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Seizing Afghanistan’s bank reserves will further damage American interests

AP Photo/Abdul Raziq Saddiqi

If Joe Biden has a favorite movie, it’s probably “The Highwayman,” about an aristocrat who steals from the rich to give to the poor — but, Joe being Joe, he got it backwards.

What else  explains his recent decision to seize $7 billion in foreign exchange assets belonging to Afghanistan’s central bank, Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), that were held in U.S. financial institutions? While the White House talked a lot about sequestering half of the funds “to meet the needs of the Afghan people” it seemed less anxious to trumpet the fact that the other half might  be awarded to U.S. victims of terrorism, including the 9-11 attacks.

Also, the $3.5 billion set aside in a third-party trust fund “for the benefit of the Afghan people and for Afghanistan’s future” will be “pending a judicial decision,” so it’s possible the entire amount might be awarded to the 9-11 victims. And that trust fund will take months to set up, so the money is not available to avert anticipated large-scale deaths from hunger this winter.

Further complicating the Biden decision is that, according to Ambassador Tony Wayne, “an important chunk” of the seized reserves “actually belongs to individual Afghans and Afghan businesses… not at all tied to the government or the Taliban,” money that was being held by the DAB.

But if Washington is of a thieving mind, a better use of the money than already well-compensated 9-11 widows and orphans (and their lawyers) is to pay the salaries of the marooned Afghan diplomats who have no income and fear they will be deported.

Biden’s move was denounced by some media as “tantamount to mass murder.” The White House tried to defuse the expected criticism by claiming Afghanistan’s economic situation was already dire and it was all the fault of the Taliban anyway for the “forced takeover of the country.”

And that’s not all that happened in the last few weeks.

The Pentagon declassified reports, the existence of which was denied by the White House, blaming the humiliating retreat from Kabul on the U.S. ambassador, the White House, and the National Security Council (NSC), who downplayed the looming threat, then acted too late.

Just so you won’t get bogged in 2,000 pages of the bureaucratic ‘who-shot-John,’ the Pentagon kindly included details about “intoxicated” diplomatic personnel who “cowered” in their quarters as Kabul fell for that true end-of-empire vibe.

If Foggy Bottom pens a reply, it will be in more graceful prose, but it will be a weak response to DOD’s deft stroke because it failed the first rule of government disasters: Always send the first message. Regardless of who wins the pillow fight, the fact that the reports were originally classified — and 2,000 pages — will lend it some credence and allow America’s enemies  to claim that it is an accurate rendering of Washington’s heedlessness and incompetence.

And who leaked minutes of an NSC meeting of Aug. 14, 2021. that showed U.S. agencies finally assigning tasks for the identification and evacuation of at-risk Afghan partners? Unfortunately, these were tasks that should have been completed six months earlier, not mid-August. The meeting convened at 16:30 EST, shortly before sunrise in Kabul where the Taliban was readying itself on the outskirts of the city.

But there’s more…

An independent report announced that several Kabul hospitals received Afghan civilians killed by gunshots, not ball bearings that were part of the explosive vest worn by the attacker at Hamid Karzai International Airport that killed 13 U.S. service members and 170 Afghan civilians. The U.S. disputed the report, and the matter remains unresolved — and always will be as no U.S. investigator will ever visit Kabul.

That won’t stop the spread of the story — true or not — that American troops opened fire on unarmed Afghans as a crown control measure. The Taliban would be fools not to run with it. And they’re not fools. 

The U.S. is on the back foot as an initial claim is again undercut by on-the-scene reporting, reminiscent of the drone attack that was a “righteous strike” per Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, a claim that was debunked once media visited the scene and reported the U.S. missile killed ten members, including seven children, of the pro-American Ahmadi family.

The U.S. is handicapped by its reluctance to verify civilian casualties by on-scene investigation,  an unfortunate tendency highlighted by independent findings that the U.S. persistently under reports civilian deaths by relying on aerial surveillance for a body count. Maybe it’s because of  an over-reliance on technology or concern for the safety of its people — or an intent to conceal  the true number of civilian deaths from American and foreign publics, but the story writes itself.

Of all the bad news, the most significant was the seizure of the Afghan foreign exchange assets, which will weaken the response to country’s food crisis, already hobbled by the sanctioning of the Taliban government.

The reservation of half of the Afghan funds for victims of the 9/11 attacks brings to mind the rumination of a retired politician named Obama who said, “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.” The average 9-11 death award was $2,082,128 and went as high as $7.1 million, and personal injury awards went up to $8.6 million — all free of tax — and unimaginable to Afghan parents forced to sell a child to get money for food.

Afghans aren’t unreasonably thinking it’s all a set-up: Joe Biden’s staff lawyer for Afghanistan matters left the White House in January and is now representing the families of 9/11 victims.

America’s Afghanistan exit strategy was simple: ‘Pull up the drawbridge!’ But the coda of sanctions, starvation, and theft will likely do more damage to America’s interests in Central Asia than the errors and omissions of the previous two decades.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).

Tags 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund Afghanistan Afghanistan–United States relations Biden foreign policy Civilian deaths da afghanistan bank fall of kabul Famine international aid Joe Biden Kabul International Airport man-made disasters Mark Milley Presidency of Joe Biden Taliban U.S. drone strike

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