BY LAURA KELLY
House lawmakers are calling on the Biden administration to prioritize assistance to Afghanistan in the face of a crippling economic and humanitarian crisis facing the country.
“No one benefits from a failed state in Afghanistan,” a bipartisan group of 39 lawmakers wrote on Thursday, in a letter to the State and Treasury departments, calling for the release of Afghan assets — which amount to an estimated $9.5 billion — that were frozen in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of the country in August.
The letter underscores concern in Congress the Biden administration could do more to address the growing crisis in the country. That’s been echoed by former senior U.S. military and diplomatic officials who served in Afghanistan.
“We believe the United States has a reputational interest and a moral obligation in vigorously joining efforts to help the Afghan people preserve at least some of the social and economic gains made over the last twenty years,” 11 former senior officials who commanded American military forces or served as ambassadors or top diplomats — wrote in a column Monday published by the Atlantic Council.
State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter responded to a request for comment by The Hill saying, “We're not going to comment on the congressional correspondence from here."
The Taliban’s sweeping takeover of the country — and the overwhelming, deadly and chaotic exodus of Afghans it triggered amid the U.S. pullout of the country in late August — is one of the darkest stains on President Biden’s foreign policy legacy thus far.
The administration has withheld recognition of the Taliban, which is under sanctions as a specially designated terrorist organization. It does hold, however, unofficial talks with the group's representatives in Doha in an effort to address the ongoing violence against Western-allied Afghans and its repression of women and minorities.
"Our focus right now is to work across the table with them to see what kind of progress can be made," national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday speaking at the Council On Foreign Relations. "And in the meantime, to put significant resources as rapidly and efficiently as possible, through every channel we can, outside of the government, including international institutions and nongovernmental organizations."
Lawmakers, former officials, and humanitarian organizations support cutting the Taliban off from the international financial system, but they’re raising alarm that immediate solutions need to be found to address the spiraling crisis in the country, where the United Nations estimates 23 million people are in urgent need of food assistance.
“The situation is really so dire that it should be an all hands on deck response,” said William Byrd, a senior expert on Afghanistan with the U.S. Institute of Peace who last month published a number of options to increase assistance to Afghans while cutting out the Taliban.
He continued that “nobody needs to be talking about recognition, about direct money going to the Taliban, wholesale removal of sanctions and unfreezing of reserves, but a lot more can be done within that policy space.”
Byrd further called for a “a strong and coherent approach by the U.S. government to deal with the crisis as best possible.”
Earl Anthony Wayne, a former ambassador and senior State Department official focused on Afghanistan, said that there is a “lack of boldness” on the part of the administration in addressing the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
“There’s a core of very hard-working people at the State Department, and at the [National Security Council] and Treasury, and other places who are working very hard to try and find ways to get more assistance through,” he said.
“But there’s been a lack of boldness, I would say in the United States, even in working with other partners and allies in opening up more rapidly some of these ways to securely get money and assistance into Afghanistan while keeping it from the Taliban.”
Even the Taliban have issued calls to the U.S. and international community to help prevent the country from falling into a catastrophic collapse.
Amir Khan Muttaqi, the foreign minister for the Taliban’s government in Kabul, urged “mercy and compassion” from the global community, while calling for the U.S. to release the billions of dollars in frozen funds.
“Making Afghanistan unstable or having a weak Afghan government is not in the interest of anyone,” Muttaqi said in an interview with The Associated Press that was published Tuesday.
While Mutaqqi advocates for international recognition of the Taliban and direct access to cash, experts say the so-called foreign minister’s media plea signals an opening for increased humanitarian assistance directly to Afghans.
“I do think that they will be more open to having money come in, in ways that they don’t control because they are seeing how difficult the situation is,” said Wayne, who was also a signatory to the column in the Atlantic Council, where he is a nonresident fellow.
Byrd echoed the urgency.
“We’re talking about days and weeks — if things wait for months to ramp up and respond more, more people will likely die,” he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in response to a question about the Taliban’s request, said the billions of dollars in frozen funds are “inaccessible” to the administration, in general because of sanctions against the Taliban, but also because those funds have become the subject of litigation by victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
“These legal proceedings cannot be disregarded and have led to the temporary suspension of any movement of the funds through at least the end of the year and quite possibly longer,” she said on Monday.
She added the administration is still grappling with how to provide the frozen funds directly to the Afghan people without benefiting the Taliban.
“We're continuing to review. It's a very complicated and challenging issue. But that's the status and the reason why we have not – there is not any update on that at this point in time,” she said.
The majority of U.S. humanitarian assistance has flowed through the United Nations which continues to operate on the ground in the country. The Biden administration has provided about $474 million over the course of 2021.
Still, the UN is appealing for billions of dollars in aid to support 22 million Afghans in 2022, with the spokesperson for the UN secretary general on Monday saying the global body is calling for $4.4 billion.
The World Food Program said on Dec. 1 that there are “three million children who are at risk of severe hunger and the life-threatening consequences of malnutrition.”
Further, the UN Refugee Agency has raised alarm that 3.5 million displaced people in Afghanistan are in need of urgent assistance amid the freezing winter months, lacking “insulated shelters, warm clothes, insufficient food, fuel for heating, and medical supplies.”
“The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is reaching a crisis,” tweeted Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan and one of the signatories to the House letter calling on the administration to do more.
“We were in Afghanistan for 20 years. We cannot leave the Afghan people in the hands of a brutal, authoritarian regime.”
The lawmakers proposed in their letter at least five actions the administration can take to assist Afghanistan’s economy and humanitarian needs while also reinforcing accountability for the rights of women, girls and minority communities.
They stressed their belief the U.S. has an obligation to the country, after 20 years of military involvement and democracy building that was wiped out with the Taliban’s ousting of the Western-backed government in Kabul in August.
“Nearly 775,000 American troops served in Afghanistan, and thousands of Americans and Afghans alike gave their lives or were wounded,” the lawmakers wrote. “We have an obligation to honor this service and sacrifice by standing by the Afghan people as they continue the fight for human rights and the future of their country.”
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