20 years of US and Nato military presence in Afghanistan hasn’t weakened the Taliban, let alone wiping them off altogether. If anything, they have grown richer and have returned more powerful it seems, since their fundamentalist Islamic regime was toppled by US forces in 2001.
The early years
The genesis of the Taliban is rooted in the geo-politics of the region in the early 1980s.
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was facing resistance from the country’s hardline Islamists. Pakistan, then a firm US ally, was apprehensive of the Soviets stretching their influence further south, or even invading Balochistan.
Pakistan, US and Saudi Arabia, with covert financial and arms support to the hardliner militias, ensured a Soviet withdrawal in 1992.
A power sharing deal between various Afghan parties and warlords was ineffective, and four years of Afghan civil war followed.
In the melee and power vacuum, a group of fighters, predominantly Pashto tribesmen in the south coalesced into the Taliban. It also drew Pashto students from seminaries across the border in Pakistan. Its founder and original leader was Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The Taliban promised to liberate Afghanistan from the corrupt leadership of warlords, and establish a pure Islamic society. They had made their presence felt by 1994, but came to control Kabul and most parts of the country only by 1996.
The Taliban top brass
Haibatullah Akhundzada is currently the Taliban’s supreme leader with authority over political, religious, and military affairs. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar heads the political office of the Taliban. Sirajuddin Haqqani leads the Haqqani network and oversees financial and military assets across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
(Source: Council on Foreign Relations)
The Taliban’s revenue channels
In the fiscal year that ended in March 2020, the Taliban reportedly raked in $1.6 billion, according to Mullah Yaqoob, a top leader of the group.
They have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income. It is estimated at more than 80% of global opium and heroin supplies. Unrest in the country and drying up of foreign funds is triggering an economic and humanitarian crisis that is likely to leave many Afghans dependent on the narcotics trade for survival.
The US efforts at poppy eradication to airstrikes and raids on suspected labs has had little effect. Even as the Covid pandemic raged, poppy cultivation soared 37% last year.
The group imposes a 10% tax on every link in the drug production chain, according to a 2008 report- the poppy farmers, labs that convert the crop to narcotic drugs, and traders who move the product out of the country.
Besides, the Taliban also generate huge incomes from mining activities in iron ore, marble, copper, gold, zinc and other metals and rare-earth minerals.
They tax people and industries- mining operations, media, telecommunications and development projects funded by international aid. They also tax harvest and wealth.
They also receive covert financial contributions from private donors and international institutions across the globe- mostly in Persian Gulf countries.
The Taliban import and export various everyday consumer goods, according to UNSC.
Governments of several sympathising countries are believed to bankroll the Taliban, according to several US and international sources.
And now, with no foreign forces in the country and the Afghan government having fallen, the Taliban will have no difficulties in filling their coffers.
(With agency inputs)