The US on Wednesday formally exempted US and UN officials doing official business with the Taliban from US sanctions, clearing the way for proposed UN payments next year of some US$6 million to the Islamists for security.
The US Treasury Department announcement came a day after Reuters exclusively reported a UN plan to subsidise the monthly wages of Taliban-run interior ministry personnel who guard UN facilities and pay them monthly food allowances.
Some experts said the proposal raised questions about whether such payments would violate UN and US sanctions on the Taliban and on many of their leaders, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Interior Ministry chief and head of the Haqqani network.
The Treasury Department issued two general licences allowing US officials and those of certain international organisations, like the UN, to engage in transactions involving the Taliban or Haqqani network as long as they are official business.
A third general licence gives NGOs protection from US sanctions on the Taliban and the Haqqani network for work on certain kinds of projects, including humanitarian programmes for “basic human needs,” rule of law and education.
A senior US administration official emphasised that while the US was issuing the licences, the Taliban would have to make decisions about how they operate the government to prevent a complete economic collapse.
“What we can attempt to do, what we’re going to work to do, is to mitigate the humanitarian crisis by getting resources to the Afghan people, and these general licences will allow us to allow organisations that are doing this work to do exactly that,” the official told reporters.
The Treasury, however, warned the new general licences do not allow financial transfers to the Taliban or the Haqqani network “other than for the purpose of effecting the payment of taxes, fees, or import duties, or the purchase or receipt of permits, licences, or public utility services.”
The economic crisis in Afghanistan accelerated when the Taliban seized power in August, as the former Western-backed government collapsed and the last US troops withdrew.
The US and other donors cut financial assistance on which the country became dependent during two decades of war with the Islamist militants, and more than US$9 billion in Afghanistan’s hard currency assets were frozen.
The UN is warning that nearly 23 million people – about 55% of the population – are facing extreme levels of hunger, with nearly nine million at risk of famine as winter takes hold in the impoverished landlocked country.
While the US Treasury has provided “comfort letters” assuring banks that they can process humanitarian transactions, concern about US sanctions continues to prevent passage of even basic supplies, including food and medicine.