A Better Use of Frozen Afghan Funds

The reserves belong to the Afghan people, not the United States or the Taliban.

By , a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and director of Human Security Lab.
Protesters hold signs including one showing a cartoon of a U.S. soldier handing a child with missing arms a piece of candy, with the caption "Gift."
Protesters hold signs including one showing a cartoon of a U.S. soldier handing a child with missing arms a piece of candy, with the caption "Gift."
People hold placards during a protest against U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision on Afghanistan’s frozen assets in Kabul on Feb. 15. SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images

On Feb. 11, U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order releasing $7 billion in frozen, U.S.-held Afghan central bank reserves, of which half is ostensibly to be used for humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. According to the New York Times, Biden intends for the other half to remain in a U.S. account pending U.S. court rulings on whether the funds can be used to pay Taliban legal debts to 9/11 victims’ families.

On Feb. 11, U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order releasing $7 billion in frozen, U.S.-held Afghan central bank reserves, of which half is ostensibly to be used for humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. According to the New York Times, Biden intends for the other half to remain in a U.S. account pending U.S. court rulings on whether the funds can be used to pay Taliban legal debts to 9/11 victims’ families.

This move was understandably met with outrage. Washington Post analyst Daniel Drezner called it “stealing.” Emails and texts from former senior Afghan officials and civil society activists are filled with terms like “heartbreaking,” “shocking,” and “unacceptable.” An open letter signed by 100 representatives from the Afghan Women’s Network, including former ministers and parliamentarians, begs Biden to reconsider. Afghans on Twitter have pointed out: “The entire population of Afghanistan could reasonably be considered 9/11 victims.”

In truth, as Lawfare senior editor Scott Anderson explained, Biden’s order doesn’t actually hand over reserves to 9/11 families. It simply proposes that the funds sit in trust while U.S. judges decide whether those claims have merit and proposes a cap on how much can be held in abeyance pending those judgments, with the rest reverting more quickly to the Afghan people. A U.S. judge will have to agree to this though and ultimately be the one to decide whether 9/11 families get anything.

But since Biden had the power as executive to argue that any use of these funds for reparations would not be in the nation’s interest and instead decided, according to New York Times reporter Charlie Savage, that “the government will not object” if up to half of the money is awarded to 9/11 families, it is reasonable to see the president as complicit in this act should it come to pass.

Make no mistake: If the assets do end up garnished in this way, it could constitute pillage—an international war crime. It would also be a blight on the United States’ credibility as a lender of first resort. It remains to be seen whether that will occur. Biden has the power and authority to amend this order (as former Afghan President Hamid Karzai is also now requesting), and depending on what the courts decide and what comes of the various countersuits likely to be filed, he may not have to.

Still, the optics alone are counterproductive. The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Human Security Lab, which I direct, has been analyzing how the U.S. government can support Afghan women and human rights, having ceded most of its leverage through withdrawal. Afghan civil society activists the lab spoke to just prior to Biden’s decision were divided on whether the United States should release the Afghan reserves and work with the Taliban or continue withholding them to pressure the regime and ensure capital is available to any successor government.

However, all those the lab spoke to argued that Afghan reserves belong to the Afghan people, not to the United States or the Taliban, and are now rightly incensed. When both Human Rights Watch and the Taliban call something an outrage, it says a lot. If the goal is to support the people of Afghanistan, this is not the way.

There is perhaps a bigger problem, however. Amid outcry over the $3.5 billion set aside as potential compensation to American families, Biden’s plans for the other half have received relatively little scrutiny.

If we forget for a moment the grossly unjust decision regarding the remainder of the funds, other elements of Biden’s decision could be seen as reasonable and imaginative efforts to work around what he perceives as a thorny dilemma.

For months, Biden has been caught between unfreezing the assets, thereby allowing the Taliban to control them and risking them being spent on terror activities rather than on the Afghan population, or continuing to hobble the Afghan economy to pressure the Taliban on human rights and regional security.

The latter policy has left much of the country on the brink of famine, with women and younger children hit hardest. Although it looks bad to Afghans, in truth, part of this order’s purpose is to sidestep this all-or-nothing quandary by establishing a third-party trust to administer these reserves for Afghan civilians’ benefit in the absence of a recognized Afghan authority.

Had Biden not coupled this move with setting aside part of the money for possible reparations for 9/11 families, this could have been seen as an improvement of the status quo. Even so, much depends on how that order is executed. Although neither the executive order nor the White House’s fact sheet on it specify a mechanism through which that portion will reach the Afghan people, news reports suggest it will go to “humanitarian aid.”

Foreign Policy’s Michael Kugelman reported that Thomas West, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, said “the United States has not made a decision to convert the $3.5 billion moved to the trust fund specifically into humanitarian assistance” and that “he is consulting with Afghan economic experts about how the $3.5 billion should be used in Afghanistan.”

