In Helmand, they protect opium shipments, extort money from poppy growers and operate heroin labs. In Kunar, they smuggle timber and guns. In the Swat valley, they control emerald mines, selling gemstones on the black market. On both sides of the Afghan/Pakistani border, they run a brisk kidnapping racket, snaring wealthy local businessmen, diplomats and journalists from around the globe.
When people in the west imagine the Taliban, most think of bearded fanatics, battling from caves under the flag of radical Islam. Having studied their day-to-day activities for more than five years, when I think of the Taliban I think of Tony Soprano and his gang.
I am not suggesting that Mullah Mohammed Omar has developed a taste for Chianti, or opened a branch of the Bada Bing at his hideout in Pakistan. As a fighting force, the Taliban remain as determined as ever to drive western forces from Afghanistan, as proven by the rising Nato casualty figures. But examine how the Taliban fund themselves, and how they interact with the local community, and they start to look more like mafiosi than mujahedin …
… I interviewed a former money launderer in a Dubai coffee shop, who explained how he made dirty cash clean with a few quick swaps on the unregulated hawala money exchange.
Over time, and hundreds of interviews later with people who worked in or investigated this criminal economy, it became clear to me that characterising the Taliban as Islamic crusaders had caused Nato commanders to underestimate their enemy. For years, many western officials – especially in Washington – ignored the economic miracle funding the Taliban’s resurgence.
It is important to recognise that from one of the world’s most remote and mountainous regions, where there is no major highway network, nor freight train service, nor even widespread literacy (much less BlackBerrys and wifi), Taliban insurgents and the drug traffickers with whom they collaborate have accomplished an astonishing feat: successfully integrating an agricultural product into the global economy.
From importing precursor chemicals to getting farm loans to thousands of small farmers to providing security for the shipments as they move across borders, co-ordinating and managing Afghanistan’s mammoth opium trade is an organisational feat of the very highest order. In less than eight years, they have come to dominate the global market share, supplying more than 90 per cent of the world’s opium.
In recent years, as the Pakistani Taliban have rolled across that country’s north-west, I have watched the Taliban expand into various new moneymaking schemes, from extortion to good old-fashioned bank robbery.
Fighting this widening insurgency is going to be an immense challenge for the Nato alliance and the international community – not least because the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan are themselves so riddled with corruption. But a good start will be to define the insurgents as what they really are, and to protect local populations who are the victims of their criminal activity. These are not holy warriors fighting for Allah, but criminals after the almighty dollar. (full text).