HERAT -- Authorities and residents of Herat Province are accusing the Taliban of seizing food and aid intended for the impoverished and those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Afghan government launched Dastarkhwan-e-Meli, a 22.2 billion AFN ($288 million) aid initiative, last July 18 as part of its COVID-19 relief.
More than four million families in 34 provinces benefit from the initiative. Packages distributed by Dastarkhwan-e-Meli, each worth 4,000 AFN ($52), contain flour, rice, beans, oil and soap.
However, some families will likely not receive the aid meant for them in full, as the Taliban seize 10% of the package's value from the legitimate recipients in six Herat districts, according to Herat Provincial Council member Muhammad Sardar Bahaduri.
"The Taliban rob all public projects, including Dastarkhwan-e-Meli and development projects," he said. "Oppression and coercion by the Taliban have made life difficult."
"Fearing for their lives, civilians have to comply with what the Taliban ask them," he said.
The Taliban routinely extort money and goods in remote districts under the pretext of ushr and zakat, said Bahaduri.
The money invested in Dastarkhwan-e-Meli is meant to aid the impoverished, but the Taliban abuse their power and "seize Dastarkhwan-e-Meli supplies that belong to the people", said Rohullah Rafie, a Herat resident.
The Taliban claim to be waging a holy war, but taking food from the poor through intimidation is haram, said Iftikhar Ahmad, another Herat Province resident.
Such abuse of needy Afghans is "unfair and unforgivable", he said.
The government must stop the Taliban's activities and should not allow them to torment the poor, who are already affected by the war, or to take food from their table, Ahmad said.
Stealing from poor is 'un-Islamic'
Afghan clerics have described the Taliban's acts as felonious and un-Islamic.
Theft and coercion are illegitimate from an Islamic perspective, and all Muslims are prohibited from engaging in them, said Sayed Mohammad Shirzadi, a Herat city religious scholar.
"Whoever ... steals from the poor under whatever name is acting against the verses of the Koran and Hadiths of the Prophet," he said. "He is criminal and will face the wrath of God."
On the other hand, whoever helps the poor and needy will be rewarded by God, Shirzadi said.
"In a war-torn country where thousands of families are struggling with poverty and unemployment, Dastarkhwan-e-Meli helps feed hungry children and bring a smile to the [faces of] poor men and women," Shirzadi said. "The government's support of Dastarkhwan-e-Meli is, according to Islam, the best thing."
Nobody has the right to seize food from the needy and from orphans by misusing the name of Islam, said Mawlawi Ali Mohammad Rahmani, a religious scholar in Qala-e-Naw, Badghis Province, adding that such wrongdoers are not accepted by Islam and will face the wrath of God.
"God will never forgive giving one man's rightful belongings to another [without consent]," he said. "Whoever takes something by force from someone ... will never be forgiven."
The Taliban's confiscation of Dastarkhwan-e-Meli supplies meant for the needy contravenes the values of Islam, Rahmani said.
Efforts to end victimisation of poor
Authorities in Herat Province have said they will not allow the Taliban to forcibly take aid away from families in need.
The government helps impoverished families in Taliban-influenced areas, but the Taliban grab their food through force and intimidation, said Herat provincial Governor Sayed Wahid Qatali.
"Dastarkhwan-e-Meli is being implemented very well in Herat Province. Thousands of families have benefited from this programme," he said.
"The Taliban want to steal from Dastarkhwan-e-Meli," he said. "Although coercion and theft have become the main activity of the Taliban, and although they harass civilians, we will never allow them to steal food from the poor."
No one can weaken the government's will to help the poor and whoever tries to hurt them will be destroyed, he said.
Taking what belongs to the poor has become the norm in Taliban-influenced villages, said Abdul Ahad Walizada, spokesman for the Herat Police.
"Security forces protect the lives and belongings of the residents of villages and districts controlled by the government," he said. "They will never allow the Taliban to extort [money or goods from] or trouble the residents."
"The Taliban commit extortion mostly in remote villages where government control does not exist," said Walizada.
Dastarkhwan-e-Meli is being implemented in Herat Province in two phases.
Six districts are covered in the first phase: Pashtun Zarghun, Karukh, Farsi, Obe, Zindajan and Kohsan, said Farid Ahmad Azimi, director of the Herat Rural Rehabilitation and Development Directorate.
"In these six districts, 629 villages have been covered by Dastarkhwan-e-Meli programme, which included 74,714 families," he said. "More than 90% of families in those villages have received support."
Implementing the first phase of the programme in Herat Province cost more than 300 million AFN ($3.8 million).
"The second phase of Dastarkhwan-e-Meli is in the procurement phase in the National Procurement Authority, which will cover all 19 districts," Azimi said.
"Distribution of the aid under the second phase is expected to start in one and a half months," he added.