Increased Taliban Interference Raises Concerns of Aid Effectiveness

The Taliban’s restrictive policies have continued to impede humanitarian operations in Afghanistan amid the deepening crisis, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a report on Monday, November 27. The report has recorded 999 incidents of intervention in the implementation of humanitarian activities in 2023 with 147 incidents reported in the last month. Overall, challenges to accessing aid increased by 21% in 2023—compared to the same period in 2022.

The report highlights various methods of how the Taliban authorities interfered in humanitarian activities, including hindering administrative processes, curbing on movements of personnel and goods, restricting women staff, and arresting aid workers. As a result, humanitarian groups briefly suspended 659 programs this year, marking a 68% increase from the same period in 2022. 

Source: OCHA Afghanistan

According to the report, this year, the Taliban issued 50 directives primarily asking authorities to execute new guidelines by the group’s Ministry of Economy, which directly impacted humanitarian performance across the country. The orders included limiting women’s participation in aid delivery and emphasizing the role of Taliban-led non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their Provincial Economy Directorates in humanitarian response.

In October alone, OCHA recorded 25 incidents of arrest and detention of aid staff. The arrest of aid workers comes as the Taliban detained four local employees of Germany’s main government-owned aid agency, known as GIZ, on November 25.

The UN says they have also recorded at least 15 incidents of restriction of movement of personnel and goods including constraints on women aid workers and mahram requirements, curbs at Taliban checkpoints, and road closure. The restrictions were particularly evident during the Herat earthquake response when the Taliban enforced daily movement approvals on aid groups and personnel, hindering emergency aid assistance to quake-affected people. As a result of these heightened restrictions, humanitarian groups temporarily suspended 77 programs in October, though 75% resumed within the first week of the month after UN agencies negotiated with the Taliban.

Source: OCHA Afghanistan

The Taliban has not yet reacted to this UN report, but the group’s chief spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has previously rejected allegations that it is interfering in aid deliveries.

The OCHA report is consistent with mounting evidence about the Taliban’s intervention in humanitarian aid programs, particularly in northern and central regions, where reports indicate that the group diverts humanitarian aid for their members based on political affiliation and ethno-religious preferences. A Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report revealed that the Taliban interference with aid operations has increased by 32% between January and May this year as compared to the same period in 2022. The report said the group’s aid diversion and bureaucratic roadblocks disrupted the United Nations aid provision in Daikundi, Ghor, and Uruzgan provinces.

SIGAR had raised similar concerns before. On November 14, the watchdog chief John Sopko said that the Taliban is interfering in and benefiting from a substantial portion of U.S. aid to Afghanistan by putting pressure on foreign partners to hire its allies and companies. According to SIGAR, the U.S. provided more than $2.35 billion in funding to Afghanistan since the Taliban overtook power, despite imposing sanctions, freezing over $7 billion of foreign exchange reserves, and halting other major fundings.

In a separate report last month, SIGAR said the Taliban are indirectly benefiting from the U.S.-funded assistance programs in the education sector by establishing fraudulent or friendly NGOs to receive foreign funding, receiving salaries intended for public teachers, generating tax revenues from U.S.-funded organizations, and through extortion. Others like Michael McCaul, Chair of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, have criticized Biden’s Administration for engaging with the Taliban, while the group “are engaged in theft and diversion of this fund to serve their maligned purposes.”

The spike in Taliban’s interference in humanitarian activities is yet another blow to efforts to deliver aid in a country described by the UN as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The UN estimates that over two-thirds of the population—over 29 million people—need life-saving assistance this year. While over 90% of the population lives below the poverty line amid a crumbling economy, around 17 million people are suffering from acute food insecurity—over 6 million of them on the brink of starvation.

The situation is further exacerbated by natural disasters such as recent earthquakes in Herat, consecutive years of drought, internal displacement, and a refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands are being forcibly deported from Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey just before the onset of the winter. The competition for scarce resources is further compounding these conditions at a time when humanitarian groups are facing severe funding shortfalls. Of the revised $3.23 billion required funding, the UN has received only $1.01 billion this year.

Despite the challenges, OCHA says it will continue to advocate “for unimpeded humanitarian access while also providing troubleshooting assistance to humanitarians requiring support.” The UN humanitarian agency stressed to promote the crucial role of women’s participation in aid delivery with the Taliban authorities through engagement at all levels. However, what has become clear so far is that the Taliban authorities remain unmoved by criticism or pressure, leaving the world between a rock and a hard place in managing a crisis that is only expanding.