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To try to free up frozen Afghan assets for aid, Biden signs executive order

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Afghanistan's government collapsed earlier this year, its central bank had about $7 billion in assets stored in the United States. That money has been sitting there frozen, even as the country now faces a humanitarian crisis. Today, President Biden took the first step in trying to sort out what to do with these assets. And right now, only half of that money is set to go to help the Afghan people. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez joins us now. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So just tell us the short story of this money. I mean, it's in the U.S. Why has it been frozen for this long?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, this is some of the international aid that has come from U.S. and international donors over the past 20 years during the war. It was money that belonged to the former central bank. And since the Taliban took over the country, it's been frozen. The Taliban is designated as an international terrorist organization, so governments and banks cannot do transactions with them, and they don't. Meanwhile, the economy of the country has collapsed. And people are really struggling to get food and medical supplies.

MARTIN: But as I understand it, now the Biden administration is saying that half of this money could potentially go to victims of the 9/11 attacks. Is that right? Explain that.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. So these groups of families are in the middle of legal action about 9/11. One group has even obtained writs of attachment against the money. So the administration says it needs to respect the legal process for the victims, for the families of victims of 9/11 and make sure that the claims being made by the groups of families of 9/11 get their process seen through.

MARTIN: I don't know what a writ of attachment is. Presumably, it's something that says my family member died in the 9/11 attacks that were precipitated by action that happened in Afghanistan. And therefore, the Afghan government owes me money.

ORDOÑEZ: Yes, something like that. That would be very close to - that's how I understand it, as well.

MARTIN: So this new executive order from the Biden administration - explain exactly what's going to happen now.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the plan is to basically split the money in two. Half the money, about 3 1/2 billion, will be moved into a trust fund, which will be used for humanitarian aid and assistance for the Afghan people. And U.S. officials say there will be put a lot of protections to ensure that the Taliban can't get their hands on it. It'll be controlled, actually, by an independent third party and distributed via international aid groups. The other half will remain frozen, you know, recognizing that these court cases, as we've been talking about, related to 9/11 are still playing out.

MARTIN: I mean, as noble as the notion is of helping these 9/11 families, I don't get how the U.S. government has a claim on this money.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, this is a controversial move because the money was put there for safekeeping for the Afghan people but also potentially could lead other governments to think twice before parking their own money in the United States, you know, if they think that sometime down the road, the U.S. might seize it. But the leadership of the former central bank essentially dissolved. And the U.S. can't deal directly with the Taliban, either. But the president does have emergency powers that the administration says that it can use to take this step.

MARTIN: And it is a step, right? Potentially, this isn't just going to happen quickly.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it's going to be months down the road. There's a lot of dealing. There's a lot of people interacting with. And, you know, the Federal Reserve also has to review this, so same with the Treasury.

MARTIN: NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: We also want to share that we are following the news out of Afghanistan that two journalists and their Afghan colleagues have been detained in Kabul. That's language coming from the U.N. The U.N. confirmed this in a tweet. They said that they had been on assignment for the U.N. Refugee Agency. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.