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Aid in the line of fire – part two

*An Afghan doctor employed by a Swedish aid organisation is handcuffed, hooded and taken away by special forces in a helicopter.

*Four other people are executed at the Swedish-run hospital by the same special forces – a unit led by American and Afghan intelligence services.

*Why is a CIA-supported special force unit carrying out a deadly attack on Swedish aid in Afghanistan?

*Follow war correspondent Magda Gad deep into Taliban territory, unearthing unholy alliances, unspeakable war crimes and terror financed by charity.

The partly tax-funded aid organization Swedish Committee for Afghanistan negotiated directly with the Taliban leadership while operating under the Taliban regime.

The organization is known to have good relations with the Taliban and critics say it supports them indirectly by providing services in areas with strong Taliban presence.

Reports say the Taliban tax aid organizations in order to let them operate on their territory.

This causes an ethical dilemma where the organizations providing vital public services to civilians, also fund terrorism with taxpayers’ money.

January 2019, Wardak

It’s a cold January morning in Wardak when I first hear of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan’s activities in the province. The wet chill of snow creeps into the walls of the room where I’m sat with Taliban commander Tayeeb. He is the district commander of Day Mirdad, wears his beard henna-dyed, and defends suicide bombings as a natural part of the holy war. 

He tells me that the Western media’s numerous reports of there being no schools for girls in Taliban-controlled areas is propaganda.

”No one here goes uneducated, Inshallah. Girls can study up to the age of twelve. They follow the government curriculum, as well as extra subjects added by the Islamic Emirate.”

The Islamic Emirate is the Islamic state, declared by the Taliban in 1996.

”The Emirate replaces some subjects with others and strengthens weak areas. This ensures the students have a better knowledge of their religion – of Islam.”

It is at this point that the Taliban leader refers to the partly tax-funded Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA), which has been present in the country since the 1980s:

”There are female teachers in villages, employed by a Swedish aid organization, and establishments where girls may further their education. The Mujahideen and the Emirate are not against this. We have, in fact, supported it.”

January 2019, Kabul

His comments raise a question: Is the SCA putting the money of Swedish tax-payers and donors into the hands of the Taliban?

To find out more about the aid organization and its alleged Taliban connections, I call its Secretary General, Andreas Stefansson. He explains that they have conducted several activities throughout the years, both in Taliban- and government- controlled areas. However, in the Day Mirdad district commanded by Tayeeb, they suspended their school operations three years ago.

”We’ve supported education in that district for many years, but in 2015–2016, a new Taliban leadership was brought in and imposed additional demands on local village councils, who in turn informed us that education could no longer be conducted.”

I point out that the SCA must have run operations under Taliban rule, as the Taliban seized power in the mid 1990s. Tayeeb has commanded Day Mirdad for seven years and, according to him, the Taliban only lost control between 2001 and 2004, following the US invasion. Stefansson agrees:

”Yes, absolutely, large parts of our activities are conducted in areas that are more or less influenced and controlled by the Taliban. They have established shadow governments in every province.”

He explains that the SCA always negotiates with the local village councils. The bureaucratic names of these is Community Development Councils, or CDCs, a term that is on my list of things to investigate.

I enquire how the SCA determines whether there are Taliban members on these village councils and, if so, whether they knowingly negotiate with them.

”It is difficult to know if any council members might, so to speak, belong to the Taliban. They are a common element in the country and there are Afghans who have freely chosen to participate in the movement, so naturally we can never be completely sure.”

Andreas Stefansson emphasizes the main focus of the SCA, which is to provide the local population with the fundamental services to which they are entitled as human beings, such as health care and education, as long as all sides agree it can be done.

July 2019, Kabul

One summer’s evening in Kabul, I meet with a professor from Kabul University. When he hears that I’m from Sweden, he tells of a man called Anders Fänge. Fänge used to be the Country Director for the SCA and, according to the professor, had a knack for negotiating with the Taliban leadership.

”In negotiations, he’d say they only meant to start schools for boys, while also planning to open girl schools. The Taliban minister was onto him, and when signing the agreement he said, ‘I know what you’re doing, but don’t tell us’.”

According to the professor, the Taliban commanders looked through the fingers in order for their own daughters to get an education. 

To find out the truth to this story, I contact Anders Fänge. He starts by saying the Taliban leader Tayeeb was right about media reporting of girls attending school:

”The SCA ran girls’ schools in the countryside under the Taliban regime. They were very strict in the towns and cities, particularly in the capital of Kabul, which they regarded as the source of all sin. This resulted in home schools for girls, run in strict secrecy.”

