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US Makes Enemy of Taliban, Angers Afghans in Seizing Billions for 9/11 Fund

Newsweek logo Newsweek 2/14/2022 Tom O'Connor
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The decision by President Joe Biden's administration to seize around $3.5 billion of frozen Afghan funds and distribute them to legal proceedings pursued by relatives of those who perished in the 9/11 attacks has been met with backlash across different sectors of Afghan society, threatening to once again make an enemy out of the country and its ruling Taliban-led government.

Senior Biden administration officials first revealed Friday that the president had signed an executive order to facilitate the transfer of more than $7 billion of assets located in the United States under the name of Afghanistan's central bank, Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), to a consolidated account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Of this, one official said the U.S. was "then going to seek to facilitate access of $3.5 billion, or slightly under — just under half of the assets — for the benefit of the Afghan people and for Afghanistan's future." Then, "more than $3.5 billion — just over half — of the DAB assets will remain in the United States" and "be subject to ongoing litigation by U.S. victims of terrorism," specifically claims brought against the Taliban by the families members of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the 9/11 attacks in September 2001.

The move was met with protests in Kabul, where the Taliban leads an interim government established after the U.S. withdrew last year from a two-decade war launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The newly formed Islamic Emirate has sought international recognition and, despite its tortured history with the U.S., has so far expressed a desire for good relations with Washington.

But that could change now, according to high-profile Taliban member Al-Hanafi Wardak.

"If the United States does not back down from its decision and continue its provocative actions, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will also be forced to reconsider its foreign policy towards the United States," Wardak told Newsweek.

Wardak declined to discuss the 9/11 attacks conducted by non-Afghan members of the then-Afghanistan-based Al-Qaeda militant group and the victims "because it has nothing to do with Afghans," but conveyed disdain for the U.S. decision.

"President Biden's unjust decision was a revenge on all Afghans for America's military defeat and a blow to Afghanistan's economic system, which shows America's lowest human and moral decline," Wardak said. "I have to say that this money is the right of Afghans and this money does not depend on the system and the government."

Of the money earmarked for Afghanistan itself, the senior Biden administration official said Friday that efforts were being undertaken to ensure "no benefit goes directly to the Taliban." A trust fund was being set up to handle the assets and discussions were being had to discern which civil actors in Afghanistan would ultimately receive the money.

Wardak took issue with the decision, given the group's position as de facto ruler of the country.

"This is not just the $3.5 billion that has been brutally taken from Afghans, but the other $3.5 billion that is being given to international organizations in the name of helping Afghans is also of no benefit to Afghans, and Afghans want unconditional release of all their frozen money," Wardak said.

He noted that these funds were "not for the daily expenses of Afghans" but rather for state-associated purposes under the DAB. And while the U.S. has continued to offer humanitarian assistance as the Taliban struggles to rein in a worsening economic crisis compounded by a harsh winter and lack of basic resources among Afghanistan's nearly 40 million people, Wardak felt the decision would only deepen the country's woes.

"It is clear that if this money does not have a negative impact on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, it will have a negative impact on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, a humanitarian situation of which the world is clearly concerned," Wardak said. "But behind the scenes, the world has indirectly played a role in perpetuating this deplorable humanitarian situation in Afghanistan by remaining silent in the face of these brutal U.S decisions."

Given the breadth of outrage across Afghanistan, he said "all Afghans are united in their opposition to Biden's decision, and Biden himself brought all Afghans together with this cruel decision."

"Biden avenged his military defeat on all Afghans, while the United States must compensate Afghans for its 20 years of illegal and brutal war," Wardak said.

He argued that Afghans want all of their estimated $9 billion in foreign assets "unconditionally, and will never accept their money as a charity from the international community and the United States."

And many of those in Afghanistan not associated with the Taliban also rejected the repurposing of billions of dollars of state funds for international assistance, and the effective seizure of billions more for domestic legal proceedings.

Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer at the American University in Afghanistan, told Newsweek that the Biden administration's decision "is equivalent to theft in broad daylight."

"As much as we sympathize with the families of the 9/11 victims, Afghans shouldn't be expected to pay the price for an attack they had no hand in," Baheer said. "If the goal is to punish the Taliban, then misappropriating the federal reserves is only punishing the larger population."

"Aid addresses part of the problem today, but it is not the solution to Afghanistan's economic problems," he added. "We are repeating the mistake of the two decades by re-creating another aid-dependent Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is to develop and be sustainable then it needs a banking sector, a banking sector that cannot exist without its foreign reserves."

Baheer also tapped into Biden's history to point to what he felt was a pattern pursued by the current U.S. leader, a pattern Baheer warned only fueled anti-U.S. tendencies among the Taliban and other Afghans.

"Biden as a young senator refused to appropriate funds to help evacuate South Vietnamese allies as the U.S. was pulling out, he hasn't changed as a person and is being vindictive against Afghanistan," Baheer said. "This feeds into the Taliban narrative of the United States never having good intentions for Afghanistan. It's Afghanistan's federal reserves today but it sets a precedent of the U.S. willing to ignore all legality and misuse the reserves of countries at its will."

