreigners with guest worker visas. Yet it has long held outsized ambitions, hosting both the Middle East’s biggest U.S. air base and its most influential TV channel.

It squandered much of its regional clout over the past decade by overreaching in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, when it backed pro-democracy movements and rebels across the region. Furious neighbors led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with their ally Egypt, punished it with trade sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Now, Qatar is back. Its dispute with the Arab powers was finally resolved this year, and next year it will host the soccer world cup. But few moves appear to have paid quite as large a diplomatic dividend as its role over Afghanistan, cultivated since it let the Taliban open the group’s main international office in 2013 and provided the venue for peace talks that led to last year’s U.S. agreement to withdraw.

That “patient diplomatic facilitation” was a classic means for a small state to elevate its international relevance, said Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“Given its population size, substantial military projection is a tough proposition. But Qatar can bring real value through the relationships it maintains, especially across both Western and Islamic parties – and especially those the U.S. is loath to approach directly.”

In the weeks since the militants swept into power, more than 58,000 of the 124,000 Western citizens and at-risk Afghans who were airlifted out of Afghanistan flew through Qatar.

And now, as temporary home to the evacuated Afghanistan embassies of the United States and several European allies, it is serving as the main mediator for Western efforts to engage.

STEPPING UP

“As we carry forward, our diplomacy here, we know that Qatar will be our partner, because this is not the first time that Qatar has stepped up to help in Afghanistan,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited this week with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

A Qatari official said that as an impartial mediator, Qatar has engaged with all sides to provide freedom of movement for those in Afghanistan, and “fight terrorism to prevent any future instability in the region.”

Working with its close ally Turkey, it has helped the Taliban reopen Kabul airport, allowing humanitarian and domestic flights to resume.

During Afghanistan’s hasty evacuation, Qatari diplomats on the ground in Kabul helped escort fleeing Afghans through checkpoints to the airport.

As a small state surrounded by better-armed rivals that would no doubt covet its gas fields, Qatar has long felt the need to protect itself with ambitious diplomacy. Four years ago, it found itself in peril when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and their allies, with the apparent tacit approval of the Trump administration, imposed trade bans and diplomatic isolation.

The neighbors accused Qatar of backing Sunni Muslim Islamist groups across the region while simultaneously growing too cozy with Shi’ite Iran. Some in the region wondered whether Saudi Arabia and its allies might even invade, although Riyadh denied harboring any such plan.

Qatar, shielded from the economic impact by its $300 billion sovereign wealth fund, denied wronging its neighbors and held out until the dispute was resolved this January. But the feud underscored the need for it to cultivate powerful friends.

Being useful to the West can help, said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“It’s much an issue about influence as it is an issue about being relevant to the international community in ways in which the international community – if you are under threat – will step in for you.”

(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell, additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Doha; Editing by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Peter Graff)

Haibatullah Akhundzada: Shadowy Taliban supreme leader whose son was suicide bomber

(Reuters) – In one of the only known photographs of Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, he stares directly at the camera – an expressionless face between a white turban and a long, grey beard.

As the Islamist movement unveiled its new government on Tuesday after it swept to power as U.S.-led forces withdrew last month, the mysterious Akhundzada retained the role of supreme leader, the ultimate authority over the group’s political, religious, and military affairs he has held since 2016.

“We will rebuild our war-torn country,” Akhundzada said in a written statement released by the Taliban after Tuesday’s appointments, his first comments since the group retook Afghanistan.

Akhundzada said the Taliban were committed to all international laws, treaties and commitments not in conflict with Islamic law, which would henceforth regulate all governance in Afghanistan.

A hardline cleric whose son was a suicide bomber, Akhundzada has spent most of his leadership in the shadows, letting others take the lead in negotiations that ultimately saw the United States and their allies leave Afghanistan after 20 years of grinding counter-insurgency war.

Even basic details such as his age are hard to verify. He is thought to be around 60.

