As the world waits to see if the Pakistani military has the will and the ability to save the country from the Taliban, an equally pressing question confronts the international community: How can the Taliban’s funding sources be located and severed in order to prevent them from becoming the first nuclear-armed terrorist group?
In an interview last week, General David Petraeus said that the Taliban is being funded with “hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars” annually from drugs, foreign donations, and “locally generated” sources of income, particularly organized crime. As their responsibility for up to a third of the bank robberies in Karachi in recent years shows, the Taliban has become a hybrid terrorist mafia.
A Pakistani intelligence report says that militants under the command of Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban engage in “criminal activities like kidnapping for ransom, bank robbery, street robbery and other heinous crimes” to help finance their activities. Some companies owned by members of the Mehsud tribe in Pakistan are paying 40 percent of their income to the Taliban, sometimes by force and sometimes of their own accord. The sale of cigarettes and salvaged vehicles are other business investments.
The Swat Valley, the site of the current Pakistani military offensive following the Islamists’ establishment of Sharia Law, is exceedingly important for the Taliban. Not only was it a safe haven for extremists, but its emerald mines and timber were good business. A Taliban spokesperson in the Swat Valley confirmed in April that they received one-third of the profit from the emerald mines, which are said to be bringing the Taliban at least $3 million annually, an amount that increases as more mines are utilized.
The Taliban also use the money from the mines to maintain local support. The Taliban spokesperson said the rest of the profit goes to the workers. During the takeover of one mine near Swat Valley, the Taliban told the mineworkers that they’d receive half the profit.
It is also cheap for the Taliban to operate in Karachi because of the support of local Pashtuns that sometimes hold secret fundraisers for them. Tribes in Kandahar, Afghanistan, also provide Taliban operatives with funding for medical treatment, food, fuel, and other expenses. The Taliban benefit from the tribes’ local culture, which requires “taking care of their own,” as explained by one Asia Times reporter who sat in on a fundraising meeting in Karachi that brought in over $11,600.
The drug trafficking element of the Taliban’s fundraising has been widely covered. The United Nations Drug Office believes the Taliban made up to $300 million from opium sales in 2008. Money is not only made from the sales, but from also charging “protection fees” for those moving the drugs over the Afghanistan borders and for the drug laboratories. Afghan opium cultivation in 2008 fell nearly 20 percent, and production fell six percent. However, according to Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the U.N. Drug Office, this does not reflect progress by those fighting the Taliban. The Taliban has simply produced so much that they have reduced cultivation and are stockpiling current supplies to artificially keep prices higher.
The focus on the Taliban’s organized crime activity shouldn’t distract from the need to stop foreign funding of the group. Supporters in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait provide perhaps as much income for the Taliban as drug sales. The United Arab Emirates is another hot-spot for the Taliban, with the late high-level commander Mullah Dadullah reportedly visiting the country in early 2006.
Most of this foreign funding comes from an unofficial network called hawala, which is often used in countries that don’t have a functioning banking system. An estimated $13-17 billion is transferred through hawala each year. Free of any signed documents, fees, regulation, or recording mechanisms and minimal delays, hawala is a cheap and attractive system for criminals, terrorists, or even average citizens.
If Justice Salam, who served on the Taliban’s Supreme Court, is to be believed, then private citizens in the Arab world and Pakistan are not the only foreign financiers of the Taliban. He claims that the intelligence services of Pakistan, Iran, and, most surprisingly, Russia, are also providing financing as well as weapons. These three countries have also been singled out for assisting the Taliban by no less an authority that the Taliban’s former deputy chief of finance.
Hamid Mir, a Pakistani reporter who has significant contacts in the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and is the only journalist to have interviewed Osama Bin Laden after 9/11, told me the same thing in 2006. He accused Iran and Russia of supporting the Taliban, saying that “Russia is covertly supporting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. The spokesman of the Afghan Interior Ministry, Lutaffulah Mashal, told me in September 2005 in Kabul that the Taliban are getting modern Russian-made weapons. He suspected that Russia may be taking revenge on the U.S. for supporting the Afghan Mujahideen against Russia in the 1980s.”
It is more likely that the alleged Russian assistance to the Taliban does not come from direct government orders, but from the activity of the Russian mafia working with corrupt officials. One such Russian criminal is Viktor But, a former high-level Soviet officer “suspected of being the main gunrunner to al-Qaida and the Taliban” who said in 2002 that he was living in Russia without any action being taken by the authorities. He was ultimately arrested on February 6, 2008 in Thailand.
In the battle against the Taliban, the struggle against terrorists and the struggle against organized crime have become intertwined. As the Taliban loses support among the Pakistani population, it will morph into an Islamist mafia, relying upon bribes and force to sustain itself. Defeating the Taliban will not only require a Pakistani military presence to free the locals from fear, but competent law enforcement and an international effort to better regulate the hawala networks that will enable criminals and terrorists to operate for years to come.