Sergio Restelli
Sergio Restelli

The taliban treasure trove: Following the money

Lt. Gen Faiz Hamid, Director General of the Pakistani Inter services Intelligence (ISI) at the Kabul Serena. Screenshot from Original video tweeted by @lindseyhilsum from Kabul live.
Lt. Gen Faiz Hamid, Director General of the Pakistani Inter services Intelligence (ISI) at the Kabul Serena. Screenshot from Original video tweeted by @lindseyhilsum from Kabul live.

Despite years of training and billions being pumped into the development of a strong military, Afghanistan has now been captured by the Taliban in a matter of a few days wreaking havoc in the US funded Afghan National Security and Defence Forces (ANSDF). Estimated by military intelligence to be only 75000-strong, the terrorist group now controls almost the entire war-torn nation. Its spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, has also declared that it seeks dialogue with all states but Israel.

The sight of the U.S. military airlifting and evacuating its embassy staff to avoid any kind of military conflict, along with the news that President Ghani had already left for a destination unknown (now the UAE) with his team has further emboldened the Taliban.

This brings to the fore the question ~ even after 20 years of constant efforts to root out the Taliban, how did they have the strength and the capacity, not to mention the wherewithal to press for a military offensive and take the entire nation in a handful of days? Apart from determination, a military conquest is also a battle of resources, so where did the Taliban get the funds to conduct their blitz through the nation while they kept negotiating in Doha?

Terrorist groups, like criminal organisations aren’t very keen on transparency and accountability so much forensic financial intelligence is required in these cases to connect the dots and trace the source of funds. Recently, British media organisations have invested deeply to discover the Taliban’s funding network.

Apparently, the taliban financial network is far more complex than was earlier expected. It is a sophisticated financial network with a disciplined system of taxation that pays for insurgent operations as well as salaries and general services. Their annual revenue is estimated at around $400 million though some experts peg it to have increased substantially over the last few years to around $1.2 billion.

Ironically for a sharia compliant entity, it is suspected that a large part of their income is derived from the narcotics trade. In fact, the Taliban apparently collects about 10% as cultivation tax from opium farmers and 15% as heroin tax from laboratories and smugglers that smuggle narcotics into Pakistan. This, by itself , is a revenue stream estimated at $250-300 million. In the last two years, an attempt to counter the drug trade, the United States military has begun bombing drug centres and laboratories from where such operations are conducted. More than 400-500 Taliban drug labs were said to have been destroyed by the constant bombing by US Air Force wiping out about 25-30% of the Taliban’s revenue stream.

However, contrary to popular belief, it is not really the poppy business that is at the core of Taliban’s income. In areas within its control, the Taliban maintains a taxation regime meant to act as a security/protection tax. Interestingly, there is a Taliban Financial Commission that which issues regular diktats to traders and transporters to pay taxes while travelling in areas that are controlled by them. Oddly enough, the other major source for income generation for the Taliban is energy, telecommunications and mobile operations. In a letter that was made public by media outlets, the Electricity Company of Afghanistan went on record to state that the Taliban had been earning more than $4-5 million annually by billing electricity consumers in areas that it had controlled.

Afghanistan is rich in minerals and precious stones, which were exploited by all sides in the decades of conflict. Most extraction done so far has been done illegally and on a micro level, though the potential of the industry is estimated to be around $1 trillion. Simply by placing road blocks on routes connecting these mining sites with towns, the Taliban has easily taken control of these mining locations. In fact, most trucks leaving these sites are forced to dump half of their cargo at gun point. Extortion from legal as well as illegal mining operations has increased manifold over the years. The United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, in their annual report of 2014 of the had stated that even then the Taliban controlled around 35 mining operations in Helmand province, thereby earning over $10 million a year.

The most significant and dangerous source of funding that the Taliban receives is political, from external states. Though Afghanistan’s civilian government and the US have accused regional governments like Russia, Iran and most importantly, Pakistan, financing the terrorist group, such claims have been largely ignored .

Private high net worth individuals from Pakistan and other Gulf countries have been under surveillance for contributing substantially to the Taliban to the tune of $200 million as per a classified CIA report from 2013 which was leaked. Under the tag of aid for the war on terror, Pakistan has obtained arms, equipment as well as ammunition from the US that have been sold at large profits or at times donated to the Taliban. There is no other plausible justification to why the Taliban has access to US arms and ammunition.

If there was any doubt about the intention and the nexus between the Taliban and Pakistan one just needs to see the days after the fall of Kabul. the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan declaration that ‘the Taliban insurrection in Afghanistan is a holy war against the occupation by foreign forces.’ shows Pakistan’s support of a terrorist organisation that they have received billions of dollars in aid to destroy.

The joy in Pakistan of the taliban’s victory over Kabul, as well as the arrival of the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt. Gen. Faiz Hamid, to the Kabul Serena within days of the fall of Kabul is proof of the ISI’s command of the Taliban debacle.

Normally spy chiefs tend to stay away from the public eye. Gen. Hamid’s innocent coffee in the lobby of the Serena Hotel in Kabul running in to a reporter and his seemingly innocuous jokes seemed more like him taking a bow. The reaction of the global community to a Pakistan run, terrorist led Afghanistan, of which the cabinet is a list of terror inc.’s most wanted, will decide the future of global security.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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