U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order Friday allowing approximately half of the $7 billion in frozen assets from Afghanistan's central bank to be reserved for victims of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The remaining assets, $3.5 billion, will be set aside in a trust fund slated for humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, according to the White House.
The Taliban immediately condemned the move.
Mohammad Naeem, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, said in a tweet, “Stealing the Afghan people’s money that was frozen by the United States is the lowest a country could stoop to morally and humanly. Defeat and victory are part of human history but the greatest and scandalous defeat for a country or its people is when they suffer militarily and morally as well.”
Meanwhile, Munir Akram, Pakistan’s United Nations envoy, said, "This money is critically needed to revive and sustain the Afghan economy, inject much needed liquidity, and to save millions of lives in the middle of a harsh winter.” Pakistan is Afghanistan’s neighbor.
“There is something wrong with a financial system where one State can unilaterally block the National assets of another to pay off questionable claims by its own citizens,” Akram said.
The $7 billion in funds from Da Afghanistan Bank, the country’s central bank, that were on deposit at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, have been frozen since then-President Ashraf Ghani’s government collapsed after the Taliban takeover at the end of August 2021. The country has experienced economic collapse and food insecurity since then.
Following the 2001 attacks, the Taliban, who were in control of Afghanistan at that time, refused to give in to U.S. demands to hand over Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11 and dismantle his terror group, al-Qaida. For years, the families of 9/11 victims have been pursuing financial compensation through U.S. courts and have renewed their efforts to claim it from the Taliban following the group's takeover last year.
“A judge has already given a writ in our system in order to freeze those funds in place so that these claimants can have their case heard,” a senior Biden administration official told VOA when asked what the moral justification is for keeping funds belonging to the Afghan people – who were not responsible for the 9/11 attacks – for the 9/11 claimants.
The funds will be held while the claims of 9/11 victims move through the U.S. court systems until a decision is made “consistent with our country's law and values,” the official said.
Some families of 9/11 victims criticized the decision.
“We firmly support the distribution of a large portion of these frozen assets to help mitigate the horrific humanitarian crisis and as aid to those suffering in Afghanistan today,” said Brett Eagleson, son of 9/11 victim Bruce Eagleson, in a statement on behalf of many in the 9/11 community. “However, for those funds intended for the 9/11 families, leaving this matter to a court, as this action by the Administration would do, will force the families of those killed on 9/11 to fight amongst each other. That is wrong, unfair and unjust.”
In a background briefing call with reporters, the Biden administration official acknowledged that this is “an unprecedented situation” where the U.S. is holding $7 billion in assets of a government they do not recognize.
“I think we are acting responsibly to ensure that a portion of that money can be used to benefit the people of the country,” he said.
It is also still unclear how the Biden administration plans to distribute the $3.5 billion for humanitarian needs of the Afghan people.
“We're still working through the modalities of that trust fund and the governance structure of that trust fund, as well as the specific uses of the funds,” the official said.
“These are the reserves of the Afghan people, they're not the reserves of the Taliban,” said Jacob Kurtzer to VOA. Kurtzer is director and senior fellow with the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“And so, freezing them and starting to divvy them out based on our own internal calculations, I think sends the wrong message to the people of Afghanistan about what role the United States is playing in terms of responding to the humanitarian, and really to the economic crisis that they're experiencing,” he said.
Kurtzer said the moral imperative for the Biden administration now should be to help sustain the Afghan economy to not rely solely on humanitarian aid – a complicated task considering no country has given formal diplomatic recognition to the Taliban as the legitimate government in Kabul.
Dealing with the Taliban
Biden’s decision reflects the reality that the Taliban have not changed and are a rogue regime, said Husain Haqqani, director of South & Central Asia at the Hudson Institute.
“It is important to understand that the Taliban’s claim to assets of a government they fought to topple is just not justified,” Haqqani told VOA. “Taliban and their apologists have only been using the specter of a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan to justify trying to take money that the international community had provided for a very different Afghanistan.”
The Biden administration official said that President Biden’s move is legally authorized by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, including the International Emergency Economic Powers Act that provides the president broad authority to regulate a variety of economic transactions following a declaration of national emergency.