Cash from the United States military and international donors destined for construction and welfare projects in restive parts of Afghanistan is ending up in the hands of insurgents, according to a contractor and village elders.
The alliance of largely Western nations which back President Hamid Karzai and have nearly 150,000 troops on Afghan soil has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on aid and infrastructure since ousting the Taleban from power in late 2001.
However, with violence spreading and the insurgency bloodier than ever, some construction firms and workers on development projects say they are having to hand over some of their earnings to insurgents to protect their personnel, projects or equipment.
Mohammad Ehsan said he was forced to pay insurgents a large part of a US$1.2 million ($1.5 million) contract he won from the US military two months ago to repair a road in Logar province south of Kabul, after they kidnapped his brother and demanded the cash.
"You know we need this American money to help us fund our jihad," Ehsan quoted them as saying when he eventually spent over US$200,000 of the project money to secure his brother's freedom.
Ehsan said the insurgents also demanded the cash be changed out of dollars into Afghan or Pakistani currency, saying greenbacks were "haram", or forbidden for Muslims.
Paying off militants is common across Afghanistan, where it is hard to work in villages or remote areas without greasing the palms of local insurgent commanders, according to Ehsan.
"We are aware of those kind of reports ... contracting methods are definitely considered part of the counterinsurgency effort," said Major Joel Harper, spokesman for the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, when asked about Ehsan's payment.
A US Senate inquiry into private security firms contracting in Afghanistan found last week that funds had sometimes been funnelled to warlords linked to insurgents, but did not look at other possible channels taking foreign money to insurgent groups.
The Taleban regularly attacks supply convoys and development projects as well as military targets, but spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied the group extorts money from contractors, saying other elements may use the Taleban name to defame them.
"It is totally baseless, we don't need any money from any organisations that are linked to the invading force," he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"The people support us willingly and we will continue our jihad against all occupying troops and their contractors."