Biden to give Afghanistan's frozen assets to humanitarian aid, then 9/11 victims Scott Simon speaks to Foreign Policy columnist Lynne O'Donnell about President Biden's decision to give half of Afghanistan's $7 billion in frozen assets to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Biden to give Afghanistan's frozen assets to humanitarian aid, then 9/11 victims

Biden to give Afghanistan's frozen assets to humanitarian aid, then 9/11 victims

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Editor's note: The World Food Program did not have an opportunity to address issues raised about its work in Afghanistan in NPR's report on Feb. 12, 2022. The U.N. agency sends this response to NPR addressing some of the statements made in NPR's interview with Foreign Policy columnist Lynne O'Donnell:

The UN World Food Programme takes serious issue with the description of our work in Afghanistan in this NPR report of February 12, 2022. We are especially troubled that these unfounded comments by a Foreign Policy magazine reporter were allowed to go unchallenged on air, so we take this opportunity here to set the record straight.  

As the largest humanitarian organization fighting hunger worldwide — and one that has worked in Afghanistan for decades — WFP takes its responsibility for safe food distribution extremely seriously. WFP adheres to all international standards to ensure both that food is safe to consume and that distributions are well managed. We're aware of absolutely no incidents that would support any description of "rotten and inedible" food. No food safety incidents have occurred that could remotely lead to these allegations. And we certainly do not "dump" food.

The suggestion that there is "no monitoring of who is getting access to food" simply isn't credible to anyone who follows humanitarian aid practices. A defining feature of our work is making sure food goes to those for whom it's intended. WFP works closely with partners to ensure that the highest level of quality and standards are upheld for all WFP distributions. We enforce rigorous monitoring systems to ensure food distributions take place with all safety- and quality-control checks. To ensure independent monitoring and access hard-to-reach areas, WFP deploys third-party monitors. No distribution takes place without monitoring and assessment to ensure standards are maintained.


Some $7 billion from Afghanistan's former central bank has been frozen in U.S. accounts since the Taliban rose to power last summer. Yesterday, President Biden announced half the money would go to families of victims of the September 11 attacks because of the Taliban's complicity in that event, and that leaves the other half for humanitarian aid where hunger is rampant. Meanwhile, some in Afghanistan say that they need the money for its central bank to repair its economy.

Lynne O'Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine and joins us now from Islamabad. Thanks for being with us.

LYNNE O'DONNELL: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: How is this news being received in Afghanistan, where the director of the World Food Program says she fears, quote, "starvation, death, migration and radicalization"?

O'DONNELL: Afghan people inside Afghanistan are shocked, and they've received the news with some level of resignation. There's been an awful lot of revisionism since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan. Now, from the 15th of August last year, the assets of the country - the financial assets - were frozen by the United States and also by the United Nations Security Council. Now, what that has meant is that ordinary Afghan people have not been able to access their own money in their own bank accounts. You can go wherever you are in the world as an Afghan and put a card in an ATM, and your own money won't come out of it. This is Afghan people's own money. And so the way they have reacted to the executive order announced yesterday is that their money is being stolen, and they are being repeatedly punished for something that they were not involved in 20 years ago and are not involved in now.

SIMON: One of your colleagues, Jack Detsch, reported that it would still take months for that $3.5 billion to come into Afghan banks. Help us understand what it's like for Afghans just to try and get through a day now.

O'DONNELL: Well, there are some banks that have been able to give depositors a little bit of money every now and then. So the queues outside the banks in Kabul start at 3:00 in the morning, and the banks stay open for a couple of hours between 8 and 11, say. And after that, all of the people who are queuing up have to go.

The indignity of not being able to use your own money to buy food - there's plenty of food; there's just no money to pay for it - means that people are forced to line up just to get bread. What the World Food Program has been doing is handing out food from its own stockpile, so a lot of it is rotten and inedible. And they're also establishing food banks, where they dump food and people come and get it.

So there is no monitoring of who is getting access to food that is being handed out by the UN agencies. People stand in line for hours on end for a piece of bread. It's undignified, and I think that what is happening now with the money that really does belong to Afghan people being co-opted by the U.S. government in order to distribute half of it - $3 1/2 billion, as you said - to the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago, is really just going to exacerbate that misery.

SIMON: That will have to be litigated, won't it?

O'DONNELL: Well, the litigation goes on. That's right. But I would expect that there will also be some litigation from groups representing Afghan people. So it's not going to be soon. There has to be a trust fund set up to administer the money and make sure that it's not going to the Taliban. But all this takes time.

SIMON: Lynne O'Donnell, columnist at Foreign Policy.

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