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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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Russian Troops Dead After Getting ‘Treated’ to Poisoned Meals, Ukraine Officials Say

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Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry / Facebook

In a show of hospitality, Ukrainian citizens in the besieged region of Kharkiv have reportedly been “treating” Russian troops local delicacies—laced with poison.

At least two troops from the 3rd Motor Rifle Division of the Russian Federation died immediately after eating stuffed buns served by the residents of Izium, a town about 80 miles southeast of Kharkiv, the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine wrote Saturday in an announcement posted to Facebook.

Another 28 Russians are being treated in intensive care from eating the contaminated treats. The condition of these poisoned invaders has yet to be confirmed.

According to the Intelligence Directorate, several hundred Russian soldiers have also suffered severe illnesses from drinking poisoned alcohol while occupying the region. Ukrainian officials said that the Russian military is “writing off these cases as so-called ‘non-combat losses.’”

Though Russian troops have reportedly retreated from the capital of Kyiv. The New York Times reports that insurgent forces are still fighting to gain control of Izium, despite the locals’ culinary efforts. Control of the eastern town would allow Russians to strategically secure access to the occupied Donbas region.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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Massive ship called Ever Forward is stuck in Chesapeake Bay

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Despite two failed attempts to free it this week, a sister container ship to the Ever Given that got stuck in the Suez Canal last year has been lodged in the Chesapeake Bay for 21 days — and now cargo holders have to pay to help free it.

Why it matters: The Ever Forward (yes, bask in the irony) is the largest ship to get stuck in the Chesapeake Bay and it’s carrying 5,000 containers of … stuff.

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What’s happening: The ship’s owner — Evergreen Marine Corp. — has invoked a maritime law dubbed “General Average,” under which people whose belongings are on a ship must share in the cost of freeing it.

Zoom in: It’s unclear what’s in the thousands of containers aboard the Ever Forward, but at least one cargo holder — a Bloomberg journalist who recently moved from Hong Kong to New York — has been sharing her experience waiting on her furniture.

  • “The entire contents of our apartment, all of our furniture, lots of books, things of sentimental value are all in a container stuck in the Chesapeake Bay,” Tracy Alloway told NBC Washington.

  • The U.S. Coast Guard, which is handling Ever Forward’s PR, per the Port of Baltimore, told Axios that “general cargo” is on the ship and referred further questions to Evergreen.

Zoom out: The Ever Forward has been idling near Baltimore, en route to Norfolk, since a wrong turn leaving Baltimore on March 13 ran the boat aground in shallow water (24 feet of water — when it needs 42 to float, per NBC Washington.)

  • The Ever Forward has been stuck thrice as long as its sister ship sat marooned between the Mediterranean and Red seas last year.

  • The ship is not disrupting trade — or blocking passage out of Baltimore Harbor, William Doyle, director of the Port of Baltimore tweeted.

  • Tuesday and Wednesday were the first attempts to refloat the boat using tug boats.

  • A third attempt will be coming soon, “using two anchored pulling barges from the stern and five tugs,” Doyle wrote on Twitter.

The big picture: You can stay informed on the progress via istheshipstillstuck.com, a website that went viral last year during the Suez fiasco.

  • The boat has become a tourist attraction and Downs Park (there’s a $6 entry fee) in Pasadena, Maryland is apparently the best place to see it.

By the numbers: Comparing giant, stuck container ships.

  • The Ever Forward — currently lodged in Baltimore en route to Norfolk for 21 days and counting — 1,095 feet long, 117,340 gross tons. Ran aground due to a wrong turn in the Bay.

  • The Ever Given — stuck in the Suez Canal for 6 days – 1,312 feet long, weighing in at 224,000 gross tons. Ran aground due to a large wind gust.

🗞 This article is by Axios Richmond’s Karri Peifer! Subscribe to the Axios Richmond newsletter (launching soon).

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California has $600M in unclaimed can, bottle deposits

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California is sitting on a $600 million pile of unclaimed nickel and dime deposits on recyclable cans and bottles and now wants to give some of that back to consumers.

To get the state’s nearly 40 million residents to recycle more and send more deposits back to them, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration unveiled a plan Friday to temporarily double to a dime the refund for a 12-ounce (355 milliliters) bottle or can. California already pays 10 cents on containers over 24 ounces (709 milliliters), and that would temporarily double to 20 cents.

The move would make California among the highest-paying recycling programs in the country. Rachel Machi Wagoner, director of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, said the effort would help California again become the recycling leader it was 35 years ago when it started its cash refund program.

When someone in California purchases a regular-sized soda, a 5-cent charge is applied that can be recouped if the container is brought back for recycling. Under Newsom’s plan, the deposit charge would remain the same but the return amount would double. The goal is to raise the recycling rate for beverage containers from 70% to at least 80%.

Oregon and Michigan already offer 10-cent refunds and advocacy groups say that amount for each glass or plastic bottle or aluminum can has been enough for consumers to recycle at least nine of every 10 containers.

