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Taliban Economy: The Real Money Heist

Afghanistan is a country that has seen it all; from the glory of progress back in the early 70s, to the Soviet invasion years later, the rise of the Mujahideen leading to the Taliban rule, to the USA invasion with history repeating itself. There has been minimal relief for the people and stakeholders in between. For the international community, this inability to approach the situation in Afghanistan does not paint a good picture of the morals that the former stands for.

The Taliban (translating to “seekers”) is an organisation recognising itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA); following a hybrid form of Deobandi Islamist school of thought. Comprising the majority Pashtun tribe of Afghanistan, the Taliban enforce their structure through their radical interpretation of the Sharia. They came into power through the organised resistance as the “Mujahideen” after overthrowing the Afghan-Soviet government and later formed the group.

The Taliban Question

The question that remains to be answered is — how did a radical thought slowly mobilise itself into a group, later on to overthrow two superpower backed governments, once in 1996 and then in 2021. The answer lies in the geo-political and cultural mix of the country of Afghanistan.

Even after the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and formed a government, not all regions were under the control of this entity. Many regions continued to be under the control of the Taliban (though the control was weak), whilst many continued to remain autonomous with a tribal composition. Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Aymaqs, Baluchis and the other tribes collectively made up the country of Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s Winning Strategy in Afghanistan by Gilles Dorronsoro

for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

In a report published as “The Taliban’s Winning Strategy in Afghanistan” for a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, author Gilles Dorronsoro specifically highlights how diverse levels of insurgencies worked in the favour of the Taliban to influence the masses (ideologically and through militarisation). Three zones can be defined based on the strength of insurgency in the provinces. These include provinces where insurgency was less dominant (southern and eastern provinces); insurgency due to ethnic differences (as seen in Hazara populated areas) and areas with developing insurgency.

From here, the Taliban strategized themselves to present and implement influence beyond the Pashtun majority, by building political structures (for example the infamous Taliban courts). This efficiently ignored and subsided the existing influence of the traditional tribal structures which unorganised tribes had. Further, prior to the complete withdrawal of troops by the United States of America (USA), it was evident that the group was able to reorganise themself in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA), which was previously an autonomous tribal region and is now a part of Pakistan.

Source: Long War Journal, via

Thus, the question of tribal identity as patronage was and is used by the Taliban to garner support within the region. A fatal miscalculation with the subsequent rise of the Taliban (both the times) can be assessed through the region’s tribal composition. Even with the US-backed Afghan government, many regions remained politically independent. In the year 2009, the Ghor Province in central Afghanistan was autonomous; meaning that the region had no political control- neither the superpower backed government nor the Taliban. However, the Taliban fighters had free reign to mobilise within the area. In June 2021, Ghor saw violent clashes between the government and the Taliban, wherein many security personnel lost their lives. As of August 2021, the province remains captured by the terrorist group.

Financing Terrorism

The way the Taliban gathers funds for continuing its operations is very much embedded in its political associations. The Afghan–Pakistan can be considered as a focal point of the same, considering Pakistan has been an ally for the group throughout. With the progress of the Pakistani Taliban (especially their control in Swat Valley), they went on to be supportive of the Afghan Taliban. Further, Pakistan’s largest province, Balochistan, is a safe haven for the group.

With these factors, funding for the Taliban comes easy. This has fueled additional control, wherein control of finances has instigated a system of overall oppression. Opium trade, trafficking, money laundering, mining (of minerals like copper, zinc, marble, gold) and trade in other narcotics is a major source of revenue. Other sources being kidnapping, extortion, tax etc. In fact, even before the US withdrawal, the Taliban still assessed control over the country’s opium production, which was a supply for more than 3/4th of the world’s heroin production.

A report submitted by the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), provides an insight into the volume of funding received by the Taliban. Their estimated annual income ranges from $300 million to $1.6 billion. Another estimate stated that $460 million was earned from the opium trade in 2020 itself.

Estimates of their annual income range from $300 million to $1.6 billion. As per the World Drug Report 2020 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 84% of the world’s opium production has its base in Afghanistan.

Another source of revenue is through private donations, mainly from the Gulf region, with Saudi Arabia funding money to the organisation privately. Private entities from countries like Pakistan have strategically and financially offered support to the Taliban.

The group also imposes traditional Islamist tax or “Taliban Tax” as “ushr” ( 10% tax on farmer’s harvest) and “zakat” (2.5% wealth tax). Structuring itself like a government, the Taliban also taxed businesses and industries ranging from mining, media, telecommunications and even international aid-funded development projects. With their 2021 re-rise, they may naturally adopt similar models for funding but their revenue sources remain unclear as of now due to their restructuring. Presently, the withdrawal of the USA in Afghanistan means that tens of millions of dollars of infrastructural and military equipment that has been left behind will eventually be an asset to the Taliban.

Present Situation

The only major obstacle which prevents the Taliban or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) from achieving its objectives is its lack of recognition as a state actor within the international community. Ironically, the Taliban now wants to enter the liberal school of thought by seeking diplomatic participation in international forums. The attack on the nearby Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on August 26, 2021, claimed by Islamic State in Khorasan Province (which are the Taliban’s direct rivals), called for a UNSC meeting four days later. UNSC resolution 2593 (2021), passed with 13 votes in favour and two abstentions which were from the Russian Federation and China. It condemned the attack on the airport and further established that the Taliban allow free movement of the Afghans who wish to leave the country. It called for humanitarian assistance and its compliance by the group.

In a series of events, the Taliban’s leadership council has been formed as “Quetta Shura” and would follow the structure of a full-fledged government. What remains to be seen is how a terrorist organisation facilitates this task, and the way the international community approaches this situation. Even with these developments, the agony of the Afghans and the most vulnerable groups- women, children and minorities are sidelined.

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