Yet some analysts who have studied the Taliban say he was a guiding hand, healing divisions within the movement and managing the handling over international allies and foes ahead of military victory.

“Through guile, through deception, through manipulation and through patience, he was able to bring the Taliban back to power,” said Rohan Gunaratna, professor of security studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Others, however, say he is more of a figurehead, picked as a compromise candidate during a time of flux in the movement, while the real power is held by the Taliban’s military factions.

“There is very little information available about him. You don’t see him saying anything in person in public. And combined with the circumstances of his appointment, that feeds into the placeholder argument,” said Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy, a South Asia security expert at the Institute Of Peace & Conflict Studies, a think tank in New Delhi.

A LOT OF FORCE

Born into a strict religious family in Afghanistan’s second largest city Kandahar, Akhundzada was an early member of the Taliban – a movement that emerged in the surrounding southern province of Helmand from the ashes of the Afghan civil war.

When the Taliban ruled between 1996-2001 with a strict interpretation of sharia law that banned women from working and imposed punishments such as stonings, Akhundzada served as the chief of its justice system, according to the United Nations.

In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and ouster of the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks, Reuters exclusively reported that Akhundzada fled to Pakistan where he taught and preached at a mosque for 15 years.

Colleagues and students at that mosque described Akhundzada as a studious disciplinarian and a fierce orator.

“He spoke with a lot of force about the U.S. and the war and that we would not give up our jihad,” one former pupil said, recalling a speech he gave at a public rally in Quetta in 2014.

Akhundzada was not the obvious selection when senior members of the Taliban met in 2016 to appoint a new head after the death of leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in a U.S. drone strike.

While Akhundzada hailed from the large and powerful Noorzai tribe, his stock within the regime was seen as more scholarly than soldierly, unlike previous leaders.

But he was a compromise between the young and inexperienced son of late Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was wanted by the U.S. in connection with a deadly 2008 attack on a Kabul hotel, sources told Reuters at the time.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri pledged allegiance to Akhundzada in an online audio message soon after the Taliban leader took over, Reuters has reported.

Unlike other Taliban leaders, Akhundzada is not on the U.N. sanctions list. However, his son Abdur Rahman died in carrying out a suicide bombing at an Afghan military base in Helmand in July 2017, according to a spokesman for the Taliban.

Early in his leadership, Akhundzada instituted reforms that consolidated his influence over an insurgency weakened by division and defection.

But he kept a low public profile. The only photo Reuters has been able to verify of him was an undated image posted on a Taliban Twitter feed in May 2016. It was identified separately by several Taliban officials, who declined be named.

This shadowy existence has led to constant speculation about his whereabouts and health. So secretive are the Taliban about their leaders that the death of the movement’s founder Mullah Omar in 2013 was only confirmed two years later by his son.

(Reporting by John Geddie; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Mark Heinrich)

White House asks Congress for funding on Afghanistan and hurricanes

By Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden’s aides on Tuesday asked Congress for billions in new funds to deal with hurricanes and other natural disasters as well as the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan.

The White House said in a blog post at least $24 billion in new money will be needed for disasters, including Hurricane Ida, and $6.4 billion will be needed for the Afghan evacuation and refugee resettlement.

The request for Congress to pass a short-term funding bill known as a continuing resolution underscored the financial strain posed by two crises that have occupied Biden in recent days.

It also set up a coming showdown with Congress over whether it will fund the full set of Biden’s policy priorities or even ongoing government functions by raising what is known as the debt ceiling.

About 124,000 people were evacuated last month from Kabul in a U.S.-led airlift of U.S. and other foreign citizens as well as vulnerable Afghans as the Taliban took control of the country during the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The evacuation was one of the largest airlifts in history but thousands of at-risk Afghans and about 100 U.S. citizens have remained behind.

Meanwhile, Biden was traveling in flood-damaged New Jersey on Tuesday, one of several states suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. The president has sought to highlight the financial toll of stronger storms whipped up by climate change.