In the countryside, things weren’t as complicated:

”Perhaps mainly because that’s where the Taliban are from. It became a paradox. The international media reported on the Taliban prevented girls from getting an education. Meanwhile, more girls than ever before were attending school in the countryside.”

He brings up some numbers: In 1978, during the last year of peace in the country, there were 215 girls attending school in Wardak. In contrast, the SCA alone had more than 3,000 girls enrolled in schools in Wardak province under the Taliban regime in 2000.

The professor’s claim of Taliban commanders wanting their own daughters to attend school refers to an incident where high-ranking Taliban members asked the SCA’s Afghan personnel if they could arrange school places for their daughters. And it holds true: 

”We helped one Taliban minister get his daughter enrolled in a Pakistani girls’ school,” Andreas Fänge explains, adding that while the conservative clique around then top leader Mullah Omar strongly opposed girls’ schools, better educated Taliban had, and still have, a more tolerant attitude to modern education.

The professor’s account of initial disagreement on the recruitment of teachers also proves to be true. Anders Fänge recounts how the Taliban initially wanted to manage the recruitment themselves, and how the SCA opposed this. This led to Fänge having to negotiate directly with a Taliban minister. They finally agreed that the SCA and the Taliban’s provisional education directorate would jointly carry out recruitment. This, according to Fänge, worked very well, as the Taliban’s representatives never turned up for meetings, leaving the SCA to continue recruiting teachers on its own terms.

”When the negotiations with the minister were complete, I got up, shook hands, said goodbye and walked to the door. ‘We know you have those girls’ schools but don’t tell us,’ he said as I opened the door.”

This leaves us with two contradicting accounts on how the SCA conducts its business: Secretary General Anders Stefansson claiming that the organization negotiates strictly with the CDCs; and former Country Director Fänge admitting to having shaken hands with Taliban ministers and putting their daughters in school.

April 2019, Wardak

The Taliban took Wardak on February 10, 1995, and imposed strict laws and draconian punishments to remain in power. However, bans on music, television and the mixing of women and men had little effect on the residence, as they had never been allowed these liberties to begin with.

Following the US invasion in 2001, the Taliban regime fell and its leaders fled, leaving behind a crushed state. The villagers did not accept the US-backed coalition militia coming from the north, which led to local militias seizing power. These came into conflict both with one another and the new government forces, and the security situation deteriorated. 

In 2004, Taliban leaders started returning from exile in Pakistan. They regrouped and hit back hard: US soldiers and politicians backed by the West were killed; members of the national police and aid workers were kidnapped; and suicide bombings began. One road in Wardak was known as ‘IED alley’ because of all the roadside bombs.

By day, there were farmers willing to talk with foreigners, but come nightfall, they sought out the Taliban, who they felt provided better security. Thus, it became difficult to distinguish civilians from Taliban.

This remains the case. A survey conducted by the Asia Foundation in 2018 showed that 18.9 percent of Wardak inhabitants have ‘a lot of sympathy’ for the Taliban. It is impossible to look at a farmer toiling his apple orchard, and determine where his loyalty lies.

What is evident, however, is the aftermath of violence and never-ending skirmishes. Elderly men who neither read nor write invite me to see their farms, or what little remains of them. In tattered shoes, they walk among craters, recounting how planes above ”unleashed fire” upon them. They prompt younger relatives to show me their phones, and I browse through pictures of bodies that once were children. Wrapped in white sheets with faces framed with flower garlands, they leave behind the unanswerable question of ”why so soon?” Why were their lifelines measured and cut by a stranger in a flying machine?

One father says, that as long as the area remains insecure, any foreigners’ school project won’t matter. Who wants to send their child to school if they risk being blown up on the way there?

On a shopping street, there’s a thin old man standing in front of a burnt-out building. Grey clothes, a grey turban and a papyrus-like face with a big silver beard. He says it’s the result of a recent government raid.

”They attacked at 10 o’clock at night. The children woke up, crying and screaming. It was terrible, what happened to us. First, airplanes landed. Then a helicopter arrived and started bombing and shooting and we didn’t know what they were shooting at.”

Wearily, he nods his head: 

”Over there is a mosque. The poor man living inside was killed and the mosque was completely destroyed.”

He turns back towards the blackened remains of somebody’s workplace, a room of about 20 square metres.

”And what happened here? They set the place on fire and bombed another room to pieces.”

A young man wearing a white headscarf emerges from the building in question, carrying a blue placard sporting the letters ‘SCA’. This used to be his motorcycle repair shop. 

