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The economy on the brink, Taliban rely on former technocrats

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — When the Taliban swept into power, they found Afghanistan’s economy fast approaching the brink and were faced with harrowing predictions of growing poverty and hunger. So they ordered the financial managers of the collapsed former government back to work, with an urgent directive: Do your jobs, because we can’t.

In the 20 years since the Taliban last ruled, Afghanistan evolved from an economy dealing mostly in illicit enterprise to a sophisticated, multi-billion-dollar system fueled by donor aid and international trade. The Taliban, a movement borne out of the rural clergy, struggled to grasp the extent of the transformation.

Four employees from financial institutions told The Associated Press how the Taliban commanded bureaucrats from the previous government’s Finance Ministry, central bank and other state-owned banks to return to work. Their accounts were confirmed by three Taliban officials.

“They told us, ‘We are not experts, you know what is better for the country, how we can survive under these challenges’,” recalled one state bank official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on record.

They told him, “Do what you must,” but warned, “God is watching you, and you will be accountable for what you do on Judgment Day’.”

Quietly, these technocrats are advising the Taliban leadership in the running of the crippled financial sector. They tell them what to do and how to do it. But, as seasoned experts, they see no way out of Afghanistan’s economic quagmire: With billions in international funds frozen, the best they can muster in domestic revenues is $500 million to $700 million, not enough to pay public salaries or provide basic goods and services.

The Taliban are buttressing relations with local businessmen to keep them operating, while the leadership makes its case for international recognition in meetings with foreign officials.

The Taliban’s seizure of power in mid-August resulted in an abrupt halt to most donor funds. These disbursements accounted for 45% of GDP and financed 75% of state expenditures, including public sector salaries. In 2019, total government expenditures were nearly $11 billion.

With drought ongoing as well, the United Nations predicts 95% of the population will go hungry and as much as 97% of the country risks sinking below the poverty line.

The United States froze billions in dollar reserves in line with international sanctions against the Taliban, eroding the liquidity of both the central bank and commercial banks and constraining their ability to make international transactions.

This has undermined international trade, a mainstay of the Afghan economy. Intermediary banks abroad are reluctant to engage in transactions given sanctions risks. Informal trade, however, continues. The International Monetary Fund predicts the economy will contract sharply.

In the Finance Ministry and central bank, near daily meetings revolve around procuring basic staples like flour to ward off hunger, centralizing customs collections and finding revenue sources amid critical shortages in household goods. In Afghanistan, all fuel oil, 80% of electricity and up to 40% of wheat is imported.

The technocrats’ frustrations are many.

Never mind dollars, there isn’t enough of the local currency, the afghani, in circulation, they said. They blame this on the previous government for not printing enough prior to Kabul’s fall in August.

Hallways once bustling with employees are quiet. Some ministry workers only show up once or twice a week; no one has been paid a salary. A department responsible for donor relations once had 250 members and dealt with up to 40 countries; now it has 50 employees at best, and one interlocutor: the United Nations.

There are no women.

Many are growing exasperated with the Taliban leadership.

“They don’t understand the magnitude,” said one ministry official. “We had an economy of $9 billion in circulation, now we have less than $1 billion.”

But he was quick to excuse them. “Why would I expect them to understand international monetary policy? They are guerrilla fighters at heart.”

The returning government workers said the Taliban appear genuine in wanting to root out corruption and offer transparency.

They aren’t told everything. A closely guarded secret of the Taliban is how much cash remains in state coffers. Ministry and bank officials estimate this could be just $160 million to $350 million.

“They are very sincere about the country, they want to boost morale and create friendly relations with neighboring countries,” said another banking official. “But they don’t have expertise in banking or financial issues. That is why they requested we return, and that we do our work honestly.”

Mawlawi Abdul Jabbar, a Taliban government adviser, said the returning experts are “with the government. And they are working on the financial issues to solve these problems.”

The Taliban are strengthening relations with businessmen who trade in basic goods with neighboring countries.