Biden’s acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Shalanda Young, said in a blog post that some of the temporary funding would go to still-unmet needs from prior hurricanes and wildfires even as the government responds to Hurricane Ida.

She also said most of the funds directed toward the Afghan effort would be for sites to process refugees from the country recently overtaken by the Taliban as well as public health screenings and resettlement resources.

The funding measure would give lawmakers additional time to negotiate over Biden’s proposals to spend trillions on new social safety net programs, infrastructure and other priorities he wants to fund with tax hikes on corporations and wealthy individuals.

Biden in May proposed a $6 trillion budget plan for the fiscal year that starts on Oct. 1, reflecting a sharp increase including measures for climate resilience. Lawmakers are also tangling over separate, Biden-backed legislation that would spent $1 trillion on infrastructure and $3.5 trillion on social safety net spending.

Young said the short-term spending bill “will allow movement toward bipartisan agreement on smart, full-year appropriations bills that reinvest in core priorities, meet the needs of American families, businesses and communities, and lay a strong foundation for the future.”

Congressional debate is expected to heat up in the coming weeks over whether lawmakers will raise the debt ceiling, the government’s ability to borrow to pay for programs it has already authorized. The Treasury is due to run out of money sometime in October.

Biden’s Democratic Party controls the House of Representatives and Senate by only narrow margins, with the balance of power at stake in elections next year.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Chris Reese and Alistair Bell)

Qatar and Turkey working to restore Kabul passenger flights, ministers say

ANKARA (Reuters) – Qatar and Turkey are working to restore passenger flights at Kabul airport soon but have yet to agree with Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers how to run the airport, their foreign ministers said on Tuesday.

Both countries have technical teams at the airport and Qatar is chartering near daily humanitarian flights following the withdrawal of U.S. troops a week ago, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said.

“We hope in the next few days we can get to a level where the airport is up and running for passengers and for humanitarian aid as well,” Sheikh Mohammed told a joint news conference in Doha with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

Damage to the airport’s runways, towers and terminals, needs to be repaired before civilian flights can resume, Turkey has said.

Because of the damage, pilots flying into and out of the airport are operating in “fly-as-you-see” mode, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday.

He told Turkish broadcaster NTV that Turkey and Qatar were working to ensure that both humanitarian and commercial flights could operate. “For both of these, the most important criteria is security,” he said.

Turkey says it wants to provide security inside the airport to protect any Turkish team deployed there and safeguard operations, but that the Taliban have insisted there can be no foreign forces present.

Cavusoglu suggested the task could be given to a private security company. “In the future, if everything comes back on track in Afghanistan and the security concern is lifted, Afghan forces can do this.

“But right now, nobody is certain. There is no confidence.”

Cavusoglu said a “pre-delegation” of 19 Turkish technicians was working at Kabul airport with a Qatari team.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ali Kucukgocmen in Ankara, Humeyra Pamuk in Doha, Aziz El YAakoubi and Lisa Barrington in Dubai Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Potter)

EU says Taliban must respect rights, guarantee security as conditions for help

By Sabine Siebold

BRDO, Slovenia (Reuters) -The European Union is ready to engage with the new Taliban government in Kabul but the Islamist group must respect human rights, including those of women, and not let Afghanistan become a base for terrorism, the EU foreign policy chief said on Friday.

“In order to support the Afghan population, we will have to engage with the new government in Afghanistan,” Josep Borrell said during a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Slovenia.

He described an “operational engagement,” which would not by itself constitute the formal recognition of the Taliban government, and would “increase depending on the behavior of this government”.

Borrell said the new government must prevent the country from again becoming a breeding ground for militants as it was during the Taliban’s previous time in power. It must respect human rights, the rule of law and freedom of the media, and should negotiate with other political forces on a transitional government.

The Taliban have yet to name a government more than two weeks since they swept back into power. Their 1996-2001 rule was marked by violent punishments and a ban on schooling or work for women and girls, and many Afghans and foreign governments fear a return to such practices. The militants say they have changed but have yet to spell out the rules they will enforce.

