Aid agencies ‘being forced’ to give to Taliban before helping civilians

File photo.

Aid workers from agencies in Afghanistan that rely on US funding, say the Taliban is imposing increasing demands on them and forcing them to provide Taliban members with humanitarian aid first, before servicing civilians.

Speaking to Canada’s CBS News, numerous aid workers said this week that concerns about US funding reaching the Taliban is a lot worse than it appears.

One aid worker at UNHCR said on condition of anonymity that they are forced to provide services to the Taliban before helping civilians and that the agency has “to serve the families of the Taliban police commanders, governors and other people who they ask us to serve specifically.”

He said: “Once a Taliban governor told one of our subcontracted aid agencies that 15% of the aid must go toward his guards and other Taliban personnel, and it is now a norm to serve the Taliban first and then serve the ordinary civilians.”

Another aid worker, Hamid Khan, who works for a local NGO that is subcontracted to the United Nations’ World Food Program in Afghanistan said the Taliban’s interference had made it increasingly difficult for the organization to determine on its own who to help.

He said his NGO focuses on “people who need the aid the most, such as pregnant women, orphans, widows and other highly in need people, but the Taliban also make their own list of selected people.”

“If we do not serve them first, then we would be banned from working and dozens of excuses will be made preventing the NGO from working altogether, and the others will also not receive their much needed aid,” Hamid Khan told CBS News.

Another UN aid worker, Abdullah Khan, said that Taliban members position themselves to get access to international aid by becoming partners or shareholders in local non-profit groups, which often work as partners or subcontractors for larger aid organizations.

“The Taliban can’t dictate to the UN directly, but the UN, the World Food Program, and even the International Committee of the Red Cross-subcontracted NGOs can’t resist Taliban pressure,” he said.

“In one meeting with the provincial governor that we had, we were informed by the Taliban that we must give aid to the families of the suicide bombers who have died and to injured Taliban soldiers who are alive but unable to work. We are facing severe Taliban interference in our aid operations, but to help the poor, we have to work with them.”

Another aid worker, from a national NGO in northern Afghanistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that his organization has been forced to “hire at least 70% of local staff [based] on the wish and will of Taliban members. If we don’t do it, then we are not allowed to operate. We have about 50 employees in each province, and roughly 35 of them are their [the Taliban’s] preferred locals who agreed to share their salaries with the Taliban’s members. We are forced to hire them.”

He added that the work of the NGO was being severely limited by the Taliban’s demands, which he called cruel. “The ones who need the aid do not get the aid, as it is diverted to the families of Taliban members,” he said.

Asked about Taliban interference in aid delivery in Afghanistan, Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General, told CBS News that all of the global body’s “humanitarian operations work on the basis of serving people according to need, and we ensure in all our work that aid goes to those who need it and is not diverted.”

Roza Otunbayeva, the U.N. Secretary-General for Afghanistan and Head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, meanwhile acknowledged to the Security Council in March, that “in some provinces we have had to temporarily suspend providing assistance because local officials have placed unacceptable conditions on its distribution. In general, there has been a recent deterioration of the humanitarian space.”

Then on April 11, the UN announced that is had initiated an operational review up to May 5 following the Taliban’s ban on local women working for the organization in Afghanistan. In addition, the UN said that all staff members – both men and women – had been told to stay home during this time. The Mission said “any negative consequences of this crisis for the Afghan people will be the responsibility of the de facto authorities.”

SIGAR’s concerns

The revelations by aid workers this week come on the heels of US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko’s testimony to Congress on Wednesday that he cannot say with certainty US aid to Afghanistan is “not currently funding the Taliban.”

“While I agree, and we all agree Afghanistan faces a dire humanitarian and economic situation, it is critical that our assistance not be diverted by the Taliban,” Sopko said as he testified before the US House Oversight Committee.

“Unfortunately, as I sit here today, I cannot assure this committee or the American taxpayer we are not currently funding the Taliban.”

“Nor can I assure you that the Taliban are not diverting the money we are sending from the intended recipients, which are the poor Afghan people,” Sopko added.

The SIGAR chief stated that he had received little to no help from US government departments in his investigations into how US taxpayers dollars have been spent in Afghanistan. He pointed out that the State Department and USAID had instructed their employees not to talk to SIGAR, “and in one recent instance, State told one of its contractors not to participate in a SIGAR audit.”

The SIGAR chief’s concerns were echoed in his office’s fifth high-risk list released in conjunction with the hearing. He also noted in his prepared statement that the office has previously had issues getting information from the Pentagon.

When asked about the alleged stonewalling during a briefing on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said: “The administration has consistently provided updates and information and including…thousands of pages of documents, analysis, spreadsheets and written responses to questions, hundreds of briefings to bipartisan members and also their staff, public congressional testimony by senior officials all while consistently providing updates and information to numerous inspectors general.”

However, Republicans on the committee have publicly raised concerns about the issue for a while now.

“This administration not only continues to provide excuses for the self-inflicted humanitarian and national security catastrophe, but senior officials are actively obstructing meaningful congressional oversight,” said James Comer, chairman of the oversight committee.

The ongoing issue meanwhile comes amid a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the country where two thirds of Afghanistan’s population — over 28 million people — are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance to survive. Twenty 20 million people are experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity, and at least six million people are on the verge of famine.