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Opinion President Biden shouldn’t punish Afghans for 9/11

People hold free bread distributed in Kabul on Jan. 18. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

H.A. Hellyer, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar, is a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and Cambridge University. Farid Senzai is an associate professor in political science at the University of Santa Clara in California.

President Biden’s decision to redirect frozen Afghan funds to pay families of 9/11 victims in the United States is unconscionable. Afghans are facing a devastating humanitarian crisis, with millions on the edge of starvation. They should not be further punished for a crime they did not commit.

Families of 9/11 victims have legal claims against the Taliban, a militant extremist group that has seized power by force. Afghans never elected them; instead, they have endured great loss and suffering as a direct consequence of the “war on terror.” For the past two decades, various Afghan forces have fought and died battling the Taliban. More than 71,000 Afghan civilians have died.

Afghans were not responsible for 9/11. They are victims of the fallout from it, and they’re now being collectively punished. At least half of Afghans today were not even born in 2001.

Even Barry Amundson, whose brother was killed in 9/11, recognized this injustice: “I fear that the end result of seizing this money will be to cause further harm to innocent Afghans who have already suffered greatly.”

Afghanistan is on the brink of becoming a failed state. The $7 billion in Afghan central bank funds frozen in the United States would not solve all the problems, but the country needs all the help it can get. Schools and hospitals across the country have stopped functioning, and the harsh Afghan winter has brought rising prices and acute food shortages. Poverty is deepening and widening, to the point where Afghans now face destitution, and even famine, on a dramatic scale. If the status quo continues, by the end of this winter 97 percent of the population could be too poor to survive without aid. This situation will soon bring further instability in the country and the region more generally — a prevailing vacuum could be filled by even more extreme terrorist elements than the Taliban.

Today, most Afghans cannot remember a time without war and conflict. And even before this proposed move by the Biden administration, Afghans had been struggling to figure out how to get humanitarian assistance past the vast array of counterterrorism financial rules established over the past 20 years, because of current Taliban rule.

The international community must commit to helping Afghans directly, circumventing the Taliban authorities. At this moment, redirecting money that belongs to the Afghan people is completely reprehensible.

Afghans have been through four decades of conflict and war, more than any population should ever have to bear. The United States bears a sizable responsibility for this. The very least the Biden administration can do is release Afghan money to its rightful owners.