Explained: How Drugs Funded the Taliban’s 20-Year War with the United States



In return to power in Kabul Over the weekend, the Taliban demonstrated both the success of a lightning military offensive against the then Afghan government, as well as their remarkable resilience in the face of assaults from the world’s most powerful military for 20 years .

When they were driven out of Kabul in November 2001, the Taliban had been in power for just over five years and had only existed for seven years. What made them the fighting force that survived the United States in its longest war in its history and defeated the Afghans who received equipment and training worth more than 80 billion dollars from Americans? Where did the Taliban find the funds to support themselves during a two-decade war with an adversary of almost limitless resources?

A flourishing drug trade

In a May 2020 report, the United Nations Security Council estimated that “the combined annual income of the Taliban ranges from $ 300 million to over $ 1.5 billion per year.” He said that although the numbers for 2019 were lower, officials “were careful to note that the Taliban was using resources effectively and efficiently and did not experience a cash flow crisis.”

The main source of the Taliban’s funds has been drug trafficking, as two decades of report after report have shown. Their income has suffered in recent years due to “reduction in poppy cultivation and income, lower taxable income from aid and development projects, and increased spending on” governance “projects. “, according to the United Nations Security Council report.

However, “while the cultivation and production of heroin provided the bulk of the Taliban’s income for many years, the emergence of methamphetamine in Afghanistan is giving impetus to a major new drug industry with profit margins. important, ”the report notes.

According to the report, “the methamphetamine ban was first registered by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2014 (9 kg) and has continued on a downward trajectory. increase, with 650 kg banned in the first half of 2019 ”. Methamphetamine, according to the report, “has been found to be more cost effective than heroin because its ingredients are cheap and does not require large labs.”

The Taliban, he added, “would control 60% of methamphetamine laboratories in the main producing provinces of Farah and Nimruz.”

The report quoted officials as saying that “the system of smuggling and taxing heroin organized by the Taliban … spanned eight of the southern districts of Nangarhar, from Hisarak to Dur Baba, on the border with Pakistan.”

“In each district, smugglers paid a tax to the Taliban district commanders of 200 Pakistani rupees (about $ 1.30), or its Afghani equivalent, per kilogram of heroin. The smugglers received documents from each Taliban commander certifying the payment of the tax before heading to the next district and repeating the same process. Afghan officials said the smuggling routes helped financially empower each Taliban district commander. “

In a report released last year, UNODC said that “Afghanistan, the most opium-produced country, which has accounted for about 84% of global opium production in the past five last years, supplies the markets of neighboring countries, Europe, the Near and Middle East. East, South Asia and Africa and to a small extent North America (especially Canada) and Oceania.

Mines, taxes, donations

In September 2020, Radio Free Europe reported on a confidential report commissioned by NATO, which concluded that the Taliban “have achieved, or are on the verge of achieving, financial and military independence”, which ” allow [it] self-finance its insurgency without needing the support of governments or citizens of other countries ”.

Besides the illicit drug trade – overseen by Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, the son of the founder of the Taliban, Mullah Muhammad Omar, a dark figure who is expected to play an important role in the new government – the Taliban had “extended their financial power. in recent years by increasing profits from mining and illegal exports, ”the report says.

He estimated that the militant movement earned “US $ 1.6 billion” in the year ending March 2020. Of that amount, US $ 416 million came from the drug trade; more than $ 450 million from the illegal mining of iron ore, marble, copper, gold, zinc and rare earth metals; and $ 160 million in extortion and taxes in areas and on highways he controlled. It has also received $ 240 million in donations, much of it from the Persian Gulf countries. To launder the money she earned, she imported and exported consumer goods worth $ 240 million. The Taliban also own properties worth $ 80 million in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the report.

Pak Weapons and Loot

The Taliban do not seem to have lacked weapons to fight the Afghan and American forces. Pakistan support has always been the key, but the Taliban did not rely on a single source of arms and ammunition.