This is good news because if it were used as humanitarian aid, it would be a problematic strategy on a number of grounds.

Conceptually, humanitarian aid consists of donations from the international community. It is in essence a form of charity, meant to augment a country’s resources to support its people during a crisis. Seizing a country’s wealth and then giving it back as charity defeats the very concept of aid. It would be as if the U.S. government were to seize the bank accounts of poor Americans and then give the money back as welfare. Referring to such transfers of Afghans’ own money as aid risks offsetting the amount of actual aid international donors might be willing to provide.

A humanitarian relief approach to disbursing these funds would also have practical problems. Humanitarian aid is a short-term and easily manipulated solution aimed at keeping people alive during a crisis, whereas what would resolve the crisis would be long-term development projects, intra-Afghan peace, and a jump-start to the cash economy. Even development organizations may not be the best way to get Afghans’ own money to them, as much would be siphoned off to subcontractors and elites rather than going directly to local organizations and the neediest civilians.

Even if the humanitarian aid system made sense as a mechanism for wealth transfers, existing emergency aid efforts fall far short of what Afghanistan needs to get a toehold out of its economic crisis.

If the goal is to transfer Afghanistan’s wealth to the Afghan people rather than to the Taliban, there are several better options than channeling it through the unwieldy humanitarian aid system.

Aid practitioners the lab spoke to as part of its investigation insist the goal of these funds should not be to provide food, medicine, and services—all of which are already paid for through international appeals—but rather to quickly put cash in families’ hands. Food, for example, is abundant in many parts of Afghanistan; families just have no money to buy it.

The United States could channel money to the neediest Afghans through the United Nations Development Program’s “people’s economy” fund, the World Bank’s Humanitarian Exchange Facility once it’s up and running, or similar mechanisms designed to work around the Taliban.

Washington could also work to lift restrictions on World Bank and International Monetary Fund disbursements to Afghanistan. The World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund had previously paid the salaries of teachers, doctors, and sanitation workers but has been blocked since August 2021 by Washington’s restrictions on financial transactions that could involve the Taliban. Providing salaries (with appropriate monitoring mechanisms) means work for breadwinners as well as rejuvenating Afghans’ own capacity to provide health, education, and other services to one another—industries where women’s livelihoods are also concentrated.

Another strategy: Instead of using Afghanistan’s reserves to pay the Taliban’s legal debts to Americans, those funds (or other forms of U.S. aid) could be used to directly pay Afghanistan’s bills that contribute to economic recovery, such as electricity imports from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Since Afghanistan imports nearly all goods and services necessary to keep its population afloat, it would be within the United States’ power to go straight to the exporting states or industries to honor contracts. This would ensure the money goes to providing clean water, gas, oil, flour, and other key commodities.

A deeper question is whether the United States can legitimately make decisions about how to use these funds when they belong to Afghanistan’s central bank. Since the answer is almost certainly no, Washington must either choose another source of funds to mitigate the Afghan emergency or identify another actor or set of actors with standing to make decisions on the Afghan reserves.

With respect to the latter, proposals have been floated to work directly with civil servants at Da Afghanistan Bank, conditioning a steady flow of small transfers on the bank’s independence from the central government and cutting the transfers off if they are seized or used for other purposes than auctioning off dollars to private banks.

Alternatively, there is precedent for recognizing governments-in-exile as the legal authorities for a country. This approach was used for several Eastern European countries after World War II, and the Czech Republic currently recognizes Myanmar’s government-in-exile. Former Afghan national government representatives continue to hold posts in embassies around the world and Afghanistan’s United Nations seat. If the United States will not recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government, perhaps it should think about what could be considered the legitimate government rather than simply deciding how to spend the country’s money.

A significant portion of the country’s elite has fled and is regrouping in areas outside the country. These include former ministers (including the Greece-based Afghan women’s parliament-in-exile); powerful figureheads loosely organized into a Supreme Council of National Resistance; diplomats associated with track-two diplomacy efforts in Doha, Qatar, and Oslo, Norway; civil society actors, such as those associated with the Uprising for Change movement; and contenders for power, such as the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, the Hazara Resistance Movement, the Afghanistan Mujahideen Freedom Fighters Front, and other armed opposition groups, whom some analysts expect to coalesce into an armed uprising this spring if a solution is not found.

Rather than handing the Taliban propaganda victories, the United States could take the novel approach of constituting an inclusive, transnational Afghan interim authority to determine how to address the economic crisis—a sort of board of directors or transnational loya jirga—rather than either waiting for the Taliban to initiate a reform or simply taking Afghanistan’s money.

Or, since it technically holds the money, the United States could simply choose an actor or group best positioned to make decisions that would support Afghan civilians. Data shows women’s groups tend to better prioritize and diversify social support and basic needs for the vulnerable than other types of leadership, so involving the Afghan Women’s Network, a governing body that coordinates women’s civil society organizations’ efforts in the country, might be a smart option.

