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The US government’s decision to allow the families of 9/11 victims to lay claim to half of Afghanistan’s frozen assets has come under stringent attack    

In February, the Biden administration made a decision regarding the $7 billion in Afghan government reserves frozen in US accounts since the Taliban seized power last year. Half of the money was allocated for humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan; the other half was earmarked as compensation to families of victims of the 9/11 attacks – a ruling that has provoked uproar, with many people criticising it as theft from the Afghan people.

In an executive order signed by Biden on 11 February, the administration said it would withhold $3.5 billion belonging to the central bank, Da Afghanistan Bank, because families of 9/11 victims had filed lawsuits against the bank.

“Even if funds are transferred for the benefit of the Afghan people, more than $3.5 billion in DAB assets would remain in the United States and are subject to ongoing litigation by US victims of terrorism. Plaintiffs will have a full opportunity to have their claims heard in court,” read the executive order.

Humanitarian injustice

There have been two main arguments against the decision to spend the money on assisting relatives of victims of the al-Qaeda terrorist attack, which occurred more than two decades ago.

The first is that it sets a dangerous precedent. If the United States can seize funds from another country to provide compensation to families of its citizens, what's to stop other countries from doing the same thing? 

The second argument is that it's simply unfair to take money away from the Afghan people, who have already suffered enough and are in a dire need of assistance. The UN Development Programme expects that by June, almost all of the Afghan population (97%) will be living below the poverty line.

"If implemented, the decision would create a problematic precedent for commandeering sovereign wealth and do little to address underlying factors driving Afghanistan's massive humanitarian crisis," wrote the New York-based Human Rights Watch in a statement about the Biden Administration's executive order. 

"Directing $3.5 billion to humanitarian assistance for Afghans may sound generous, but it should be remembered that the entire $7 billion already legally belonged to the Afghan people. And yet, even if the US gave it to a humanitarian trust fund, current restrictions on Afghanistan's banking sector make it virtually impossible to send or spend the money inside the country," it added.

Naser Shahalemi, founder of Afghan advocacy organisation End Afghan Starvation, told NPR that he was "shocked" by the decision.

"We were dismayed. We were shocked. We were appalled. We were in complete awe of what the decision was and we hope that … this decision could get rescinded at some level," Shahalemi said.

"The majority of the people of Afghanistan are starving and they are locked out of their funds. They cannot access their bank cards. They cannot access their bank accounts. Many of them are in a position where … they shouldn't need to be because they do have money in the banks," Shahalemi added.

Others were even more adamant in their criticism. "Biden's decision on frozen Afghanistan money is tantamount to mass murder," wrote Austin Ahlman, a Politics Fellow at The Intercept, a progressive news website. "The decision puts Biden on track to cause more death and destruction in Afghanistan than was caused by the 20 years of war that he ended."

Ahlman added that most Democratic and Republican members of Congress have been reluctant to criticise the decision to seize the funds, which happened shortly after the Taliban took over the country in September last year. The only exceptions, he noted, have been Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. 

"Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian catastrophe," tweeted Sanders weeks before the executive order was signed. "I urge the Biden administration to immediately release billions in frozen Afghan government funds to help avert this crisis and prevent the death of millions of people."'

The White House has not responded to the criticism. In a press briefing on 16 February, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki reiterated: "No funds can be transferred until the courts make a ruling." 

US troops withdrew from Afghanistan in September 2021, ending nearly two decades of a costly war. Many say that the US withdrawal was premature, derailing all the progress that had been made over the years in the country and that it paved the way for the Taliban's return to power. 

With the Taliban back in control of the country, the humanitarian situation has drastically deteriorated as over a million Afghans have fled the country for fear of reprisals. Now, the Biden’s administration to commandeer the country’s money leaves those left behind in even more dire straits. 

A moral imperative

Until the US courts rule on what happens to them, it is still unclear what exactly will happen to the Afghanistan funds. In the meantime, rights organisations and activists are likely to continue to pressure the Biden administration to rescind its decision.

The Intercept reported earlier this month that some family members of the 9/11 victims opposed the move to allocate Afghan funds for their compensation.

"There is not only a moral imperative in doing this, but there is also a national security interest in doing this and preventing Afghanistan from sliding into total collapse," said Terry Rockefeller, who lost a sister at the World Trade Center on 9/11. "I think the Biden administration should have been more courageous and said that it was their position that this was not Taliban money and they would get it to the Afghan people."

Written by: Olivium staff.


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