As Afghan People Boil Grass to Eat, US Refuses to Release $7 Billion of Assets

A year after the Taliban took over Afghanistan and occupation, the Biden administration has ruled against releasing $7 billion of U.S.-held Afghan assets. However, the United Nations warns that a staggering 95% Afghans are not getting enough food. “This money belongs to the Afghan people. And the U.S., for 365 days, has been holding their money in a New York vault while Afghan people are boiling grass to eat, are selling their kidneys, are watching their children starve,” says Unfreeze Afghanistan co-founder Medea Benjamin. We also speak to Shah Mehrabi, the chair of the audit panel of the central bank for Afghanistan. He says that price stability is essential in order to give cash back to Afghans so they can buy basic necessities.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN: This week marks one anniversary of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan after more than two centuries of U.S. wars and occupation. As the United Nations warns a staggering 95% of Afghans are not getting enough to eat, with that number rising to almost 100% in households headed by women, the Biden administration announced this week that it had ruled out releasing roughly $7 billion in foreign assets held by Afghanistan’s central bank on U.S. soil. That’s according to The Wall Street JournalWhich? reports Biden’s decision not to return the funds came after he ordered the assassination of al-Qaeda’s leader in Kabul. Ned Price, spokesperson at the State Department, refuted reports that the Biden administration has stopped releasing billions of dollars worth of foreign assets.

NED PRICE: I don’t mean to play media critic today, but there has also been some inaccurate — highly inaccurate reporting today regarding the ultimate disposition of the $3.5 billion in reserve funds. The idea that these funds have been withdrawn from Afghanistan is simply false. It is false. Our current focus is to continue efforts to make it possible for the $3.5B in licensed Afghan central bank reserves that can be used only for the benefit the Afghan people. …

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s presence on Afghan soil, in conjunction with the knowledge of senior Haqani Taliban Network members, only confirms our deep concerns about the possibility of funds being diverted to terrorist groups. So right now we’re looking at mechanisms that could be put in place to see to it that these $3.5 billion in preserved assets make their way efficiently and effectively to the people of Afghanistan in a way that doesn’t make them ripe for diversion to terrorist groups or elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. Shah Mehrabi is the chairperson and professor of economics at Montgomery College of the audit committee at the central bank in Afghanistan. He’s also a former adviser to the Afghan president. His recent piece for Al Jazeera is headlined “Afghanistan’s economy is collapsing, the US can help stop it.” Also with us, longtime peace activist Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Unfreeze Afghanistan and CodePink. She last visited Afghanistan in April with an American Women’s Peace and Education Delegation.

We are happy to welcome you both. Democracy Now! Shah Mehrabi, let’s begin with you. Can you explain what the U.S. has been doing, what $7 billion means, and why the U.S. holds onto it, if any?

SHAH MEHRABI: Thank you so much for inviting me.

It’s important, I think, to mention the fact that President Biden, on February 11th, split the Afghanistan reserve, which was $7 billion, into two — that is, $3.5 billion to be used, as President Biden mentioned, and I quote, “for the benefits of Afghan people” and the remaining $3.5 billion to be set aside for September 11 plaintiffs to litigate. Now, the policy of splitting this, obviously, has created a situation where the central bank of Afghanistan could easily — this policy could easily decapitalize the central bank and, in turn, could easily dismantle it.

So, establishing, in a way, a mechanism that will allow central bank to use its reserve for the purpose — and the main purpose of the central bank is to bring stability and to strengthen the currency and also stabilize the economy — is very important. I think this function cannot be performed — the central bank cannot fulfill its primary objective of price stability, that is done by continuously engaging in foreign exchange auctions to prevent depreciation of local currency against foreign currencies and be able to bring price stability, because ordinary Afghans, if there’s no stable prices, they are not going to be able to buy basic household goods at reasonable prices. Inflation is currently at 52%. It will be necessary to reduce it. Auctioning could allow for a situation in which this inflation of double-digit 52% could be reduced to one level. Higher prices are one of many causes of poverty.

Now more than 70% of the world’s poorest people are women. Then there are the children and women who can’t afford to buy basic necessities. They can’t buy bread. They cannot buy cooking oils. They can’t buy fuel or sugar. I think it’s very important that Afghans be allowed to have their cash to be able to buy these basic necessities, to be able to have access to cash. The central bank must also return the Afghanistan reserve to Afghans so that both businesses and ordinary Afghans can have access to it. USD, to be — businesses specifically to be able to pay for imports, and then ordinary Afghans to be able to get access to the deposits, because now the cap that is placed on ordinary Afghans and businesses, even at that cap, many of ordinary Afghans and businesses cannot get access because there is a shortage of reserve in the country.

So, I suggested in September that the United States allow a limited monetary release to cover imports. I suggested $150,000,000. I suggested that access could be restricted to a specific use. This is for auctioning purposes. This can be independently monitored by an external auditor and audited.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ned Price —

SHAH MEHRABI: And if it’s — if it’s not, then it should be terminated. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Ned Price (State Department spokesperson) directly addressed the question of money going to Afghanistan’s central bank. He said this.

NED PRICE: We don’t see recapitalization of the Afghan central bank as a near-term option. We’ve engaged, and we still continue to engage, Afghan technocrats with the central bank for many months now about measures to enhance the country’s economic — macroeconomic stability. We just don’t have confidence that the institutions, safeguards and monitoring are in place to manage those assets responsibly.