The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog’s President Jamie Court, a frequent critic of the recycling program, called the plan “a very positive step” and “a bold proposal to give people their money back.”

“That money isn’t doing anybody any good sitting in the bank,” Court said. “We need a complete structural fix, but this is a good interim step.”

California’s proposal feeds the latest national effort to boost recycling as beverage distributors face increased pressure to include higher percentages of recycled material in their containers, National Stewardship Action Council executive director Heidi Sanborn said.

Just 10 of the 50 states have deposit programs now, but many are considering them — potentially creating a confusing patchwork and beverage labels crowded with different states’ deposit amounts, something she said distributors want to avoid.

California’s doubling of refunds would be temporary — a duration for the change has yet to be decided — and is expected to cost $100 million. If approved by the Legislature the refund increase would take effect sometime during the next fiscal year that starts July 1.

It’s uncertain if any boost in recycling would last once the higher price ends, Sanborn acknowledged, but she hopes instead California will decide to make the increase permanent. She’s also hopeful pressure from states will spur attempts by U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California and U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon to craft a national bottle bill.

Newsom’s plan also attempts to ease a bottleneck that began years ago as more neighborhood recycling centers closed and Consumer Watchdog said many grocery stores also were refusing to take back empties in-store as required.

To increase access, Newsom’s administration proposes spending $100 million on grants to add about 2,000 automated recycling machines, also known as reverse vending machines, at high schools, colleges and retailers. Consumers dump their empty containers into the machines, which issue a refund.

Another $55 million would go for state-funded mobile recycling programs in rural areas and other places with few recycling options.

Consumers are very upset that “they are unable to return their bottles and cans and get their money back as promised,” said Sanborn, who also heads California’s Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets & Curbside Recycling.

Sanborn blamed the closure of many California recycling centers on the state’s failure to quickly adjust its complicated payment formula to meet changing market conditions.

Many of California’s recyclables go to China, which toughened standards in 2017 on accepting contaminated material, including plastics. The move “totally slammed the recycling industry” nationwide, said Kate O’Neill, a University of California, Berkeley, environmental science professor and author of the 2019 book “Waste.”

The U.S. market is recovering now with the addition of domestic recycling facilities, but there still is a problem matching supply to demand, O’Neill said.

Recycling officials had expected beverage consumption to drop during the pandemic, as it does during most economic downturns, Wagoner said. Instead, container sales in California increased by 2.5 billion over three years, to 27 billion last fiscal year, meaning a record number of deposits flowing into the state’s recycling fund.

The number of refundable containers recycled in California meanwhile hit a record high of more than 18.8 billion in 2021 — but that still left plenty of money on the table.

Repeated attempts to improve the state’s recycling system have struggled in the Legislature, even as California tries to boost its recycling rates, minimize food waste, and work toward a circular-use economy.

Wagoner said Friday’s proposal is an interim step while the administration continues talks with lawmakers over permanent fixes.

Democratic state Sen. Bob Wieckowski said he tried a bill last year with proposals similar to what the administration is now suggesting, “and they didn’t want to hear about it.” He anticipates people now hoarding their recyclables until the double redemption period, then facing long lines once it begins.

His proposal this year would put more responsibility on producers to recycle their containers.

“It has a little gimmicky nature to it,” Wieckowski said of the state’s plan. “We have 45 Band-Aids on this program, and sometime you have to get out of the Band-Aid business.”



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Fort Lauderdale police arrest Black hotel clerk who called for help

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New body camera video released by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department shows officers pushing a Black hotel employee before arresting him. The employee, Raymond Rachal, was the person to call the police after an incident in the lobby where Rachal claims a man was yelling racial slurs at him.



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Police investigating ‘appalling’ incident recorded inside a Wilmington High School bathroom

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Police and school officials in Wilmington are investigating a “serious and disturbing physical altercation” inside a boys’ bathroom this week that left the superintendent of schools “appalled,” not only because of the incident, but because some students recorded video and posted it online.

The video is difficult to watch.

In a letter to the school community dated March 30th, Superintendent Glenn Brand said the incident happened on Tuesday and investigators are working to identify the students involved.

The recording sent to Boston 25 indicates a student was picked up inside the bathroom and had his head forced into a toilet inside a stall in the bathroom. The video below has been blurred due to the ages of those involved.

“I am truly appalled by the actions of these students which are unacceptable and do not represent the core values of this educational community,” said Supt. Brand. ”It is my expectation that each and every one of our students has the right to attend a school that is safe and supportive. While I recognize that the vast number of our students consistently make appropriate choices to support such an environment, we will have zero tolerance for those that do not.”

“The Wilmington Public School prioritizes, above all else, the safety, well-being and respect of all of our students and staff,” said Supt. Brand.

“It is therefore with tremendous disappointment that I write to inform you of a serious and disturbing physical altercation that occurred in one of the boys’ bathrooms (Tuesday),” said Brand. “Not only is the incident itself concerning, but also that some of our students recorded the altercation and posted this online.”

