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…the threads of this continuing tragedy

March 28, 2012

My friend Ron, over at the Pavellas Perspective posed a couple of heartfelt questions to a previous post (“We really do think we’re losing now, don’t we?”).  I thought I’d try and answer:


I’ve lost track of the threads of this continuing tragedy.

Who is financing the Taliban?

Ron, the key point is that they are relatively inexpensive to run (mainly cheap small arms and IEDs, most fighters take no salary) and do quite well from their own network of religious donations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Gulf States.  The drug aspect is perhaps overstated.  This large chunk from a NATO paper, “State of the Taliban” is very helpful, so I’ll stand aside:

The Taliban continue to openly raise the majority of their revenue through donations. Collectors travel door to door throughout Pakistan requesting donations, without disguising their Taliban affiliation. Most donations are provided under the official title of zakat, or religious tithing, but the eventual use of the donation for jihad is clear. Donors range from wealthy businessmen to impoverished families, and the amount donated is typically determined as a percentage of available income at the time. Taliban collections regularly take place throughout the year, in every city in Pakistan. 

Donors from the Gulf Region also provide funds to support Taliban efforts, though this process is far more secretive. Detainees have described fundraising efforts in the Gulf Region as being under the guise of either religious donations or venture capital, ostensibly to fund Afghan entrepreneurs. These funds are typically transferred via courier or through independent money transfer establishments known as hawalas.

Donations are also collected throughout Afghanistan. Under Section 12 of the La’iha, the Taliban are not permitted to use criminal activities, such as forcibly collecting zakat or hijacking and kidnapping for ransom.

The narcotics trade provides funds to Taliban operations, though the nature of this process is widely misunderstood. The Taliban does not officially encourage or discourage narcotics production, and it does not play any direct role in the farming, smuggling, refining or distribution process. However, the Taliban regularly collects a percentage of zakat from any individual involved in any stage of narcotics production. This zakat may be collected in Afghanis, Pakistani rupees or, frequently, raw opium or hashish.

“This year [2011], more funds were given to the Taliban to conduct operations than in any previous year.”
commission chief, Parwan Province

“We collect from Afghans everywhere. There are even a thousand Afghan homes in Dubai, all of whom donate what they can to the cause.”  senior Taliban financier

Yearly throughout Afghanistan, during the spring harvest, raw opium becomes a form of currency. The opium is openly traded in any of the hundreds of narcotics bazaars which emerge at that time, usually away from population centers under government control. In the event that the Taliban commander receives a portion of the zakat in raw opium, he will send an associated to the local bazaar to exchange it for the monetary equivalent. This money, along with other donations collected from local residents, is then used to purchase motorcycle fuel, phone cards, ammunition or other sundry items used to maintain Taliban operations in that area.

Based on only detainee estimates, the Taliban appears to require between $100 million and $150 million per year to operate. Detainees often note their ability to operate effectively with minimal resources, without the yearly multi-billion dollar budgets of GIRoA security forces.

Almost without exception, Taliban members do not receive salaries or other financial incentives for their work. Low-level fighters and facilitators who live and operate in Afghanistan must keep their jobs in order to maintain an adequate income for themselves and their families.

What role does Al Qaeda play at this stage?

My sense is that the Al Qaeda role in Afghanistan is minimal and has been for some years.  I was listening to Robert Fisk on an Al Jazeera panel discussion yesterday in the context of the Arab Spring.  He dismissed the idea that there was, or is, any AQ involvement there – he suggested very strongly that in the last few years AQ had been a spent force (even while Bin Laden was still alive).  I’m sure there are AQ-sponsored individual fighters (eg IED experts, etc) operating in Afghanistan with local insurgent groups – Taliban HIG and Haqqani etc) in particular provinces but I suspect that is about it.  And this would be more the region of dozens, rather than hundred/thousands.  And, to be honest, I don’t immediately expect any AQ presence to suddenly be re-established in Afghanistan straight after 2014.  US Special Forces, intelligence collection platforms and drone weapons platforms are going to be all over this country for years, regardless of the withdrawal of ISAF (and, lets be honest, probably regardless of the approval of the Afghan government).  “Failed state” parts of Africa probably remain the best bet for what is left of AQ.  If there is still a residual potential AQ problem in the region, we probably need to focus on Pakistan.  But there is no value in AQ moving to Afghanistan when it is much safer in the “safe havens” of north west Pakistan.

There is a useful Rand Study out on this – AQ in its third decade – from March this year.  As an overview of AQ, the paper suggests:

While al Qaeda, especially its central leadership, has been pummeled, and its capabilities to mount large-scale attacks have been reduced, claims of its imminent defeat are hyperbole.  Al Qaeda is more decentralized, more dependent on its affiliates, its allies, and its ability to radicalize and recruit distant recruits to carry out attacks on its behalf. Its peripheral commands remain strong. Its allies have bought into its ideology of global terrorism. Its communications network continues to function. It is resilient and opportunistic….My overall conclusion is that al Qaeda is in decline, although not finished. Its campaign of terrorism provoked no global uprising, while its slaughter of far more Muslims than infidels further reduced its potential constituency. The elimination of its initial sanctuary in Afghanistan, the dispersal of its training camps, the decimation of its leadership have degraded its operational capabilities.

More specifically on Afghanistan, it has this to say:

Afghanistan is not essential to al Qaeda, which has field commands in Yemen, Iraq, and North Africa and allies in Somalia and Pakistan. Al Qaeda has few fighters in Afghanistan and does most of its training in Pakistan, proving that it can function without a presence in Afghanistan. But al Qaeda’s leaders attribute great importance to Afghanistan. Al Qaeda would benefit from a Taliban victory. Even if a victorious Taliban prevented al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a launch pad for terrorist operations, a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would guarantee al Qaeda’s survival.

The central government is a joke, and continuing to weaken–therefore where are the regional governors/”warlords” in protecting their interests and people?

Ron, this is a tricky one; a weak central government but no attractive obvious options for solving it (although many might now argue that the Taliban are cracking on with their own versions at the local level).  Often, the idea of “federalism” has been mooted – more power to accountable provincial governors.  The problem with most solutions for Afghanistan is that they seem to operate on a “great in theory but very difficult to actually implement”.  Federalism sounds attractive and plausible coming from the mouth of the UN, but you can imagine what it means to a local warlord…!

Honest, capable and corruption-free governors are very rare – and often too easy to blow up.  The international community invests much time in grooming individuals – the UK has worked hard with Helmand Governor Mangal.  This is good, as far as it goes, but the solution has no depth.  The system is “one-deep”.  If Mangal dies (or quits – lets face it, these are high profile, high pressure jobs, with you and your family at great risk) you are back to square one.  Yes, identify and groom another governor – but where is the development of the institution of local government that can do these things on its own; to be able to identify, groom, elect and hold accountable, etc?

There are still a lot of the less-desirable warlords floating around – some in high positions of government (Ismail Khan, Dostum, Fahim Khan, Shir Mohammad Akhundzade, Gul Agha Shirzai…).  They will continue to follow where they judge their own best interests lie.  But you might point at, for example, Noor Mohammad Atta, the governor of Balkh province, who has many of the usual question marks against him (narco connections etc) and say “this might have to be the best we can expect for the next decade”.

No easy answer, sorry.

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