The South Asia Channel
The Taliban’s Transformation from Ideology to Franchise
After 13 years of conflict in Afghanistan, money has replaced ideology and vengeance as a reason for Taliban ties. National or Islamic goals no longer motivate foot soldiers under the organization’s name, making "political Islamism" and "violent" or "Islamic extremism" ineffective terms. As international resources are poured into military and political efforts — often in ...
After 13 years of conflict in Afghanistan, money has replaced ideology and vengeance as a reason for Taliban ties. National or Islamic goals no longer motivate foot soldiers under the organization’s name, making "political Islamism" and "violent" or "Islamic extremism" ineffective terms. As international resources are poured into military and political efforts — often in pursuit of the quick fix — conflict participants have learned to make insecurity profitable. Today, in many provinces, the Taliban’s greatest influence is as gatekeepers to a host of black market activities that both sustain the organization and help recruit members. To combat the Taliban, these extra-legal funding sources must be addressed or risk not just failure, but the continued financing — and success — of insurgents.
In early 2014 we conducted research that examined violent extremism and Taliban networks with the hope of bridging differences between insurgent groups, community elders, and the Afghan government. In interviews with active, former, and imprisoned Taliban, tribal leaders, and government officials in Helmand and Herat provinces of Afghanistan a consensus emerged: joining the insurgency pays well, especially in a countryside marked by insecurity and economic stagnation. And more important than an insurgent salary, — Taliban rarely mentioned, and most emphatically denied, ideological or political inspiration — being associated with the Taliban enables quasi-independent profiteering from a diverse array of illegal activities.
Sources of Money
In Herat and Helmand provinces the five major sources of insurgent funding are the drug trade, protection money charged to international and government contracts, the Islamic taxes (Ushr and Zakat) applied to local businesses, smuggling, and collecting electric and telecommunications bills. With Afghanistan producing between 75 and 90 percent of the world’s poppy — Helmand province producing 48 percent of that share alone — the Taliban’s revenue stream reaches high and low; benefiting laborers, transporters, government officials, and businessmen. Helmand, unsurprisingly, is also among the most violent, insurgent-raddled provinces.
The United States has spent $7.5 billion dollars on drug eradication programs and estimated $104 billion dollars on development assistance in Afghanistan since 2001. Respondents explain the Taliban charge "protection money" to nearly all development programs or disrupt their implementation. The rates are said to vary between 10 percent and 20 percent and charges can occur at multiple stages. Similarly, charges levied to transportation contracts supplying NATO bases is a lucrative Taliban practice first documented in 2009 by Aram Rostom, and further detailed in June 2010 in Warlord, Inc., a report to the U.S. Congress. Nevertheless, in a July 2014 quarterly report to Congress, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) expressed dismay that the U.S. Army continues to contract organizations known to support the insurgency.
The Taliban’s history can be broken down to three periods associated with three basic motivations: ideologically inspired emergence in the mid-90s; resurgence in the early years after the NATO intervention driven by seeking retribution to grievances, both local and national; and transformation in recent years into a loose network utilizing an intimidating brand for extra-legal financial gain. Ideology and retribution still remain but grow less relevant to the movement as they expand into changing circumstances. Nevertheless, those who profit from the Taliban name are expected to accommodate the ideological or extremist fringe as a price of association.
Emergence and Ideology (1994-2001)
The Taliban rose to power two decades ago, vowing to end civil war and lawlessness and establish an "Islamic state." The war weary Afghan people, seeing the Taliban’s quick success in subduing abusive warlords and marauding militias, initially welcomed the movement. Ideologically inspired by faith and nation, under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban held promise of a better future.
Over time most found the group’s methods and dictates excessive. Women’s rights, basic liberties, the economy, education, arts, and health care — nearly all quality of life indicators — suffered under the imposition of draconian order that was arbitrary, stifling, and often barbaric.
By the norms of modern governance, Taliban rule was a failure: the country grew internationally isolated and impoverished. Despite this, peace and rudimentary rule of law ensued for the first time since the Soviet invasion in 1979, establishing the Taliban’s credibility amongst some Afghans.
Resurgence and Vengeance (2002-2008)
In response to 9/11, U.S. air power intervened in Afghanistan in late 2001 to support the northern resistance routing the Taliban from power. The movement quickly retreated, returning home or settling in Pakistan. At first they appeared to have given up their quest to govern before their reemergence, the reason for which remains murky.
The prevailing narrative for reemerging is that the Afghan government leaders, supported by international forces, provoked the retired Taliban and other traditional adversaries by conducting unwarranted house searches, arrests, and sometimes torture. Feeling threatened in their homes, many former Taliban joined others who felt persecuted or excluded and began to conspire — all within safe harbor of Pakistan.
Meanwhile, high officials in the Afghan government — often the same disreputable figures that the Taliban replaced in the mid-90s — grew rich on foreign contracts and mishandled aid. Overtime, dissatisfaction with the Kabul government and international forces combined with local and personality based grievances inspired acts of violent retribution. By 2006 and 2007, Taliban attacks on government officials, tribal leaders, and international forces had substantially escalated.
Transformation and Franchise (2009-present)
As the insurgency intensified, so did the resources sent to quell it. Taliban benefited from the money pouring into the country by taxing the billions spent on transportation and development contracts. Meanwhile, smuggling and growing poppy, the Taliban’s traditional funding sources, grew more lucrative in regions where the government and NATO lacked control.
With many former Taliban leaders killed, imprisoned, or hiding in Pakistan, a new generation of young men, unable to access the legal funding visibly flooding the country, joined for profit, respect, and even reprieve from the restrictions of village life and the labors of farming arid land. Interviews reveal many who once served with the Afghan government and ISAF, or wanted to, but later joined the insurgents due to threats to their family or unemployment. The older, more ideological Pakistan-based leadership is struggling to maintain disciplinary and financial control over groups active, often in isolation, across a border.
Small, mostly criminal networks brandish the potent, profitable Taliban brand without a cause beyond themselves and their small, tight-knit communities. Increasingly these groups send money back to the Quetta Shura — instead of the other way around — and are occasionally asked to facilitate more hardcore ideological actors or suicide bombers, in exchange for the opportunities of association.
Distracted by Terror
We find in the Taliban today an organization with parallels to the family focus of the Italian Mafioso, the crime interests of the Latin American drug cartels, and the predatory nature of the Afghan mujahedeen militias of the early 90s. The leaderships’ call from their safe-haven in Pakistan for continued violence in the name of faith and country echo faintly in the Afghan countryside. As Najib Sharifi explains recently in Foreign Policy, it remains to be seen whether the calls from ISIS will resound differently — the interviews we reference occurred before ISIS became a looming presence on the geopolitical landscape.
Nevertheless, in Afghanistan, near daily reports of senseless death and destruction distract from the pervasive, extra-legal practices that sustain participants and motivate association. Efforts to combat the insurgency must attack these black markets. In a future report, we examine the five major Taliban funding sources in Helmand and Herat. Past military or political efforts to combat the insurgency have overlooked and very often exacerbated the local economic circumstances that now drive ordinary rural Afghans into becoming insurgents. Rechanneling extra-legal activities into the legitimate economy will do more to weaken the Taliban and stabilize the country than negotiating or killing.
James Weir is a cultural anthropologist and independent researcher who has done work on Afghan life stories and tribal politics in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region.
Hekmatullah Azamy is research analyst at the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies (CAPS), a Kabul-based independent and policy-oriented think-tank, where he conducts research on peace, security and development studies. These views are his own.