By Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler, CNN
The Biden administration does not plan to release billions of dollars of Afghan government assets held by the country’s central bank anytime soon, citing concerns the funds could end up in the hands of terrorists after the leader of al Qaeda was killed while hiding out in Afghanistan’s capital.
“We do not see recapitalization of the Afghan central bank as a near-term option,” said Tom West, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan.
West said that “the Taliban’s sheltering of al Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri reinforces deep concerns we have regarding diversion of funds to terrorist groups.”
A National Security Council spokesperson pointed to progress in establishing a mechanism to release the funds and said “there has been no change” in efforts to get the funds to the Afghan people, but cited Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul as having a direct impact on how the administration deals with the Taliban.
“We have been engaged with foreign counterparts in efforts to support the establishment of an international trust fund with robust safeguards to enable the use of Afghan reserves for the benefit of the Afghan people given Afghanistan’s ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis,” the NSC spokesperson said. “We have made considerable progress and our focus right now is on supporting the establishment of this fund. The recent revelations of the Taliban’s flagrant violation of the Doha agreement illustrate the importance of remaining clear-eyed in our dealings with the Taliban. Our approach to the future of these assets will continue to reflect that reality.”
This decision not to move on the releasing of the funds anytime soon comes about six months after President Joe Biden signed an executive order allowing for the $7 billion in frozen assets from Afghanistan’s central bank to eventually be distributed inside the country and to potentially fund litigation brought by families of victims of the September 11 terror attacks. The funds were frozen by the US government after the Afghan government collapsed last year and the Taliban took over control of the country.
On Sunday, CNN reported that a US intelligence assessment prepared after the US killed Zawhahiri earlier this month found that the terrorist group “has not reconstituted its presence in Afghanistan” since all US troops left the country last August.
A summary of the intelligence assessment said that the consensus view of the intelligence community is that while fewer than a dozen al Qaeda “core members” remain in Afghanistan — and were likely there before Kabul fell to the Taliban last year — Zawahiri was the only key figure who had tried to reestablish himself in the country after US forces departed.
The Biden administration is still looking at ways to get the funds into Afghanistan effectively, according to the State Department.
“Our focus right now is on ongoing efforts to enable the $3.5 billion in licensed Afghan central bank reserves to be used precisely for the benefit of the Afghan people,” said State Department Spokesperson Ned Price later on Monday. “We still continue to engage Afghan technocrats with the central bank — for many months now — about measures to enhance the country’s economic macroeconomic stability but we just don’t have confidence that the institution’s safeguards and monitoring are in place to manage those assets responsibly.”
However, the decision not to unfreeze the assets soon underlines concerns within the administration about the potential long-term threat terror groups could pose under the Taliban.
Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray expressed concerns about the potential threat. “I’m worried about the possibility that we will see al Qaeda reconstitute,” he told Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, during a congressional hearing.
Asked if he was worried about an attack on the homeland “emanating from places like Afghanistan,” Wray said, “We are. Especially now that we’re out I’m worried about the potential loss of sources and collection over there.”
West also cited US concerns about the Afghan’s central bank management capabilities.
“While we have engaged Afghan technocrats with the central bank for many months regarding measures to enhance the country’s macroeconomic stability, we do not have confidence that that institution has the safeguards and monitoring in place to manage assets responsibly,” West said.
Of the $7 billion in funds, $3.5 billion could go toward providing relief inside the country, where fears of mass starvation have taken hold in the months since the Taliban took over. The remaining $3.5 billion was set to be made available for the families of 9/11 victims, who have been fighting in court for compensation using the frozen funds.
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