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Afghan child malnutrition

Afghan mothers sit by the beds of their young children, who are being treated at a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) nutrition center in Herat, on November 22, 2021. (Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

Warning of 'Humanitarian Collapse,' Dozens of House Dems Urge Biden to Unfreeze Afghan Funds

"We fear, as aid groups do, that maintaining this policy could cause more civilian deaths in the coming year than were lost in 20 years of war," the lawmakers wrote.

Brett Wilkins

Warning that the U.S. freeze on Afghanistan's central bank reserves and sanctions risk deadly "economic pain and humanitarian collapse," 46 House Democrats on Monday implored President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to "urgently" lift financial restrictions on the Taliban-ruled nation.

"United Nations officials are warning that millions of Afghans could run out of food before winter, with one million children at risk of starvation."

While expressing gratitude for the administration's efforts to end the longest war in U.S. history and evacuate tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, the lawmakers' letter—which is led by Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), and Jesús "Chuy" García (D-Ill.)—recommends "conscientiously but urgently modifying current U.S. policy regarding the freeze of Afghanistan's foreign reserves and ongoing sanctions" in order to "avoid harsh economic measures that will directly harm Afghan families and children."

"We fear, as aid groups do, that maintaining this policy could cause more civilian deaths in the coming year than were lost in 20 years of war," the lawmakers caution.

"United Nations officials are warning that millions of Afghans could run out of food before winter, with one million children at risk of starvation," they note. "World Food Program surveys indicate that 95% of Afghan households are not consuming enough food. Afghanistan will face 'universal poverty by the middle of next year,' with the poverty rate expected to rise from 72% to as high as 98%. Afghanistan's economic pain and humanitarian collapse both threaten to trigger a new refugee crisis throughout the region."

The letter continues:

For these reasons, we are deeply concerned by the continued U.S. freeze of Afghanistan's foreign reserves, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)'s choice to deny Afghanistan access to special reserve assets intended to help developing countries alleviate the impact of the pandemic, and U.S. sanctions' impacts on Afghanistan. The U.S. confiscation of $9.4 billion in Afghanistan's currency reserves held in the United States is contributing to soaring inflation and the shuttering of commercial banks and vital private businesses, plunging the country—which relies overwhelmingly on imports that require hard currency—deeper into economic and humanitarian crisis.

The lawmakers recommend "providing Afghanistan's central bank access to hard currency reserves," as well as working with the IMF to "allow access to the emergency financing that was recently allocated" for the country.

Additionally, the lawmakers warn that "failure to maintain open communication not only risks humanitarian devastation but also directly threatens U.S. national security interests."

"An economic collapse could result in the Taliban's retrenchment from U.S. engagement and cooperation on counterterrorism, create ungoverned spaces, and enable resentment against the U.S.," they write, "producing fertile ground for groups like ISIS to gain strength and use the territory as a staging ground for plots against the U.S. and its allies."

Advocacy groups have described the Biden administration's policy as a form of collective punishment.

Shah Mehrabi, an economics professor at Montgomery College in Maryland and a senior member Afghanistan's central bank board for nearly 20 years, told The Washington Post that "if these funds are not released, what is going to happen is the central bank will not be able to perform its main functions, and the impact on the economy overall will be devastating."

"Mark my words: If this is not done, you will have Afghans fleeing en masse on foot—they're already doing it—carrying their babies in one hand and their belongings in the other," he added. "And soon Europe will have a massive refugee crisis on its hands."

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