Who is funding the Afghan Taliban? You don’t want to know

August 13, 2009

U.S. soldiers (L) and an Afghan policeman keep watch near a building which is held by the Taliban in Logar, south of Kabul August 10, 2009. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

The article by Jean MacKenzie originally appeared in GlobalPost. This is part of a special series by GlobalPost called Life, Death and The Taliban. Click here for a related article Funding the Pakistani Taliban.

KABUL — It is the open secret no one wants to talk about, the unwelcome truth that most prefer to hide. In Afghanistan, one of the richest sources of Taliban funding is the foreign assistance coming into the country.

Virtually every major project includes a healthy cut for the insurgents. Call it protection money, call it extortion, or, as the Taliban themselves prefer to term it, “spoils of war,” the fact remains that international donors, primarily the United States, are to a large extent financing their own enemy.

“Everyone knows this is going on,” said one U.S. Embassy official, speaking privately.

It is almost impossible to determine how much the insurgents are spending, making it difficult to pinpoint the sources of the funds.

Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, former Taliban minister to Pakistan, was perhaps more than a bit disingenuous when he told GlobalPost that the militants were operating mostly on air.

“The Taliban does not have many expenses,” he said, smiling slightly. “They are barefoot and hungry, with no roof over their heads and a stone for their pillow.” As for weapons, he just shrugged. “Afghanistan is full of guns,” he said. “We have enough guns for years.”

The reality is quite different, of course. The militants recruit local fighters by paying for their services. They move about in their traditional 4x4s, they have to feed their troops, pay for transportation and medical treatment for the wounded, and, of course, they have to buy rockets, grenades and their beloved Kalashnikovs.

Up until quite recently, most experts thought that drug money accounted for the bulk of Taliban funding. But even here opinion was divided on actual amounts. Some reports gauged the total annual income at about $100 million, while others placed the figure as high as $300 million — still a small fraction of the $4 billion poppy industry.

Now administration officials have launched a search for Taliban sponsors. Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told a press conference in Islamabad last month that drugs accounted for less of a share of Taliban coffers than was previously thought.

“In the past there was a kind of feeling that the money all came from drugs in Afghanistan,” said Holbrooke, according to media reports. “That is simply not true.”

The new feeling is that less than half of the Taliban’s war chest comes from poppy, with a variety of sources, including private contributions from Persian Gulf states, accounting for much of the rest. Holbrooke told reporters that he would add a member of the Treasury Department to his staff to pursue the question of Taliban funding.

But perhaps U.S. officials need look no further than their own backyard.

Anecdotal evidence is mounting that the Taliban are taking a hefty portion of assistance money coming into Afghanistan from the outside.

This goes beyond mere protection money or extortion of “taxes” at the local level — very high-level negotiations take place between the Taliban and major contractors, according to sources close to the process.

A shadowy office in Kabul houses the Taliban contracts officer, who examines proposals and negotiates with organizational hierarchies for a percentage. He will not speak to, or even meet with, a journalist, but sources who have spoken with him and who have seen documents say that the process is quite professional.

The manager of an Afghan firm with lucrative construction contracts with the U.S. government builds in a minimum of 20 percent for the Taliban in his cost estimates. The manager, who will not speak openly, has told friends privately that he makes in the neighborhood of $1 million per month. Out of this, $200,000 is siphoned off for the insurgents.

If negotiations fall through, the project will come to harm — road workers may be attacked or killed, bridges may be blown up, engineers may be assassinated.

The degree of cooperation and coordination between the Taliban and aid workers is surprising, and would most likely make funders extremely uncomfortable.

One Afghan contractor, speaking privately, told friends of one project he was overseeing in the volatile south. The province cannot be mentioned, nor the particular project.

“I was building a bridge,” he said, one evening over drinks. “The local Taliban commander called and said ‘don’t build a bridge there, we’ll have to blow it up.’ I asked him to let me finish the bridge, collect the money — then they could blow it up whenever they wanted. We agreed, and I completed my project.”

In the south, no contract can be implemented without the Taliban taking a cut, sometimes at various steps along the way.

One contractor in the southern province of Helmand was negotiating with a local supplier for a large shipment of pipes. The pipes had to be brought in from Pakistan, so the supplier tacked on about 30 percent extra for the Taliban, to ensure that the pipes reached Lashkar Gah safely.

