The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Biden administration is right to free up aid for Afghans — but not for the Taliban

An aid worker from the U.N. human rights agency directs displaced Afghan women into a distribution center to receive supplies on the outskirts on Kabul on Oct. 28. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)
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As a winter chill deepens across Afghanistan, the Taliban appears to be imposing political conditions to match. Prominent women’s rights activists have been targeted for threats, beatings and abductions, including two — Tamana Paryani and Parwana Ibrahimkhil — who were taken by armed men from their Kabul homes on Jan. 19 and have not been heard from since. The United Nations’ human rights agency has called their disappearances part of a larger pattern of arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and ill-treatment targeting civil society activists, journalists and media workers, as well as former officials of the U.S.-backed government and army.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the Taliban has been holding at least nine foreign citizens, including one American and several British passport holders, under murky circumstances. (Two journalists on assignment for the U.N. agency were later reported released.) This is not the behavior of a legitimate government, much less of a ruling group seemingly heedful of the repeated admonitions — from the United States and other democratic governments — that its access to financial support and diplomatic recognition hinge on respect for human rights.

All this provides context for the Biden administration’s decision to support an equal division of $7 billion in frozen Afghan central bank funds between American victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a trust fund for humanitarian relief of the Afghan people. Though the issues, moral and legal, are extremely complex, with the ultimate disposition of the money up to a federal court in New York, the administration is surely right about one thing: Despite the desperate needs of the Afghan people, many of whom are at risk of starvation, it would be a mistake to put the money back at the disposal of Afghanistan’s central bank, with no strings attached — as the Taliban demands.

There is an apparent tension at the heart of the administration’s position: It does not consider the money as the Taliban’s, except, implicitly, to the extent it can be used for compensating the Sept. 11 victims, who have won a default judgment against the Taliban for its backing of the attacks. Nevertheless, there is a certain practical wisdom to the policy. Not long after the fall of Kabul, the Sept. 11 victims asserted a legal claim to all $7 billion. Without intervention by the administration — through a law that enables the executive branch to state its interest in such cases — the entire amount of money could be unavailable to help the Afghan people. Now, however, the possibility has been opened that half of it — $3.5 billion, roughly equal to 17 percent of Afghanistan’s $20 billion total annual economic output — could be used for aid.

The court should rule consistent with that great humanitarian need, just as the United States has been attempting to facilitate relief, in part by being flexible about applying economic sanctions laws to aid organizations. The Taliban, by contrast, is increasing its people’s suffering, in part by oppressing those who protest peacefully for their rights, and in part by detaining aid workers.

Time and again, the Taliban has promised moderation and inclusivity. A good way to regain international funding and recognition would be to stop violating that promise.