The average Afghan was not even alive when planes were flown into the twin towers on 11 September 2001. This is only one of the reasons why handing money from the Afghan central bank to the families of 9/11 victims would be unconscionable. Parents are already selling their organs to feed their children, 98% of the population is short of food, and unless cash starts flowing again things are about to get much, much worse.
The executive order signed by the Biden administration on Friday would allow Afghanistan’s $7bn US-held assets, frozen when the Taliban swept to power, to be halved. One half would be held pending the outcome of lawsuits brought against the Taliban by the families of 9/11 victims who have persuaded a judge to attach their case to the Afghan assets. The other half, if courts agree, would be used for humanitarian aid. The administration’s argument is that this may help get assistance to Afghanistan more swiftly, without having to await the outcome of the cases. The government can step into lawsuits to say what it believes is in the national interest, but decided that it would not object to any decision to award half the money to the families.
Though central bank funds are supposed to enjoy diplomatic immunities, it appears that the administration can act if a “recognised representative of the Afghan government” approves – raising obvious questions about who might now qualify. Whatever the legal technicalities, the moral case is clear. Afghans are not to blame for 9/11, though they have paid for it many times over. Some of the bereaved have already condemned the idea of taking Afghan money as a betrayal. Thousands of American families were devastated that day, and $7bn compensation was disbursed to bereaved relatives and the injured (many of whom faced huge medical bills); another $10bn is still being paid out. This is in stark contrast with Afghanistan, where, on the very rare occasions that the US made compensation or “condolence” payments for civilian deaths, relatives usually received a small four-figure sum.
The administration cannot claim the moral high ground because it proposes using some of the money for aid. Though most of it originally came from international donors, including the US, it is no longer theirs to spend, and some represents the personal savings of Afghans.
In any case, humanitarian relief is no substitute for a functioning, if floundering, economy. It is not merely that it raises the prospect of starving Afghans paying the salaries of western aid workers, and of a flood of food aid causing more long-term damage by crippling agriculture. The UN had already warned that the financial system could collapse within months; seizing the central bank’s assets could be the last straw. It’s true that those funds alone can’t solve Afghanistan’s underlying problems – but they are desperately needed to stave off some of the worst consequences.
Afghan experts and others have worked on imaginative solutions to restore liquidity without simply ceding control of assets to the Taliban. The problem is not a lack of means, but of will: relief is an easier political sell in the US, which is also believed to have blocked other countries from unfreezing funds. No one wants to aid the Taliban, whose primary victims are Afghans. But no one should claim the administration’s plan is in the best interests of the Afghan people.