With the world’s attention drawn to the horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine, the head of the UN’s refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, traveled to Kabul last week to implore the international community not to forget Afghanistan. As Afghans continue to suffer, it is crucial that President Biden heeds Grandi’s call and takes urgent action to address the country’s humanitarian crisis.
As 9/11 family members, we know what it is like to lose loved ones to untimely and unjust death. We look on in horror at the current plight of the Afghan people who, after decades of war, are now in the midst of an unprecedented famine — a famine for which the United States bears significant responsibility and must do everything in its power to stop.
Last month, the Biden administration froze $7 billion in assets from the Afghan central bank that were in limbo following the Taliban’s takeover of the country last August. While the administration said it will use half of the funds to benefit the Afghan people, the other half was set aside to settle lawsuits brought by some 9/11 families.
But this money does not belong to the Taliban or to 9/11 families. The money belongs to the people of Afghanistan.
Cut off from the world financial system and deprived of its central bank funds by the U.S. and its allies, the Afghan economy is being crippled. The freezing of these funds means that wages aren’t being paid, money is not flowing and the economy is in free-fall. These funds include the savings accounts of ordinary Afghans who are unable to access their own hard-earned money. Reports indicate that there is food available in Afghanistan, but people are starving because they don’t have access to cash to purchase it.
Today in Afghanistan, millions face starvation. More than nine in ten Afghans have suffered through the winter without enough food to eat. Understaffed and unpaid health workers are struggling to treat babies and children in overcrowded malnutrition wards across the country. At least one million starving children are at risk of dying without urgent intervention. Experts warn that the total death toll from this humanitarian crisis could be “far more” than that from the last 20 years of war combined.
It is not the Taliban leaders who are suffering. It is ordinary Afghans, and in particular, women who are left destitute in the bitter winter, unable to buy fuel to heat their homes or food to feed their children.
Humanitarian aid, while helpful, is also hampered to a great extent due to the freeze and will not reach Afghan families fast enough to save lives. As long as banking can’t function, whatever aid can reach the ground is simply not enough to address the growing humanitarian catastrophe.
Some 9/11 families, known as the “Havlish” plaintiffs, won a judgment against the Taliban years ago and their lawyers are now claiming rights to the Afghan central bank funds. We can understand and sympathize with those who joined lawsuits long ago, seeking a measure of justice for their loss. But depriving innocent Afghans who had no part in 9/11 does not bring justice.
When 9/11 families joined lawsuits years ago, many did so in order to seek declassification of information and to force discovery about possible Saudi government involvement in our loved one’s murders. Many of us never could have imagined that these lawsuits would now be used to seize money belonging to the people of Afghanistan.
There are many legal complexities in this case, and nobody wants these funds to be abused by the Taliban. But there are existing proposals to allow funds to be released to the central bank in a responsible, monitored way that will ensure they are used to stabilize the economy and save Afghan lives.
We implore the 9/11 families in these lawsuits to join us in urging Biden to amend his executive order to clarify that all the Afghan central bank funds belong to the Afghan people, and to take the necessary steps to get that money infused into Afghanistan’s economy without delay.