Theft of Afghans funds will only worsen crisis

Images of destruction in Ukraine fully capture the attention of U.S. citizens. The antiwar community of which I belong naturally recoils when we see violence unleashed as the only means to resolve conflict vs. the preferred alternative, employing tools of negotiation supported by international law and human rights. But it is possible to be aware of the war in Eastern Europe while at the same time not forgetting other serious conflicts that demand our attention, conflicts that the U.S. media ignore, convinced perhaps that their viewers cannot focus on more than one crisis at a time.

How easily we forget the conflicts our own government creates. Afghanistan is facing a crisis of unparalleled proportions, a nation decimated by war, natural catastrophe/famine and now, deliberate U.S policies intended to punish the Taliban but will impact the undeserving Afghan people. This is a consequence of harsh U.S. sanctions including a freeze on nearly $10 billion in Afghanistan’s Central Bank reserves, $7 billion of that in U.S. banks. Tragically, more Afghan civilians could die now than during the past 20 years of war. Norwegian Refugee Council chief Jan Egeland explained, “It is now, paradoxically, the Western sanctions that are our main problem in saving lives in Afghanistan.”

Twenty years ago, the U.S. invaded and occupied Afghanistan to the tune of trillions and stayed in the “Graveyard of Empires” far longer than the Soviets. Our military bombed relentlessly, including residential areas, in that sovereign nation causing tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Afghans now face starvation, but instead the sole focus is on refugees fleeing Ukraine. Of course, we should care about refugees of war everywhere, but not without looking long and hard in the mirror at our own imperialist background, understanding that everything the U.S. has touched militarily post-WWII has consistently left a worse trail of death and destruction in its wake.

To add insult to injury, the Biden administration has proposed to confiscate the $7 billion in frozen funds currently held in U.S. banks, giving half to a humanitarian aid trust fund and half to families of 9/11 victims, instead of returning it all to the banking system. Numerous international law experts see this as a dangerous precedent, using half of the funds to award U.S. citizens and the other half for a vague “trust fund” with no details of how those funds would be managed or distributed. The foreign exchange reserves Afghanistan has built up provide a valuable cushion to use, as any country’s foreign exchange reserves should be used: for balance of payments, exchange rate, monetary policy management and support for the banking system.

This cynical theft proposed by the U.S. government is causing the single most devastating year in Afghanistan’s recorded history, already one of the world’s poorest countries. The only right course of action is to lift U.S. sanctions and release all the Central Bank’s funds. In addition to returning the entirety of their funds to them, the U.S. should add more funding for war reparations to offset all the harm our military inflicted. These measures would rescue the economy from ruin, allow families access to banking and to have desperately needed food, medicine, and firewood. At this critical juncture, we must not turn our eyes away from the impending humanitarian catastrophe that Afghans are facing.


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Writer, researcher, internationalist, an anti-racist who supports reparations for Black and Indigenous people. American settler of Swedish descent.