WASHINGTON: On the first anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the Biden administration announced that it will not release $3.5 billion in frozen Afghan funds, citing the discovery of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in Kabul.

“An American official said the United States could not guarantee that the money would not fall into terrorist hands, so it has ruled out releasing it anytime soon,” The New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Tom West, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan, told journalists in Washington that he did “not see recapitalisation of the Afghan central bank as a near-term option”.

The Taliban’s “sheltering of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri reinforces deep concerns we have regarding diversion of funds to terrorist groups,” he added.

Administration cites Zawahiri’s discovery as reason for refusal

A National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson told CNN that “there has been no change” in efforts to get the funds to the Afghan people, but Ayman al Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul has had a direct impact on how the administration deals with the Taliban.

“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,” the NSC spokesperson said.

The New York Times noted that the Biden administration outlined its position on the funds “on the one-year anniversary of the takeover of Afghanistan by the extremist Tali­ban militia and just over two weeks after an American drone strike killed Ayman al Zawahiri on the balcony of a house tied to a faction of the Taliban coalition in an exclusive enclave of the Afghan capital”.

Mr West pointed out that American officials had engaged for months with the central bank about how to shore up Afghanistan’s economy but had not secured persuasive guarantees that the money would not fall into terrorist hands. “We do not have confidence that that institution has the safeguards and monitoring in place to manage assets responsibly,” Mr West said in a statement reported by The Wall Street Journal. “And needless to say, the Taliban’s sheltering of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri reinforces deep concerns we have regarding diversion of funds to terrorist groups.”

At a State Department news briefing, spokesman Ned Price said the administration was searching for alternative ways to use the money to help Afghans at a time when millions are afflicted by a growing hunger crisis.

The Washington Post noted that a year after withdrawing US troops, “the Biden administration wields scant leverage in Afghanistan as it struggles to assist needy Afghans, evacuate US allies and protect women’s rights in a nation where it once held unparalleled sway”.

It pointed out that US officials were now “working with Islamic organisations and nations including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as they seek to employ the few tools they have to influence the Taliban government — sanctions and travel bans, and the promise of potential diplomatic recognition — in hopes of preventing terrorist attacks, helping US-linked Afghans emigrate and recovering an American hostage”.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2022

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