Unfreeze Afghanistan’s assets to avoid mass starvation
WASHINGTON DC: Representatives Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), Jason Crow (D-CO), and Peter Meijer (R-MI) led a bipartisan letter to the Biden Administration, calling for the release of humanitarian aid directly to the people of Afghanistan to help prevent a catastrophic collapse of their economy. The lawmakers argue this can be done without legitimizing the Taliban or providing the group any direct funding.
“To be clear, we are recommending steps below to provide aid funding to the Afghan people directly – not the Taliban – while also preventing economic collapse and developing a framework to ensure the Taliban uphold its commitments on counterterrorism, access to secondary school for girls, and the formation of an inclusive government,” wrote the lawmakers.
“No one benefits from a failed state in Afghanistan. While we will continue to press the administration to ensure that we protect the American people from any potential future threats that may emanate from Afghanistan and enable Afghans at special risk of persecution to leave their country, the United States has an equal responsibility to help the many millions more who will stay to survive the winter, to feed their children, and to preserve what can be salvaged of the progress made during the last 20 years,” they concluded.
Dear Secretary Blinken and Secretary Yellen,
We write to you because the people of Afghanistan, whom we have fought with and for over the last 20 years, are on the verge of famine and economic collapse and believe that decisive action is needed to prevent a humanitarian disaster. We have no desire to help the Taliban government and believe that there is an approach that the U.S. can take to help prevent a catastrophic collapse of Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy while not providing legitimacy to the Taliban.
To be clear, we are recommending steps below to provide aid funding to the Afghan people directly – not the Taliban – while also preventing economic collapse and developing a framework to ensure the Taliban uphold its commitments on counterterrorism, access to secondary school for girls, and the formation of an inclusive government.
According to the World Food Program, Afghanistan “is on the brink of economic collapse.” Approximately 18.4 million Afghans need humanitarian assistance, including 30% of the population facing emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity, including 2 million children. Much of this is driven by the inability to afford food rather than access alone. These challenges are compounded by a liquidity crisis, preventing millions of Afghans from receiving salaries. Even Afghans with savings in the bank are unable to withdraw funds in sufficient quantities as banks and other institutions run out of dollars.
The growing economic and food crisis has prompted fears of mass migration that may further destabilize the region. These fears are compounded by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province’s (ISKP) direct challenge to Taliban rule, increasing the risk that portions of the country could become safe havens for extremist activity. Simply put, famine and a migration crisis would make it easier for ISKP to gain a foothold in the country.
Accordingly, we recommend that the Biden administration release frozen Afghan assets to an appropriate United Nations agency to pay teacher salaries and provide meals to children in schools, so long as girls can continue to attend. UN agencies have recently launched an initiative to pay teacher salaries by using private banks and mobile services, bypassing the Taliban-led government.4 The Biden administration should assist these efforts and ensure that funds released beyond initial allotments hold the Taliban-led government to their commitment to allow girls and young women to attend secondary school nationwide.
Second, the Biden administration should provide additional guidance to financial institutions to clarify the existing sanctions exemptions on humanitarian aid. Doing so will make financial institutions more comfortable processing aid transactions without fear of violating U.S. sanctions while also expanding targeted exemptions to ensure that humanitarian assistance flows more freely. These steps, implemented with proper oversight, would not support the Taliban government but would ensure that Afghans have access to the basic services they need to survive while bypassing the Taliban government.
Third, the Biden administration should assist multilateral organizations attempting to pay Afghan civil servants, the vast majority of whom are hold-overs from the previous government and have gone unpaid for months. The World Bank recently agreed to release to UN agencies an initial $280 million of the $500 million from the frozen Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) to assist the public sector and the U.S. should support the Bank with any technical or sanctions-related hurdles.5 The continuation of funds should be predicated on actions by the Taliban to live up to their commitment to appoint an inclusive government that ensures the rights of minorities and women are protected and their voices are heard in any future government. Working closely with these partners ensures that the funds are used properly and do not end up in the hands of the Taliban, but instead provide the critical, targeted assistance needed.
Fourth, the Biden administration should allow international financial institutions to inject the necessary economic capital into Afghanistan to stave off the worst of its economic meltdown while avoiding the transfer of money to the Taliban-led government. In the short term, the World Bank, with US help, should systemize dollar-for-afghanis swaps between humanitarian agencies and Afghan businesses. Ultimately, Afghanistan will need an entity to serve as a central bank. The country’s economy requires a bank to cover its foreign currency transactions and purchase foreign currency for transport into the country, otherwise, legitimate actors—humanitarians, importers, farmers—cannot function. The Biden administration should signal openness to designating a private Afghan or third-country bank to facilitate dollar auctions not only to stop a meltdown but to enable ordinary Afghans to get back on their feet without having to depend on the Taliban.
Finally, while the administration has pledged generous donations for previous UN appeals for Afghanistan, this winter could push Afghanistan to collapse. The upcoming United Nations appeal is expected to be the largest UN appeal in the world, meaning Afghanistan would be the worst of all humanitarian disasters. The United States and its allies should prepare to rally donors to contribute their fair share.
No one benefits from a failed state in Afghanistan. While we will continue to press the administration to ensure that we protect the American people from any potential future threats that may emanate from Afghanistan and enable Afghans at special risk of persecution to leave their country, the United States has an equal responsibility to help the many millions more who will stay to survive the winter, to feed their children, and to preserve what can be salvaged of the progress made during the last 20 years.
Nearly 775,000 American troops served in Afghanistan, and thousands of Americans and Afghans alike gave their lives or were wounded. We have an obligation to honor this service and sacrifice by standing by the Afghan people as they continue the fight for human rights and the future of their country.
We request that the Treasury and State Department brief us regularly on the strategy regarding Afghanistan and to include oversight mechanisms so we can ensure that the Afghan people are the sole recipients of international aid, not the Taliban. The first of these briefings should include the administration’s response and proposed plan to the above-mentioned steps and we request it be provided no later than January 14, 2022. We look forward to working with you on this issue.