With Afghanistan in the grips of economic collapse and a devastating humanitarian crisis, many Afghans are pinning their hopes on international aid to stave off soaring hunger and poverty.
But Afghans say the limited assistance that is arriving in the war-torn country is being misappropriated by the Taliban, the militant Islamist group that forcibly seized power in Afghanistan in August.
“The only people who have received any aid are those who belong to the Taliban, particularly relatives of those Taliban members who were killed or injured while fighting for them,” Wali Mohammad, who lives in the southern province of Kandahar, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.
“The poor, widows, orphans, and those who worked or fought for the previous government can’t access aid,” Mohammad added.
Observers say the Taliban’s actions threaten to deprive tens of thousands of Afghans of life-saving assistance. Afghans are suffering from the combined impacts of drought, war, the coronavirus pandemic, and an economic crisis exacerbated by turmoil after the Taliban takeover.
We're 'Left Out'
When the Taliban seized control of Kabul on August 15, Western donors immediately suspended aid to Afghanistan, wary of giving hundreds of millions of dollars to a militant group that is notorious for oppressing women, targeting ethnic and religious minorities, and implementing an extremist form of Islamic Shari’a law.
The Taliban has also been deprived of some $9 billion in Afghanistan’s foreign assets. The holdings, most of it kept in the United States, were frozen after the militants’ takeover.
Earlier this month, the international community pledged more than $1.2 billion in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. But it is unclear how and when the assistance will be delivered to the millions of Afghans who are in urgent need of help.
The Taliban has received direct humanitarian aid, including cash, basic food items, and medicine, from only some countries. The biggest donors have been China and Pakistan, the Taliban’s main foreign ally.
But Afghans say the modest levels of aid reaching the country are not going to the neediest.
“Only people with influence and access are getting aid while the rest of us are being left out,” says Abdullah, a resident of the southern province of Helmand.
Abdullah, speaking to RFE/RL, says the Taliban is funneling aid to powerful tribal leaders who contributed to their 20-year war effort against international and Afghan government forces.
Risk Of Mass Starvation
Afghanistan faced drought, displacement, and a humanitarian crisis even before the Taliban toppled the Western-backed government in Kabul in mid-August, with half the population dependent on aid, according to the United Nations.
The loss of international funding and assistance has exacerbated the dire situation in the country, observers say.
Almost 23 million Afghans, or two-thirds of the population of some 35 million, will suffer “acute food insecurity” this winter, the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned in a joint statement on October 25.
Last month, a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) study warned that as much as 97 percent of Afghanistan’s population was at risk of sinking below the poverty line “unless a response to the country’s political and economic crises is urgently launched.”
In recent weeks, reports have emerged of children dying from hunger on the streets or being sold by desperate parents.
Despite pledging hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan, Western donors face a difficult task of delivering assistance to ordinary Afghans.
Many international organizations and foreign governments evacuated their staff after the Taliban takeover and subsequent withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Foreign aid projects, which were run through Afghan government ministries, have collapsed.
“It is completely impossible for United Nations agencies and NGOs to fill the vacuum of a collapsing state infrastructure,” says Anders Fange, a veteran aid worker and board member of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA), which leads one of the largest international aid operations in the country.
Fange says UN and U.S. sanctions against Taliban leaders and the reluctance of the international community to deal with the Taliban-led government are creating hurdles for the delivery of aid.
“You can talk to [the Taliban], but you can’t channel money through them because you will be violating the sanctions regime from the UN itself and from the United States,” he said.
At least half of the Taliban’s cabinet members are on UN sanctions lists. Some prominent Taliban ministers are U.S.-designated terrorists.
Even Afghans who are trying to help their local communities have come up against Taliban bureaucracy. Locals say charities or individuals trying to help must get prior approval from the Taliban.
“The Taliban are distributing aid to those who contributed to their war effort, are part of their organization, or who now support their government,” says a Kabul resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of Taliban reprisals.
“They are in no mood to support those who fought against them or have remained neutral during the past two decades,” he adds.
Only a few countries have given the Taliban direct foreign aid.
China and Pakistan have pledged more than $60 million, in total, in cash to the Taliban government. They have also donated coronavirus vaccines, food, and medicines.
Neighbors Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, collectively, have donated some 6,400 metric tons of wheat flour to Afghanistan since September.
The Taliban has denied claims that it is only distributing aid to its supporters. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told RFE/RL that the group is distributing medical aid and food through relevant government ministries and departments.
“These government organs distribute all the aid, and they have established procedures to distribute aid to deserving people,” he said.
But that is rejected by Afghans who accuse the Taliban of misusing foreign aid.
Alizai, a resident of Helmand Province, says the Taliban is only distributing aid to the families of slain or living Taliban fighters.
“They got everything,” says Alizai. “How long will this continue?”