Out of all the actions that America’s Biden administration could have taken on Afghanistan, commandeering the country’s foreign currency reserves is especially unhelpful. In an executive order last week, President Joe Biden began the process of releasing the $7 billion in Afghan Central Bank funds held in the Federal Reserve. It froze those assets last August after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan as US and Nato forces withdrew. His plan proposes directing $3.5 billion into a trust fund for humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan while putting the other $3.5 billion aside for families of victims of the 9/11 attacks in the US.
The problem is, the US does not own that money: Afghanistan does. That Washington doesn’t want to release billions to the Taliban is understandable. No one wants cash going to a regime that has simply picked up where it left off two decades ago, restricting girls’ access to schools and universities, preventing women from working, abducting protesters and journalists from their homes and killing opponents.
But while the United Nations and other humanitarian groups work to convince the US and World Bank to ease what amounts to an economic blockade of Afghanistan, the White House’s latest actions are blatantly counterproductive.
With more than half of the country’s nearly 40 million people facing acute hunger and a million children at risk of dying amid a harsh winter, UN chief Antonio Guterres in January called on the World Bank to immediately release $1.2 billion in reconstruction funds to ease the humanitarian crisis and inject liquidity to prevent an economic collapse. It had already transferred $280 million to the UN Children’s Fund and the World Food Programme a month earlier.
But, as many experts have pointed out, you cannot feed an entire country with aid. “Aid cannot make up for an economy deprived of oxygen,” International Rescue Committee President and former UK foreign secretary David Miliband said in a recent statement to a Senate foreign relations subcommittee. “The humanitarian community did not choose the government, but that is no excuse to punish the people, and there is a middle course—to help the Afghan people without embracing the new government,” Miliband wrote.
Let’s remember that this entire crisis was triggered by the poorly planned US withdrawal after two decades of war and what appears to be a complete lack of foresight about how to deal with the aftermath. In the uproar that followed last week’s announcement, many in Afghanistan and its diaspora pointed out the obvious: This appears to be a backward attempt to punish Afghanistan for its role in the 2001 attacks on the US. If so, it was off-target. Of the origins of the 9/11 hijackers, 15 came from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates and one each from Lebanon and Egypt. Not one was Afghan. The Taliban, which ruled most of the country, had provided refuge to Osama bin Laden; but, given that the median age of Afghans today is 18, those attacks took place before many were even born.
As Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer in transitional justice at the American University of Afghanistan, told the BBC, there is deep anger and frustration at the US decision. The money underpins the Afghan currency and is not meant for aid, he noted. “Afghanistan needs a sustainable economy if it is to survive in the long run, and the federal reserves are fundamental to it.”
Meanwhile, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, Mohammed Naeem, has tweeted that the seizure of Da Afghanistan Bank’s reserves was “theft” and a sign of “moral decay.”
The US and its allies have correctly demanded that the Taliban form a more inclusive government, guarantee the rights of women and ethnic minorities, allow girls to go to school and university and break ties with terrorist groups before any money is released.
But there are work-arounds to make sure an entire nation doesn’t slip into famine. As Human Rights Watch suggested on 11 February, the World Bank could require that all banking transactions are overseen by independent auditors to address concerns that providing the Afghan Central Bank with assets could enrich the Taliban.
If Biden’s plan is implemented, Human Rights Watch’s Asia Advocacy Adviser, John Sifton, wrote, it “would create a problematic precedent for commandeering sovereign wealth and do little to address underlying factors driving Afghanistan’s massive humanitarian crisis.” The entire $7 billion “already legally belonged to the Afghan people.” The Biden administration needs to rethink its decision and show some political will to help Afghanistan out of a crisis it helped create. It’s the only right thing to do.
Ruth Pollard is a columnist and editor with Bloomberg Opinion.
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