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Are US taxpayers funding the Taliban?

USAID probes the possibility that contractors give a cut to the Taliban.

Workers load bags of food aid from the U.S. during food loading operations in Quetta back in 2001. USAID has recently initiated a probe into accusations that the Taliban takes its money meant for large development projects, like roads and bridges. (Reuters)

KABUL — The United States Agency for International Development has opened an investigation into allegations that its funds for road and bridge construction in Afghanistan are ending up in the hands of the Taliban, through a protection racket for contractors.

And House Foreign Affairs Committee member, Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) vowed to hold hearings on the issue in the fall, saying: "The idea that American taxpayer dollars are ending up with the Taliban is a case for grave concern."

U.S. officials confirmed that the preliminary investigation and the proposed hearings were sparked by a GlobalPost special report on the funding of the Taliban last month that uncovered a process that has been an open secret in Afghanistan for years among those in international aid organizations. 

The report exposed that the Taliban takes a percentage of the billions of dollars in aid from U.S. and other international coalition members that goes to large organizations and their subcontractors for development projects, in exchange for protection in remote areas controlled by the insurgency. 

“We are looking into this. We are always interested in fraud, waste and abuse,” said Dona Dinkler, the chief of staff for congressional affairs at USAID’s Office of Inspector General in Washington, D.C.  

But, she added: “It’s a real hard thing to prove. Who is going to survive to testify about that?  That is our challenge. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying. We want to get to the bottom of it.”

The USAID probe is underway in tandem with an inquiry by the U.S. House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee, whose members have raised concerns in recent years about fraud and abuse in the $7.5 billion in funds marked for Afghanistan between 2002 and this year.

"It's our intention this fall to hold public hearings on it. We will pursue this with vigor," said committee member Delahunt.

Delahunt said the allegations made in the story reveal a lack of oversight of U.S. government spending in Afghanistan that he described as a legacy of the previous administration in Washington. He said more resources were needed to be brought to routing out this kind of corruption.

USAID’s Inspector General has only one investigator in Afghanistan and two auditors tracking the billions of tax payers’ dollars that go to NGOs in that troubled country.

“They want to know what [we are] going to do about this,” said an official at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, adding that the goal of the probe at this point is to determine how extensive the problem is, and how it can be tracked.

As part of a special report called "Life, Death and the Taliban," GlobalPost traced a web of financial connections between major international contractors and the Taliban in which the insurgents provide protection — largely from themselves — in return for a healthy cut of the proceeds. One source, with direct knowledge of such payments, estimated the Taliban can take upwards of 20 percent from many contracts awarded in unstable areas, which would include about half of the country.

When the money is not paid out, then bridges get blown up, engineers get kidnapped and projects tend to stall, according to sources quoted in the story.