The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s “Transformation Decade” Depends on the Taliban’s Foot Soldiers

The Transformation Decade in Afghanistan won’t transform much if the motivations for the Taliban’s foot soldiers aren’t understood, or curtailed.


On the cusp of what has been dubbed the Afghan “Transformation Decade” (2015 to 2024) as foreign forces withdrawn, a new government sits in Kabul, Pakistan finally confronts domestic insurgents, and violent Islamic movements proliferate, there is an urgent need to better understand Afghan insurgents’ interactions with rural communities. Media and analysts often neglect the circumstances of the rank-and-file who comprise the bulk of the movement. Interviews we conducted in Helmand and Herat provinces in early 2014 found foot soldiers were motivated by money, followed by local grievances, and ideology was a distant third. Meanwhile, rural communities, long forced to host insurgents, have a pivotal role in any future peace process as they reassess their options in quickly changing circumstances.

A Divided Movement

The senior Taliban leadership and their ideology have remained surprisingly consistent since the movement subdued warring factions in the mid-1990s and enforced their version of Islamic governance. But down the chain of command and across the Afghan countryside, new recruits have faint memory of the Soviet jihad and little interest in its ideology.

Now, financial motives and, to a lesser extent, local grievances have replaced political theology as the glue holding the insurgency together. The establishment of Islamic governance and pursuit of foreign infidels continue to rhetorically justify violence, but nearly everyone we spoke with said the rank-and-file insurgents pursue simple self-interest.

Our interviews indicate few Taliban fighters or government forces believe the insurgency is a fight to replace the Afghan government or to drive out foreign forces. Instead, hidden by ideology and fear, an underworld of criminal networks and compromised government officials collude with Taliban cells to benefit from territory and “business” kept outside of state control. Over the course of this long and deadly conflict, financial resources, once a means to an end, has become an end in itself. For these reasons, a peace process with the senior Taliban leadership must also address the motivations of foot soldiers for any meaningful transformation to take hold across the decade to come.

“Poppy Makes the Taliban Kings”
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world’s opium, estimated to be approximately 20 percent of country’s GDP and a source of employment for over 400,000 people, more even than the Afghan armed forces. Helmand province — where an estimated 49 percent of Afghan opium or over 1/3 of the world’s opium is produced — is the dominant force in the local economy. A recent United Nations report indicates that from 2013 to 2014 the country’s opium harvest increased by 17 percent, becoming the largest crop on record. While the year before — 2012 to 2013 — saw a 36 percent increase in production from the year previous, valued at over $3 billion.

Gretchen Peters argued in a 2009 USIP paper: “For many rural Afghans, the greatest perceived threat is crime and economic instability, not the insurgency per se.” She continues: “More than 80 percent of those surveyed for this project believe Taliban commanders in the south now fight for profit rather than religion or ideology.” Six years later this appears to have only grown.

Resisting the poppy economy is deadly. A TOLO News report from Nov. 13, 2014 tells of a customs employee at the Kabul Airport who was kidnapped and beheaded, with her head sent to her family, for reporting drug traffickers. We have found no media report on this since. In rural provinces the threat of retribution for attempting to disrupt the drug trade runs deeper than in the capital city: Participation in or acquiesce to the poppy economy are pragmatic responses for  farmers in Taliban regions, while disrupting poppy production can, at least initially, strengthen the Taliban.

When an Afghan general in Helmand was asked about the prospects of the local Taliban joining the government he responded, saying: “High ranking Taliban make 10 fold the money I make.” He explained that as long as being Taliban remained so lucrative, it made no sense for them to join the government. “Commanders charge opium carriers and other smugglers 100,000 Pakistani rupee [$981] per vehicle to cross Taliban controlled territories. Why would the [Taliban] join the peace process? They are kings in their areas.”

A high Afghan intelligence officer in Helmand said: “The fight will never end in Helmand for three reasons,” and listed the opium trade, followed by illegal mining, and taxation. The Taliban create safe zones for farmers, heroin factories owners, transporters, and a variety of other extra-legal practices, bringing many into association for the financial benefit of being outside of government.