AMY GOODMAN: Shah Mehrabi, he’s directly addressing your bank, the central bank of Afghanistan, says can’t handle it.

SHAH MEHRABI: This is what I meant. It is necessary to have a means, a mechanism to test us. This will be a trust-building tool. As I stated, let the money go, monitor it, and have independent auditors to check if it is being used for the intended purpose. That is to auction the items and ensure price stability. This process could also build confidence and be considered a trust-building tool between the United States government, Taliban.

Now, the United States government needs to be actively engaged, and I think dialogue should continue, as it is, I’ve argued, in the best interest of the United States. This temporary pause is understandable, I think. But the United States’ strategic interest in the long run dictates that there has to be a dialogue and engagement; otherwise, I think I would argue the United States will pay higher price if Afghanistan collapses, because a failed state could create more space for terror organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, The Wall Street Journal reports Biden’s administration has ruled out releasing the billions in foreign assets worth billions of dollar because they learned of and then killed Ayman alZawahiri (al-Qaeda leader in Kabul), according to reports. What is your response?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Three-quarters of a million Afghans should not be punished for the fact that a 71 year-old figurehead from al-Qaeda lived in Kabul. This money belongs the Afghan people. The U.S. has kept their money in a New York vault for 365 days while Afghans are boiling grass to eat, selling their kidneys, and watching their children starve. This is outrageous. This money must be returned. For over 20 years, the U.S. established a central bank with a monitoring mechanism in Afghanistan. It’s one of the only things that continues to exist after 20 years of U.S. occupation. Now it wants to dismantle the central bank and create a separate mechanism.

I think the Biden administration, instead of listening to the war hawks in his own party and the Republicans, should listen to the women’s organizations in Afghanistan, the 9/11 family members, the economists from around the world, including Joseph Stiglitz, the human rights organizations, who have all said that this humanitarian crisis can only be solved by reinvigorating the economy and returning the Afghans’ money to their central bank.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re here talking about — I don’t know if it’s seven — whether it’s $7 billion or $9 billion, but half of that, because the other half, the Biden administration has determined, would go to the 9/11 victims. Medea, could you respond to that? And also this issue — I mean, you’re a longtime women’s rights activist, a feminist — of the enormous crackdown on women and girls in Afghanistan, how that money would not go to supporting the Taliban, who are doing this?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: The lawyers will really benefit from the lawsuits brought by a few 9/11 family members. And I think we should listen to the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, who have spearheaded a letter that 76 family members have signed, calling — saying that not a penny of that money should go for the 9/11 families, it should all go for the Afghan people.

As a feminist, I am certainly opposed to the policies of the Taliban, which have been horrific in not letting girls go to secondary schools and forcing women to cover themselves when they’re out in public and saying they can’t travel around the country without a guardian. All of this must be opposed. We are in constant contact with Afghan women who are trying to change these policies. They are already being victimized by Taliban. The United States should not make them suffer by taking the funds they need to keep their economy afloat. About 50,000 Afghan women-owned businesses are still operating in Afghanistan. They need bank access to pay the salaries of their employees. Access to the bank is essential for women pensioners to receive their pensions. So, as a feminist, and I think all feminists should say, let’s help reinvigorate the Afghan economy so that people can get jobs and that they can feed their children.

AMY GOODMAN: Shah Mehrabi, your final comments? And would you be open to the idea of a third party receiving this money?

SHAH MEHRABI: I believe that a mechanism is being discussed that will allow the transfer to fund to be used, from my perspective, for price stability as well as for reducing volatility in the exchange rate is a positive development. There has been, as I stated, a pause. But the pause should be temporary. And I think negotiation and dialogue that will enable the central bank of Afghanistan to have access to its reserve must continue, as it is not only in the best interest of the United States, but it’s in the best interest of ordinary Afghans.

I want to also mention that there’s no — that no increase in the humanitarian aid can compensate for the macroeconomic harm of higher prices for basic commodities. This is, you may be aiming for a bank collapse or balance of payments crisis. I believe that this could have devastating consequences for Afghan society, affecting the most vulnerable members of the population. And I believe we have all the tools and mechanisms necessary to reverse it. And I think the freezing of Afghan assets will not — very important: It will not weaken the interim Taliban administration, while the overwhelming impact of that will be on — it will fall on innocent Afghans, who have suffered decades of — decades of war and poverty.

I believe that while we have the ability to reverse this, why don’t we go ahead and reverse the worst economic and humanitarian crisis? And I think the best way is by having — releasing the Afghanistan reserve, that rightfully belong to Afghan people, who established an independent central bank, and allow the central bank to be able to manage, to maintain this reserve and to be able to safeguard the international value of afghani, which is the national currency, and restore and keep and maintain price stability and also be able to allow and foster liquidity and also bring confidence in Afghanistan money and exchange rate policies.

AMY GOODMAN: We are grateful to Shah Mehrabi, chairperson of the audit committee at the Afghanistan central bank, economist, and economics instructor at Montgomery College. Medea Ben, co-founder CodePink, Unfreeze Afghanistan. Please stay with us. When we come back, I want to ask you about the Biden administration’s sanctions on Cuba, making it difficult for Cuba to effectively respond to a recent tragic fire, also the military budget that has been proposed, and the sentencing of a Saudi feminist to decades in prison in Saudi Arabia. Keep watching.