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Afghan Taliban Trades Ideology For Profiteering

The aftermath of a Taliban attack in the northeastern Konduz province in October.
The aftermath of a Taliban attack in the northeastern Konduz province in October.

Afghanistan's former hardline Taliban regime once prided itself in ruthlessly punishing criminals according to their strict interpretation of Shariah law.

But thirteen years after the Taliban regime was toppled by the U.S.-led military coalition, Afghan observers see its war effort driven by financial gains rather than ideology.

Hekmatullah Azamy, a researcher at the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies, a Kabul-based think tank, says most Taliban join the insurgency because it pays them well.

"Some Taliban commanders [and foot soldiers] told me that before they joined the Taliban they wanted to work for the Afghan army so they could earn a regular monthly salary," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "But they couldn’t do it because their families would have faced continuous [Taliban] threats and they wouldn’t have been able to go back to their communities. So joining the Taliban was the only good option for them."

Azamy added that some Taliban commanders told him that they joined the insurgency after they lost their jobs with the security companies guarding NATO supplies or international projects.

Afghan Journalist Sami Yousufzai agrees that the Taliban have changed enormously in recent years. He says the Taliban can be compared to the former anti-Soviet Mujahedin in the 1980s, which moved from being ideologically driven zealots into marauders guided by their lust for power and money.

Even as early as 2011, the Taliban had secured $400 million through smuggling, ransom and extortion, according to a 2012 UN report.

Yousafzai said the Mujahedin transformed into criminals after they lost international backing and foreign funding in the 1990s. Many former fighters established check posts where they demanded money from civilians to pass.

"In some ways the Taliban are similar. They are involved in smuggling 90 percent of the chromite, marble, and other natural resources from Kandahar, Helmand, and other areas into neighboring Pakistan," he said. "They are using this money to contribute to their movement as well as to their personal businesses."

But Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the former foreign minister under the Taliban regime, disagrees. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that even though it is impossible to work without financial support, the Taliban’s actions are still inspired by their ideology and war profiteering is not their main motive.

Muttawakil points to Afghanistan's booming opium poppy crop as an example. He says that while the Taliban have not forced ordinary Afghans to grow poppies, Afghan farmers are lured by the high cash value of poppies and they pay some religious taxes to the Taliban in return for protection.

He says that in areas under strong government control, religious scholars loyal to Kabul collect similar taxes.

"We must remember that it benefits some criminals to identify themselves as the Taliban," he said.

Whatever their motivation, Azamy says that if Kabul succeeds in cutting the Taliban’s sources of funding they will be defeated and will be forced to join peace talks with the government.