Stealing From Afghanistan in Times of Famine

By Andrew Leber

Last Friday, the Biden administration made headlines with an executive order (E.O.) concerning $7 billion in Afghan central bank funds held in the United States: aiming to transfer half the amount to a fund for humanitarian aid while keeping the other half frozen in place to face lawsuits against the Taliban by relatives of victims of the 9/11 terrorism attacks. 

Much as the E.O. claims to “address the humanitarian and economic crisis in Afghanistan,” it does so by means that are too slow and slapdash to address the present crisis, while affirming what amounts to theft of sovereign Afghan funds to compensate U.S. citizens. The jarring contrast therein has had the unintended side effect of clashing with the Biden administration’s overriding priority for Afghanistan policy: avoiding the U.S. media cycle at all costs.

In Afghanistan, limited access to foreign currency reserves has caused the price of basic food items-much of it imported-to skyrocket. The crisis has left as much as 98% of the country without sufficient food, where people resort to selling blood or even trying to sell kidneys to get their families through another week. Against this backdrop, the E.O. underscored the basic immorality of the United States (GDP/capita ~$63,000 in 2020) holding hostage billions of dollars in badly needed foreign exchange owned by Afghanistan (GDP/capita ~$2,000). 

May we all have the moral fiber of Barry Amundson in empathizing with the grief of 9/11 families but calling on them to recognize what it means to seek compensation from the Afghan people: “While 9/11 families are seeking justice for their loss through these suits, I fear that the end result of seizing this money will be to cause further harm to innocent Afghans who have already suffered greatly.” 

Biden, we are informed by knowledgeable observers, has his hands tied by the U.S. legal system. Relatives of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have legal claims against the Taliban, which a federal court ruled can in turn be applied to Afghan government funds now that the Taliban have seized control of the country. If the Biden administration has struggled to explain its reasoning, however, it is likely because it recognizes that legalese won’t distract from the underlying injustice. “No matter what legal rationale is being provided,” Dan Drezner wrote for the Washington Post, “the federal government is stealing Afghanistan’s money.”

This proposed theft highlights the status-quo cruelty of existing policy: denying the Afghan people much-needed hard currency to pay for imported food and other essential items in the midst of an economic crisis bordering on famine. 

While United States troops have been withdrawn after nearly 20 years of occupying the country, the present political economy is still shaped by both the American role in occupation and the sanctions it has levied in retreat. The United States played an outsized role in bringing Afghanistan to this point, spending the whole of the occupation sponsoring a slapdash post-Taliban political system dominated by U.S.-aligned warlords while flooding the country with aid dollars without a semblance of oversight or long-term state-building. 

On the eve of the U.S. withdrawal, foreign aid accounted for a whopping 43% of Afghanistan’s GDP and around 75% of public spending. This funding vanished in the aftermath of the Taliban’s rapid battlefield victory in the summer of 2021 and the U.S. military and political withdrawal in August; the Biden administration halted most direct aid and put pressure on other international donors to follow suit (along with freezing the central bank funds).

“Isolation was fast and easy to do: It cost no money or political capital and satisfied the imperative of expressing disapproval,” noted Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group in an op-ed for the New York Times. The Biden administration has taken some steps to allow the direct provision of foreign aid to Afghanistan outside the auspices of the Taliban-controlled government. Yet piecemeal provision of aid through complex non-state mechanisms does not address the underlying currency crisis, risks diverting considerable funding to humanitarian aid contractors (and losing valuable time in doing so), and will continue to undermine Afghan state institutions. 

As a result, and despite the dramatic rupture of Biden’s full military withdrawal in August, the administration’s Afghanistan policy continues to prioritize domestic blame-avoidance over Afghan well-being. While there is no way to tell exactly how much Afghan hardship the Biden administration considers an “acceptable loss” in avoiding (inevitable) complaints that its policy has somehow empowered the Taliban, the answer is almost certainly “more than any administration official is willing to put in writing during their lifetimes.”

It is therefore beyond disingenuous for White House’s E.O. “explainer” to admonish the reader that there are “no easy solutions for Afghanistan’s economic challenges,” placing the blame instead on pre-Taliban disruption, deus-ex-machina drought, and Taliban mismanagement. It is rather that there are no easy solutions to the Biden administration’s political challenges at present, with administration officials conclusion that they cannot risk anything other than a bog-standard “tough on the Taliban” policy. 

To be sure, there is a broader organizing challenge of convincing Americans that the U.S. policy status quo leads to death and misery in Afghanistan as surely as arms sales to Saudi Arabia lead to death and misery in  Yemen. As Jack Crosbie notes for Discourse Blog, a majority of Americans (including a plurality of Democrats) oppose even the provision of aid to Afghanistan on the off-chance that some of it winds up in the hands of the Taliban. 

Yet the organizing challenge before a truly progressive Afghanistan policy is greater still: not simply generating favorable polling, but in fully persuading the Biden administration that it truly has more to fear politically from continuing a status quo that passively kills or exiles Afghans than from demonstrating a commitment to Afghan lives and livelihoods. 

Offering a path to U.S. residency and citizenship for Afghan refugees–especially those who assisted the prolonged U.S. presence in Afghanistan–polls well. Yet it has done little to spur Biden administration efforts to reform a sclerotic and under-funded asylum-processing system (to say nothing of the horror show that is the U.S. immigration system writ large).

Not only is the Biden administration content to let Afghanistan’s present economic crisis play out, but it is unwilling to risk any political capital to permit Afghans fleeing Taliban rule to seek asylum in the United States. The only route with the slightest chance of success for most Afghans is to apply for humanitarian parole–with U.S. officials in turn tut-tutting that even this is not appropriate for most Afghans, while specifying few credible alternatives for those who fear for their lives. 

Even in advance of the debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal, the Biden administration only agreed to restore theoretical U.S. refugee intake levels to pre-Trump levels in the wake of sustained public outcry. With current immigration judges perfectly willing to send political activists back to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, even Afghans fortunate enough to make it to the United States are nervously counting down the days left on their (temporary) authorization visas.

To truly demonstrate that human rights are at the center of Biden’s foreign policy, the administration can and should take two immediate steps with regard to Afghanistan.

First, the Biden administration should remove sanctions on the Afghanistan banking system and unfreeze (at least a sizeable portion of) central banking funds on an emergency basis (as called for by the Congressional Progressive Caucus). Failing this, the administration should at least be honest that the overriding goal of a U.S. Afghanistan policy is to conceal two decades of U.S. failures by starving Afghanistan into abject misery.

Second, the Biden administration should seek to pass a dedicated Afghan Adjustment Act through Congress, providing Afghans (at least those who worked in the past for either the U.S. or U.S.-backed Afghan government) with a pathway to U.S. residency for themselves and their families and legal protections in pursuing U.S. citizenship. Nothing short of hard legislation will provide Afghans in the United States with reliable legal protections, or offer a safe path to residency for those seeking refuge from abroad.

Andrew Leber is a graduate student at Harvard University’s Department of Government.

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