An active proponent of forging business relations is Taliban adviser Abdul-Hameed Hamasi. He was recently greeted with a warm embrace at the wedding of the son of prominent businessman Baz Mohammed Ghairat.

Ghairat’s factories process everything from cooking oil to wheat. Hamasi said the Taliban were providing him with security, including permission to drive in bulletproof vehicles, so his dealings could continue.

But central bank limits on withdrawals are Ghairat’s chief concern. Without access to deposits, he cannot pay traders, he said.

The economic woes preceded the Taliban’s rise. Corruption and mismanagement were rampant in the former government.

In the first months of 2021, economic growth slowed and inflation accelerated. Drought undermined agricultural production as fuel and food costs spiked.

The Taliban’s capture of border posts and transit hubs ahead of Kabul’s fall exacerbated matters.

Government officials, schoolteachers and civil servants hadn’t received salaries for two to three months before the government collapsed. Many sold household goods or accumulated debts with neighbors and relatives to make ends meet.

Sayed Miraza, an Agriculture Ministry employee, arrived at the bank at 4 a.m. one Saturday morning. People had already lined up to access their weekly withdrawal limit of 20,000 afghanis, or $200.

Miraza’s account is empty. He came to pick up a Western Union transfer from a nephew in the U.S. “We ran out of food, so we had to ask for help,” he said. By 9 a.m. he was still waiting.

In a Kabul flea market, Hematullah Midanwal sells the items of people who have run out of funds.

“They come sometimes with their entire living rooms, everything down to spoons,” he said.

Many hope to leave Afghanistan. Given the chance, the technocrats running the country’s finances would also leave, every single one interviewed by the AP said.

One central bank official said he was waiting on his asylum papers to go to a Western country. “If it comes, I will definitely leave. I would never work with the Taliban again.”



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I’m a Virus Expert and Here’s a Sure Sign You’ve Had COVID

The New York Times reports more than 775,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and more than 48 million have had the virus. However, many others have likely had COVID but weren’t tested or were asymptomatic and didn’t realize they had it. While it’s impossible to know if you’ve been infected without seeing a physician or getting tested, there are signs you’ve had it. COVID affects everyone differently, but according to virus and medical experts Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with, here are the



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China says 85% of citizens will use Mandarin by 2025

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BEIJING (AP) — China is launching an aggressive campaign to promote Mandarin, saying 85% of its citizens will use the national language by 2025.

The move appears to put threatened Chinese regional dialects such as Cantonese and Hokkien under even greater pressure, along with minority languages such as Tibetan, Mongolian and Uyghur.

The order issued Tuesday by the State Council, China’s Cabinet, said use of Mandarin, known in Chinese as “putonghua” or the “common tongue,” remains “unbalanced and inadequate” and needs to be improved to meet the demands of the modern economy.

Critics have sporadically protested changes to the education system and employment requirements that have steadily eroded the role of minority languages, calling it a campaign to eradicate cultures that don’t conform with the dominant Han ethnic group.

Along with the 2025 goal, the policy aims to make Mandarin virtually universal by 2035, including in rural areas and among ethnic minorities.

The promotion of Mandarin over other languages has sparked occasional protests, including last year in the Inner Mongolia region when the Mongolian language was replaced by standard Mandarin as the language of instruction.

China’s ruling Communist Party has denounced all such movements as a form of separatism and repressed them ruthlessly. It says language conformity is necessary for the sake of the economy and national unity.

The policy is backed up by legal requirements and the document issued Wednesday demanded strengthened supervision to “ensure that the national common spoken and written language is used as the official language of government agencies and used as the basic language of schools, news and publications, radio, film and television, public services and other fields.”

It calls also on officials to “vigorously enhance the international status and influence of Chinese” in academia, international organizations and at global gatherings.

Government attempts to promote Mandarin through its worldwide network of Confucius Institutes have been controversial, with critics denouncing them as an attempt to promote the party’s agenda and quash discussion of topics such its human rights record.

