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Aid agencies under threat in Afghanistan as Taliban attempts to tax them

The Taliban in Afghanistan are becoming what one think-tank calls a "government in waiting," taxing individuals in the provinces and extending a kind of regulatory jurisdiction over medical clinics and other public institutions.

Setting up regulations and tax collection 'to make the Taliban look like a state'

Razia, shown here with her grandfather, lost her hands when she and other children were searching for scrap metal in Afghanistan and picked up a mine instead. Deminers in Kandahar province are no longer carrying out their crucial work, because of Taliban threats and intimidation. (Jennifer Glasse)

The Taliban in Afghanistan are becoming what one think-tank calls a "government in waiting," taxing individuals in the provinces and extending a kind of regulatory jurisdiction over medical clinics and other public institutions.

Now they are attempting to tax and control the activities of NGOs, including international aid agencies, such as those removing mines in the Afghan countryside.

A July report sponsored by the Overseas Development Institute details the group's evolution from an insurgency that attacked and disrupted services to what it calls "a government in waiting."

It says the Taliban are collecting electricity revenues in at least seven provinces and cites its influence in the health, education and justice sectors.

'Make the Taliban look like a state'

The Taliban have their own tax collectors, demanding the zakat that requires Muslims to donate a portion their income to the poor. They also collect Oshr — or a percentage of crops or profit from farmers, workers or businesses.

The report says that: "Taliban taxes are not arbitrary, although they do vary and are open to negotiation. They are designed to make the Taliban look like a state."

While taxes on individuals, including ones who work on aid projects, have been regularly collected for some time, the Taliban appear to be turning to international funding as a new revenue stream, going after aid projects.

This past spring, Taliban representatives, not just in Kandahar but also around the country, began asking demining and other NGOs to register with their own NGO commission, and to share the details of the finances of their projects.

'There have been threats'

"There is an implicit threat in not complying with a request to register oneself with the Taliban, which obviously has a military wing," said Patrick Fruchet, the program manager for the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Afghanistan.

"We had instances where there have been threats to burn our mechanical demining assets, and there have been threats against our people," Fruchet continued.

UN-sponsored deminers retrieve an anti-tank mine in Zhari, southern Afghanistan, where Canadian troops once fought. (Jennifer Glasse)

"We take those things very seriously, which is why we have stood down these assets so that our people and the people that we work with and the machines that we have are not in harm's way."

In November, the UN's Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in its weekly report that, "There is increasing evidence that in different parts of the country demands by NSAGs (non-state armed groups) for illegal taxation from humanitarian agencies are becoming more formalized. Such demands violate humanitarian principles and cause delays in responding to life-saving needs of the affected people."

Deminers stop work

In February, in Zhari district, an area where Canadian troops once fought, a farmer called UN-funded deminers working nearby to deal with an Italian-made anti-tank mine that had surfaced as they irrigated a field.

The deminer used a set of car keys to scrape away the earth around the mine, and took it to be detonated in a safe zone about a kilometre away. The considerable blast sent a huge mushroom dust cloud into the air.

Perhaps as much as about 200 square kilometres of Zhari may still be contaminated by anti-tank mines left over from the mujahedeen era.

But that team and the rest of deminers in Kandahar province are no longer carrying out their crucial work, because of Taliban threats and intimidation.

Taliban preferred by some

Affected NGOs did not want to speak on the record for fear of Taliban retaliation against their workers, but they paint a picture of the Taliban increasing their influence over health clinics and schools as well as attempting to "tax" NGOs.

Their strict rules for health workers in one area included no single, unmarried staff, and women coming for treatment had to be accompanied by a male relative. The Taliban check on staff attendance and the expiration dates of medicines. No smartphones or unauthorized movement in and out of their districts is allowed.

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, head of the Taliban’s political council in Qatar, takes part in the multilateral peace talks on Afghanistan in Moscow in November. Some people prefer the Taliban's governance, as they say it's less corrupt than the official government. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Not everyone feels the Taliban intervention is bad or excessive; some say the group's regulations are easier than dealing with corrupt government officials.

The Taliban's parallel government is popular among some Afghans. Residents in Logar say the group's court system offers better, faster, less corrupt justice than government courts. Increasingly, people turn to the Taliban to settle property and family disputes because of rampant government corruption where judges and prosecutors often demand bribes.

Taxing NGOs instead of poppy economy

The Taliban have their own shadow officials, some that work alongside the government, said the regional head of one NGO in southern Afghanistan. They regularly visit NGO offices, and are hands-on, said one worker.

"There seems to be a strong push to tax NGOs, to tax non-profit organizations, and what I understand is that is a relatively new phenomena. Previously illicit taxation was perhaps more oriented toward the illicit economy — things like the poppy economy, rather than the NGO economy," said the UN's Fruchet.

Fruchet says he has had to move demining teams from the east, west and south of the country because of the new Taliban demands. Some of his deminers have been removing explosives from the land for nearly three decades and had worked alongside the Taliban.

"The demining NGO directors remember the time from 1998 to 2001 when the Taliban was in power as being a time when they had relatively good freedom of movement," he said.

An increasingly difficult path

The extent of Taliban taxation and monitoring of NGOs varies, says one worker. Their own organization isn't hassled that much because one of their managers has longstanding ties with the Taliban leadership, the worker said. Other NGOs have reportedly purchased equipment for Taliban medical clinics, or hired workers suggested by the Taliban.

Some NGOs say they are struggling to come up with a strategy for working in Taliban-controlled areas. Most government funding comes with rules that should prevent money from going to the Taliban or other anti-government groups.

Afghan demining security personnel clear mines from a field in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province in 2016. (Javed Tanveer/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Taliban formalizes its hold on the people and works to extend it to aid organizations, those groups will have to walk an increasingly difficult path.

The UN's Fruchet said does not know when the deminers who have had to halt their work will be able to return. He would like the Taliban to embrace one of their historical promises.

"In 1998 some of the NGO directors that I currently work with were involved were involved in getting Mullah Omar to sign an edict banning land mines on Afghan territory. That's certainly something I would welcome an opportunity to see the Taliban movement recommit itself to."

About the Author

Jennifer Glasse is a correspondent who has been based in Afghanistan for the past eight years, reporting for CBC News, Al Jazeera English, NPR and PBS NewsHour. She has been an international correspondent for 25 years reporting from more than 75 countries.