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Zan Times exclusive: How the Taliban pilfer humanitarian aid

By Mahsa Elham*, Sana Atef* and Sayed Mahdi Hashemi 

An investigation by Zan Times shows that essential humanitarian aid is being diverted by the Taliban and their allies within Afghanistan from those who need it the most.  

Zan Times interviewed 42 sources, including local officials and employees of aid organizations, local residents, community elders, civil and social activists in the provinces of Kabul, Kandahar, Bamyan, Jawzjan, Daikundi, Samangan, Ghor and Herat. (We used pseudonyms to protect the identities of the interviews.) Our sources reveal a disturbingly consistent pattern: large amounts of humanitarian aid are being taken from those who need it most, or distributed based on a population’s political, ethnic, regional, and sectarian affiliations to the Taliban and their allies, including religious leaders. In effect, this aid has become a source of funding for the Taliban and its supporters. 

Local residents tell Zan Times that the Taliban rely on coercion and intimidation to get them to hand over the aid, whether it is food or cash. Furthermore, residents and NGO officials say that local councils are cooperating with the Taliban in determining who gets humanitarian aid. The result? Some of the most needy people in Afghanistan are being denied help.  

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Bibi Gul* and her five children got little respite from this winter’s brutally cold weather in their mud-brick house in the Dolina district of Ghor province. The wind and snow whipped through the pieces of blankets and plastic that acted as its doors and windows. Still, Bibi Gul felt fortunate that her family was listed as eligible to receive aid from an international non-governmental organization (NGO). “An NGO gave us cash and food once [in November],” she tells Zan Times. “My children and I were very happy that we would no longer sleep hungry at night, but the Taliban came in the afternoon and took the aid that was distributed to us in the morning.” The Taliban told her the aid was needed by them because they were building a road.  

Bibi Gul’s account of having essential humanitarian aid turned over to the Taliban isn’t unique in her district. Zan Times talked to several other residents of the Dolina district who said that aid given to them and others in their villages by a Western NGO was later claimed by the Taliban. One of those residents, Khair Mohammad Amini*, who relied on the aid as he’s the sole breadwinner of a family of six, explains what happened to Zan Times: “They had distributed food to all the villages of Qalai Naqshi [in Dolina district], and one day after the distribution, the Taliban came and took back the aid from us.” He too was told that the Taliban were seizing the aid because they needed it to build roads.  

References to road building come up again and again when Zan Times talked to aid recipients and other sources involved in aid distribution. The Taliban order local populations to work on building and maintaining roads, and then “compensate” them for their labour with flour, cooking oil, and other aid food items that they have previously taken from the people. In January 2022, Azadi Radio reported that the Taliban created a “food for work” program which “requires recipients to do manual labour on public works projects to receive humanitarian aid.”  

The United Nations estimates that two-thirds of the population of Afghanistan, around 28 million people, is dependent on aid, with six million on the brink of starvation. On April 19, 2023, John Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) told Congress that, since the U.S. withdrawal, America has appropriated US$2 billion for humanitarian and development efforts in Afghanistan, of which 60 percent is food aid.  

But Sopko admits he isn’t sure whether it is being distributed to those who need it most. He told Congress that a lack of cooperation from the Taliban means that he couldn’t assure Congress “that the Taliban are not diverting the money we are sending from the intended recipients, which are the poor Afghan people.” He stated, “I would just say, I haven’t seen a starving Taliban fighter on TV, they all seem to be fat, dumb, and happy. I see a lot of starving Afghan children on TV, so I’m wondering where all this funding is going.”  

One area that depends on aid is Ghor province, located in northwestern Afghanistan in the rugged Hindu Kush. Its economy is largely agrarian, which makes it especially vulnerable to the droughts and climate change currently impacting Afghanistan. A local official of the World Food Programme (WFP) tells Zan Times that more than 90 percent of Ghor’s population are below the poverty line. Making matters worse, WFP didn’t have enough aid to distribute to all those who needed it: WFP handed out aid to roughly 30-40 percent of those in need, the local WPF official tells Zan Times in January 2023. He also confirms that the Taliban took aid handed out to locals. An employee of another Western aid organization also confirms that aid distributed in Ghor by this NGO to the needy was later taken from them by the Taliban.  

“There is a lot of interference from the Taliban, especially the governor himself. We distributed aid to the people in Charsadda and Dolina districts, but the Taliban immediately confiscated the aid from the people. They took it and said, ‘We are working on the road,’” said Younas*, a local WFP employee in Ghor.  

The WFP acknowledges there have been problems with its aid distribution in Ghor. “In January 2022, the United Nations received reports of concerning irregularities in the distribution of aid in Ghor province, including reports of diversion,” a spokesperson of WFP Afghanistan told Zan Times. UN agencies and programmes, including WFP, “put the distribution of all in-kind distributions on hold across the province.” During that year’s “lean season” of March through May, “catastrophic levels of food insecurity were detected among 20,000 people in two districts,” the WPF spokesperson says. Though UN partners renewed deliveries after written assurances were received from the Taliban, the resumption was temporary. “After renewed instances of interference, distributions have been re-suspended on April 2, 2023,” says WFP Afghanistan.  