”My workshop is registered with the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. I have no political connection with the Taliban or any other group. This was my livelihood. I’m the only one in my household with an income, and I have no other way of earning money.”

The young man explains that the workshop employed people with various disabilities, a group the Swedish aid organization pays particular attention to in the countryside, along with women and children.

”People took these motorcycles here, the disabled helped repair them”, he says.

The young man himself is not disabled, and I never find the workers he mentions. What I can’t help but find, however, are the remains of charred motorbikes littering the pavement. 

In the Chak district, an old stronghold of Hezb-e Islami and the Taliban, the Karim Shahid school has suffered a similar fate, its windows and furnishings reduced to shards and splinters. Headmaster Naqibullah walks through the scene, back straight, black turban and thin-rimmed glasses under a furrowed brow. About 50 boys follow their headmaster, running down the stairs and round the rectangular building. The youngest boy isn’t a student at all. He’s just here, standing in the corridor in his finest clothes of white trousers and blue jacket. His name is Shoaib and he’s three years old.

”By Allah, this is the fourth or fifth attack by coalition forces”, says the headmaster. ”The windows and chairs have been destroyed and there’s no one we can ask to have them replaced. If we ask the Ministry of Education, it takes them a year just to handle our inquiry.”

I won’t find any evidence that the coalition forces are to blame for the devastation. The headmaster continues his tour: 

”Desks have been destroyed, the library is destroyed, lockers have been destroyed.”

The various classrooms hold groups of boys studying old Islamic textbooks, which they quickly swap for English tuition booklets when we arrive. The headmaster asks a boy named Norollah, seated at the front of the class with his blue Unicef rucksack, to read a passage aloud. The ten-year-old does so perfectly, and receives a satisfied nod. 

Nine year old Emranullah looks out the window from under his Levi’s cap. On the road leading up to the school building, men move in groups, many of them armed. Their leaders line their eyes with kajal, and they pray five times a day. There’s not a single woman in sight. Despite almost 40 years of development aid efforts, only one percent of women in the province have an income, according to the Asia Foundation. 

When we reach his office, which is crammed with tables and paper, headmaster Naqibullah laments the absense of girls in his school:

”Unfortunately, we don’t have any girls here as the environment isn’t suited to them. In the villages, there are schools for ages up to twelve, where girls may be taught in mosques and left alone.”

The school was built by Turkey in 2010. Some of the textbooks and school bags come from Unicef, while the wages are paid by the Ministry of Education. These days, it’s not unusual for the Taliban to allow educational projects to be financed in this way, with international aid organizations, the Afghan government and the Taliban becoming an unlikely trinity of partners.

Teaching at the school follows curricula from both the Ministry of Education and the Taliban. Headmaster Naqibullah sees no problem with either of these. He says he’s fond of the Taliban’s study materials and that there are benefits to their rigorous check-ups:

”They’ve added a textbook called ‘Islamic Teaching’ which is very good. And the reason we are so successful is that the Taliban’s administrator comes here and monitors us every day, week or month. They have a team of administrators with different areas of responsibility who come here and check our teaching methods, our teachers and everything else.”

September 2019, Kabul

It is evident that the Taliban exert influence over any business conducted in the areas they control. But to what effect? And what motivates the Taliban to keep aid organizations like the Swedish Committee for Afghanistans in provinces like Wardak?

On the SCA’s website, I come across an article written by Thomas Ruttig and Sari Kuovo of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, AAN, an independent research institution partly funded by the Swedish government agency Sida. The article examines the problems of providing public services in Taliban-controlled areas, claiming that the Taliban influence the school curriculum; that ”in several parts of Afghanistan aid must be approved by local Taliban leaders”; that ”supporting health care and education is a way for the Taliban to gain support and sympathy for their cause”; and that this is ”a way of securing state funding”.

According to the authors, several reports assert that the Taliban tax the local media, civil servants, companies and telecom operators. Furthermore, they levy road tolls and pressure people to further payments by threatening to cut off their electricity.

What the article doesn’t bring up is what fellow AAN researcher Said Reza Kazemi, author of a series of reports titled ”One Land, Two Rules”, has concluded: The Taliban also tax the projects of NGO:s – public services and development. 

When I interviewed SCA’s Secretary General, Anderas Stefansson, he said that the SCA would never agree to pay taxes to the Taliban. But several independent sources insist that this policy doesn’t match practice, that all organizations operating in Taliban-controlled areas must pay a form of tithe – a religious tax – in order to be granted secure access and security. This, in turn, becomes a major source of income for the Taliban. 