___

This story corrects the day the State Council issued the order on language.



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Walmart said she shoplifted; jury awards her $2.1 million

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MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama woman who says she was falsely arrested for shoplifting at a Walmart and then threatened by the company after her case was dismissed has been awarded $2.1 million in damages.

A Mobile County jury on Monday ruled in favor of Lesleigh Nurse of Semmes, news outlets reported.

Nurse said in a lawsuit that she was stopped in November 2016 when trying to leave a Walmart with groceries she said she already paid for, according to AL.com. She said she used self-checkout but the scanning device froze. Workers didn’t accept her explanation and she was arrested for shoplifting.

Her case was dismissed a year later, but then she received letters from a Florida law firm threatening a civil suit if she didn’t pay $200 as a settlement, according to her lawsuit. That was more than the cost of the groceries she was accused of stealing.

Nurse said Walmart instructed the law firm to send the letters — and that she wasn’t the only one receiving them.

“The defendants have engaged in a pattern and practice of falsely accusing innocent Alabama citizens of shoplifting and thereafter attempting to collect money from the innocently accused,” the suit contended.

WKRG reported that the trial featured testimony that Walmart and other major retailers routinely use such settlements in states where laws allow it, and that Walmart made hundreds of millions of dollars this way in a two-year period.

Defense attorneys for Walmart said the practice is legal in Alabama. A spokesperson told AL.com that the company will be filing motions in this case because it doesn’t “believe the verdict is supported by the evidence and the damages awarded exceed what is allowed by law.”



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Republican Colleague Tom Reed Calls Lauren Boebert’s Vile Attacks A ‘Pox On All Our Houses’

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This “has to stop,” an outraged Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) said Monday of the racist and Islamophobic attacks by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), calling her behavior a “pox on all our houses.”

He was referring to Boebert’s appalling joke in a speech to constituents last week in which she suggested that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Muslim, could be a suicide bomber.

“I … condemn the kind of comments that were made by my colleague in Congress towards a fellow colleague on the other side of the aisle,” Reed said on CNN’s “OutFront.” “This is a pox on all our houses.”

He added: “We have degraded to a point in the institution of Congress [to a] level of hate I’ve never felt before.”

This “rhetoric, this type of commentary, has to stop. We need to focus on the American people and solving their problems. That’s got to be the mission,” said Reed, the former leader of the House Problem Solvers Caucus.

This is the “institution of Congress, this is the People’s House, and we have to respect each other,” Reed added. American citizens “should be working together as opposed to engaging in what could be called antics of a high-school-level nature.”

Boebert claimed in her talk to constituents in Colorado that she had just stepped into an elevator with Omar at the U.S. Capitol recently when a concerned police officer rushed over before the doors closed.

“I look to my left and there she is, Ilhan Omar,” Boebert said with a laugh in a video clip of her tale. “I say, well, she doesn’t have a backpack, we should be fine.”

She also claimed she glanced at the Democratic lawmaker and said: “Oh, look, the jihad squad decided to show up for work today.”

Omar said none of that happened.

Boebert claimed she called Omar on Monday to apologize — but attacked her instead — and suggested Omar “sympathizes with terrorists.”

“I never want anything I say to offend someone’s religion, so I told her that,” Boebert recounted Monday in an Instagram video recapping the conservation.

But then Boebert said she told Omar that “she should make a public apology to the American people for her anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-police rhetoric.”

That’s when Omar ended the call.

Omar is calling for Boebert to face some sort of sanction from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), which is unlikely.

“To date, the Republican Party leadership has done nothing to condemn and hold their own members accountable for repeated instances of anti-Muslim hate and harassment,” Omar said in a statement Monday.

“This is not about one hateful statement or one politician; it is about a party that has mainstreamed bigotry and hatred. It is time for Republican Leader McCarthy to actually hold his party accountable.”

Also on HuffPost

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.





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