When the Taliban decides who gets aid from NGOs 

In many cases, the Zan Times investigation shows that Taliban officials directly interfere in the aid distribution process by putting pressure on NGOs to distribute aid to specific people and specific areas that are deemed important to the regime.  

That pattern is on display in Ghor. Sources in the province tell Zan Times that its Taliban governor, Maulawi Ahmad Shah Dindost, has ensured that a large chunk of humanitarian aid was allocated to Taliban forces and their supporters in the past one and a half years. Kabir*, an employee of a European charity, tells Zan Times that the Taliban governor repeatedly summoned NGO officials and instructed them which areas of the province he thought were deserving of aid. According to Kabir, NGO officials didn’t feel they could oppose the governor out of fear. At least two NGO employees say some of those who have disagreed with Maulawi Ahmad Shah Dindost have been arrested and tortured by Taliban forces. Kabir says that the pressure from the governor was so great that “several heads of NGOs in Ghor resigned.”   

“No, the governor didn’t interfere,” Abdul Wahed Hamas, spokesman for the Taliban governor in Ghor, tells Zan Times in a phone interview. However, he confirms that the council or local committee from each district that overlook the work of NGOs might have rejected employees of NGOs that did not meet the “terms and conditions,” such as being “honest” and “having a good record.”  

He also confirms that the governor holds weekly and monthly meetings with NGO representatives in Ghor, one of which was on Thursday, April 20, when the governor accused them of spying and creating division. “Governor said to them in simple language, ‘Why don’t you work?’ The NGOs explained their goals. It turned out that their goals are the same as creating a mixed [gender] environment, which is prohibited by Islam,” Hamas tells Zan Times. The governor warned the NGOs: “If you want to work and serve the people, come and serve. If you don’t, go get lost!”  

Fresh out of that meeting, Hamas denounced NGOs in a statement shared on a WhatsApp group used for formal communication of the governor’s office: “Non-governmental organizations are biased, ethnic, and prejudiced in their survey processes, and they are also discriminating in the distribution of resources and humanitarian aid. They distribute aid in areas of the previous government’s people, not in areas where the mujahedeen or ordinary poor people are living.”  

Taliban or their allies give lists of their own people to aid organizations 

The direct involvement of Taliban officials in the humanitarian aid distribution process can get very specific. People directly involved with aid distribution say that several Taliban-controlled government departments, including the Ministry of Refugees, the Ministry of Economy, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, provide aid organizations with lists of people who are to receive aid packages. Those sources also say that most of the people on the lists are Taliban forces, their families, and their affiliates. 

One such example occurred during an aid distribution in Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, and Zabul provinces, says Abdul Razzaq*, an employee of an Afghan NGO which collaborated with a European charity that distributed cash for destitute families – 700 internally displaced families and 310 needy local families – in the capital cities of those four provinces. According to Razzaq, the program planned to help every poor family with 28,000 afghani ($320 USD) while internally displaced families would each receive US$265. 

According to Razzaq, the two NGOs sought to identify qualified persons in the provincial cities but were hampered because the Taliban Ministry of Economy was also involved in the process. “We wanted to survey the deserving people first in the cities and then in the districts, but Taliban Ministry of Economy officials insisted that this program should start from the districts,” Razzaq tells Zan Times. He recounts how ministry officials explained that the cities weren’t important and that the aid should go to the districts because that’s where families of the mujahedeen lived.  

Ultimately, Razzaq says that the NGOs had to accept the distribution plan proposed by the ministry. “We had to implement this program in Khakriz, Nish, Arghandab, Maarouf, Ghorak, Shurabak, and Mianshin districts without [requiring] identification, based on the list given by the Taliban,” he explains. Later, those same families continued to receive food packages in later rounds of distribution.   

In addition to the Taliban diverting aid, many leaders of local councils or mullahs and imams appointed by the Taliban also have lists of people whom they want NGOs to help, sources tell Zan Times. The sources say that those leaders stuff their lists with relatives, Taliban supporters, and those both willing and able to pay bribes.  

That’s what happened last year in Kandahar province during a distribution of WFP aid aimed at helping 20,000 poor families. The distribution was handled by a local refugee organization in coordination with the Kandahar government, a high-ranking employee of that refugee agency tells Zan Times. The provincial Department of Economy provided them with lists of needy people that had originated from mullahs and imams of local mosques.  

“After the first distribution of aid, we realized that a very small percentage of poor people have benefited and most of the aid was distributed to the relatives and friends of mullahs, imams, and Taliban forces,” says that employee, who was involved in the process. The aid distribution continued for five months before it was halted after complaints reached the WFP that some of the aid was not reaching the needy and that some items marked with the WFP logo were being sold in the Kandahar market, says the refugee organization official. That diversion was also confirmed by Zan Times.  

“For most of 2022, WFP was forced to suspend distributions in Kandahar. From January to August, there were no distributions because provincial authorities had tried to influence where food was to be distributed,” WFP Afghanistan tells Zan Times. It resumed deliveries of assistance after a resolution was found in August only to re-suspend the efforts in October 2022 “after renewed attempts of interference,” the spokesperson explains. Since then, WFP activities have “resumed gradually starting from late January 2023 onwards with priority activities,” says the agency.  

