Biden’s Senseless Economic Strangulation of Afghanistan

August 17th, 2022 - by Ryan Cooper / the American Prospect & Dave DeCamp /

A man and achild forced to beg in Kabul, August 14, 2022

Stealing Afghan Bank Reserves Does Nothing Except Starve Innocent Civilians

Ryan Cooper / the American Prospect.

(August 16, 2022) — The Biden administration announced Monday that it would not release any of the $7 billion in Afghanistan’s central bank reserves that are currently in US possession, and pulled out of talks with the Taliban.

The reported reason was that the recent assassination of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul revealed that he was living near a house owned by Taliban interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. It seems the administration’s intention is to inflict collective economic punishment for at least some Taliban leaders having allowed al-Zawahiri to live in Kabul.

Previously, the administration had suggested that half the money could be used to stabilize the country’s collapsed economy. Yesterday’s announcement was therefore disastrous news for ordinary Afghans, who are facing mass unemployment, drought, high inflation, and food shortages if not outright starvation by the millions.

According to a recent report, fully 97 percent of the country’s population is now in poverty. Families are selling their children for food.

Biden’s decision is both foolish and barbaric. It will accomplish nothing in the fight against terrorism, and cause certain terrible suffering. If he had any sense, he’d take quiet steps to allow Afghanistan a measure of economic recovery.

Now, it is certainly plausible to suppose that al-Zawahiri was being sheltered or at least tolerated by Haqqani. But the administration has presented no proof of this, nor that the broader Taliban leadership knew about his presence. Haqqani was taking a terrible risk, and it’s not hard to imagine other Taliban elites being very annoyed at him over this.

Moreover, and initial media reports to the contrary, it is widely accepted that the increasingly elderly and infirm al-Zawahiri had been de facto retired, and the al-Qaeda organization he led has been largely moribund for years.

The real energy in extremist terrorism since 2014 has been concentrated in the Islamic State and its affiliates. The Taliban have been fighting the (truly psychotic) “Khorasan” branch of IS since 2015. Indeed, one of the major threats to Taliban rule has been their inability thus far to suppress routine IS-K bombings of schools, hospitals, and mosques.

By the same token, there is little chance that permanently cutting off the Taliban from Afghanistan’s central bank funds will cause them to reconsider harboring other al-Qaeda figures, should they feel like doing so. If holding its central bank reserves hostage didn’t do it, then permanently stealing them surely won’t either. Now the Taliban have nothing to lose, aside from the threat of military force — unlikely, given recent history.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration just proved that it has far more specific tools available should it want to continue hunting down al-Qaeda figures — namely, drone strikes. It’s not what I would do, but at least the associated damage to civilians is many orders of magnitude less than a famine. (To be fair to Biden, he has drastically cut back the rate of drone strikes compared to both his predecessors — the one that got al-Zawahiri was the first in Afghanistan since US troops departed a year ago.)

There are far more effective weapons
to fight terrorism than starving
40 million people

To be sure, if the administration did provide funding to Afghanistan, it would face some legal constraints. As Scott R. Anderson explains at Lawfare, there are numerous default judgments against the Taliban in US courts, so if Biden were to recognize them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, the assets would be seized by the courts (which is part of why the administration set them in a special account in the first place).

But at least Biden could use the $3.5 billion for some kind of economic stabilization, as it previously suggested. And fundamentally, if the president were determined to get Afghanistan sufficient resources to jump-start its economy, he could surely do so.

As is, yesterday’s decision means American policy is working at cross-purposes. Other parts of the Biden administration are helping coordinatea vast humanitarian relief effort that has so far avoided a full-blown famine, though only barely. What Afghanistan needs is enough currency reserves and a relaxation of sanctions to allow its collapsed banking system to recover and something like normal economic life to resume.

Until the economy is stabilized, it will be necessary to keep aid flowing indefinitely — and who knows what would happen if a Republican wins in 2024?

If the last 20 years have proved anything, it’s the limits of American power when it comes to influencing what happens in Afghanistan. The Taliban may or may not listen to reason when it comes to harboring terrorists. But there are far more effective weapons to fight terrorism than starving 40 million people.

Families of 9/11 Victims Ask Biden
To Return Frozen Funds to Afghans

Dave DeCamp /

(August 17, 2022) — A group of family members of 9/11 victims has sent a letter to President Biden urging him to return the $7 billion in frozen Afghan reserves held by the US Federal Reserve to the Afghan people.

Earlier this year, President Biden signed an executive order that would make $3.5 billion of the Afghan funds available to 9/11 families. But in the letter that was sent Tuesday, 77 family members of 9/11 victims said receiving that money would be “morally wrong.”

The letter reads: “Any use of the $7 billion to pay off 9/11 family member judgments is legally suspect and morally wrong. We call on you to modify your Executive Order and affirm that the Afghanistan central bank funds belong to the Afghan people and the Afghan people alone.”

US officials said this week that the Biden administration has decided not to return any of the $7 billion to Afghanistan and suspended talks with the Taliban on the issue. One year since the Taliban’s takeover of the country, Afghanistan is facing a dire humanitarian crisis, with millions of Afghans facing starvation.

The letter says that a small number of 9/11 families sought the Afghan funds to pay off a debt from a default judgment they won against the Taliban years ago. But the 9/11 families that signed the letter argue that the money does not belong to the Taliban. “This money comes from Afghanistan’s central bank, and as such, it belongs to the Afghan people,” they said.

The letter’s signatories said that they have joined other lawsuits and do seek a “measure of justice.” But they add that “no 9/11 family member joined these lawsuits to take money away from starving Afghans.”

“We ask you to use your executive power to modify your recent order and commit to the only legally and morally correct approach — affirming that all $7 billion of the Afghan central bank funds being kept in New York belong to the Afghan people,” the letter concludes.

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