Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., secured a vote Thursday on President Joe Biden’s refusal to release to the Afghan central bank $9.4 billion of its own foreign reserves. It marked the first-ever vote on the White House’s lethal policy of asset denial that’s causing the displacement, starvation, and death of millions of Afghans.
Jayapal introduced her measure as an amendment to a gigantic anti-China bill that would subsidize the U.S. semiconductor and other industries with hundreds of billions of dollars and ratchet up military activities in the Indo-Pacific region. The House of Representatives passed the legislation — called the America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing, Pre-Eminence in Technology and Economic Strength, or COMPETES, Act — on Friday. But the House rejected Jayapal’s amendment with 175 yes and 255 no votes, as 44 Democrats joined Republicans against the measure. (Two Democrats and one Republican did not vote on the amendment.)
Jayapal’s provision, drafted with Rep. Jesús García, D-Ill., would require the secretary of the Treasury to provide Congress with an assessment of the humanitarian suffering caused by U.S. sanctions on Afghanistan and its confiscation of the country’s foreign-held money. It would also mandate a review of illicit financial activities with China amid a breakdown of Afghanistan’s banking system.
At least eight other amendments to the broader bill target Afghanistan, reflecting a range of approaches to sanctions and relief. One provision sanctions individuals for trading the country’s rare earth minerals; another provides visas for Afghan Fulbright scholars. But none call out the Biden administration for its asset seizure.
As the Taliban neared Kabul last summer, Secretary of State Tony Blinken blocked the outflow of Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves, and he hasn’t lifted a finger since then. The U.S. had spent nearly 20 years building an Afghan central banking system that was independent of the government and, despite fearmongering by a number of Democrats and Republicans, still operates without interference from the Taliban.
“These are not American taxpayer funds,” said Shah Mehrabi, a member of the central bank’s board and a professor of economics at Montgomery College, arguing for the release of Afghanistan’s reserves. “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.”
Amid the loss of capital, Afghanistan has faced bank closures, business and trade ruin, skyrocketing inflation and unemployment, and starvation. Afghans have had to burn their belongings for heat or sell them to afford food. The devastation has led United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to call for the release of Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves to increase liquidity in the country’s economy.
Democrats’ reaction to the crisis has been jumbled, allowing the White House’s policy of squeezing the Afghan economy to fester. The party has split over whether to impose conditions on the Taliban before ending the freeze. Thursday’s vote tested where lawmakers stand on a modest proposal to report on the humanitarian situation.
The COMPETES Act is the House’s answer to the Senate’s United States Innovation and Competition Act, or USICA, that passed in a 68-32 vote last June. Once the bill passes, the House and Senate will reconcile the two for final consideration.
In the meantime, Democrats are still debating how to release the funds. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told The Intercept he spoke with the administration Wednesday about how to lift the hold. “I think they’re moving fast to try to get this money released,” he said. “Now remember, some of that money is going to be claimed by the 9/11 victims and that question has to be solved as well, but yeah, this is not our money. This is the Afghan people’s money, but I think you got to be careful about getting it directly to people in need.” Families of the September 11 attack victims are now seeking access to the funds after a court found the Taliban liable more than 10 years ago.
In a speech on the House floor Thursday, Jayapal urged her colleagues to support the amendment. Referring to a New York Times story reporting that more than 1 million Afghans have fled southwestern Afghanistan for Iran since October, the congresswoman said: “For millions already living hand to mouth, Western sanctions have led to life threatening hunger across the country as incomes have dried up and humanitarian aid has been obstructed.”
Jayapal told The Intercept that House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., and House Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters, D-Calif., recommended yes votes on the amendment. An email sent by Democratic staff on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and shared with The Intercept indicated that they supported the amendment.
Update: February 3, 2022, 6:05 p.m. ET
This story has been updated to include a comment from Murphy, a quote from Jayapal’s floor speech, and the recommendations of yes votes from Meeks and Waters for Jayapal’s amendment.
Update: February 4, 2022
This story has been updated to acknowledge passage of the COMPETES Act, without Jayapal’s amendment.