ISLAMABAD (DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - US President Biden's decision to divert half of the frozen Afghan central bank funds held in the United States to the families of the 9/11 victims is meant to punish the Afghan people who been devastated by two decades of the US-led war.
Nothing could be more brutal than taking revenge for its military humiliation on a starving population. The move will bring the Afghan state closer to economic collapse, exacerbating the ordeal of the people.
Such vengeful action will not help efforts to bring some stability to the war-torn country. The unfolding humanitarian crisis has already pushed more than 90 per cent of the population into poverty and the irrational action by the Biden administration will worsen the situation.
President Biden last week signed an executive order allocating US$3.5 billion (S$4.7 billion) out of US$7 billion of the frozen Afghan assets for possible payment to the families of the victims of the Sept 11 attacks, while keeping aside the other half for humanitarian aid to the country. The aid money will be put in a trust fund to be managed by the United Nations. However, the allocation of those funds would be "pending a judicial decision".
The Afghan central bank assets abroad, totalling about US$10 billion, were frozen after the Taliban takeover of the country last August. An amount of US$7 billion was held in the Federal Reserve in New York. The Biden administration refused to release the funds to the Taliban regime which has not been recognised by the international community.
The financial sanctions have led to the collapse of the banking system in the country, further crippling an already broken economy. The seizing of Afghan assets will worsen the sufferings of Afghan women and children.
Justifying its decision, the Biden administration referred to a pending court ruling in a case filed by the relatives of the victims of 9/11 to seize Afghan funds. In 2012, a US court ruling awarded monetary damages to the families in a case that named Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda among other defendants. Some family members had approached the court for the seizure of Afghan assets after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
It is a most absurd argument for confiscating assets that belonged to the Afghan people who cannot be held responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attack carried out by Al Qaeda.
There is also the legal question of whether the US administration can seize assets belonging to another country. Unsurprisingly, the decision has drawn outrage from humanitarian organisations and various public figures. They described the action as cruel and inhuman. It also raises questions about the US administration's Afghan policy.
It appears to be a deliberate policy to further destabilise the Afghan state. It's not about the Taliban regime and its regressive policies but relates to the Afghan people who are the real victims of America's 'forever war'.
How can the Afghans be blamed for the 9/11 terrorist attacks? The majority of them in the country were not even born when 9/11 happened. Moreover, the country was under American occupation for 20 years.
The American action, which protesters in Kabul have called 'theft', came at a time when nearly half the country's population of nearly 40 million faces severe hunger and a million children are in danger of dying because of harsh winter conditions and virtually no medical care.
For the past six months since the Taliban takeover, almost all non-emergency aid for the Afghans has been stopped. International relief agencies have said that starvation could kill more Afghans than the past 20 years of war. In some areas, people have been selling their kidneys to escape hunger.
The US and international sanctions have caused what David Miliband, former British foreign secretary and executive officer of the International Rescue Committee, describes as "a catastrophe-of-choice imposed on the Afghan people". The United Nations and other humanitarian organisations have been calling for an end to the economic blockade in order to allow international aid to reach the Afghan people.
UN Secretary General António Guterres last month called on the World Bank to urgently release US$1.2 billion in reconstruction funds in order to ease the humanitarian crisis and prevent an economic collapse. Instead of easing the sanctions, the US has blatantly deprived the Afghans of their assets and pushed the country deeper into the crisis.
Of course, some international humanitarian aid has started trickling in but that cannot solve Afghanistan's economic crisis. The impending economic collapse will make it impossible to deal with the humanitarian catastrophe.
The latest action demonstrates that there is no indication of the Biden administration changing its policy towards Afghanistan. Indeed, the US has pledged more money than any other country for the Afghan relief fund. But the continuing financial sanctions and the splitting of Afghan assets will make this counterproductive.
It's a false narrative that easing financial sanctions would help the Taliban regime. In fact, by seizing Afghanistan's assets, the US would lose its leverage over the regime to remove restrictions on women to work and access education and to allow a more inclusive political set-up in the government.
It may be the right decision not to recognise the Taliban regime until it fulfils the conditions set by the international community. But the Taliban's retrogressive policies must not be used for punishing the Afghan people. The lifting of economic sanctions can be separated from the matter of political legitimacy for the Taliban regime. The frozen assets belong to the Afghan people and should be returned to them.
Barry Amundson, whose brother was killed in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, has rightly asserted that there could not be a "worse betrayal of the people of Afghanistan than to freeze their assets and give it to 9/11 families".
There is no excuse for punishing the Afghans who themselves are the victims of the US-led war. No one else but the Americans are to be blamed for the return of the Taliban rule. The seizing of Afghan assets will worsen the sufferings of Afghan women and children. And the collapse of the Afghan state would have serious implications for the region and international peace.
- The writer is the author of No-Win War - The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan's Shadow. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.