USA Should Return 7 Billion Dollars to Afghanistan Now as Earthquakes Aggravate Humanitarian Crisis

Afghanistan Earthquake

A series of earthquakes in Afghanistan have recently killed thousands of people and caused other massive damage, particularly in Herat. In the last quake loss of human lives could be avoided only because many people were anyway sleeping outside their houses in tents due to the widespread scare caused by too many earthquakes in quick succession. The first one on October 7 claimed the maximum number of lives, probably more than what is known at present, but it got very less media attention because of the attack by Hamas on the same day October 7. During the coming winter days, safety issues can be more difficult.

In most recent reports on countries worst affected by hunger, Afghanistan has been listed time and again. According to a very recent Reliefweb (OCHA services) report dated October 14 2023, two-thirds of the Afghanistan population or 28.8 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance as the country enters its third consecutive year of drought (although there was also serious damage from ferocious floods in a few places earlier in mid-year) and second year of crippling economic decline, while still reeling under the impact of the decades-long conflicts. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has stated that the number of people in the country estimated to require humanitarian and protection assistance has gone up from 18.4 million in 2021 to 24.4 million in 2022 to 28.3 million in early 2023 to 29.2 million in May 2023. According to the Food Security and Agriculture Cluster ( FSAC),  2.7 million people are just a step away from famine. A national drought was declared in 2021, the worst in the last 30 years or so. In June 2023 UNOCHA reported that the World Food Program had to cut food assistance to 8 million food-insecure people here due to fund constraints.

Hence Afghanistan needs much more resources for providing relief from hunger, disasters and harsh weather conditions.

At the same time, whatever their other problems, several recent reports have credited the Taliban with real success in reducing the cultivation of opium as well as its processing into heroin. This is a real and credible achievement and whatever be its other blemishes, the Taliban should get credit internationally at least for this.

However if western countries mention this widely, then questions will be raised regarding why opium cultivation and its processing into heroin had boomed during the presence of their forces in Afghanistan and during the time of their close collaboration with pro-western governments in Afghanistan. Due to this reason this credible achievement is not mentioned much in western countries.

At the same time, with the checking of illegal cultivation and processing of opium, the inflow of a lot of illegal money into many villages of Afghanistan has also stopped, accentuating the resource crunch there.

Hence several factors have combined together to create a situation in which the need for the USA to facilitate the transfer of 7 billion dollars of Afghanistan held there for several years have increased.

This transfer should not be delayed any longer. If the delay is due to apprehensions of any of this being put for dangerous uses, then a UN committee of persons known to be entirely sympathetic to the needs of the people of Afghanistan and committed to peace can be set up and on the basis of their monitoring these funds can be transferred for meeting humanitarian and development needs over a period of about two years, with at least 2 billion dollars being sent more or less immediately to meet urgent needs. Let us also not forget the basic fact that these are Afghanistan funds.      The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has been worsening. A UN report in September 2022 stated that loss of life due to hunger may be already occurring, the levels of food insecurity and ‘significant loss of life’ are likely to increase from November, as another harsh winter coincides with the lean season, typically beginning in February. A prolonged drought and other disasters, inflation, gender discrimination, decline of humanitarian assistance, sanctions and freezing of Afghanistan assets by the USA and allies all contributed to this tragic situation.

Right through 2022 some of the most experienced humanitarian workers were warning that the present situation is perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis here in recent decades, despite the fact that recent decades have seen so much distress.

In June 2022 the International Federation of Red Cross said that 70% of the people here are unable to meet essential food and non-food needs. Earlier in the year the UN Secretary General expressed concern at the “epic humanitarian crisis on the verge of a development catastrophe.”

In late April 2022, several independent human rights experts linked to the United Nations said, in a joint statement released by the United Nations Human Rights (Office of the High Commissioner), that in this country with a total population of about 40 million, about 23 million need food assistance while as many as 95% have insufficient food consumption. They said that the growing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has put at serious risk the lives of more than half of the country’s population, with disproportionate impact on women and children. The nearly 4 million internally displaced persons and the nearly 3.5 million people seeking refuge in neighboring countries are also highly vulnerable.

These UN linked human rights experts expressed very serious concern at the freezing of Afghanistan central bank assets by the USA which has led to denial of funds for essential help needed by people immediately. They put forward a very clear demand, “We call on US government to take into serious consideration the growing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and to re-assess its decision to block the Da Afghanistan Bank’s ( DAB’s) foreign assets.” The need for this is even higher today, particularly after the series of earthquakes.

This decision to freeze assets (as well as imposition of other sanctions by the USA and its allies), apart from denying funds for urgent relief and disrupting essential banking functions, has also led to several indirect and wider adverse impacts. As the statement of UN-linked human rights experts further stated, in the prevailing conditions “humanitarian actors face serious operational challenges due to the uncertainty caused by banks’ zero risk policies and over-compliance with sanctions.” Thus on the one hand it becomes more difficult to take relief to the weaker sections, and on the other hand middle class members including those used to living earlier on more or less regular salaries are being pushed into poverty.

Soon after the US army left in a hurry and the Taliban seized power in 2021, the US froze Afghan Central Bank assets worth 7 billion dollars while its allies froze assets worth an additional 2 billion dollars, apart from imposing other sanctions.

Following growing appeals and demands to de-freeze these assets, the USA announced in September 2022 to make available half the frozen assets—about 3.5 billion dollars– to a foundation for utilization in Afghanistan while the remaining half was diverted to help the 9/11 victims. This diversion has been criticized as being highly unfair, even by some representatives of 9/11 victims who have publicly stated that they do not want funds which are meant for the most highly distressed people of Afghanistan.

 Has at least the other half been utilized for preventing hunger and starvation in Afghanistan? As a report by Sarah Lazare writing for ‘In These Times’ (in mid-December 2022) revealed, on the basis of interviews with two of the trustees who were supposed to handle the use of 3.5 billion dollars for helping the people of Afghanistan, in the 3 months following the ‘de-freeze’, these were not used for this purpose and immediate prospects for these being used to help the people did not appear to be bright at all.

A more recent Reuters report dated July 21, 2023 by Jonathan Landay and Charlotte Greenfield stated—A US funded audit of Afghanistan’s Taliban run central bank failed to win Washington backing for a return of bank assets from a $3.5 billion Swiss-based trust fund.

Meanwhile there were also reports that substantial parts of the diverted funds were also being cornered to a significant extent by rich lawyers and lobbyists instead of really reaching the 9/11 victims.

Last year ( in 2022) UN humanitarian help officials in Afghanistan stated that throughout the year they struggled with shortage of funds, particularly while making preparations for winter, when temperature can go down to minus 25 degrees Celsius in some parts, and they were struggling to mobilize $768 million. Compare this with the $7000 million or $ 7 billion held by the USA and some additional funds held by its close allies very unjustly at a time when Afghanistan is passing through a period of deaths relating to hunger and deprivation of basic needs.

In such conditions the distress of the people of Afghanistan is likely to further escalate sharply. Already there are reports ( published in The Guardian, UK, and elsewhere) of a booming kidney sale market as desperate people are coming forward to sell their kidneys to feed an international, substantially illegal market for organs. There are reports of kidney sale price declining by a half or more and still more people willing to sell even at this low price. Hence a campaign for justice should be stepped up substantially to ensure that the entire 7 to 9 billion dollars are returned to Afghanistan for priority use to reduce hunger and other distress. In addition the humanitarian assistance and development effort should be stepped up significantly.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, A Day in 2071 and Man over Machine.

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