The Taliban’s secret weapon: security

Divided pashtun lands and protection rackets – Published on, by Louis Imbert, October 2010.

The Taliban doesn’t rely on drug money or Iranian bounty rewards for serious funding. It takes protection money from infrastructure and transport projects, and donations where it can get them.

Last year Hajji Mohammad Shah began to build a new road outside the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, to allow farmers in the Chahar Dara district to take their products to market in the provincial capital. The 25km road was funded by the Asian Development Bank at a cost of $82,000. But on the first day of construction, a member of the Taliban approached the district council of elders, who had commissioned the work, and demanded protection money.

The elders paid $18,000 to make sure the road was not destroyed before it had even been completed. Then another Taliban turned up: they paid him too. When a third one arrived, the elders explained that they had no more money. So, one day in March 2010, Shah came back to the site from his lunch break to find that his workers had been taken hostage by armed men and most of his equipment had been destroyed, at a loss of $227,000.

The governor of Kunduz, Mohammad Omar, is not sure what went wrong: did the elders not pay enough, or just not to the right people? “The Taliban do what they like around here,” he told me. “They torture and kill, and run countless rackets.” Omar’s Taliban counterpart, the “shadow governor” of Kunduz, takes a percentage of almost all construction work in the area, including roads, bridges, schools and clinics. The more Afghanistan is reconstructed, the richer the Taliban become … //

… ’Of course we pay the Taliban’
Zarghuna Walizada is the only woman running a freight transport company in Afghanistan. She understands the pressure the Americans are under, and knows they do not reimburse her for lorries attacked on the road: “I don’t care whether we pay the police, the insurgents, or the Taliban. What matters is that the lorries get through.” Sometimes they do not even use an escort: “Why would we need one? The Taliban guarantee our security.”

“Of course we pay the Taliban,” said Ghulam Abas Ayen, head of the main freight transport union. “It’s a racket, pure and simple. Some security companies demand $2,000 per container, for just a few hundred kilometres of road. About half of that money could end up in the hands of the Taliban.”

Safe passage is not negotiated directly, of course. “My boss wouldn’t appreciate it if I went to negotiate face to face with the tribal leaders of Helmand,” said Juan Diego Gonzales, a former US soldier and head of the private security company White Eagle. “We have intermediaries who recruit our security guards locally. Sometimes it’s the tribal chief himself, or his son, who takes charge of the convoy. You just hope they’re not linked too closely with the Taliban.” The balance of power on some of the roads he uses is volatile: one warlord alone cannot guarantee security, which gives Gonzales some scope to choose his partners. On other roads, “If you go alone, you are going to have big problems. If you don’t have authorisation from the local warlord, you’re dead,” said an Afghan official with the Australian private security company Tacforce. He said Tacforce followed the recommendations of the Afghan interior ministry, to identify the “right” warlords to deal with.

The most powerful of those at the moment is Rahullah, a commander aged around 40 who has never been in contact with a US army official. He wears a Rolex watch and shalwar kamiz, speaks with an unusually high-pitched voice, and controls an important part of Highway 1, which links Kabul with Kandahar in the south. Rahullah works with the Popal brothers, owners of the Watan Group and cousins of President Karzai. A typical convoy will have 300 lorries and 400-500 private guards. Safe passage for one container from Kabul to Kandahar can cost up to $1,500. According to a recent report by the US House of Representatives (4), a tribal chief who controls a route, and his English-speaking associates, can make tens of millions of dollars a year escorting US convoys. Rahullah and the Popal brothers deny paying the Taliban to pass through the sections of the road the insurgents control. They say they lost 450 men last year. Transport and security companies have complained many times to the US army about the money they have to pay warlords, but the army does not know how to resolve the problem.

Discreet and efficient bankers: … (full text).

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