Borrell said the new government in Kabul must also grant free access to humanitarian aid, respecting EU procedures and conditions for delivery.

“We will increase humanitarian aid, but we will judge them according to the access they provide,” Borrell said.

Aid agencies have said Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian catastrophe amid an economic crisis brought on by the conflict, a drought and the COVID-19 pandemic. About 18 million Afghans – roughly half the population – are already in need of humanitarian help, according to EU experts.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said it depended on the Taliban how swiftly frozen development aid – which is different from the unconditional humanitarian aid – can flow again.

“We have heard many moderate remarks in the past days, but we will measure the Taliban by their actions, not by their words,” Maas told reporters in Slovenia.

“We want to help avert a looming humanitarian crisis in the coming winter, which is why we have to act fast.”

According to Borrell, the EU aims to coordinate its contacts with the Taliban through a joint EU presence in Kabul, should security conditions make it safe to do so.

(Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Peter Graff)

Biden to visit Louisiana to see Hurricane Ida damage, New Jersey death toll rises

By Steve Holland and Devika Krishna Kumar

WASHINGTON/NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden travels to Louisiana on Friday to get a first-hand look at the destruction wrought by Hurricane Ida, the monster storm that devastated the southern portion of the state and left 1 million people without power.

Biden is to meet Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and local officials about the hurricane, which is providing the president with a tough test just after the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Hurricane Ida struck the Gulf coast last weekend and carved a northern path through the eastern United States, culminating in torrential rains and widespread flooding in New York, New Jersey and surrounding areas on Wednesday.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Friday said the state had confirmed an additional two deaths overnight, bringing its total to 25. He said at least six people were still missing, meaning the death toll would likely climb higher.

“We’re still not out of the woods,” he told NBC News’ “Today” program, adding that his biggest concern following the wreckage was grappling with remaining high waters and damage. “We’re going to clean up … but it may be a long road.”

The fifth most powerful hurricane to strike the United States came ashore in southern Louisiana on Sunday, knocking out power for more than a million customers and water for another 600,000 people, creating miserable conditions for the afflicted, who were also enduring suffocating heat and humidity.

At least nine deaths were reported in Louisiana, with at least another 46 killed in the Northeast.

“My message to everyone affected is: ‘We’re all in this together. The nation is here to help,'” Biden said on Thursday.

Biden will tour a neighborhood in LaPlace, a small community about 35 miles west of New Orleans that was devastated by flooding, downed trees and other storm damage, and deliver remarks about his administration’s response.

He will take an aerial tour of hard hit communities, including Laffite, Grand Isle, Port Fourchon and Lafourche Parish, before meeting with local leaders in Galliano, Louisiana, the White House said.

Officials who have flown over the storm damage reported astounding scenes of small towns turned into piles of matchsticks and massive vessels hurled about by the wind.

Edwards said he would present Biden with a long list of needs including fuel shipments as most of the area’s refining capacity was knocked offline and mile-long lines have formed at gas stations and emergency supply distribution centers.

At Biden’s direction, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Thursday authorized an exchange of 1.5 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to Exxon Mobil to relieve fuel disruptions in the wake of the hurricane.

Several refineries remained cut off from crude and products supplies from the south via ship and barge after portions of the Mississippi River were closed by several sunken vessels.

“This is the first such exchange from the SPR in four years and demonstrates that the president will use every authority available to him to support effective response and recovery activities in the region,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said late on Thursday.

Biden has also urged private insurance companies to pay homeowners who left in advance of the storm but not necessarily under a mandatory evacuation order.

“Don’t hide behind the fine print and technicality. Do your job. Keep your commitments to your communities that you insure. Do the right thing and pay your policy holders what you owe them to cover the cost of temporary housing in the midst of a natural disaster. Help those in need,” he said.

While Louisiana tried to recover from the storm, the New York area was still dealing with crippling floods from Ida.

