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U.S. taxpayers helping fund Afghanistan's Taliban? Aid workers say they're forced "to serve the Taliban first"

House hearing on Afghanistan withdrawal
House Oversight Committee holds hearing on withdrawal from Afghanistan 05:33

Aid workers at non-profit organizations in Afghanistan that receive financial support from the U.S. government say they're being forced to pay fees and provide services to the Taliban. They spoke to CBS News days after the head of a U.S. government oversight office tasked with monitoring how U.S. tax dollars are spent in Afghanistan told lawmakers that his staff "simply do not know" the extent to which the American people may unknowingly be funding the terrorist group.

"Since the Taliban takeover, the U.S. government has sought to continue supporting the Afghan people without providing benefits for the Taliban regime," Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John F. Sopko said Wednesday in testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability. "However, it is clear from our work that the Taliban is using various methods to divert U.S. aid dollars."

Dire circumstances since Taliban takeover

"Unfortunately, as I sit here today I cannot assure this committee or the American taxpayer, we are not currently funding the Taliban," Sopko told the lawmakers. "Nor can I assure you that the Taliban are not diverting the money we are sending for the intended recipients, which are the poor Afghan people."

US Afghanistan
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko (right), speaks during a hearing of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee concerning the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, on Capitol Hill, April 19, 2023, in Washington. Alex Brandon/AP

Since the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban took back control of the country in August 2021, the country has spiralled into an economic and humanitarian crisis. International donors suspended most funding that wasn't for humanitarian aid, and billions of dollars in Afghan government assets were frozen. Now, almost the entire population is at risk of poverty, with over 91% of the average Afghan household's income spent on food. An estimated 24.4 million Afghans are in need of humanitarian support.

Sopko presented SIGAR's list of the greatest sources of risk that could expose continued U.S. financial assistance to Afghanistan to abuse, fraud, waste or mission failure.

He said the U.S. had made $8 billion in aid available to Afghanistan since the military withdrawal, including around $2 billion in humanitarian aid, a level of assistance he said was "little changed from before the withdrawal."

Taliban "taxes and fees"

At the top of the list of the risks to U.S. funding identified by SIGAR was the Taliban's interference with the work of local NGOs and United Nations aid agencies on the ground.

"The Taliban generate income from U.S. aid by imposing customs charges on shipments coming into the country and charging taxes and fees directly on NGOs," Sopko said, adding that if NGOs don't pay the Taliban's fees, they can have their offices closed and their bank accounts frozen.

A Taliban fighter stands guard as people receive humanitarian aid food rations in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 30, 2022. AP/Ebrahim Noroozi

The previous Afghan government also did this, Sopko noted, and the Taliban has imposed taxes on aid in areas it has controlled for years, even before 2021. But Sopko said the Islamic hardliners were going further now, including by imposing fees on vendors that do business with NGOs, such as landlords and cell phone companies.

Sopko said the Taliban was also diverting funds away from groups it does not support, including the ethnic minority Hazara community and, in certain instances, requiring NGOs to work with them, such as by insisting they rent vehicles only from the Taliban or Taliban-linked groups.

Aid workers on the ground in Afghanistan have told CBS News that the interference goes beyond all of that, however, and includes the Taliban demanding services directly from the groups that receive U.S. funding. They said those demands have increased since the group retook power almost two years ago.

"The Taliban first"

"We have to serve the families of the Taliban police commanders, governors and other people who they ask us to serve specifically," one aid worker at UNHCR told CBS News on the condition of anonymity. "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."

A Taliban fighter secures the area as people queue to receive cash at a money distribution site organized by the World Food Program (WFP) in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 17, 2021. Petros Giannakouris/AP

Hamid Khan, an aid worker with a local NGO that's subcontracted by the United Nations' World Food Program in Afghanistan, told CBS News that Taliban interference had made it increasingly difficult for the organization to determine on its own who to help.

He said his NGO aims to assist "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.

"We have to work with them"

Abdullah Khan, who works for a U.N. agency in Afghanistan, told CBS News 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 U.N. directly, but the U.N., the World Food Program, and even the International Committee of the Red Cross-subcontracted NGOs can't resist Taliban pressure," said Abdullah Khan. "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."

Many Afghans living in fear, one year after U.S. troops withdrew from America's longest war 09:12

A staff member at a regional NGO in northern Afghanistan who asked to remain anonymous told CBS News that the organization was 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 said 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," said the aid worker.

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, acknowledged to the Security Council in March, however, 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."

CBS News correspondent Pamela Falk contributed to this report.

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