Once the pipes were given over to the contractor, he had to negotiate with the Taliban again to get the pipes out to the project site. This was added to the transportation costs.

“We assume that our people are paying off the Taliban,” said the foreign contractor in charge of the project.

In Farah province, local officials report that the Taliban are taking up to 40 percent of the money coming in for the National Solidarity Program, one of the country’s most successful community reconstruction projects, which has dispensed hundreds of millions of dollars throughout the country over the past six years.

Many Afghans see little wrong in the militants getting their fair share of foreign assistance.

“This is international money,” said one young Kabul resident. “They are not taking it from the people, they are taking it from their enemy.”

But in areas under Taliban control, the insurgents are extorting funds from the people as well.

In war-ravaged Helmand, where much of the province has been under Taliban control for the past two years, residents grumble about the tariffs.

“It’s a disaster,” said a 50-year-old resident of Marja district. “We have to give them two kilos of poppy paste per jerib during the harvest; then we have to give them ushr (an Islamic tax, amounting to one-tenth of the harvest) from our wheat. Then they insisted on zakat (an Islamic tithe). Now they have come up with something else: 12,000 Pakistani rupee (approximately $150) per household. And they won’t take even one rupee less.”

It all adds up, of course. But all thingsare relative: if the Taliban are able to raise and spend say $1 billion per year — the outside limit of what anyone has been able to predict — that accounts for what the United States is now spending on 10 days of the war to defeat them.


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US and Obama should know who has become ATM of Taliban after CIA

dis graceful detestable, draconian measures should be taken in afghanistan in stemming funding for the taliban from Us/nato sources. just amazingly disgusting as the sands of that region soak with the youth of american militarys blood im sickened by the business as usual of the money men…unbelievable. the war on drugs is a farcial and useless as the war on terrorism. i hope the global populance will awaken soon and put the Military industrial complex to bed. disheartning.

All of this makes me very disenchanted with everyone’s government, especially my own.

Posted by ringo truth | Report as abusive

I’m curious, does Reuters not do its homework? The Taliban did not become a problem in Afghanistan until they BANNED the growing of poppy. They were trying to clean their country of the drug trade. So why would anyone presume that is where their funding comes from? One of the first actions by the Kharzi government was to once again allow poppy growing and opium production. (yes, our invasion made it possible for this to happen, and our puppet regime carried it out) For a change, I’d like to see a staff writer do some homework into their own stories and point out such inconsistencies with what current officials are spouting off.

Posted by Sam Adams | Report as abusive

Funding the enemy is TREASON. Start the investigations!

Posted by Alan8 | Report as abusive

I thought the CIA and their Pakistani stooges pulled the plug in 1989. They still financing the Taliban to fight them long after the Soviet were history. That’s funny.

Posted by Eldorado | Report as abusive

So, is that how Big Pharm in USA get’s their supplies to make pain killers and the like? Just wondering…..

Posted by USA Toots | Report as abusive

Why should anyone be amazed at the hypothesis formulated by this article? The U.S. government is currently carefully counting every little billion going into public health, but does not even know how much it spends into its “war on terror:” depending on who you ask, the “war” costs between 150 and 500 billions per year. No wonder the “enemy” would grab a few billions!In fact, does the reader remember how the highly sophisticated 9/11 terror attack was financed? We don’t know, because the U.S. government–at least according to the official version–never bothered to look for it.

Posted by Dan Noel | Report as abusive

So, using a purchasing power parity exchange rate, the Taliban are spending….about the equivalent of $42 billion a year. Not bad, we should probably up the ante.

Posted by Gav2269 | Report as abusive

y r footballers getting so much money n all they do is play football and theres our bois in afghanistan killed 4 a little a year. it not fair

Posted by ashley | Report as abusive

The poster below is correct. Funding the enemy IS treason. But if I recall correctly, all major media outlets reported during the invasion that we were not defeating the enemy on the battlefield, but bribing their commanders to join our side. So where do we start the investigation?Retired Commandant of the USMC, Major General Smedley Butler was absolutely correct 75 years ago and nothing has changed. War Is A Racket. The fearmongering (terrorism) directed at the American people and the western world comes more from western governments through the mainstream media than from radical Islamic jihadis. Remember the single issue GWB ran on in 2004? BE AFRAID!The Obama administration seems to have learned something from Bush. Now the greatest terrorist threats, according to DHS, are Veterans and Christians.