People across large swaths of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut spent Thursday coping with water-logged basements, power outages, damaged roofs and calls for help from friends and relatives stranded by flooding.

At least 16 have died in the state of New York, officials said, including 13 in New York City where deaths of people trapped in flooded basements highlighted the risk of increasingly extreme weather events.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told MSNBC on Friday that there would be a need to implement travel bans and evacuations more frequently ahead of storms. He said he was putting together a new task force to tackle the issue.

“We’ve got to change the whole way of thinking” in how to prepare for storms, de Blasio said. “We’re going to need them to do things differently.”

Biden approved an emergency declaration in New Jersey and New York and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local response efforts, the White House said late on Thursday.

(Reporting By Steve Holland and Devika Krishna Kumar; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal, Kanishka Singh and Susan Heavey, editing by Ross Colvin, Michael Perry and Steve Orlofsky)

Western Union resuming services to Afghanistan – senior exec

By Tom Arnold

LONDON (Reuters) – Western Union Co is resuming money-transfer services to Afghanistan, a senior executive told Reuters on Thursday, a decision he said was in line with a U.S. push to allow humanitarian activity to continue after the Taliban’s takeover.

The world’s largest money-transfer firm and MoneyGram International Inc, another global remittance provider, suspended services in Afghanistan two weeks ago after the Islamist militia captured Kabul at lightning speed.

But an easing of security concerns following the completion of the Taliban’s conquest of the country opened the way for the reopening this week of banks, which the money-transfer firms rely on to dispense and collect funds.

Jean Claude Farah, Western Union’s president in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said the reopening of banks, plus a push by the United States to facilitate humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, had given the American company confidence to resume services on Thursday.

“Much of our business involving Afghanistan is low-value family and support remittances that support basic needs of the people there, so that’s the grounding that we have and why we want to reopen our business,” Farah told Reuters.

“We’ve engaged with the U.S. government, which has conveyed that allowing humanitarian activities, including remittances, to continue are consistent with U.S. policy.”

The flow of funds from migrant workers overseas is a key lifeline for many Afghans and has helped the economy of one of the world’s poorest nations weather years of violence and instability. The United Nations says about half of the population requires aid amid the second drought in four years.

SANCTIONS ON TALIBAN

One complication is that there are a broad range of sanctions on financing to the Taliban, while the Haqqani network, which has links to the Taliban, is classed as a terrorist organization by the United States and Britain.

Yet U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has said it is committed to allowing humanitarian work to continue in Afghanistan.

“We are continuing to engage with the U.S. government and others to understand their policies and what type of longer term regulatory framework will be put in place as it relates to the Taliban,” Farah said.

Remittances to Afghanistan reached $789 million in 2020, around 4% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), the World Bank estimated, down from $829 million in 2019.

MoneyGram didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on its plans in Afghanistan.

DO BANKS HAVE THE CASH?

In recent days, Afghanistan’s central bank has provided funds of hundreds of thousands of dollars to each bank that requested liquidity, a senior banker told Reuters. But the financial system and economy could be in peril unless the Taliban can access the central bank’s roughly $10 billion in assets, which are mostly outside of the country.

Farah said that Western Union had been assured by the banks it partners with in Afghanistan that they had sufficient cash to pay receivers of remittances.

“Some of them have indicated at some locations that they have good liquidity in afghani and at least some liquidity in U.S. dollars as well, we allow payouts in both, to resume remittances,” he added.

Before it shut down services on Aug. 16, around 45% of each transaction sent via Western Union to Afghanistan was $200 or less, he said.

(Reporting by Tom Arnold; Editing by Pravin Char)

New era for Afghanistan starts with long queues, rising prices

By James Mackenzie

(Reuters) – As Kabul began a new era of Taliban rule, long queues outside banks and soaring prices in the bazaars underlined the everyday worries now facing its population after the spectacular seizure of the city two weeks ago.

For the Taliban, growing economic hardship is emerging as their biggest challenge, with a sinking currency and rising inflation adding misery to a country where more than a third of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Even for the relatively well-off, with many offices and shops still shut and salaries unpaid for weeks the daily struggle to put food on the table has become an overwhelming preoccupation.

“Everything is expensive now, prices are going up every day,” said Kabul resident Zelgai, who said tomatoes which cost 50 afghani the day before were now selling for 80.

In an effort to get the economy moving again, banks which closed as soon as the Taliban took Kabul have been ordered to re-open. But strict weekly limits on cash withdrawals have been imposed and many people still faced hours of queuing to get at their cash.

Outside the city, humanitarian organizations have warned of impending catastrophe as severe drought has hit farmers and forced thousands of rural poor to seek shelter in the cities.

People huddling in tent shelters by roadsides and in parks are a common sight, residents said.

In a cash-based economy heavily dependent on imports for food and basic necessities and now deprived of billions of dollars in foreign aid, pressure on the currency has been relentless.

The afghani was recently valued at around 93-95 to the dollar in both Kabul and the eastern city of Jalalabad, compared with around 80 just before the fall of the city. But the rate is only an indicator, because normal money trading has dried up.

In the Pakistani city of Peshawar, close to the border, many money traders are refusing to handle the Afghan currency, which has become too volatile to value properly.

Only the sheer scarcity of cash has kept it from falling further, with international shipments of afghanis and dollars yet to resume.

“In the bazaar you can exchange for a bit over 90 but it goes up and down because it’s not official,” said one trader. “If they open the exchanges again it will go up over 100, I’m sure of it.”

STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS

The fall in the exchange rate has seen prices for many basic foodstuffs ratchet up daily, squeezing people who have seen their salaries disappear and their savings put out of reach by the closure of banks.

Kabul market traders said a 50 kg bag of flour was selling for 2,200 afghanis, around 30% above its price before the fall of the city, with similar rises for other essentials like cooking oil or rice. Prices for vegetables were up to 50% higher, while petrol prices were up by 75%.

Remittances from abroad have also been cut off by the closure of money transfer operators like Western Union, and increasing numbers of people have been trying to sell jewelry or household goods, even if they have to accept a fraction of their value.

“Two weeks ago, people were buying but the situation now is not good and no one is buying,” said one vendor. “People’s money is stuck in the banks and no one has money to buy anything.”

Taliban officials have said the problems will ease once a new government is in place to restore order to the market and have appealed to other countries to maintain economic relations. But the structural problems run deep.

Even when its economy was floating on a tide of foreign money, growth was not keeping pace with the rise in Afghanistan’s population.

Apart from illegal narcotics, the country has no significant exports to generate revenue, and aid, which accounted for more than 40% of economic output, has abruptly disappeared.

A new central bank chief has been appointed but bankers outside Afghanistan said it would be difficult to get the financial system running again without the specialists who joined the exodus out of Kabul.

“I don’t know how they will manage it because all the technical staff, including senior management, has left the country,” one banker said.

In a sign of the pressure on Afghanistan’s currency reserves, the Taliban have announced a ban on taking dollars and valuable artefacts out of the country and said anyone intercepted would have their goods confiscated.

Some $9 billion in foreign reserves is held outside the country and out of reach of the Taliban’s embryonic government, which has still not been officially appointed, let alone recognized internationally.

To add to the problems, a recent suicide attack by an Afghan offshoot of Islamic State on crowds waiting to get a place on evacuation flights brought a chilling reminder that the bombings that were a regular feature of life in the past may not be over.

“The market situation had slightly improved in the last few days,” said one vendor at a Kabul street market where people sell household goods to raise cash. “But it completely collapsed after the suicide attack near the airport.”

(James Mackenzie reported from Milan; Additional reporting by Islamabad bureau and Tom Arnold in London; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Taliban hail victory with gunfire after last U.S. troops leave Afghanistan

(Reuters) – Celebratory gunfire resounded across the Afghan capital on Tuesday as the Taliban took control of the airport following the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops, marking the end of a 20-year war that left the Islamist group stronger than it was in 2001.

