This Could Kill More Afghans Than the 'Bombs and Bullets' of the Past 20 Years
The Biden Administration could avert disaster, but so far, it won't
Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021 following the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the country has faced an economic crisis of epic proportions. International aid had made up about 75 percent of the country's economy, and fell to a trickle after August due in part to U.S. sanctions against the Taliban.
The Biden Administration froze about $7 billion in assets held by the country's central bank, which were deposited at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. (The central bank is reported to have only around $9 billion in total assets.) The country faces a currency crisis: inflation has skyrocketed (the price of cooking oil rose from $8 to $18 in a few months), many Afghans have not been paid in months, and cannot access their bank accounts. According to international aid groups, unfreezing the assets quickly is the fastest way to avert disaster.
Earlier this month, the Biden Administration moved by executive order to redistribute the funds -- they proposed distributing half for humanitarian aid in a trust for distribution at some undetermined point in time and half allocated to a lawsuit by a small group of families of 9/11 victims who have sued the Taliban.
The Biden Administration's decision has prompted outrage among Afghans, including those who were horrified by the Taliban takeover. A letter signed by over 4,000 women organized by the Afghan Women's Network said they were "profoundly saddened" by the decision. "While we share the sorrow of 9/11 and the lives lost as a result, both in the U.S. and Afghanistan, this decision by the world's most powerful country over the resources of the world's poorest country is extremely unfair," they wrote. "It will drive Afghanistan's economy further into the ground. Our people stood side by side with your nation for years, sacrificing more than any other nation in the war on terror. Moreover, the funds that the U.S. seeks to redistribute belong to the Afghan people, who were not responsible for the acts of Al Qaeda terrorists or the Taliban." The administration decision also was criticized by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Setting up the trust fund, a senior Biden administration official told reporters on February 11, will take a "couple of months." The administration has argued that they need the permission of the court adjudicating the 9/11 lawsuit to transfer that half of the funds for humanitarian purposes. However, according to Lawfare, the executive branch has wide legal latitude over these funds -- the Secretary of State plays a "decisive role" in determining how a foreign central bank's assets are distributed.
The International Crisis Group has said that the humanitarian crisis is "poised to kill more Afghans than all the bombs and bullets of the past two decades." The International Rescue Committee has ranked it as the worst humanitarian crisis of 2022 and has warned that 97 percent of the population could fall into poverty by the middle of the year. The United Nations has said that about 22.8 million Afghans -- about 55 percent of the total population -- face a crisis of food insecurity. Save the Children said last week that almost a fifth of Afghan families have been forced to send their children to work. The number of dangerously malnourished children visiting its health clinics has more than doubled since August, the group said.
For Afghans who have the means to get out of the country, many are finding that the United States has shut the door on them. The Department of Homeland Security has processed fewer than 2,000 of 43,000 humanitarian parole applications since July 2021 -- approximately 170 have been approved, and over 1,500 denied. As of February, about 65,000 Afghans have resettled in the United States, and over 10,000 remain on military bases. The State Department suspended the Afghan Fulbright program this year without a specific explanation, forcing 140 bright semifinalists to endure life under the Taliban and economic calamity.
Last week, on a Twitter Spaces organized by Global Dispatches (which I co-host with Mark Goldberg), Zuhra Bahman, Afghan Country Director for Search for a Common Ground, explained from Kabul how the frozen funds had affected her: "I have a good job; I have a good salary. But I cannot access my money right now. It's stuck in a bank. This is the situation for almost everybody who has money in their accounts in Afghanistan." She added that about a million civil servants had been pushed into an "undignified existence" because they hadn't been paid in eight months. "That has made them from professionals into people who cannot afford anything. They have to queue up in front of food distribution centers to get handouts."
Undoubtedly, the Taliban -- a group that has imposed barbaric and misogynist rule on the country and which the United States does not recognize as the legitimate governing authority -- complicates the unfreezing of the assets of Afghanistan's semi-independent central bank. But ordinary Afghans are once again left to pay the price.
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