On May 12, 1996, Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Secretary of State, appeared in the TV program, 60 Minutes. Lesley Stahl asked her on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: “We have heard that a half million children (actually, 567,000 Iraqi children under the age of five) have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright coolly replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.” Never mind that she later regretted for her “cold-blooded and cruel” reply, she would always be remembered in history as a mass murderer.
Over the past forty years, the United States has abused its supremacy in global capital markets to advance its foreign policy interests. This has led to the financial sanctions placed on some twenty countries. Since 1979, Iran has been one of the worst sufferers of U.S. sanctions. Iranian frozen assets in international accounts are calculated to be worth between $100 billion and $120 billion. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in July 2015, the US agreed to cancel most US sanctions against Iran, with some safeguard provisions, in return for limitations on Iran's nuclear program. When Donald Trump came to power, the U.S. reimposed the Iran sanctions in 2018, and was able to block Iran’s access to Western financial markets, to the protestations of every other great power.
While the two countries are now talking in Vienna, President Joe Biden has not yet lifted economic sanctions against Iran. By signing again on the dotted line, Iran could regain access to $100 billion in frozen foreign reserves and sell more oil at a market price that’s near $100 per barrel. A return to JCPOA would also open new trade and investment opportunities for an Iranian economy that badly needs them. But can Washington be trusted?
Talk about blackmailing! Consider the case of Afghanistan.
When Kabul’s American-backed corrupt government fell to the Taliban, Afghanistan had around $10 billion in the form of US treasury bonds, gold offshore and other investments held in the name of the Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), or the Afghan central bank, outside of Afghanistan. This included $7 billion in reserves held in the United States, with the rest of the reserves largely being held in Germany, UAE, Switzerland, and a couple of other states. When Taliban came to power in August 2021, the Biden administration promptly froze the Afghan reserves held in the USA to exert financial leverage over the new regime.
As Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation continued to worsen with the bleak prospect of millions of people dying there due to starvation, and in the face of worldwide condemnation, the White House issued an executive order on Feb. 11, 2022 “to Preserve Certain Afghanistan Central Bank Assets for the People of Afghanistan.” The order will take $3.5 billion and use those assets “for the benefit of the Afghan people and for Afghanistan’s future pending a judicial decision.” The Biden White House will seize the other $3.5 billion and use it to compensate a small group of 9/11 victims.
Reportedly, President Biden’s decision was influenced by a default judgment in favor of a group of 9/11 families secured against the Taliban as a non-sovereign entity a decade ago. At the time it was viewed as a largely symbolic ruling. After the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last year, however, this same group of families went after the central bank’s assets held in the New York Fed. Using some bizarre logic, a federal district court ruled that because the Taliban now controlled Afghanistan, the plaintiffs could go after the frozen assets — even though the United States does not recognize the Taliban as the lawful rulers of Afghanistan (and even if they did, Afghanistan was not named as a sovereign defendant in the initial lawsuit).
According to legal experts, in seizing nearly half of Afghanistan’s hard currency reserves the United States is taking a bad financial situation and making it worse. As Arianna Rafiq (who practices international arbitration and public international law in the Paris office of an international law firm) has noted in the EJIL:Talk!, “to the extent that the State was found liable and international law rules on reparation were given attention, reparation should be limited. If ever a case against crippling compensation could be made, it is here.”
Obviously, such a cruel decision by the Biden White House is devastating to all Afghans. Torek Farhadi, a financial adviser to Afghanistan’s former U.S.-backed government, questioned the legality of Biden’s order. “These reserves belong to the people of Afghanistan, not the Taliban … Biden’s decision is one-sided and does not match with international law,” said Farhadi. “No other country on Earth makes such confiscation decisions about another country’s reserves.”
One Afghan American activist told Al Jazeera: “What Biden is proposing is not justice for 9/11 families, it is theft of public funds from an impoverished nation already on the brink of famine and starvation brought on by the United States’ disastrous withdrawal.”
Clare Daly, a member of the European Parliament, twitted, of the Biden executive order as, “Profoundly evil and sadistic. The only conceivable motive for it is cruelty. This money belongs to Afghans, dealing with devastating US sanctions and the legacy of 20 years of brutal occupation. Now being stolen by the United States. An act of international banditry.”
It is no-brainer that Biden’s executive order undermines a future of economic stability and growth in the war-torn country. The national economy simply cannot function without a central bank and a reliable trading system.