In Dara Suf district of Samangan province, 43-year-old widow Razia needed help. Two years after the death of her husband, Razia and their three children were in dire financial shape, surviving on the occasional help from friends and acquaintances. In October 2022, Razia asked her village head to include her family on the list of aid recipients, lest her children die of hunger and cold. “The village elder said, ‘I will include your name in the list on the condition that when you get the aid, you split it with me,’” Razia tells Zan Times. She felt she had no choice but to agree as he has a close relationship with the Taliban. Razia says that she’s been given an aid distribution of 6,400 afghani several times in recent months but each time is forced to give 2,000 afghani to the village head so that she will continue to receive aid in the future.  

When the Taliban decides what regions won’t receive humanitarian aid 

In addition to corrupting the humanitarian aid distribution process, the Taliban also influences what areas are denied life-saving aid, sources tell Zan Times. They reveal that the Taliban discriminates against regions and individuals whose political, ethnic, linguistic, or sectarian affiliations are seen as opposing the Taliban and its regime. The area in the centre of Afghanistan is largely populated by Hazara and Shia populations who have endured years of bigotry, discrimination, and violence at the hands of the Taliban. People in the area interviewed by Zan Times say that they have been disproportionately deprived of cash aid, and that other aid has been smaller than expected, of inferior quality, and even rotten in some cases.   

Hassan*, a community elder in Bamyan province, explains to Zan Times that the aid that arrived was both very small and of poor quality. “Everyone knows that in other provinces even cash aid is distributed to the people, but the people of Bamyan don’t even get a few kilos of rotten wheat and flour,” he says. Though they are suffering, people are too afraid of the Taliban to raise their voices, he explains. Sources in Daikundi province, another mainly Hazara province, also claim that they are under the undeclared sanctions of the Taliban, which are preventing the fair distribution of aid to the needy and poor people in Daikundi.  

The urban area of western Kabul is also affected as it’s home to an estimated one million mostly Hazara Shia people. Sources tell Zan Times that many residents in the area are being ignored when it comes to aid distribution. One who saw it occur is Mortaza*, a social activist and local reporter in Kabul. In the last year and a half, he’s reported on more than 20 humanitarian aid distribution programs in different parts of Kabul province and interviewed beneficiaries and local residents. During that reporting, he saw discrimination.   

“In the first days when I went to the aid distribution programs, I was very happy that many poor people were saved from hunger with these aid, but later I realized that the cash aid was only in a few limited areas of Kabul,” he recounts to Zan Times. He discovered that the areas receiving cash aid are either sympathetic to the Taliban or are where Taliban members or their relatives live. He gives the example of a distribution he witnessed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which distributed US$700 to some internally displaced families in Kabul in the autumn of 2022. “On October 2, I covered an aid distribution in the Pul-e-Charkhi area [of Kabul], and after interviewing a number of local people, I realized that most of those who received aid are not internally displaced at all, but are local people and close to the Taliban.” They’d also been given aid several times, he discovered.  

In contrast, Mortaza says that the people of western Kabul have been deprived of such cash aid, even though they are struggling with poverty and acute hunger. Residents confirmed Mortaza’s reporting, saying that there is bias and discrimination in the distribution of aid in Kabul.  

When asked to comment, Caroline Gluck, UNHCR spokesperson for Afghanistan, said, “UNHCR has various verification mechanisms and controls in place to ensure assistance reaches the most vulnerable Afghans. Our assistance is provided to the internally displaced people, host communities and returned refugees who are registered with UNHCR. In line with UN Security Council resolutions, UNHCR Afghanistan takes actions to manage risks of aid diversion.” 

In his briefing to the US Congress on April 19, SIGAR’s Sopko talked about Taliban tactics that were similar to what Zan Times uncovered in its reporting: “It is clear from our work that the Taliban is using various methods to divert U.S. aid dollars.” He also explained, “Another Taliban strategy we identify is simply diverting funds away from groups the Taliban consider hostile and toward groups they favour — for instance, by redirecting international educational and humanitarian funding away from the ethnic minority known as Hazaras.”   

The dire situation already being endured by many in Afghanistan may still worsen. In early April 2023, the Taliban forbade local women from working for United Nations agencies in Afghanistan. That followed a December 2022 edict banning women from working for NGOs. In response to the newest ban, the UN asked Afghan staff to stay home until at least May as it sought to pressure the Taliban to reverse the rule, though the Taliban insist that won’t happen. “It is clear to everyone that we will never lower [reverse] our position,” said Hamas, the Taliban spokesman in Ghor province. 

On April 18, 2023, the head of the United Nations Development Program raised the possibility that the international organization, including its aid programs, may be forced to pull out of Afghanistan in May if the Taliban don’t allow women to work for the UN. “I think there is no other way of putting it [other] than heartbreaking,” Achim Steiner told the Associated Press.  

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees and journalists. 

Atia FarAzar*, Mahtab Safi*, Matin Mehrab*, and Kreshma Fakhri contributed reporting.