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