Said Reza Kazemi describes the cases he has come across:

”It is necessary to negotiate with the Taliban and win their approval for development projects to take off in areas under their control or influence. This is often taken care of by local elders, including those in CDCs, who mediate between the government, the Taliban and the implementing NGOs. Otherwise, the Taliban will oppose and obstruct project implementation. And those involved know that the Taliban mean what they say.”

The CDCs, Community Development Councils, are the SCAs point of contact. Kazemi continues:

”The Taliban do levy a ten per cent ‘tax’ called ushr meaning one-tenth, on development projects. This means that the Taliban ‘tax’ has become part of development budgeting process. And there is no other way to go about it, unless those involved decide to discontinue development work.”

Kazemi adds that he has studied three specific cases in Obeh district of Herat province, not the whole country. 

Ushr is originally an Islamic tax on agricultural yield, similar to the tithe of the Old Testament. Refusal to pay means no development projects in Taliban territory – constructions of schools and clinics are taxed by the Taliban:

”It is very simple; they are not allowed to go and work there. Next come threats, intimidations and implementations of these intimidations. The Taliban operate partly through coercion, which means that you are obliged to comply with whatever they dictate or face the consequences.”

These consequences have ranged from destruction of equipment and property to attacks on staff.

The story of the Taliban tax system is corroborated by an investigator who has worked in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The investigator wishes to remain anonymous, as it is both unethical and illegal to pay tax to the Taliban; Organizations that do so could technically, under Afghan, US and EU law, be sanctioned for funding terror. If the investigator were revealed as a source of such information, this could threaten his work, which depends on having good relations on all sides in Afghanistan. 

According to the investigator, the Taliban regard themselves as a government-in-waiting and behave like a state. Their collection of tax and duties is well-developed and crucial to their funding. At checkpoints, they charge 10,000–20,000 afghanis in road tax from every truck, depending on the number of wheels, which equates to around 127–255 USD.

At the border, they levy 32,000 afghanis, roughly 408 USD, for every truck.

Additionally, each household must pay 1,000 afghanis (13 USD) a month for electricity, or risk the power line from Tajikistan to be sabotaged. This happened last in mid-September 2019, when the Taliban blew up two electricity pylons in Baghlan province, resulting in a power outage in Kabul and ten other provinces. 

 

The receipt for the electricity states ‘the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, the Taliban’s Islamic state that they declared in 1996. However, this is not stated on the receipts issued by the Taliban when they levy their ushr on development projects. This money is instead paid through the CDCs.

”These receipts are handwritten on paper so that there is no proof of the tax. Ten percent of the organization’s amount is paid to the CDCs and the CDCs pass it on to the Taliban who write these receipts.”

One of these pieces of paper is shown to me. It states an amount, the name of a district in Wardak, the name of the village elder who collected the money for the Taliban, as well as the amount that he received as a percentage of the project. According to the investigator, the amount represents ten percent of a project funded by the World Bank and carried out by the National Solidarity Programme, a partnership between the state and local communities aimed at bringing public services in the country under a single umbrella.

In addition to being important sources of income, schools in areas with strong Taliban presence also serve as recruitment hubs, the investigator explains.

”I have told the Ministry of Education that these schools ought to be closed. The students have to study ‘Islam’ and the Taliban mullahs come and ‘teach’ them. People say it’s good that organizations dig wells and such, but it is through their schools that the Taliban find the young men who end up fighting for them.”

The investigator describes the SCA as being on particularly good terms with the Taliban. The Swedish organization has been active in the country for almost four decades, conducting operations in areas controlled by various opposition groups. Thus, a great variety of people have come under their employ throughout the years, from relatives of the Taliban to members of the militant political organization Hezb-e Islami. In the early 1990s, when civil war broke out between different groups of the Mujahideen, Hezb-e Islami played a key role in the Battle of Kabul, where ultimately 50,000 civilians lost their lives. Led by founder, warlord and war criminal Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the militia bombarded the city, reducing a metropolis of two million to a rubble heap populated by shell-shocked spectres.

A third source confirms all of the above, adding that larger organizations, like the International Red Cross, negotiate their taxes directly with the Taliban in the Qatari capital of Doha or on the ground in Afghanistan. Neither the organizations nor the Taliban publicly acknowledge these financial settlements, thus they remain unknown to tax-payers and donors.

Sometimes, organizations are able to negotiate a waiver of the tax, in exchange for a different means of payment, e.g. providing the Taliban and their relatives with free public services.

