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The Biden administration frees up $7 billion in Afghan assets frozen in the U.S.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There are about $7 billion of Afghan funds from the country's central bank frozen in the United States. Afghanistan's economy is on the verge of collapse. Inflation is soaring, and millions of Afghans are on the brink of starvation. So what's happening with that money?

On Friday, President Biden signed an executive order that would seize the Afghan assets and move half to a fund designated for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan. The administration nodded to legal wranglings with some 9/11 families pursuing claims against those assets as the reason for not trying to free the other half of Afghan funds for the Afghan people. And that decision - well, it sparked outrage.

Naser Shahalemi is the founder of an Afghan advocacy organization called End Afghan Starvation. It's been fighting to free those funds. He joins me now. Good morning.

NASER SHAHALEMI: Good morning. How are you?

FADEL: I'm doing all right. How are you doing?

SHAHALEMI: We're doing wonderful. Doing wonderful.

FADEL: So, Naser, what was your reaction to this announcement last week?

SHAHALEMI: Well, initially there was a deep amount of shock initially as we were waiting to see what would happen with the frozen funds and what the course of action was going to be from the White House. We were dismayed. We were shocked. We were appalled. We were in complete awe of what the decision was, and we hope that a better decision can come about this and this decision could get rescinded at some level.

FADEL: What would you say to the Biden administration, which is saying that this is its way of getting at least some of the money to Afghanistan?

SHAHALEMI: Yeah. I mean, the way that they divided this money was absolutely illogical because first we need to decipher who has the right to decide another country's national assets and federal reserve. The United States spent 20 years developing the federal reserve with Afghanistan, and then to, you know, dismantle it and leave it in a paralyzed state is not very copacetic for the future of Afghanistan or the economic growth of Afghanistan.

FADEL: Give us a sense of the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan right now, nearly six months since the U.S. withdrawal.

SHAHALEMI: Yeah, the humanitarian situation is horrific at this point. The majority of the people of Afghanistan are starving, and they are locked out of their funds. They cannot access their bank cards. They cannot access their bank accounts. Many of them are in a position where - that they shouldn't need to be because they do have money in the banks.

FADEL: Yeah.

SHAHALEMI: They do have the ability to take care of themselves. But because of the sanctions, they've been locked away from their own money. And if that happened in America, people would be in outrage.

FADEL: And the sanctions you refer to are the sanctions on the Taliban, which is now in control of the country. What do you say to people who say, well, if this money goes back to Afghanistan, it will just go into the hands of the Taliban?

SHAHALEMI: It's not really how it works. Ultimately, this money that was in the federal reserve of Afghanistan's central bank was there to bolster the afghani note and to keep it steady. The money is - that money is hard-earned taxpayer Afghan money that was collected over 20 years.

FADEL: Yeah.

SHAHALEMI: And that money did not come very easy. It was designed to completely help the Afghan government and to bolster the economy. And now, to take that away, it is absolutely ridiculous because we need that money for the people of Afghanistan so they can operate and function and to operate a free enterprise and to, you know, enjoy economic growth.

FADEL: We saw demonstrations over the weekend condemning this move from the administration. What were the hopes for these funds?

SHAHALEMI: The hope for these funds was that it would be returned to the people of Afghanistan and that they would be allowed to use it for economic purposes, for business, day-to-day businesses.

FADEL: Naser Shahalemi is the founder of the End Afghan Starvation group. Thank you so much for your time.

SHAHALEMI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.