WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s administration moved Friday to block $7 billion in frozen assets that Afghanistan’s central bank held in New York, a first step to split the proceeds in half to benefit relatives of 9/11 victims and Afghans facing a humanitarian crisis after America’s military withdrawal.
Biden signed an executive order citing emergency economic powers to consolidate the $7 billion in assets that Da Afghanistan Bank held in the U.S. and to require U.S. financial institutions to transfer the funds into an account held at the Federal Reserve Bank. When Kabul fell in August, the Afghan government left behind around $9 billion in reserves across several countries, the majority in the U.S.
The Biden administration wants to enable relatives of certain victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks who sued the Taliban to pursue $3.5 billion of the assets. The other $3.5 billion would be used for further humanitarian aid for Afghans as their country faces a collapsing economy, widespread famine and the return of the Taliban’s brutal rule after 20 years of U.S. occupation.
The unprecedent move comes as Biden faces a continued backlash over his administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, which has resulted in new humanitarian strains in the war-torn country. Thousands of U.S.-allied Afghans, including interpreters and Afghan National Army soldiers who teamed with the U.S., have been unable to escape.
The transfer of the funds could still be several months away. A federal court in New York will have to first rule on the scope of claims made by 9/11 victims for their compensation, according to a senior Biden administration official, and the court must authorize the use of other funds to benefit the Afghan people.
The New York Times first reported on Biden’s order ahead of the president’s signature.
The $3.5 billion set aside in a third-party trust fund for the Afghan people will include controls to prevent the money from directly benefiting the Taliban government, the official said. The Taliban has claimed they have a right to the central bank’s assets. The aid is in addition to existing federal funds helping Afghanistan, including $516 million since mid-August.
More than 150 relatives of 9/11 victims sued a list of targets including the Taliban and al-Qaida nearly 20 years ago for their roles in the terrorist attacks. Although a court found the defendants liable, there was no mechanism to force them to pay damages. After the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August, the 9/11 victims’ relatives argued they are entitled to funds kept in the central bank.
A report from the United Nations released last week found more than 100 former members of the former Afghan government, its security forces and others who worked with the U.S. have been killed since the Taliban’s Aug. 15 takeover. Two-thirds were killed at the hands of the Taliban, despite the militant Islamic group’s promise of “amnesty” for Afghans who allied themselves with the U.S. during the war.
A humanitarian crisis has engulfed Afghanistan, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres also reported, with 24 million Afghan in need of humanitarian assistance, up from 18 million last year.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.