US won’t release $3.5bn in frozen Afghan funds for now, citing terror fears

The Biden administration on Monday ruled out returning $3.5 billion in funds held in the United States to Afghanistan’s central bank any time soon, citing the discovery that the al Qaeda leader had holed up in the heart of Kabul with apparent protection. of the Taliban government.

The position on the funds was outlined on the first anniversary of the takeover of Afghanistan by the extremist Taliban militia and just over two weeks after a US drone strike killed Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of Al Qaeda, on the balcony of a house tied to a faction of the Taliban coalition in an exclusive enclave of the Afghan capital.

“We don’t see recapitalizing the DAB as an option in the short term,” said Thomas West, the US government’s special representative for Afghanistan, referring to the central bank’s initials. He noted that US officials have engaged for months with the central bank on how to prop up Afghanistan’s economy, but have not obtained persuasive assurances that the money would not fall into the hands of terrorists.

“We do not trust that institution to have the safeguards and monitoring to manage the assets responsibly,” West said in a statement, previously reported by The Wall Street Journal. “And it goes without saying that al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri’s safe haven by the Taliban reinforces the deep concerns we have regarding the diversion of funds to terrorist groups.”

Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, said the administration was looking for alternative ways to use the money to help Afghans at a time when millions are affected by a growing hunger crisis.

“Right now, we’re looking at mechanisms that could be put in place to ensure that these $3.5 billion in preserved assets efficiently and effectively reach the people of Afghanistan in a way that doesn’t make them ripe for diversion. to terrorist groups or elsewhere,” Price said.

The issue of frozen money remains one of the most sensitive issues a year after President Biden’s decision to withdraw the last US troops from Afghanistan, which led to the fall of the Western-backed government and the return to power of the Taliban. The White House has been very sensitive to the proximity of the anniversary, anticipating that it would renew criticism of the chaotic US withdrawal and the restoration of a draconian regime of repression, especially against women and girls.

The operation that found and killed al-Zawahri has only heightened the debate in recent days. Biden and his allies have argued that the successful pursuit of al-Zawahri showed that the United States can still fight terrorists without a large deployment of ground troops. His critics have pointed to the operation as evidence of the irresponsibility of Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, as it showed that the Taliban are once again harboring al Qaeda figures as they did in the months and years before the Taliban attacks. September 11, 2001.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has said that al-Zawahri’s presence showed that the Taliban had “grossly violated” the withdrawal agreement first negotiated by President Donald J. Trump and carried out by Biden. But the administration has not explained what consequences it would impose on the Taliban as a result. The Taliban have denied knowing that al-Zawahri was living in Kabul with his family, even though the Haqqani clan, a government terror faction, appeared to be protecting him.

US intelligence agencies have concluded since the drone attack that while a handful of former al Qaeda members remain in Afghanistan, the group has not reconstituted a significant presence there since the US withdrawal. But some counterterrorism experts said the trial may be too optimistic.

The funds in question Monday are part of a total of $7 billion deposited in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York by the Afghan central bank at the time of the Taliban takeover. Mr. Biden froze the money and decided to split it in half, with one part available for families of 9/11 victims to pursue legally and the other to be used to support the needs of the Afghan people, such as humanitarian aid.

The United States is working with allies around the world to establish an international trust fund with $3.5 billion intended to help the Afghan people. Officials said they have made considerable progress in creating such a trust fund, but have not said when it will be created or how it will work.

The Afghan economy has collapsed in the year since the Taliban took power, leading to mass starvation and a wave of refugees. In recent days, the United States announced that it would send $80 million to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to help fight hunger in Afghanistan, as well as $40 million to UNICEF to support the education of Afghan children, in particularly girls, and $30 million to the UN. Women to help Afghan women and girls seeking social protection services and run civil society organizations.

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