Should an arrangement collapse, the organization is forced to leave, which often results in a renegotiation. This recently happened to the Red Cross. In April of 2019, the Taliban banned all their activities in Afghanistan, but on September 15 that same year, it was announced that the Taliban had lifted the ban and that all activities had resumed. Both sides had their own versions of what was said during the new negotiations.

A fourth source recounts that money also goes from aid organizations to the Taliban via security companies. There have been many examples of NGOs paying large sums of money to local Afghan security companies, of which a part has been passed on to the Taliban as a ”purchase of security”.

Lastly, a fifth source raises the ironic point that even organizations that clear landmines pay tax to the Taliban in order to access the mined areas – money that the Taliban can then use to buy weapons and produce more mines.

When the Secretary General of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, Andreas Stefansson, hears about the allegations that the SCA are guilty of everything from collaborating with the war criminals of Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami to financing the Taliban, he admits to the former without hesitation – the connection to the Islamist Mujahideen. 

”When aid organizations began their operations in the early 1980s, after the Soviet invasion, they were based in Peshawar in neighboring Pakistan. Opportunities to reach Afghanistan with humanitarian necessities were limited to the channels controlled by the Mujahideen groups, including Hezb-e Islami, so we are very open about that. And we won’t disguise the fact that recruitment for parts of the organization was carried out in consultation with the people who facilitated our work and helped us get into Afghanistan.”

Of the Taliban’s ushr, which he previously denied having paid, he says this:

”When we see indications of any type of corruption, we do our utmost to maintain our zero-tolerance policy and plug any leak. However, we are a very large organization acting in a very corrupt nation. Naturally, irregularities occur. We address them as soon as we become aware of them, and we report them openly and with full transparency. We have several different mechanisms in place to ensure that our resources are used as intended, and if we in spite of this discover holes in the system, or if for some reason it has failed to work as intended, we address it immediately and will under no circumstances allow for it to continue.”

Looking at the situation with the benefit of hindsight, ought the organizations and companies have chosen not to work in areas outside government control? An argument in favor of this is the notion that a people left without public services and functioning phone lines would eventually turn against the Taliban. Another is the fact that it would weaken the Taliban financially.

On the other hand, while education isn’t crucial to sustain life, food, water, healthcare and sanitation are. Which is where the ethical dilemma becomes more delicate.

Patricia Gossman, an associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch, points out that organizations like the SCA provide vital public services, particularly in areas of the countryside where the government’s reach is limited.

”Many Afghans, the poorest Afghans, depend on them. And the fact that they’re being attacked and inhibited in their work is completely unscrupulous.”

She is referring to the government attack on an SCA hospital in Tangi Saidan, Wardak, where the medical director was arrested and four civilians were killed in a summary execution. 

In the first half of 2019, government- and coalition forces have caused more civilian deaths than the Taliban and ISIS combined, according to statistics from the United Nations Assistance Mission.

This is a break in trend, and according to Patricia Gossman, two factors have led to this shift:

”The Taliban are still causing civilian harm, there is a substantial problem with indiscriminate, disproportionate attacks and IEDs. However, they have switched tactics from those large-scale attacks in urban centers we saw in 2016 and 2017. In contrast, the US forces with their air attacks have have relaxed their rules of engagement, relaxed their targeting procedures, resulting in many more civilian casualties. Then we have these night raids, where the government operates with complete impunity, causing a high number of civilian casualties as well.”

 

What is America’s responsibility when it comes to these war crimes carried out by Afghan government forces? Gossman’s answer is plain:

”Of course they are responsible. They’re the ones sometimes accompanying, training, mentoring and arming these forces. But you’ll hit a brick wall trying to get anyone to speak about it and there is certainly no accountability.”

In April, 2019, the International Criminal Court made the decision not to investigate possible US war crimes in Afghanistan, despite the chief prosecutor concluding that there is evidence of war crimes committed by all sides: from the Taliban to the Afghan government, the US-led coalition and the CIA. The ICC pointed to the United States’ unwillingness to cooperate as a reason for the decision. The US has actively obstructed investigations, leaving many Afghans feeling betrayed. Who is left for them to trust?

The beds in the turquoise women’s ward of the Tangi Saidan clinic are occupied by new patients. One woman is attached to a drip, the metal headboard of her bed is riddled with bullet holes. In the bed next to hers there’s a boy, feet pointing towards a spot in the wall where gunfire has torn through concrete; a sick child who has come to a hospital for care, and whose life can end tomorrow without anyone being held accountable. 

In a country where children can be executed in this way, perhaps there are no ethics. 

Perhaps there is only birth, death and an attempt to survive in between.

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