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The new killing fields? (Sep 2009)

© Reuters/Stringer Afghanistan

Gretchen Peters spent over a decade as a news reporter covering Pakistan and Afghanistan. Here she argues that the main way to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda there is through cutting off their drugs money.

According to a recent report for the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, American intelligence agencies continue to believe that donations from wealthy sympathisers in the Gulf make up the bulk of funding for the Taliban, al Qaeda and other extremist groups operating along the AfPak (Afghanistan/Pakistan) frontier.

An examination of their day-to-day activities at the ground level suggests otherwise however. Whether protecting the opium trade, engaging in kidnapping, bank robbery, gunrunning, extortion or human trafficking, takfiri groups on both sides of the frontier today behave more like Mafiosi than mujahidin.

It’s hard to make generalisations about the wider AfPak insurgency because there are so many different anti-state groups operating on both sides of the Durrand Line, and they do not always behave the same way. There continue to be reports of extremist leaders asking for – and receiving – cash donations from sympathetic members of the community.

But increasingly, AfPak anti-state groups appear to expend a significant amount of their daily energy engaging in criminal fund-raising techniques, and this involvement in crime is changing both their battlefield strategy and the fundamental nature of the wider insurgency.

Increasing evidence shows some Afghan Taliban commanders controlling drug shipments as they leave Afghan territory, indicating the movement is widening its sphere of criminal influence

The morphing of the AfPak insurgents is neither new nor unique: throughout history and around the world insurgents and terror groups have repeatedly turned to crime to support their activities. And over time criminal earnings have corrupted levels of dedication to the original ideology. The FARC, the IRA and Hezbollah have undergone similar metamorphoses, and perhaps the most famous case from history is the Sicilian Mafia, which got it start much like the Taliban – protecting an ethnic community from the excesses of local rulers.

© Reuters/Stringer Afghanistan

In southern and southwestern Afghanistan, where the Taliban protect and tax the multi-billion-dollar opium market, insurgents have deepened their involvement in the trade since 2001.

Initially, Taliban commanders mainly confined themselves to taxing drug shipments that moved through their control zones, and later began providing protection for opium shipments and heroin refineries. It’s now common to hear of Taliban commanders running their own refineries, which have exploded in number inside insurgent-held territory.

There is also increased evidence that some Afghan Taliban commanders continue to control drug shipments as they leave Afghan territory, indicating the movement is widening its sphere of criminal influence.

Although Taliban commanders have integrated their activities throughout the opium trade, it’s still not accurate to suggest the Taliban control the drug market. Drug cartels, which are mainly based in Pakistan and dependent on ties both to anti-state and state actors, remain the key decision-makers and earn the greatest profits.

A key question western intelligence forces need to be asking is what the Taliban leadership intends to do with the vast profits it earns from the drugs trade and other crime

And while it’s clear that growing numbers of Taliban commanders are in it mainly for the money, it would also be wrong to conclude that the movement as a whole has abandoned its goal of driving Western forces out of Afghanistan. Rather it is more accurate to say a small core of true believers still command the Afghan Taliban, and there is scant evidence those leaders live lavishly off the profits they earn from protecting and taxing the drugs trade.

A key question western intelligence forces need to be asking is what the Taliban leadership intends to do with the vast profits it earns from the drugs trade and other crime – which I estimate to value as much as half a billion dollars annually.

These vast criminal profits don’t only come from drugs. Since 2001 insurgent and taqfiri groups on both sides of the Durrand Line have broadened their involvement in a wide range of criminal activities. Kidnapping has become a growth industry, in which criminal gangs and insurgent groups collaborate to snatch wealthy businessmen and then sell them back to their families.

In the past, kidnap victims were often beheaded on camera to make a political statement, most famously the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The more recent abduction of New York Times correspondent David Rohde was illustrative of the fact that profit is now the central motive. Insurgents who held Mr Rohde initially were asking $28 million for his release, according to tribal sources in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan).

© Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

In other parts of the war theatre, insurgents engage in timber smuggling, human trafficking and selling emeralds on the black market. In some cases, insurgents have resorted to bank robbery: fighters loyal to the late Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, for example, recently robbed a money changer in the southern port city Karachi and then smuggled the money all the way to the FATA.

The way the various groups interact is similar to the way Mafia crime families relate to each other. Sometimes they collaborate, and sometimes they fight each other, including the recent power struggle in South Waziristan that followed Mr Mehsud’s killing.

In many cases where insurgent and taqfiri factions fight amongst themselves or when there are battles between the factions, money is at the centre of the struggle. To head off this problem, there are routine high-level meetings between the various groups to decide who has rights to earn in what territory.

When the various groups collaborate, earning money is usually the goal. There are reports that the Pakistani Taliban’s push into the northwest parts of that country has been financed in part by other branches of the wider insurgency. One of my researchers recently interviewed low-level operatives in Bajaur who told him that Uzbek and Afghan fighters have begun arriving with suitcases full of cash, apparently to help pay for operations in Swat and Buner.

There are growing indications that some fighters in Afghanistan have links to criminal street gangs in the West

There are similar reports from Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan, which has seen an explosion in Taliban activity in recent months. One of my researchers got word from local authorities that Uzbek fighters had been advising the Afghan Taliban as they pushed back into the province.

US officials tracking the HIG (Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin) group in eastern Afghanistan have come across evidence that foreign fighters operating in that region funnel funds to insurgents in Chechnya and Central Asia. And perhaps more worrisome still are growing indications that some fighters in Afghanistan have links to criminal street gangs in the West.

The recent report for the US Senate also indicates that American intelligence officials continue to believe al Qaeda plays no role – and earns no profits from – the Afghan drug trade and other criminal activity. I believe that is incorrect.

Throughout my research for Seeds of Terror, I found evidence that al Qaeda leaders and foreign fighters closely allied to them, in particular the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, played a coordinating role. I never found much evidence of al Qaeda’s engagement in the operational side of the drug trade – such as coordinating drug shipments or running heroin labs. However it was clear that senior al Qaeda officials made contacts and facilitated relationships that made major drug transactions possible across tribal lines, district and national borders.

The intelligence community would be wiser to focus its efforts on identifying and disrupting flows of money reaching insurgent, extremist and terror groups

Rather than debating whether terror groups profit from criminal activity or trying to quantify the percentage of funding that comes from crime, the intelligence community would be wiser to focus its efforts on identifying and disrupting flows of money reaching insurgent, extremist and terror groups (as well as, of course, corrupt state actors). Degrading the enemy’s source of funding, while simultaneously improving governance, are critical pillars to any counterinsurgency campaign, and Afghanistan and Pakistan will be no exception.

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