“All students who are found culpable will be held fully accountable and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken as well as the removal of appropriate privileges that are afforded to those students,” said Supt. Brand. “I assure you that we will pursue relevant legal actions should such be deemed warranted following the investigation.”

The superintendent also alluded to other recent trouble at the school.

“This incident comes in the wake of a number of other concerns recently involving troubling student behavior. Everyone has an obligation to help foster the type of school environments that our students deserve, including our staff, families and most importantly, our students themselves,” said Brand.

A statement posted to the school’s website on Friday by the Wilmington High School Student Class Officers, called the incident “horrific.”

“If a picture is worth a thousand words then a video is worth a million, yet many of us were left speechless by the thoughtless actions of others that transpired earlier this week in one of our school bathrooms,” according to the statement. “These horrific actions perpetrated by an embarrassing group of individuals do not represent who we are as a student body. We are honor roll students, college bound-career focused seniors, varsity athletes, robotic champions and so much more. Our image should not be clouded by these individuals.”

Boston 25 spoke with Wilmington Police Chief Joe Desmond about the incident.

“Obviously there were a lot of kids in the bathroom and this young man was taken and physically dragged into the bathroom,” said Desmond.

The chief says the students pick the student up and lower him head down into the toilet. “It clearly looks like an assault as far as where I come from,” said Desmond.

Police are also looking to see if this incident rises to the level of a hate crime or civil rights violation. Chief Desmond says they have at least three recordings and they are working with the school to identify everyone involved.

“Kids should be able to go to school and feel safe and feel supported and not worried about being picked on or God forbid this incident is horrible. That poor kid” it’s terrible,” said concerned parent Roberta Biscan.

The school superintendent is scheduling bystander training that will be mandatory for all students. According to police, the case is moving quickly and charges are likely to be filed.

Watch for updates on Boston 25.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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Why this huge catfish was released by a fisherman who didn’t even bother to weigh it

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Ivan Garren from Cleveland, Tennessee caught a huge catfish Thursday while fishing in Wolftever Creek.

Garren, who used skipjack as bait, was fishing in a depth of about six feet when he hooked the monster.

He did not weigh or measure the fish but estimated it was about 38 pounds. He wanted to get the fish back in the water as soon as possible after taking a couple of pictures.

More: A 500-pound black bear made its home near a Tennessee college. Here’s how TWRA relocated it

Ivan Garren caught this big catfish in Wolftever Creek in Hamilton County.

“I release all big fish for other people to enjoy,” Garren said.

As big as the fish was, Garren said he has caught bigger.

Wolftever Creek is located in Hamilton County near Middle Valley, Tennessee. It is known for having a large population of catfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass and crappie.

Ivan Garren caught this big catfish in Wolftever Creek in Hamilton County.

Ivan Garren caught this big catfish in Wolftever Creek in Hamilton County.

Reach Mike Organ at 615-259-8021 or on Twitter @MikeOrganWriter.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee fisherman releases huge catfish without weighing



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The Judds reunite for CMT Music Awards performance

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Judds, one of the most successful duos in country music in the 1980s, are reuniting to perform on the CMT Music Awards, their first major awards show performance together in more than two decades.

The mother-and-daughter duo of Naomi and Wynonna will perform their hit “Love Will Build a Bridge” on the awards show on April 11, airing on CBS and Paramount+, during an outdoor shoot in front of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee.

It’s a fitting backdrop for the five-time Grammy winners, who will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in May.

“It feels both surreal and what a thrill it is. What a thrill to finally get her back on the stage because she’s been waiting for 20-plus years,” Wynonna told the AP of her mother, Naomi. “As a daughter and as an artist, it’s a win-win.”

Originally from Kentucky, Naomi was working as a nurse in the Nashville area when she and Wynonna started singing together professionally. Their unique harmonies, together with elements of acoustic music, bluegrass and blues, made them stand out in the genre at the time.

The Judds won nine Country Music Association Awards and seven from the Academy of Country Music and had more than a dozen No. 1 hits, including “Mama, He’s Crazy” and “Grandpa (Tell Me ’bout the Good Old Days).”

In 1990, Naomi Judd announced her retirement from performing due to chronic hepatitis. Wynonna has continued her solo career and they have occasionally reunited for special performances.

“To have all the incredible opportunities that I have had, being reminded of all that, just makes me very humbled and I just want to bask in the moment,” Naomi Judd told the AP.

This is also their first ever performance together at the CMT Music Awards. Country star Kacey Musgraves will introduce the pair prior to the performance.

“Music is the bridge between mom and me, and it it bonds us together. Even in the not easy times,” said Wynonna Judd. “We show up and we sing because that’s what love is about, right? So what a beautiful celebration.”

Hosted by country singer Kelsea Ballerini and actor Anthony Mackie, the fan-voted awards show will also feature performances by Ballerini, Kane Brown, Miranda Lambert, Luke Combs, Maren Morris, Cody Johnson, Little Big Town, Keith Urban, Carly Pearce and more.



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