As the Taliban was approaching Kabul this past summer, Afghanistan’s independent central bank called an emergency meeting. Whatever happened next, the board members knew, at least one thing was certain: a shock to the country’s economy was coming. The U.S. had spent nearly two decades building a sophisticated, professional central banking institution designed to help the country weather such shocks.
By law, the bank operated independently of the government and was essential to keeping the export-import economy and the local banking sector liquid. As an occupying power, the United States controlled Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves — over $9 billion largely denominated in U.S. dollars — and doled it out to the central bank. One tranche of $300 million was set to be delivered on August 14, but the central bankers learned the U.S. had ordered it halted, according to board member Shah Mehrabi, an economics professor at Montgomery College who continues to serve on the central bank’s supreme council.
The bankers leaned on then-President Ashraf Ghani to lobby Secretary of State Tony Blinken to release the funds, and Blinken relented. But the next day, the Taliban entered Kabul. Mehrabi got a call from the comptroller general asking him what to do, and Mehrabi ordered him to count the currency and gold on reserve and lock the vault. Back in Washington, Blinken again halted the money. While the vault has since been open, and the central bank is continuing to operate, the transfers, which had been occurring at regular intervals, have not yet resumed. The Taliban barely fired a shot in taking over the country last summer, but the U.S., with the press of a button, has flattened it.
The economic fallout has been extreme, much as it would be if the U.S. Federal Reserve suddenly lost access to its own capital. The result has been bank closures, mass business failures, soaring unemployment, collapse of the currency against the dollar, soaring inflation, and death by starvation. Desperate Afghans have resorted to selling off their belongings for food or burning them to stay warm. A migration crisis is brewing. The Biden administration’s sanctions have deepened the economic collapse, while the White House has also urged European partners and multilateral institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to similarly starve the nation of capital.
Congressional Democrats are divided over how to respond the Biden administration’s continuing insistence on driving millions of people in Afghanistan to the brink of starvation and beyond, a policy that has produced a humanitarian catastrophe that threatens to morph into a U.S.-fueled genocide.
“These are not American taxpayer funds,” said Mehrabi. “People are under the illusion that these are United States funds. These funds belong to Afghanistan. The central bank will have to be in a position to have access to its own reserves.”
The lack of liquidity that is driving the famine has very little in the way of a policy motivation, beyond the Biden administration’s insistence that the Taliban adopt an “inclusive government” that includes former opponents. In 2002, the Taliban offered to surrender and be involved in such an inclusive government, and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai initially accepted. But the U.S. forced him to reject the offer in favor of total war — a war the U.S. lost two decades later.
Yet Democrats in Congress have been muted in their criticism, and competing efforts — two letters have been circulated and sent to President Joe Biden so far, with at least two others currently in circulation, collecting signatures — to weigh in on the situation have complicated the ability to ramp up pressure. The strongest push has been a letter led by Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Reps. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., and Chuy Garcia, D-Ill., that last month called on Biden to release the assets without condition, lift sanctions on the Afghan government, and stop blocking international aid. Releasing Afghan money unconditionally has also been advocated by the U.N. secretary general, the International Red Cross, and aid organizations who say no amount of aid can substitute for restarting the economy. “If you unfreeze the money, then you can put liquidity back into the marketplace, and the economy will start to come back up,” said David Beasley, former Republican governor of South Carolina and now executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Programme. “If you don’t, we’re not going to need to feed twenty-two or twenty-three million people per month—we are going to need to be feeding thirty-five million people. . . . This country will absolutely collapse.”
The number of Democrats on the letter, 48, was robust but still far short of a majority of the caucus. Five days earlier, a letter organized by Reps. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J.; Jason Crow, D-Colo.; and Peter Meijer, R-Mich., insisted the Taliban meet significant conditions before the U.S. would release its stranglehold on the economy, and advised funneling money through the United Nations to pay teachers at schools still enrolling girls directly, rather than letting the Taliban-led government administer it or allowing the independent central bank to play a role.
