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By Freezing and Seizing Afghan Assets, Biden Cements Himself as the Latest Champion of American Imperialism

Image via Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times / Shutterstock U.S. military plane leaves Afghanistan

That President Joe Biden was able to complete a successful withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan—despite facing significant opposition from Congress and the media throughout the process—is perhaps the crowning achievement of what has been, to date, an otherwise tumultuous presidency. The 20-year war in Afghanistan was an abject disaster: The United States spent over $2 trillion on a war that killed more than 230,000 people, including over 71,000 civilians, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project. The result of America’s two decades of adventurism and waste is a country still governed by the Taliban and suffering from an enormous humanitarian crisis—a crisis in which America is deeply implicated. Rather than addressing this crisis, the Biden administration has taken the step of freezing and claiming $7 billion deposited in the United States by the former Afghan central bank, with at least $3.5 billion of that money to be distributed to families of the victims of 9/11. Biden’s decision to deny $3.5 billion that could go toward humanitarian aid to Afghan civilians who had nothing to do with 9/11 represents a despicable culmination of US efforts to compartmentalize the Middle East as a singular entity while completely disregarding human life. The United States has provided almost $800 billion in aid, but the additional $3.5 billion could have made a substantial difference. To divert a sizable sum of much-needed possible aid money to the pockets of Americans is tantamount to exacting collective punishment on the Afghan civilians of today, people who had nothing to do with 9/11, primarily for being Muslims living in the Middle East. Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal seemed the first step in a promising reversal of US imperialist policy, but the decision to divert aid money solidifies Biden as yet another callous executor of the US neoimperial project who cares nothing for the lives of people living in the Global South. 

Biden’s seizure of the funds is predicated upon the assertion that, given that the previous Afghan government has dissolved, there is no clear owner of the money. Consequently, the Federal Reserve made the funds unavailable for withdrawal. The Taliban made claim to the money as the current Afghan government but were unsurprisingly denied; the Taliban has struggled to gain global recognition as a legitimate government. When addressing the humanitarian crisis, though, the United States and the rest of the world need to acknowledge that, right now, the Taliban serves as the Afghan government. This is not a normative statement about Taliban governance; it is an acknowledgement that the Taliban controls Afghanistan. By refusing to cooperate with them and imposing punishing sanctions, the United States is only exacerbating the crisis. Currently, the Taliban is the only governing force with the capacity to materially affect issues of poverty and famine within Afghanistan; sanctions only keep supplies out of the hands of the Afghan people. Washington’s desire to undermine the Taliban is predictable, yet the only functional outcome of its political posturing is to make the situation in Afghanistan worse. How the United States feels about the Taliban government is a secondary issue–the Taliban is the current Afghan government and has a legitimate claim to money put into a central bank by the Afghan people. To continue to impose sanctions and freeze assets, rather than engaging constructively with the Taliban, will continue to sow death and destruction in Afghanistan on behalf of the American empire. 

While the United States decides what to do with this Afghan money, Afghanistan itself currently faces a massive humanitarian crisis. Upwards of 20 million Afghans—more than half the population of the nation of 39 million—are at risk of famine and need humanitarian assistance. The nation’s health care system is on the brink of collapse. In January, the United Nations launched a record-setting appeal for funding of more than $5 billion, warning that the situation will only become more costly if the world waits to act. The United States has previously committed almost $800 million dollars for aid, and after unfreezing the $7 billion, aims to contribute another $3.5 billion, though these funds would allegedly go into a distinct trust. Still, what the United States has pledged is insufficient to solve a severe—and worsening—humanitarian crisis, especially when viewed in light of the fact that Afghanistan’s current situation is rooted in the 20-year American occupation. The American contribution falls well short of the UN’s requested $5 billion, especially when viewed in light of the fact that the appeal was made in January, and America’s commitments date back to October 2021. The United States entered Afghanistan on a state-building mission, asserting dominance over the political sphere while simultaneously undertaking destructive military operations. The result is a nation the United States has left without strong institutions to address the material conditions of the people in the country, issues which were already exacerbated by a foreign military presence. To go even further and actively seize Afghan assets for distribution to Americans is nothing short of detestable. 

The Biden administration has offered a convoluted legal rationale for its decision. Still, this does nothing to change the enormity of the fact that the United States is denying Afghanistan its own money in the wake of a dire humanitarian crisis. A number of families of 9/11 victims won default judgments after suing al-Qaeda and groups accused of aiding and abetting them, such as the Taliban. After the fall of the Afghan government, however, the plaintiff in one case secured a writ of execution ordering the Federal Reserve to seize the $7 billion; others who filed similar lawsuits have also come forward. Biden’s executive order would put $3.5 billion in a fund and leave the task of handling claims and potentially distributing the money to the courts. To call this outcome—the legal system of a neoimperial power justifying the seizure of money from a nation it occupied for the past two decades—justice is to endorse US global hegemony, disregarding the harm it can cause to innocent people worldwide, especially in the Global South. The point is a simple one: This money is not America’s to take. A writ of execution issued by a US judge does not change that. The legal system of the colonizer does not make neocolonial resource extraction acceptable. Money held by the Afghan central bank belongs to the Afghan people—and that is true even without considering Afghanistan’s dire need for the money. There is no moral justification for the Biden administration’s actions in seizing $3.5 billion that the Afghan people desperately need and using it on a political stunt that has nothing to do with the people of Afghanistan. Most of the attackers on 9/11 were Saudis, while none were Afghans—for the United States to use Afghan money to compensate the families of victims of 9/11 epitomizes America’s orientalist view of the Middle East as a singular, homogenous entity that exists only to be exploited to fit America’s economic and strategic interests. 

Biden’s successful withdrawal from Afghanistan made it seem, for a moment, that America was beginning to move on from the disastrous two-decade War on Terror. Ultimately, though, Biden has proven himself to be just as much of a champion of the American empire as any other post-9/11 president. That he ended a deeply unpopular war does little to change that, especially given that his administration has since launched multiple attacks which have killed civilians—including a drone strike in Kabul that killed 12 civilians, an attack the Pentagon initially lied about. Biden’s decision to seize these Afghan assets and subsequently deny them to the Afghan people may not look the same as drone strikes or midnight raids, but it has the potential to inflict more suffering and death than America’s military presence ever could. Biden had an opportunity to chart a better course regarding American foreign policy after the Afghanistan withdrawal, but this seizure cements his status as another American leader who will work to perpetuate American neoimperialism while disregarding the harm it causes.