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who first led the U.S.-backed government that began its fight against the Taliban 20 years ago, called the Biden administration's move "unjust and unfair and an atrocity against Afghan people" during a press conference Sunday.

A number of Afghan advocacy groups abroad have also responded negatively to the Biden administration's approach.

"Not only is this one the worst famines in history, it is created by the U.S.," Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-American author and activist who works with the advocacy group Unfreeze Afghanistan, told Newsweek.

"By depriving the country of its national reserves, the injection of immediate cash liquidity needed is now not happening, making it incredibly difficult for the country to address the humanitarian crisis," she added. "Aid alone will not fix this."

Sultan referred to the money being effectively seized by the U.S. as the "backbone of the banking system, which is needed in any country to address a humanitarian disaster."

"You need aid but you also need a functioning banking system, stable currency and an economy to work," she said. "Instead, all of that is now crippled making it a bigger disaster. Who will pay for it?"

"It is absolutely wrong to seize and give away a country's central bank reserves in the middle of a famine, sucking out the liquidity of the banking sector," she said. "This was not for him to give away, nor was it the Taliban's money. It belonged to the Afghan people. After 20 years of war, President Biden just put a nail in the coffin of 22 million starving Afghans and the 1 million children expected to die this winter."

Afghans For a Better Tomorrow, which describes itself as "a group of dedicated progressive organizers in the Afghan diaspora devoted to a vision for a peaceful Afghanistan," said the decision was "short sighted, cruel, and will worsen a catastrophe in progress, affecting millions of Afghans, many of whom are on the verge of starvation."

"Let us be clear: all of the $7.1 billion in reserves belongs, rightfully, to the people of Afghanistan and ought to be used to allow the Central Bank of Afghanistan (or Da Afghanistan Bank, DAB) to perform its basic functions," the group said in a statement sent to Newsweek. "One way to alleviate the unspeakable suffering that is occurring in every corner of Afghanistan is to gradually and partially unfreeze the assets immediately, allowing the DAB to restore liquidity into the Afghan economy."

"This would be overseen by an independent auditor and ensure no money falls into Taliban hands," the press statement added.

The group also called on 9/11 victims' relatives pursuing compensation from the Taliban in court "to engage with the Afghan-American community" and drop their lawsuit.

"As Afghans, we are no strangers to immense suffering and pain," the statement said. "For forty years, our friends and family too, have been the victims of senseless violence. Taking money that rightfully belongs to the Afghan people will not bring justice but ensure more misery and death in Afghanistan."

Afghans For a Better Tomorrow was set to hold a virtual press conference Tuesday alongside Project ANAR, officially the Afghan Network for Advocacy and Resources, to respond to the decision.

A child holds bread along a pathway early in the morning in Kandahar on February 5. JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images © JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images A child holds bread along a pathway early in the morning in Kandahar on February 5. JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images

International humanitarian organizations, some of which may end up being recipients of some of the U.S.-controlled $3.5 billion trust fund, have also expressed concern over the potential fallout.

"The families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks should of course obtain compensation from the Taliban," Refugees International said in a statement sent to Newsweek. "But we are concerned that the administration's proposed arrangement is unwise, as it risks precipitating further suffering of the Afghan people."

"Millions are already facing a dire and life-threatening humanitarian crisis this winter," the statement added. "Using part of Afghanistan's reserves to help provide badly needed relief aid and essential services will no doubt help save lives. But we are concerned that this action could further cripple the country's financial system and thereby perpetuate the suffering of the Afghan people."

The U.S.-based humanitarian organization said aid packages would not be enough to satisfy Afghanistan's growing financial needs, and argued the U.S. should instead facilitate ways to shore up independent financial networks in the country.

"The humanitarian consequences of crippling the country's financial system cannot be compensated with humanitarian aid deliveries." Refugees International said. "Instead, the administration should be taking measures to ensure...the maintenance of banking and payments systems independent of Taliban control, and should have leveraged the funds in the Federal Reserve to achieve that outcome."

Other countries dealing with Afghanistan have also spoken out against the U.S. move.

Despite ideological differences, neighboring China has made significant inroads with the new Taliban administration and, like the U.S, has pledged assistance to Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan's assets overseas belong to the Afghan people and should be returned to Afghanistan for the benefit of the Afghan people," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a press conference in Beijing on Monday regarding Washington's decision.

"The U.S. is now trying to allocate the assets and even claim them as its own," he said. "This once again exposes the U.S.' true face of seeking hegemony by using its power under the disguise of the so-called rules-based international order."

And Wang too blamed the U.S. for Afghanistan's current troubles.

"The U.S. is the culprit of the Afghan crisis," he said. "We urge the U.S. to make deep reflection, earnestly assume its due international obligations, free up Afghanistan's frozen assets and lift unilateral sanctions on the country. It should take concrete actions to make up for the harm done to the Afghan people and avoid making things worse for the Afghan people."