Journalists such as Gretchen Peters, Steve Coll and others have repeatedly highlighted ISI and Pakistani military support for the Taliban, directly and through the Haqqani Network, a sprawling Islamist mafia based in tribal areas of the Pakistan and Afghanistan, comprising fighters, extremist religious schools and shady businesses with powerful ties to the Arab Gulf countries and Pakistan. US leaders and generals have openly accused Pakistan of diverting to Taliban funds it has received to fight the fundamentalist movement.

There are also other players. In September 2017, then chief of the Afghan army, General Sharif Yaftali told the BBC that he had documents proving that Iran was “providing arms and military equipment to the Taliban in the western part of the country.” Afghanistan ”.

A November 2019 report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency noted that since “at least 2007 Iran has provided calibrated support – including weapons, training and funding – to the Taliban to counter US influence and in Afghanistan, fight ISIS-Khorasan, and increase Tehran’s influence in any post-reconciliation government ”.

The United States has also accused Russia of supporting the Taliban, but there is little evidence of this.

Beyond these external channels, the Taliban have also been able to arm themselves with the weapons and ammunition that the United States has provided to Afghan forces over the years.

The U.S. Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (SIGAR), a congressional-backed watchdog, noted in a 2013 analysis that nearly 43% of firearms – 2,03,888 out of 4 74,823 – supplied to the Afghan forces were missing. “Given the limited capacity of the Afghan government to properly account for or dispose of these weapons, there is real potential for these weapons to fall into the hands of insurgents, which will pose additional risks to US personnel, ANSF and Afghan civilians, ”he added. says the analysis.

Taliban fighters patrol the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday August 18, 2021. (AP Photo)

US military assets with the Taliban

No figures are available as to what type of US military assets, and how many, fell into the hands of the Taliban.

The United States Government Accountability Office said in a 2017 report that between 2003 and 2016, the United States funded 75,898 vehicles, 5,99,690 weapons, 208 aircraft and 16,191 pieces of intelligence equipment, surveillance and reconnaissance for Afghan forces.

In recent years, 7,000 machine guns, 4,700 Humvees and more than 20,000 grenades have been handed over to Afghan forces, according to SIGAR data.

SIGAR’s July quarterly report mentioned that the Afghan Air Force had a total of 167 planes, including jets and helicopters that were “usable / in country” as of June 30. This included 23 A-19 planes, 10 AC-208 planes, 23 C-208 planes and three C-130 planes, in addition to 32 Mi-17, 43 MD-530 and 33 UH-60 helicopters.

On August 17, two days after the Taliban took control of Kabul, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said: it fell into the hands of the Taliban.

Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans, conflict analysts specializing in modern military weapons and tactics who worked for websites such as Janes, Bellingcat, and NK News, used open source intelligence to track equipment that fell between them. hands of the Taliban. .

According to them, the Taliban now owns two fighter jets, 24 helicopters and seven Boeing Insitu ScanEagle unmanned vehicles that were previously with Afghan forces. In addition, according to them, between June and August 14, the Taliban captured 12 tanks, 51 armored combat vehicles, 61 pieces of artillery and mortar, eight anti-aircraft guns and 1,980 trucks, jeeps and vehicles, including more than 700 Humvee.

All of this – plus the fact that the forces of the former Afghan government have gone all over the country and the former Northern Alliance opposition is a shadow of itself – makes the Taliban more powerful. than they ever have been. He is now “much more powerful militarily,” Jonathan Schroden, a military operations analyst who heads the Threats and Challenges program at the CNA Corporation, a research and development organization, told Indian Express. Nonprofit and nonpartisan analytics based in Arlington, Virginia. “This effectively converts them from a lightly armed guerrilla movement to a pseudo-conventional army.”

Among the military equipment currently available to the Taliban, Dr. Schroden says, the D-30 howitzers are probably the deadliest. “This is concerning both as a waste of US taxpayer money and as a potential source of weapons for the myriad of terrorist groups that have ties to the Taliban,” he said.

And “there is a non-zero possibility that groups like al-Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban get their hands on some of the weapons.”

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