Posted by Ed | Report as abusive

Bush AND Cheney are now both free to SHOW US how much they really believe in the wars they started, and just how”PATRIOTIC” they really ARE. They surrounded themselves with flags and LOUDLY proclaimed their “love” of America….. Now they are free to pick up rifles and LEAD the Troops that they ordered, into combat.I am sure those two “HEROS” will be on the next plane to Afghanistan ………………1) FIVE DEFERMENTS to dodge SERVING the Nation during Viet Nam, too busy advancing HIS career.2) HIDES in a secret Bunker during and long after 9/11.3) Now FREE to get a rifle and a plane ticket to Afghanistan where he could LEAD the Troops into COMBAT to show us all how TOUGH he is, he prefers to JACK HIS JAW safely AWAY from any danger.4) “his” KBR/HALLIBURTON has murdered at LEAST three American Troops with faulty wiring in their WAR PROFITEERING in Iraq.Notice NONE of their children ever volunteer……….

Do you know what this sounds like? It sounds like the Taliban is a SUBSIDIARY of HALLIBURTON.Look how much Halliburton/KBR STOLE from the American Taxpayers in Iraq (and still does in all the war-zones). Pallet loads of cash just evaporating.

The question is Who is Richard Holbrooke?http://www.bollyn.com/index.ph p#article_11186

Posted by NotAnIObot | Report as abusive

To Sam Adams,Yes the Taliban did issue a decree to halt Opium poppy production, however that did not eliminate the actual exportation of the crop.Instead Opium actually became more profitable due to higher prices caused by the cease in production. So they were actually benefiting from the supposed ban.It is like how the Seven sister oil companies were/are benefiting by keeping much of the guarded Iraqi oil off the market.

Posted by Ron | Report as abusive

So, it really is coming to seem, the USA created and now uses AlQaida and the Taliban for their own goals. If that weren’t bad enough, the current goals are now aimed at knocking the USA to a lower world position and replacing it by the UN – the One-World Government plan of so many politicians for decades.If you add in that at current rates the world will be dominated by Islam, it all makes sense that Obama not only panders to Islam, was raised in Islam, and is against Israel.As to the bankers/Wall Street that he chose to reward, it seems that they have no religion other than money so they don’t care just who the minions (slaves) under them will be as long as they can be in their towers and “safe” from the “worker bees”.

Posted by stevor | Report as abusive

The real issue people have to worry about are China and a reemerging Russia under Putin. As america’s relative power decreases SCO’s power increases. Brzezinski (trilateral commission) has stated that those who control Eurasia will control the world, which is why he has favored so much intervention into central asia and afghanistan in particular. With blunders like in Georgia however and the declining dollar it seems that the strategy is starting to fall apart.The issue is not about islam taking over the world. No currently about 56-57% of the world population are either christians jews or muslims. The number of muslims in that number is supposed to rise to about 1/3 by 2050. So about 57-68% of the world’s population will be an adherent to an abrahamic faith. You also need to look a recent muslim birth rates, they are decreasing dramatically in the middle east and outside of South Asia especially. Almost all islamic countries are basically failed states or exporting natural resources to prop up their governments, Turkey being the exception.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

how can a third world country like afghanistan be controlled by illitrate, below poverty, talaban rebels and fight a super power and all it’s allies for so long???? so what is our “free press” really telling us idiots???? yeah i figure it’s just a front for more theft of tax payers money and lives. the theives got to say they’re spending it legit on something. might as well give the people over there in the middle east a cut for helping them out. be interesting if the press would do there jobs and report on who these theives really are!!!!

Posted by lynnetime | Report as abusive

Hands down, Apple’s app store wins by a mile. It’s a huge selection of all sorts of apps vs a rather sad selection of a handful for Zune. Microsoft has plans, especially in the realm of games, but I’m not sure I’d want to bet on the future if this aspect is important to you. The iPod is a much better choice in that case.