Russia has also arranged humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and fostered diplomacy with the Taliban, in spite of its own bloody history of war with mujahideen then backed by the U.S. in the 1980s. Moscow shared the view on Monday that Washington was responsible for the current crisis, and called on the Biden administration to reverse course.

"In the context of an extremely difficult humanitarian situation, which has emerged, in particular, as a result of the failed military campaign of the United States and its NATO allies," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a statement Monday, "Washington is actually exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and obstructing the new authorities in Kabul, who are trying to establish a normal life."

She said the move "raises the question of sincerity of the White House's statements about the desire to help stabilize the situation in this country," and pointed out that no Afghan nationals were ever implicated in the 9/11 plot, which was conducted by Al-Qaeda under the leadership of Saudi citizen Osama bin Laden, planned by Pakistani Islamist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and carried out by hijackers of Saudi, Emirati and Lebanese nationalities.

Then-Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, an Afghan, offered safe haven to bin Laden at the time, sparking the U.S.-led intervention, but the group has since distanced itself from Al-Qaeda and its transnational jihadi ideology while retaining and promoting an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam in Afghanistan.

"We consider it absurd that Washington reserved more than half of the frozen assets of the Afghan central bank to pay compensations under the claims of relatives of the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001," Zakharova said. "Why should the Afghan people, who in no way participated in plotting those terrorist attacks, pay for them?"

Pakistan, the country with the closest relationship with the Taliban and a major donor of economic and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, took a more measured approach, with Islamabad's ambassador to the United Nations Munir Akram telling reporters Saturday that "half a loaf is better than none."

But he too took exception to the U.S. approach.

"There is something wrong with a financial system where one state can unilaterally block the national assets of another to pay off questionable claims by its own citizens," Akram said.

He called for the unfreezing of Afghanistan's assets abroad, a move he said was needed to address the country's financial and humanitarian turmoil.

"This money is critically needed to revive and sustain the Afghan economy, inject much needed liquidity, and to save millions of lives in the middle of a harsh winter," Akram said. "In addition, this money is also needed to provide basic amenities to the people, including health and education, as well as to build critical infrastructure."

"The most effective and generous display of solidarity with the people of Afghanistan at this critical juncture would be the return of the national assets of Afghanistan to its people to whom they belong and to whom they must return," he said.

Truckers prepare for their departure to Afghanistan carrying containers loaded with food and other relief items for the Afghan people contributed and organized by Muslim Hands, an international non-governmental organization in Islamabad on February 7. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images © AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images Truckers prepare for their departure to Afghanistan carrying containers loaded with food and other relief items for the Afghan people contributed and organized by Muslim Hands, an international non-governmental organization in Islamabad on February 7. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

Reacting to the widespread criticism of the U.S. move, State Department spokesperson Ned Price defended the administration's position during a press conference Monday.

"Afghan central bank reserves held at the Federal Reserve have been inaccessible for months, in part because of the uncertainty regarding who could authorize transactions on the account, but also due to pending litigation by 9/11 victims and other victims of terrorism," Price said. "Victims of terrorism including the September 11 terrorist attacks have brought claims against the Taliban, and they are pursuing the central bank's remaining assets in federal court."

"This administration will continue to support these victims and their families, recognizing the enduring pain they have suffered at the hands of terrorists, including those who operated from Afghanistan prior to the September 11 attacks," Price added. "These victims and their families should have a full opportunity to set forth their arguments in court."

He noted that the administration had "no idea how long that litigation will take, and in the meantime, the humanitarian and economic situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate by the day," compelling Biden to take this latest step, the objective of which, according to Price, was "protecting and preserving funds for the benefit of the Afghan people."

"No decision has been made about how these funds will ultimately be used to benefit the Afghan people," he added, "many of whom are also victims of terrorism."

Price emphasized that the eventual distribution mechanism for the remaining funds would include measures to ensure the Taliban and individuals subject to U.S. sanctions did not receive any of them.

"This action marks a significant step forward in the United States effort to authorize the transfer of a significant portion of the funds to meet the needs of the Afghan people," he said.

"I want to reiterate," Price added, "Friday's executive order was a step towards making a significant portion, $3.5 billion, of these funds accessible to the Afghan people, and this action demonstrates that America's ties to the people of Afghanistan, built during two decades of working side by side, are steadfast and enduring."

A Taliban fighter stands guard before the start of a women's protest in support of the Taliban government at Ahmad Shah Massoud square in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul on January 26. No country, including the U.S., has recognized the Taliban's rule but Washington has engaged with the group, including throughout the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal last August. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images © WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images A Taliban fighter stands guard before the start of a women's protest in support of the Taliban government at Ahmad Shah Massoud square in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul on January 26. No country, including the U.S., has recognized the Taliban's rule but Washington has engaged with the group, including throughout the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal last August. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

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