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Cash-Strapped Taliban Uses Foreign Aid Intended For Starving Afghans To Pay State Employees

Afghans wait to receive parts of an aid shipment from China that includes food and and winter supplies in Kunduz on January 6.

Like millions of other impoverished Afghans, day laborer Omaruddin and his family are facing starvation as the country’s economic crisis deepens under Taliban rule.

Omaruddin, a Kabul resident, has registered over 20 times with the Taliban regime in the hope of receiving wheat that was donated as humanitarian aid by foreign countries.

But the Taliban in October established a so-called “food for work” program that requires recipients to do manual labor on public-works projects to receive the humanitarian aid.

Omaruddin says only those with connections to the Taliban have received work under that program.

Now, in what the Taliban claims is an expansion of its "food for work" program, the cash-strapped regime has begun to use foreign wheat aid to pay the salaries of public sector workers.

UNICEF distributes aid to poor and orphaned children in Khost on January 21.
UNICEF distributes aid to poor and orphaned children in Khost on January 21.

That has contributed to already widespread allegations that the Taliban is misappropriating aid from foreign donors.

The Taliban’s controversial program has increased calls for international humanitarian organizations to distribute aid directly to the needy rather than funneling it through the militant group.

“Nobody hires us,” Omaruddin told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “The Taliban only take people that they know. You cannot find a job unless you know someone. They will not give you anything even if you work hard. There is no way that they are going to give out something for free.”

“I’ve gone 20 times to them to try to get food for work, but all I do is leave my identification number behind,” he adds. “It’s only the ones who have connections who get hired under this program. Nobody gives anything to the poor.”

Ghazni Gul, another day laborer, says he is struggling to even earn 50 afghanis for a full day of work -- about half a U.S. dollar -- since the Taliban seized power in August.

“There is no business at all,” Gul tells RFE/RL. “The aid is only given to those who have links or relationships with the Taliban. It does not go to the poor.”

Poor Afghan widows are being hit particularly hard. Despite their desperation, they do not qualify for foreign aid being distributed by the Taliban because the militant group does not allow women to work.

“The aid that comes from other countries around the world is meant to be given to the poor,” says Fatima, a widow in Kabul. “Those of us who do not have any male family members in our homes are desperate. At least the Taliban give wheat to some men in exchange for work.”

With the United Nations estimating that 23 million Afghans now face extreme hunger, those allowed by the Taliban to work in exchange for humanitarian assistance are seen as the lucky few.

Afghan families receive food aid distributed by the German government in Kabul in December.
Afghan families receive food aid distributed by the German government in Kabul in December.

Abdul Rahman, a cobbler by trade, says he is unable to feed his family of eight without assistance.

“The aid that is coming to Afghanistan does not reach us,” Rahman tells RFE/RL. “I’m poor, but there is no one to help us. Aid must be distributed to the poor directly” rather than through the Taliban.

“[The Taliban] say we will be given wheat if we come and work,” Rahman continues. “I have gone to them several times. They’ve taken my identification number, my phone number, and a photocopy of my identification card. But they refused to give us anything and said there is no wheat to give out.”

The UN this month issued a call for $4.4 billion in fresh humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan. But there are strict international rules against sending money to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

The United States and other foreign donors cut their financial assistance to Afghanistan when the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15.

Washington also froze some $9 billion in Afghan central bank reserves held in the United States.

Critics argue that the Taliban could use that money to fund terrorism. They also maintain that allowing the Taliban to receive those funds would reward and legitimize a regime that took power by force and has committed gross human rights violations.

In December, the United States and the UN Security Council approved exemptions for deliveries of food aid and medicine to Afghanistan to alleviate the country’s growing humanitarian crisis.

Under those exemptions, most food aid is distributed directly to needy Afghans by UN organizations and nongovernmental groups.

Taliban fighters guard a protest where demonstrators demanded the unfreezing of central banks assets abroad to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, in Kabul on January 2.
Taliban fighters guard a protest where demonstrators demanded the unfreezing of central banks assets abroad to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, in Kabul on January 2.

The Taliban’s “food for work” program relies on grain reserves that had been donated to Afghanistan’s previous government by India.

Since the Taliban’s takeover, more donated wheat has arrived from neighboring Pakistan and China along with smaller shipments from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

The Taliban’s Agriculture Ministry says Islamabad has delivered 18 tons of wheat and promised to send another 37 tons.

Fazel Bari Fazli, the ministry’s deputy chief of administration and finance, says the Taliban is also in talks with India about another 55-ton shipment of wheat.

He says about 40,000 workers now receive a 10-kilogram bag of wheat in exchange for a full day of labor.

In a statement to Radio Azadi, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied allegations that the regime is only distributing aid to its supporters.

But the Taliban’s use of humanitarian aid for government purposes, such as paying the salaries of public-sector workers, has raised questions among foreign donors.

Critics within the international community say widespread allegations of the Taliban misappropriating food aid donations are the best argument for keeping in place the strict international restrictions on financial flows into Afghanistan.

Strong doubts also remain among many Afghans about whether the Taliban can be trusted to distribute humanitarian aid fairly -- particularly among those from ethnic and religious communities that have fought against the Taliban for years.

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi
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    Ron Synovitz

    Ron Synovitz is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.