The Pillage of Afghanistan

The Biden administration’s actions are immoral.
An Afghan man scavenges for items in garbage, Kabul, November 7, 2021 (CNS photo/Zohra Bensemra, Reuters).

On February 11, President Joe Biden signed an executive order allocating the funds of the Afghanistan central bank that are frozen in the United States. The money—about $7 billion—was seized by the U.S. government when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August and is currently held at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Biden’s executive order splits the funds roughly in half: one part goes to fund potential payouts to families of 9/11 victims who have brought cases against the Taliban; the rest is to be put in a trust “for the benefit of the Afghan people.”

In the past several months, the people of Afghanistan have been facing what may be the worst humanitarian disaster in the world: 23 million people—over half the population—endure conditions of extreme hunger, and a million children under five are at risk of death by starvation. The proximate cause of the devastation is a crop failure, but that wouldn’t have caused nearly as much harm without the total collapse of Afghanistan’s economy, which was caused by our seizure of its government’s funds and the restrictions Washington placed on foreign aid to the country.

International aid organizations are strongly opposed to the decision. They insist that the money belongs to the Afghan people, and that the United States has no right to decide what to do with it. But others say the United States must try to keep the funds out of the hands of the Taliban government, which could use it to secure their oppressive regime. Writing in Foreign Policy, Charli Carpenter argues that putting the money in a trust for Afghanistan could have been a reasonable step toward getting it back to its rightful owners while keeping it away from the Taliban. But that wouldn’t address the current emergency. Afghanistan needs money now to stabilize its economy, and this can’t be done through piecemeal disbursements or even well-administered aid.

Afghanistan needs money now to stabilize its economy.

Carpenter claims that the other half of Biden’s order—the use of Afghanistan’s funds to compensate 9/11 victims—would constitute “pillage—an international war crime.” As the Washington Post’s editors point out in an otherwise flawed editorial, there is an “apparent tension” in the executive order: “It does not consider the money as the Taliban’s, except, implicitly, to the extent it can be used for compensating the Sept. 11 victims.” That tension is more than just “apparent.” In effect, the order punishes ordinary Afghans for crimes committed by Al Qaeda and siphons off the country’s wealth as they attempt to recover from a twenty-year occupation by the United States.

There are alternatives to this pillage. Carpenter lays out a few of them: identifying a “government-in-exile” to administer the funds, as was done for Eastern European countries after World War II, or working with the Taliban government to administer the funds while maintaining sanctions on individual Taliban leaders. Perhaps the best option would be to work with the World Bank and the United Nations to get money directly into Afghans’ bank accounts so that they can buy their own food. This could save millions of lives.

Any of these options would be better than continuing to sit on the wealth of an entire country in which 95 percent of its population doesn’t have enough food to eat. As 125 Afghan women leaders wrote in an open letter to Biden, “Taking funds from the Afghan people is the unkindest and most inappropriate response to a country that is going through the worst humanitarian crisis in its history. It is the squeezing of a wounded hand.”

Published in the March 2022 issue: 

Regina Munch is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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