By Daphne Psaledakis and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States formally exempted on Wednesday U.S. and U.N. officials doing permitted business with the Taliban from U.S. sanctions to try to maintain the flow of aid to Afghanistan as it sinks deeper into a humanitarian crisis.
It was unclear, however, whether the move would pave the way for proposed U.N. payments of some $6 million to the Islamists for security.
Reuters on Tuesday exclusively reported a U.N. plan to subsidize next year the monthly wages of Taliban-run Interior Ministry personnel who guard U.N. facilities and to pay them monthly food allowances, a proposal that raised questions about whether the payments would violate U.S. sanctions.
The Treasury Department declined to say whether the new license would exempt the proposed U.N. payments from U.S. sanctions on the Taliban.
Having designated the Taliban as a terrorist group for years, Washington has ordered its U.S. assets frozen and barred Americans from dealing with them.
The Treasury on Wednesday issued three general licenses aimed at easing humanitarian aid flows into Afghanistan.
Two of the licenses allow U.S. officials and those of certain international organizations, such as the United Nations, to engage in transactions involving the Taliban or Haqqani Network for official business.
A third license gives non-governmental organizations (NGOs) protection from U.S. sanctions on the Taliban and the Haqqani Network for work on certain activities, including humanitarian projects.
A senior U.S. administration official said the Taliban would have to take action to prevent Afghanistan's economy from contracting further.
"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 licenses will allow us to allow organizations that are doing this work to do exactly that," the official told reporters.
The top Republican on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee criticized the decision by Democratic President Joe Biden's administration.
The exemption "could result in using American taxpayer funds to reward, legitimize and enable the same Taliban that took power by force and has shown no interest in abiding by international norms," Representative Michael McCaul said in a statement.
Afghanistan's economic crisis accelerated after the Taliban seized power in August, as the former Western-backed government collapsed and the last U.S. troops withdrew.
The United States and other donors cut financial assistance, and more than $9 billion in Afghanistan's hard currency assets were frozen.
The United Nations says nearly 23 million people – about 55% of the population – are facing extreme levels of hunger, with nearly 9 million at risk of famine as winter takes hold.
"We will continue to support efforts by our partners to scale up assistance and deliver necessary relief during this moment of particular need," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
In a separate bid to address the crisis, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution exempting donors, aid groups and financial institutions involved in humanitarian assistance from U.N. asset freezes on leaders of the Taliban and associated entities.
The exemption is “solely for the provision of humanitarian assistance and other activities that support basic human needs in Afghanistan which the council will review in one year,” Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a senior adviser to the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said in urging approval of the measure.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Jonathan Landay and David Lawder; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Howard Goller and Muralikumar Anantharaman)