An Air Force airman with the 380th Expeditionary Contracting Squadron, 380th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron and the 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron gather humanitarian relief supplies at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, on Aug 20, 2021.

An Air Force airman with the 380th Expeditionary Contracting Squadron, 380th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron and the 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron gather humanitarian relief supplies at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, on Aug 20, 2021. (Wolfram M. Stumpf/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — The government’s watchdog for Afghanistan reconstruction said Thursday that the Taliban is growing ever more oppressive, and lawmakers need to consider whether too many U.S. aid dollars are ending up in their hands.

The report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, is an update for lawmakers on rebuilding and aid efforts following the U.S. withdrawal in 2021. The report also measures what impact the U.S. money is having and what humanitarian problems are proliferating.

The SIGAR report urges Congress to contemplate one main question: Can the United States keep sending billions to the country without inadvertently funding the Taliban?

However, the report also concludes there are millions of suffering Afghans who are hungry and frightened and still in need of international support — especially as the Taliban continues to roll back rights for women and girls and subject them to restrictive fundamentalist laws.

“As the largest donor to the Afghan people, the United States remains deeply engaged in Afghanistan,” the report states, noting the United States has made more than $8 billion in assistance available to Afghan citizens and refugees since American armed forces withdrew 18 months ago. “It is SIGAR’s judgment that the Taliban regime’s institutionalized abuse of women raises the important question for policymakers of whether the United States can continue providing aid to Afghanistan without benefiting or propping up the Taliban.”

SIGAR is required to report to Congress each quarter on the situation in Afghanistan. The watchdog said in its report Thursday that it also expects to issue its “High Risk List” in the coming weeks that will identify important risks in continuing to send funds to Afghanistan. SIGAR said it will also issue its final report soon on why the Afghan government collapsed so quickly when U.S. forces departed.

President Joe Biden announced a few months after taking office that the U.S. would leave Afghanistan after 20 years of war sparked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He said he was unwilling to keep sacrificing Americans lives in pursuit of a victory that cannot be achieved militarily.

“Keeping thousands of troops grounded and concentrated in just one country at a cost of billions each year makes little sense to me,” Biden said when he announced the withdrawal in April 2021. “I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan. … I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”

Though the U.S. military is no longer in Afghanistan, Biden and Congress have continued to authorize humanitarian aid to the country. Thursday’s report underscored concerns that some of the money is ending up with the Taliban.

“Several realities have to be taken into consideration. First, the Taliban regime derives revenue from this aid in the form of ‘licenses,’ ‘taxes,’ and ‘administrative fees’ imposed on [non-governmental organizations] and their employees as a condition for operating in Afghanistan,” the 157-page report states.

“Second, U.S. aid to Afghanistan … may inadvertently confer legitimacy onto the Taliban, both internationally and domestically. Third, the Taliban’s erasure of women from public life has substantially hindered or prevented the provision of humanitarian aid. Fourth, a record … 28.3 million Afghans are depending on international food assistance this winter, according to the U.N. There is no certainty how much of this aid will reach its intended recipients. There is also no guarantee that either providing or stopping that aid will succeed in changing the Taliban’s behavior.”

SIGAR also reported the situation in Afghanistan has worsened because of the Taliban’s recent ban on women working for humanitarian agencies. In December, the regime ordered such agencies to fire their female employees.

“In the days following the Taliban’s announcement, many major humanitarian aid organizations suspended their operations in Afghanistan as they are unable to perform work without female staff,” according to the SIGAR report. “The majority of U.N. activities in the country are carried out through partner [non-governmental organizations] that are subject to the Taliban’s policy. The U.N. stated that the ban would have ‘immediate life-threatening consequences for all Afghans.’ ”

Since taking over, the Taliban has rolled back many other female liberties. For example, women and girls are not allowed to drive, seek secondary or higher education, work for the Afghan government, leave their homes without a male escort or show their faces in public. One senior Taliban official said last year that when it comes to making such decisions, Afghan women are best represented by Afghan men.

Another problem with the Taliban recently, the report said, is its increasing interference with humanitarian activities.

“In December, the U.N. reported 275 incidents of Taliban interference between Aug. 21 and Nov. 15, compared with 146 during the same period last year,” the report states. “The U.N. also reported three attacks on health care personnel and 302 incidents of violence and threats against humanitarian personnel, assets and facilities in 2022. Further, they recorded 84 bureaucratic impediments in 2022 regarding Taliban pressure on aid implementers to sign memorandums of understanding.”

Despite the difficulties and problems in dealing with the Taliban, the report states most Afghans are suffering and in desperate need of help.

In December, a Gallup survey found life for people in Afghanistan is worse than anywhere in the world. On a scale of one to 10, 98% of Afghan women and 97% of Afghan men rated the quality of their lives as four or lower, which Gallup classifies as “suffering.” In the same survey, 86% of respondents said they couldn’t afford to buy food.

However, the report noted the billions of international aid dollars have done some good. SIGAR reported aid helped to avert widespread famine in the country in 2022 and Afghanistan’s rates of food insecurity appear to be leveling off. Also, the Afghan economy hasn’t entirely stabilized yet, but the report found it’s deteriorating at a slower pace.

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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