The aid worker is nervous about talking to the press. He's afraid the Taliban will threaten him for speaking out. But he believes the story he has to tell is important enough to take that risk. He asks that only his initials be used to protect his identity.
MF is on the staff of an international charity that provides food aid in northern Afghanistan. The charity gives out packages of rice, flour and oil to families who might otherwise go hungry.
The need for such food aid is more critical than ever in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. In March, the World Food Programme estimated some 20 million Afghans are going hungry, double the number of just three years ago.
But getting food aid to the right people is increasingly difficult, says MF.
Members of the local Taliban come to the charity with lists of names of people they think should get the food aid.
It's not an official request. The Taliban ministry does not directly order the charity to comply. But these letters – or sometimes simply verbal requests – are nonetheless taken seriously.
MF believes that some of the people on the list are genuinely needy. Others, he says, are Taliban members or commanders who would not meet the charity's criteria for receiving an aid package.
Yet the requests can't be dismissed. "If we refuse to comply, employees are threatened, detained and even beaten on baseless charges," says MF.
It's one of many ways in which the Taliban has cast a pall over aid efforts in Afghanistan even as economic crises are pushing more people into hunger.
NPR interviewed six Afghan aid workers from five Afghan provinces. They shared experiences of the Taliban attempting to divert foreign aid to their members through bullying, threats of legal action and even violence. The interviewees, who requested their locations be kept discreet, span four provinces in both the north and the south.
A bleak time for charities
This interference comes at a time when donations from international governments and agencies are dropping, often because of concern that the Taliban will tap into those monies for its own purposes. While attributing a single factor for this fall in funding is difficult, the policy decisions of the Taliban and how they choose to spend their revenue can explain the trend [reduced aid]," one analysis by Observer Research Foundations stated.
The situation in worsened by international sanctions on the terrorist group, as well as banking restrictions, that have left Afghans, including the Taliban, excessively reliant on the on the $40 million a week that still comes into the country as humanitarian aid.
The Taliban has further hobbled charitable work by banning women from working for nongovernmental agencies –- including U.N. groups working in Afghanistan.
Discussing the Taliban pressure on the food-aid charity, MF says they try to negotiate, approving some names of the list that match the charity's criteria based on extensive surveys they conduct to determine those in need and rejecting others.
The Taliban has not responded to the accusation of interfering with aid distribution but did issue a statement in April about criticism of the ban on women employees at nonprofit groups, stating that is an "internal social matter."
The world is taking note
The Taliban's tactics are drawing notices in international circles. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an authority appointed by the U.S. government to overlook its spending in Afghanistan, issued a report in April documenting Taliban interference with charitable efforts. The report outlined 362 incidents of violence and threats against humanitarian personnel, assets and facilities in 2022.
The report cited 39 incidents of threats or intimidation against aid workers. One nongovernmental group in Kabul suspended aid distribution following an "unspecified security incident" that involved the Taliban's ministry of refugees and repatriation. Aid was resumed three weeks later after negotiations where the Taliban provided written security guarantees for the group's staff.
Another NGO in Faryab province reported that Taliban members had confiscated its food assistance that was meant to be distributed to households.
While speaking to the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Accountability, in April, John Sopko, head of SIGAR, raised concerns over the misuse of U.S. tax dollars in Afghanistan.
Since 2021, the United States has allotted $2 billion for humanitarian and development efforts in Afghanistan — 60% of which is food aid, SIGAR has noted. These funds go to projects implemented through various nongovernmental and international organizations.
"However, it is clear from our work that the Taliban is using various methods to divert U.S. aid dollars" to the Taliban and its allies, Sopko said.
A charity for children reports interference
That's been the experience of a charity in southern Afghanistan that focuses on child rights and development. A staff worker shared details with NPR, asking to be identified by first name only because of concern about retaliation.
Mariam says the Taliban has pressed the charity to give funds to Taliban-supported projects such as building local madrassas — religious schools providing education on Islam alongside basic literacy courses but that do not follow the standard school curriculum and may exclude certain subjects.
In addition, she says the Taliban has pressured the organization to hire its members for management positions — and to provide aid to people on lists of names they've submitted. Mariam says some of the individuals on the lists are Taliban officials.
When the charity explained that they do not give aid to individuals, Mariam says "they argued that our activities [to promote child welfare] aren't required by the community and insisted that we use funds to support the lists of names they had brought with them."
"No sooner had we convinced one Taliban leader to allow our work, another would raise objections and make new demands. It was exhausting," she says.
Experts say that such diversion of aid often happens in countries facing an extreme humanitarian crisis. This month, the U.S. suspended food aid to Ethiopia, citing embezzlement of aid in a "widespread and coordinated detour operation."
"It is concerning, and of course, you'd want to minimize any diversion of aid, but this isn't unique to Afghanistan, and sadly, a lot of aid is often diverted to those in charge, whether they be de facto government or rebel groups," says Paul Spiegel, director for the center for humanitarian health at Johns Hopkins University. In late 2021 he conducted a five-week investigation, as part of the World Health Organization, on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
"Some of this is the cost of doing business, and it can be a very difficult decision to make," Spiegel said of how charities respond to the pressure. "Because if you take a very strict stand [against the Taliban], they will restrict access to people in need," he said. "It's a bargain with the devil"
But Spiegel urges the international community to continue helping Afghans.
"it is important to find ways to minimize the diversion of funds, while helping as many, particularly women and children, as you can," he said, suggesting that local charities bargain with the Taliban to keep up their work as much as possible and accept that there will be setbacks.
Spiegel added: "The hardest part here is that people of Afghanistan are in such a dire situation; and the question posed to organizations is how do you get a significant amount of the aid those in need."
The burden lies on local aid workers, he says. "The donors are always one step removed, while aid workers not only face scrutiny from donors but also face threats of legal action from the groups controlling the region."
"There are no easy answers," he said.
That's what the charities of Afghanistan are realizing as they try to juggle Taliban demands with their commitment to help those who are truly in need.
Mariam says her charity's management team continues to negotiate with the Taliban: "Our organization rejected a lot of the Taliban's demands, but you can't oppose those in power. Many of our crucial projects were closed."
"It is heartbreaking," Mariam says of Taliban efforts to siphon money from her charity's work, "because it affects so many children, especially those living below poverty line."
Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar