In Afghanistan, Taliban Taking Cut of Reconstruction Funds
Mirahmad has a very important job to do: he is the mirab, or water regulator, in his native Pushtrod district of Farah province. It is Mirahmad who ensures that the villages under his control receive adequate water for their fields.
When the state-sponsored National Solidarity Program (NSP) gave Pushtrod 200,000 Afghani (40,000 U.S. dollars) to clean out the Nawbahar canal irrigation canal, he was overjoyed.
"But then the Taliban asked for 40 percent of the money," he told IWPR. "Otherwise they were not going to let us do the work. So we had to buy them a four-by-four."
While the Taliban drive around in their new vehicle, Mirahmad is trying desperately to stretch the remaining funds to complete the project.
"We are worried about the budget," he said. "It may not be enough to do the job. We will have a lot of problems with water."
In district after district of the remote and volatile Farah province, the Taliban are taking control. But rather than chasing out the remnants of government authority, they are seeking to profit from them, by demanding a healthy portion of donor-funded assistance projects.
First and foremost among these are projects under the auspices of the NSP, a nationwide reconstruction initiative, launched in 2003 by the ministry of rural rehabilitation and development with funding from the international community.
One of the central missions of the NSP -- which has dispensed millions of dollars since it was launched -- is to foster good local governance by helping communities identify and implement projects that are in their interests.
But in Farah, at least, a substantial cut of the funding is being seized by the Taliban, who are demanding a share of the funds for protecting the projects -- from themselves. They then use the money they have extorted from the government to buy guns and ammunition.
Faced with the prospect of funding its own enemy, the local government is fighting back.
"We have received numerous complaints regarding [the Taliban taking NSP money]," said Shah Mahmoud, the deputy chief of the rural rehabilitation and development department in Farah. "So we have stopped sending money to some projects. We will not send a penny until serious steps are taken to solve the problem."
The result has been an unwelcome slowdown of NSP projects in the districts affected.
"There has been a 20 percent decrease in implementation of NSP projects in Balabuluk, Pushtrod and Khak Safed districts of Farah province," said Mahmoud. "Some projects have been stopped in the middle."
According to Mahmoud, the problem could not be resolved by the military; rather, his organization was seeking to negotiate with the Taleban, using the offices of tribal elders and local authorities.
"We hope to get influential figures from the area to mediate the problem quite soon," he said.
The Taleban are taking quite a hard line on the issue, and are defending their right to the money.
"This money is the spoils of war," said Mullah Shah Mohammad, a senior Taliban representative in the Khak Safed and Pushtrod districts. "It was given to these people by the infidels. It is our absolute right to take this money and continue our jihad, and the people are cooperating with us on this."
But for the residents of Farah, the Taliban's actions are closer to robbery than to jihad, and they want it stopped.
"In all of Khak Safed district there is only one school, and it is closed," Haji Abdul Basir, a representative of the village of Dewal Surkh, said. "There are 800 families here. So we decided to use our NSP money to build a school, but Taleban gunmen stopped us."
Basir does not agree with the government's solution -- to halt funding until the problem is resolved. He prefers a more nuanced approach.
"If they give us additional funding, we can always bargain with the Taliban," he said. "But if the money is cut, then what future do our children have?"
But he resents the Taliban for interrupting projects designed to benefit the community.
"What the Taliban are doing is illegal," he said. "This is the people's money, and it should not be used for the goals of one specific group."
Abdullah Khan, a prominent figure in the village of Massaw in Pushtrod district, told IWPR that he, too, had had run-ins with the Taliban.
"I was personally threatened by gunmen who said they were Taliban," he said. "They demanded that I hand over the development project money. But I did not have it with me, so they beat me and told me to close the school that we built with NSP money. Unfortunately, we have not been able to reopen it yet."
He worries about the effect that the extortion is having on people's lives, and is afraid that the money will be stopped altogether. But he is not opposed in principle to sharing the funds with the Taliban.
"It may hurt us economically, but it is good for the security of the project," he said.
Many residents share this very pragmatic attitude towards the Taliban in their midst.
"It's okay to give the Taliban some money," said Abdul Jabar, a resident of the village of Dukin in Pushtrod. "On the one hand, you give them some assistance, and on the other, it allows us to complete the projects very easily. No one dares to create any problems."
Toza Gul, a resident of the village of Narmakai in Pushtrod, told IWPR that residents and the Taliban often clashed, but for the most part were able to negotiate their differences.
"Two weeks ago, the situation got really dangerous," he said. "The Taliban and the local people were arguing over the money, and they almost started fighting with each other. But the Taleban were smart and they backed off. They allowed the people to continue working on a road which connects the district with the provincial center."
Tribal elders, he went on, were very useful in defusing the crisis.
Dr. Ahmad Shah, who heads the Farah office of DACAAR, a Danish NGO, told IWPR that his programs were also being hit by Taliban.
"Project funds have been taken by force," he said.
Shah blamed the security forces for not being able to provide adequate protection for community projects.
"We have no choice but to give a percentage of our budget to the Taliban," he said.
Juma Khan Qayed, a senior planning official in Farah city, told IWPR that the tactic would likely backfire against the Taiban.
"The Taliban have two goals here," he said. "First, they want money to make themselves stronger. Second, they want to show their power, to prove that no one can govern the districts except the Taliban. But this will widen the gap between them and the people, and in the end the locals will rise up against the Taliban."