Taxing Local Populations

Islam places great emphasis on the role of charity — promoting both zakat (alms) and ushr (tithe) — which the Taliban exploits for a significant source of their income. Zakat is a tax that can be applied to all capital assets: money, agricultural crops and livestock, precious metals and minerals, etc., at a rate that varies between 2.5 and 20 percent. Ushr is usually a 10 percent tax applied at the time of agricultural harvest. While these taxes are intended for the poor, some Islamic scholars also justify it to finance a jihad.

Interviewees confirmed the widespread application of both taxes by the Taliban in the rural regions they influence. We found that some villagers were frustrated that these taxes proved state failure, and for others they reinforced the religious and political authority of the Taliban. The ambiguity between “Islamic taxes” and “protection money” or “extortion” works to the Taliban’s advantage. Respondents explained that payment prevents attacks or protects businesses and other lucrative projects from “criminals, the Taliban or the government.” Government programs or international development projects are particularly targeted for taxation or can expect harassment or attack. Meanwhile, prior to military operations special taxes are suddenly imposed on local populations.

Several described joining the insurgency — becoming what has been self-described as  “insider Taliban” — to prevent  “outsider Taliban” from imposing their demands. Kochi Amin (name has been changed) — the son of famous tribal leader and himself a tribal leader — explained that he selected his tribesman to join the Taliban to protect his community from more zealous Taliban who demand excessive taxes or impose their extreme cultural and religious standards. “We are not ideological fighters,” Amin said., “I armed a group of youth from our village to serve in Taliban ranks. We take part in their activities to resist the permanent presence of outsider Taliban in our communities. Many Taliban are brutal and their presence can cause us heavy losses — both financial or in conflicts,” he added.

But Kochi Amin explained that he supports the government as well by helping to organize an Afghan Local Police unit in his area. He told us that with ties to both sides, if either side captures men from his village he can work to release them. As an influential leader without a formal role in the government or the Taliban, he sees himself as above association with either side. As a tribal leader his responsibility is to be the public face negotiating for the welfare of his tribe. In uncertain circumstances, where neither the state nor the insurgents hold moral or military authority, rural communities maximize ties across political divides for security and livelihood.

The Economics of Insurgency in the “Transformation Decade”

Drugs and taxation are traditional Taliban funding sources, but the influx of international funds for contracts supplying NATO forces and development projects created new sources that grew with the international effort. This has been well documented since 2009 (here, here, and recently here and discussed by us previously) with little done to curtail this practice. Meanwhile, the Taliban collect electricity bills in districts they control. Telephone antennas cannot stand without paying insurgents. Guards hired to watch the towers are introduced by the Taliban and are known to plant IEDs. Afghanistan is rich in minerals — valued at $3 trillion — and insurgents seek control over regions were minerals can be exploited.

Over the course of the war, hearts and minds were lost as rural villagers observed international resources enrich both insurgents and government officials, while taking the moral high ground could result in loss of life or livelihood. One former Taliban commander, Rehman, interviewed after joining the peace process with 15 others in January 2014, said: “In my entire 4 years of fighting, I never asked any other country to pay us. Every penny we spent came from local villagers, big security companies, and state forces officials who were paying us not to attack them.” Another former Taliban commander in Herat province explained that every National Solidarity Program project executed in his district paid 10 percent to a Taliban commander. After $106 billion of U.S. money spent in reconstruction, one must ask what portion went to insurgents and how will this influence developments as the country enters the “Transformation Decade.”

Most of the Taliban rank-and-file live in worlds distant from that of suicide attackers or the reclusive senior leadership. The Taliban jihadis of the mid-90s, who confronted the abuses of criminals and warlords, are now largely dead or hiding, while the movement thrives on the very criminal activities and abuses that it originally rose to eliminate. Today’s Taliban are a younger generation scattered across the countryside preying upon local populations and brandishing the name of this fearsome organization to pursue narrowly-defined interests. Efforts at peace negotiations must begin at the leadership level, but a more complicated obstacle to a lasting peace will be reining in the beneficiaries of illicit economic practices, a product of insurgency. A viable peace process must attend to the gaps that separate the Taliban leadership from foot soldiers, to the criminal networks that maintain the movement, and to the responses of rural villagers caught betwixt powerful actors.

Ahmad Nadeem

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.
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