Defense Bill Bars Pentagon From Providing Aid to Afghanistan
Ahead of a contentious final vote on the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., introduced an eleventh-hour amendment seeking to prevent a collapse of U.S. humanitarian aid to millions of Afghans. The amendment came in response to language in the military spending bill that prohibits Defense Department funds from being used to “transport currency or other items of value to the Taliban, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, or any subsidiary, agent, or instrumentality of either the Taliban or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” effectively halting American aid to the Taliban-controlled country.
While the bill’s language places emphasis on banning the transport of currency, it will also block Defense Department planes from transporting nearly every conceivable good — including food and lifesaving medical supplies — to Afghanistan, where tens of millions of people currently face starvation and medicine shortages. A major earthquake last month brought in a flurry of international assistance, including humanitarian aid from the U.S. military — help that would be barred by the new legislation.
The Defense Department is often called in to provide security and logistics support for aid flights but also in the transportation of currency. If the U.S. does ever make good on releasing Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves, the new law would complicate the process of delivering it securely.
Omar’s amendment would have granted President Joe Biden the ability to waive the prohibition on using Defense Department funding to transport aid if he recognized a pressing humanitarian need or if doing so would further the national interests of the U.S. The fact that humanitarian waivers are commonplace for sanctioned countries, including Iran and Venezuela, highlights the draconian nature of the bill’s final language.
With more Afghans set to die from starvation in 2022 than from the longest military campaign in U.S. history, this week’s NDAA vote will have grave and outsize consequences for millions of civilians. The amendment faced two hurdles: First, it needed to be deemed in order by the House Rules Committee in order to get a floor vote. Second, it would have needed majority support. And previous floor votes suggested that not only would Republicans oppose it, but so would a number of Democrats up for reelection, looking to burnish their anti-Taliban credentials.
In February, Democratic representatives including Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Carolyn Maloney of New York, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, David Trone of Maryland, and Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania voted against a related amendment introduced by Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. The Jayapal amendment forced a vote on releasing the $9.4 billion in Afghan central bank funds frozen by the U.S. government, which, if passed, would have restored the seized foreign reserves — comprising everyday Afghans’ life savings — to halt the total collapse of the national economy. Thanks to the help of Republican-allied Democrats, the amendment failed to pass the House, undermining the Afghan government’s ability to pay for basic civil services and Afghan civilians’ ability to buy food.
With Omar’s amendment ruled out of order, the United States has eliminated one of the last lines of support to Afghanistan, where decades of war, a pillaged central bank, and last month’s catastrophic earthquake have reduced food centers, water infrastructure, and health resources to rubble. In the coming months, Defense Department planes ferrying aid to hundreds of thousands of civilians around the city of Khost, where the earthquake struck, would be grounded.
“Afghanistan is facing one of the most horrific humanitarian crises on the planet. Almost 95 percent of Afghans don’t have enough food to eat, a massive increase from last year,” Omar told The Intercept. “The recent earthquake killed nearly 1,000 people and destroyed thousands more homes. We should be doing everything in our power to deliver humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, not needlessly limiting the aid we can supply. My amendment simply gave the president authority to deliver lifesaving aid, instead of needlessly hamstringing him.”