Shaky video footage distributed by the Taliban showed fighters entering the airport after the last U.S. troops flew out on a C-17 aircraft a minute before midnight, ending a hasty and humiliating exit for Washington and its NATO allies.

“It is a historical day and a historical moment,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference at the airport after the departure. “We are proud of these moments, that we liberated our country from a great power.”

An image from the Pentagon taken with night-vision optics showed the last U.S. soldier to step aboard the final evacuation flight out of Kabul – Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

America’s longest war took the lives of nearly 2,500 U.S. troops and an estimated 240,000 Afghans, and cost some $2 trillion.

Although it succeeded in driving the Taliban from power and stopped Afghanistan being used by al Qaeda as a base to attack the United States, it ended with the hardline militants controlling more territory than when they last ruled.

The Taliban brutally enforced their strict interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001, not least by oppressing women, and the world is watching now to see if the movement will form a more moderate and inclusive government in the months ahead.

Long lines formed in Kabul on Tuesday outside banks shuttered since the fall of the capital as people tried to get money to pay for increasingly expensive food.

There was a mixture of triumph and elation on the one side as the Taliban celebrated their victory, and fear on the other.

“I had to go to the bank with my mother but when I went, the Taliban (were) beating women with sticks,” said a 22-year-old woman who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety.

She said the attack occurred among a crowd outside a branch of the Azizi Bank next to the Kabul Star Hotel in the center of the capital.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen something like that and it really frightened me.”

Thousands of Afghans have already fled the country, fearing Taliban reprisals.

More than 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in a massive but chaotic airlift by the United States and its allies over the past two weeks, but many of those who helped Western nations during the war were left behind.

A contingent of Americans, estimated by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at fewer than 200, and possibly closer to 100, wanted to leave but were unable to get on the last flights.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab put the number of UK nationals in Afghanistan in the low hundreds, following the evacuation of some 5,000.

‘LOT OF HEARTBREAK’

General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told a Pentagon briefing that the chief U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, was on the last C-17 flight out.

“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure,” McKenzie told reporters. “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out.”

The departing U.S. troops destroyed more than 70 aircraft and dozens of armored vehicles. They also disabled air defenses that had thwarted an attempted Islamic State rocket attack on the eve of their departure.

As the Taliban watched U.S. troops leave Kabul on Monday night, at least seven of their fighters were killed in clashes in the Panjshir valley north of the capital, two members of the main anti-Taliban opposition group said.

Several thousand anti-Taliban fighters, from local militias as well as remnants of army and special forces units, have gathered in the valley under the command of regional leader Ahmad Massoud.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. military was not concerned with images of Taliban members walking through Kabul airport holding weapons and sizing up U.S. helicopters.

“They can inspect all they want,” he told CNN. “They can look at them. They can walk around. They can’t fly. They can’t operate them…”

But he said that “the threat environment” remains high.

“We’re obviously concerned about the potential for Taliban retribution going forward and we certainly, we saw it ourselves, are mindful of the threat that ISIS-K continues to pose inside Afghanistan.”

ISIS-K is the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside Kabul airport on Thursday that killed 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghan civilians.

U.S. President Joe Biden defended his decision to stick to Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline. He said the world would hold the Taliban to their commitment to allow safe passage for those wanting to leave Afghanistan.

Biden has said the United States long ago achieved the objectives it set in 2001, when it ousted the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks.

But he has drawn heavy criticism from Republicans and some fellow Democrats for his actions since the Taliban took over Kabul this month after a lightning advance and the collapse of the U.S.-backed government.

Blinken said the United States was prepared to work with the new Taliban government if it did not carry out reprisals against opponents.

Taliban spokesman Mujahid said the group wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the United States, despite the two decades of hostility. “The Islamic Emirate wants to have good diplomatic relations with the whole world,” he said.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Steven Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie; Editing by Kevin Liffey/Mark Heinrich)