They’ve since begun working on a second letter, obtained by The Intercept, that is currently in circulation, calling for the Afghan funds to be routed to the United Nations and distributed as humanitarian aid, despite the fact that their own diagnosis of the problem suggests that their solution is fantastically inadequate. “The crux of the problem is liquidity,” the letter reads, accurately. “Afghan banks have imposed withdrawal limits due to limited access to dollars. Afghan businesses have begun hoarding hard currency and prices are rising daily, including for flour, rice, bread, and other necessities.”
“We urge you to release a substantial portion of the frozen assets, including to support teacher and civil servant pay through UN agencies, while designating a private bank to perform central bank functions,” the letter suggests, ignoring the fact that the U.S. spent 20 years building a central bank in Afghanistan — which the Taliban have allowed to continue operating with full independence, according to board member Mehrabi.
This week, the confused Democratic posture toward Biden and Afghanistan was on full display, as an additional draft letter, also promoting a conditions-based approach, circulated and got more than 30 representatives and four senators to sign as of Friday evening. That fourth letter, led by Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Jamie Raskin, D-Md., shared many signers with the Jayapal letter (including McGovern and Raskin). The legislators in the overlap had put themselves in a confused position: calling first for the assets to be unfrozen unconditionally, then for their release only under certain conditions.
The confusion emanates from McGovern’s role on the letter. As McGovern is known as a human rights champion, many members assumed the letter was a strong one given his lead involvement, according to some who signed.
According to a copy of the letter that was shared with The Intercept, these conditions included “opening all girls’ schools, admitting women to universities, and allowing their employment; protecting the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, as required under the United Nations Charter; ending violence against citizens as attested to by human rights organizations, and establishing a more inclusive government, among others.”
According to aid organizations, the Taliban have largely allowed girls to continue in school and women to continue at work — though the latter has become difficult under the country’s worsening economic strangulation, particularly for those who are dying.
Reached for comment on the conditions-based letter, the lead authors, McGovern and Raskin, backed away from it.
Raskin told The Intercept in an email Tuesday night: “Because of valid concerns raised about a condition-based approach to the release of frozen Afghan assets, this letter will not go out in its present form on the House side.”
Another signer of the defunct letter, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said that she was reviewing it with her staff and that she opposes conditioning sanctions relief. Aaron Fritschner, a press secretary for signer Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., told The Intercept in an email today: “He would prefer that it be done without conditions but having it unfrozen with conditions would be better than not having it unfrozen at all.”
At least one of the progressive signers, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., was unflinching in her support for conditioning release of the central bank assets, despite a record of opposition to the types of sanctions and conditioned asset seizures the draft letter effectively endorsed. “The idea that $9 billion in frozen Afghan government assets should be handed over to the Taliban regime without conditions and have it guarantee a humanitarian benefit for starving women and children is completely unrealistic,” Bill Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff, told The Intercept in an email Tuesday night. Less than a month earlier, McCollum had signed Jayapal’s December letter that did not call for criteria to be met.
“Punitive economic policies will not weaken Taliban leaders, who will be shielded from the direst consequences, while the overwhelming impact of these measures will fall on innocent Afghans who have already suffered decades of war and poverty,” the Jayapal letter read. “It is also important to clarify that the overwhelming majority of reserves returned to the central bank of Afghanistan will be used primarily to purchase imports by Afghanistan’s private sector, which comprises the dominant share of Afghanistan’s economy.”
On the Senate side, a press secretary for Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., referred to the letter as a “discussion draft” and would not say whether the conditions language will stay in place.
