The Taliban in Afghanistan is said to be worth more than a billion pounds and has amassed a large cache of weapons over the years with some equipment stolen during raids on Afghan army bases or attacks on NATO convoys – and the militant group can now add even more hardware to its arsenal after taking control of the country following the withdrawal of Western troops.
The latest haul includes Black Hawk helicopters, vehicles and weapons that had either been supplied to the Afghan forces by the United States, or left behind by the US military.
Unverified posts on social media platforms such as Twitter purportedly show Taliban fighters posing alongside US-made Black Hawk helicopters and other equipment seized from the Afghan army as the militants showed off their takeover of Western and Afghan forces’ bases.
White House US national security adviser Jake Sullivan appeared to confirm earlier this week, in response to questions by journalists, that the Taliban was now in possession of American military equipment and weapons that they seized from Afghan security forces including Black Hawk helicopters and other aircraft but it is not yet clear how much military hardware is now in the hands of the militants.
Social media posts by several commentators including by Joseph Demsey, research associate at the British research institute, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, appear to show militants taking control of other equipment and aircraft as well as the Black Hawks.
But how has the Taliban raked in vast sums of money and what are its other sources of weapons?
Where Does The Taliban Get Its Money From?
It has been well documented that drug money forms a core income for the Taliban, from sales and exports of opium from poppies – the key ingredient for many narcotics including heroin and morphine – with an estimated 84 per cent of global opium production over the five years ending in 2020 reported to have come from Afghanistan.
The Taliban is said to have imposed a tax on each stage of the chain in drug production in the areas under its control.
However, research into the Taliban’s finances, most notably by the United Nations, has revealed that drug money accounts for much less of the militant group’s profits than once believed.
A 2009 report by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime suggested that opium exports accounted for only about 10 to 15 percent of the militants’ revenue, while a confidential report commissioned by NATO, and later obtained and reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in September 2020, suggested that the Taliban had brought in £1.1 billion (US $1.6bn) in the fiscal year that ended in March of that year, from a variety of sources.
The NATO report, as reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, suggested that the Taliban had achieved, or was close to achieving, financial and military independence by the end of 2020.
Afghanistan is rich in resources such as iron ore, copper, marble, zinc, gold and other minerals which is all said to have netted the Taliban almost £335 million, in the mountainous areas under its control.
A large percentage of the Taliban’s money comes from local taxes, raised in the parts of the country it has long controlled, including taxes on industries such as those involved in mining operations and other industries, as well as taxes on local populations known as an ‘usher’ – and this includes taxes on drivers for using roads and highways in Taliban-controlled regions.
A report to the UN Security Council in 2012 suggested foreign contractors had also paid a form of ‘protection money’ to the Taliban, or that the militant group frequently demanded a cut of development money, in order for firms to operate in militant-controlled regions.
Small Afghan businesses and shopkeepers have also had to pay the Taliban tax for permission to do business in areas controlled by the militant group.
The NATO report also suggested that the Taliban had boosted its financial might in recent years, increasing its profits from illegal mining, the drug trade, exports and even real estate as the militant group is reported to have built a property empire in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries, worth an estimated £58 million.
Many exports of mineral resources are reported to have been smuggled over the border to Pakistan under a black market trade with groups sympathetic to the Taliban’s cause, including the Pakistani arm of the Taliban.
Donations from unnamed foreign sponsors and regional benefactors, said to be worth an estimated £174 million ($240m), have also contributed to the Taliban’s finances.
While the full extent of outside sponsorship is not clear, Iran is said to have provided financial and material support to Afghanistan’s militants, according to a 2019 report by the US Defense Intelligence Agency.
Individual sponsors from Saudi Arabia have also been accused of helping to fund the group, a charge denied by Saudi officials, while Pakistan is said to be one of the militants’ main sponsors – reportedly providing shelter and aid to Taliban fighters, again denied officially by the Pakistan state.
Where Does The Taliban Get Its Weapons?
As with financial support, foreign states and groups sympathetic to their cause are said to have donated weapons to the Taliban.
Officials in Pakistan reported in 2011 that some caches of weapons bound for US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan were being stolen en route and then supplied to militant groups in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Taliban militants were said to have also attacked NATO convoys passing through Pakistan on their way to supply soldiers in Afghanistan, seizing weapons and other supplies in the process.
Many of these weapons were thought to have been bought and sold through black markets in Pakistan’s tribal regions and ending up in the hands of both the Pakistani Taliban and their Afghan counterparts.
In 2008, the United States also accused Russia of providing aid and weapons to the Taliban. American General John Nicholson, the former commander of US and NATO Forces in Afghanistan, told the BBC that year that Russian guns were being smuggled into Afghanistan over the border from neighbouring Tajikistan – a former Soviet country with strong Islamist opposition groups.
Russia at the time denied providing weapons or funding the Taliban, saying it had only been involved in diplomatic talks with the militant group.
Now, as the militants have swept through the country over the last few months, while western troops withdrew, they are reported to have seized weapons and equipment that had been supplied to Afghan security forces and police by the United States.
Afghanistan expert Robert Crews, of Stanford University, told the Washington Post that one of the Taliban’s first moves as it moved into new territory was to head to government headquarters and bases, arrest and kill government figures, before seizing weapons, vehicles and equipment.
White House US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, appearing to confirm that US hardware had been seized by militants, told reporters earlier this week that US Black Hawk helicopters now in the hands of the Taliban had been in the country to bolster Afghan defences, saying:
“'Those Black Hawks were not given to the Taliban. They were given to the Afghan national security forces to be able to defend themselves at the specific request of President (Ashraf) Ghani, who came to the Oval Office and asked for additional air capability.”
Analysts are now suggesting both China and Russia could develop stronger ties with the Taliban, seizing on an opportunity to exert power in the region following the withdrawal of US troops and following the Taliban’s declaration of victory when Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani fled the country to seek asylum in the United Arab Emirates.
This is expected to empower the Taliban and boost their fortunes even further, into the near future.