The United States could also use its U.N. Security Council permanent status to advocate for revitalizing the largely defunct U.N. Trusteeship Council to provide for Afghan civilians or make decisions about how to constitute an interim Afghan consultative leadership body until a recognizable and inclusive government controls the country. The upcoming Security Council discussion about renewing the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan mandate would be a fine opportunity for that.

Such a U.N. authority could determine how to allocate resources for subsistence and services, and a U.N. presence, especially one with peacekeepers from non-Western nations, could help support and enforce inter-Afghan peace. U.N. peace missions have been far more effective at stabilizing post-conflict contexts than the United States has been at nation building, and such a mission would potentially have far more legitimacy in Afghanistan. (The Taliban themselves once called for one.) Washington could offer to fund this mission using not Afghan reserves but the arrears it still owes the United Nations. (The Informal Expert Group of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom on the situation in Afghanistan has a variety of other suggestions as well.)

And if none of those options seem politically feasible, then the possibility of simply engaging with the Taliban to use the reserves to avert a famine should not be ruled out. More than half of the civil society activists Human Security Lab spoke with as part of its project argued this is preferable to allowing the country to starve. The United States, United Nations, and humanitarian and development communities have a long history of engaging with armed groups that lack legitimate authority but hold de facto power in areas where civilians are at risk—and Afghanistan is no different.

Nor need that imply recognition of the Taliban. This is a false dilemma: It’s possible to withhold diplomatic recognition and maintain sanctions on specific Taliban members without constricting Afghanistan’s ability to access its foreign reserves.

There are other options for assisting Afghan civilians that do not involve plunder. For example, the United States could dramatically increase its aid spending on Afghanistan; polls show U.S. citizens generally believe the United States should spend 10 percent of its budget on foreign aid, yet the country spends only a fraction of 1 percent.

The United States could also revamp its distribution policies to prioritize support to local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), hospitals, and schools rather than to subcontractors and international NGOs based in Washington and Geneva. It could identify which opposition groups have local buy-in and the ability to govern in specific provinces and direct aid to them. New research from Syria shows this strategy has legs. And, importantly, the United States could provide support and asylum to Afghans who fled and are now stuck in transit countries as well as help others, especially human rights defenders, leave the country.

Finally, since Biden has raised the topic of compensation for dead civilians, let’s not forget the more than 46,000 Afghan civilians who died due to the U.S. invasion and occupation. No Taliban involvement or legal gymnastics over the Afghan treasury would be required for the United States to voluntarily initiate a massive, nationwide condolence payment program for Afghans, similar to the lump sums it has sometimes paid families of civilians killed or injured during U.S. and allied military operations.

If 9/11 families deserve restitution from the Taliban, then certainly so do Afghans who have suffered death and disability from armed attacks, untold damage to property and livestock, displacement, war crimes, instability, and now starvation—much of this either at U.S. hands or due to U.S. policies since 2001.

It wouldn’t be enough and shouldn’t come at the expense of other strategies to help, but the United States could consider providing what would amount to sliding-scale stimulus checks to each Afghan citizen, jump-starting a cash economy in the short term while an intra-Afghan peace is worked out. And it could fund subsistence payments over a period of time for the neediest families.

This might sound like a lot of money—it would take roughly $40 billion to put $1,000 in the pocket of each Afghan—but that, plus a U.N. mission and ramped up development aid, would be pennies on the dollar compared to the $2.3 trillion the United States was willing to spend on counterterrorism in that land—a project that, in the end, left Afghans more or less where they were before, only with shattered hopes and dreams.

This (or any of the other wealth transference options suggested here) could be implemented swiftly for Afghans with internet access and mobile phones through TreasuryDirect, a system of online accounts where individuals can buy bonds and withdraw money from them; through MoneyGram International, similar to the manner in which Afghans can currently receive personal remittances; or through any number of local cryptocurrency schemes. To reach rural areas without internet access, printed bills could be airlifted into the cash-strapped country.

Such a program, coupled with responsibility-taking and apologies, would go a long way toward rebuilding goodwill and provide Afghans immediate, short-term relief—helping to mitigate the disastrous U.S. withdrawal and peace deal with the Taliban.

However, restitution money—as with humanitarian aid— must come from U.S. reserves, not Afghanistan’s, to be meaningful.

These may seem like outside-the-box, pie-in-the-sky solutions, and each will come with its own practical and legal dilemmas. But outside-the-box thinking is what led to Biden’s executive order and what will be needed to execute it.

That thinking should center Afghans within and outside the country; empower female leaders and minority ethnic groups; leverage Afghans’ capacity for peacebuilding, including through elders, religious scholars, and resistance movements; offer the Taliban a chance to earn a seat at the table rather than ostracizing them entirely; and focus on addressing the economic and political crises the Afghan people now face.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a senior research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and director of Human Security Lab. Twitter: @charlicarpenter

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