Other signers on the Friday draft letter included Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Mich.; Jamaal Bowman, N.Y.; Mark Pocan, Wisc.; Mondaire Jones, N.Y.; Carolyn Maloney, N.Y.; Raúl Grijalva, Ariz.; and Steven Cohen, Tenn.; as well as Sens. Jeff Merkley, Ore., and Elizabeth Warren, Mass. The remainder were Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Ore.; André Carson, Ind.; Gerry Connolly, Va.; Veronica Escobar, Texas; Anna Eshoo, Calif.; Al Green, Texas; Hank Johnson, Ga.; Kai Kahele, Hawaii; Bill Keating, Mass.; John Larson, Conn.; Andy Levin, Mich.; Alan Lowenthal, Calif.; Doris Matsui, Calif.; Jerry McNerney, Calif.; Seth Moulton, Mass.; Elizabeth Holmes Norton, D.C.; Donald Payne, N.J.; Tom Suozzi, N.Y.; Eric Swalwell, Calif.; and Peter Welch, Vt.; and Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin.
Other Democrats who haven’t signed any of the letters thus far are also split. Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., told The Intercept Wednesday that he favors releasing the money without conditions. He said that his colleagues are having a hard time getting on board with the policy because they just don’t want to touch Afghanistan as an issue.
“A lot of people think that this would be wasted money, just like we wasted our time in Afghanistan. I don’t believe that at all,” he said. “All of these folks who were saying, we abandoned them, wait till you see what their reaction is when we try to provide some assistance.”
Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said that he was concerned about corruption in Afghanistan. “The corruption there is just rampant and we don’t want to be funding our enemies or enemies of the Afghan people,” he said. When pressed on whether the human toll could be so great that he’d be willing to reconsider, Lynch said, “Well, it can happen because we withhold money or because we misdirect it, those deaths are going to occur.”
Told the money would be released to an independent central bank, he said he didn’t believe it was genuinely independent. “I think every nickel that goes in there, we have to be very careful. If we had an individual, independent bank to process that, that would be a different situation. But no, I think there’s the very real danger that any dollar we put into Afghanistan is gonna go directly to the Taliban,” he said.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., told The Intercept she disagreed with Biden’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan but agreed with his seizure of the assets. “I’m not for funding terrorists,” she said.
If America continues on its current trajectory, the United Nations warns, more than 20 million people face starvation. Mehrabi, the Montgomery College professor and Afghan central bank official, stressed that if American policymakers wanted to avoid this mass starvation and assuage their corruption concerns, they could closely monitor the money. An electronic record of the transaction would enable the U.S. to watch it move to local banks and overseas to pay for imports. Mehrabi said that he had previously advised releasing $150 million per month to engage in Afghani purchases aimed at stabilizing the currency, and that allowing some of the money to flow would restore confidence and go a long way to combating inflation and the currency depreciation, the twin drives of the crisis. “The main function of the central bank is to bring price stability,” he said, adding that there are international auditing firms that still operate in Afghanistan and could monitor the flows if the U.S. didn’t trust their own ability to watch the electronic records.
He stressed that the money would not go to the Taliban. The new government, he said, has consistently respected the law on the books that makes the central bank independent of the government. There are quarterly meetings with Afghan government officials, he said, but there is no interference.
The notion of creating a new central bank was both absurd and unrealistic, he said, given that there is already a highly professionalized one built by the U.S. While some employees of the bank fled, he said, many stayed. “They are all experienced. Allow the civil servants to do their job. If they don’t do it, you can cut them off,” he said. “There’s no risk in releasing. Show that merchants can pay for their essential imports so we can avoid the gyration in currency and price rises.”
A heavily cash-dependent economy, Afghanistan also needs access to its paper currency, but it does not have the capacity to print money on its own. The central bank had contracted to have it printed by a Polish firm, said Mehrabi, but the firm has declined to deliver $3 billion in Afghanis. Mehrabi said the bank also appealed to Qatar, but Qatar similarly declined to facilitate the transaction. Both entities cited fears of U.S. sanctions.
The irony, he said, is that the resulting crisis has triggered the United States to offer a round of $300 million in humanitarian aid routed through the United Nations, and so Democrats will still face images of cash flying into Afghanistan. And, he added, “those are taxpayer funds.”