Biden’s executive order has essentially forced everyone to witness American firepower of its fully operational machinery of coercive financial statecraft. It also says it loud and clear that it is okay to rob assets legally held by another sovereign government to reward its own citizens. If another country pulled this move it would be viewed as outright robbery! But who dare challenge American exceptionalism?
Biden’s decision is wrong by all counts! Even Hamid Karzai, who as the first president of the now-defunct US-backed Afghan government from 2001 to 2014 was a beneficiary of the post-9/11 regime change in Afghanistan, called on President Biden to reverse his decision to give $3.5 billion of Afghan reserves to relatives of victims of the September 11th attacks. He said the move was “unjust and unfair” and was an “atrocity” against the Afghan people since they had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.
Professor Moustafa Bayoumi of Brooklyn College, City University of New York, echoes the sentiment in the Guardian, UK, “To take Afghan money to pay grieving Americans in order to punish the Taliban is nothing less than larceny as collective punishment.” He asks, “First, why must ordinary Afghan citizens who had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks have their savings confiscated and their lives immiserated by bureaucrats in Washington? … Why should the people of Afghanistan be held responsible for Taliban’s actions? Nor did any of the 19 hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks come from Afghanistan. The truth is that the Afghan people have overwhelmingly been the victims of the Taliban and of al-Qaida, and to take Afghan money to pay grieving Americans in order to punish the Taliban is nothing less than larceny as collective punishment.”
While one can feel sad about the victims 9/11 and agree that their families deserve justice for their losses, why should this kind of first-world financial hostage-taking only move in one direction? Shouldn’t we also look for redress for the Afghan and Iraqi victims of Western barbarity that was led by Bush-Blair war criminals?
The U.S. and its allied forces have killed nearly a quarter million Afghans since 9/11. Most of these victims were ordinary civilians who had nothing to do with 9/11. Nearly half of all civilian airstrike casualties were children.
Thanks to the more than four decades of war, Afghan land is contaminated with unexploded ordnance, which kills and injures tens of thousands of Afghans, especially children, as they travel and go about their daily errands. The war has worsened the effects of poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of access to health care, and environmental degradation on Afghans’ health.
Let’s also not forget that after 9/11, the Afghans were subject to systematic torture at the hands of Americans at Bagram airbase, merciless American drone attacks, murderous night raids and so much more.
And how about the casualties of the CIA-induced Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-1989 that witnessed the death of two million Afghan civilians?
Is the Biden Administration ready to recompense the families of two and a quarter million Afghan victims of the US crimes?
The U.S. Declaration of Independence proudly proclaims, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In the very spirit of that proclamation, if the families of 2,977 American victims of 9/11 could be paid $3.5 billion dollars, how about paying $2.65 trillion (US dollars) to the families of the Afghan victims? That would be fair. After all, the Afghan lives matter and they’re created equal; they are no less worthy than those American victims of 9/11.
While the American victims of 9/11 are not facing starvation, the same cannot be said of the Afghan victims of America’s direct and indirect wars since 1979. A prolonged drought, the ravages of the pandemic, and the freezing of western aid since the Taliban seized power has left the country in shambles. Without a concerted effort from the international community, more civilians will die in the coming year than have been killed by decades of warfare. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently said, “virtually every man, woman and child in Afghanistan could face acute poverty.” “Babies being sold to feed their siblings. Freezing health facilities overflowing with malnourished children. People burning their possessions to keep warm. Livelihoods across the country have been lost.” “Freezing temperatures and frozen assets are a lethal combination for the people of Afghanistan,” he warned.
Projections through the winter estimate that 22.8 million people will face “high levels of acute food insecurity.” This is 55 percent of Afghanistan’s population, the highest ever recorded in the country. At least 98 percent of the population is not getting enough food, according to the UN World Food Programme. One million Afghan children face acute hunger. Over three million suffer from malnutrition. Almost three-quarters of a million people were displaced from their homes from last year’s fighting, in a country where four million people had already been internally displaced.
The Afghans need all the help we can muster. And nothing can be worse than confiscating what truly belongs to them.
America has lost the Afghan war. She needs to learn magnanimity in defeat and not vengeance. How many millions of innocent men, women and children should be sacrificed in order to punish the “victorious” Taliban? This collective punishment is horribly wrong and immoral. The Biden administration can avoid being eternally condemned with the stroke of a pen before it is too late.