Jyoti Prakash Khan
It would be naive to believe that the Talibans are just a big bad bunch of blood-thirsty cutthroat Islamic fundamentalists with a penchant for slaughtering all non-islamic people that come their way. They are worse and far more shrewd than what the world thinks of them. Fundamentally the Taliban are Pashtun Islamic Fundamentalists who seek to enforce traditional Pashtun hegemony across Afghanistan camouflaging their terror tactics by claiming a return to Sharia law.
Despite the overwhelming odds against them, the Tajik, the Uzbek, and the Hazara—in the north, west, and central parts of the country are opposed to hegemony of Pashtun tradition and customs.
Coming to the most important question of how did the Taliban manage to finance and run a 20 year old insurgency that forced the US, NATO and other compatible forces to cut an ignominious exit. Opium, taxes and extortion were (and still is) a major source of Taliban finance but not the only ones. Afghanistan is rich in minerals and precious stones, much of it remains under-exploited because of the long years of conflict. According to a Reuters Report the mining industry in Afghanistan is worth upwards of $3 trillion.
The Taliban had taken control of mining sites and extorted money from ongoing legal and illegal mining operations. According to a 2014 UN Report, the Taliban received more than $10m a year from 25 to 30 illegal mining operations in southern Helmand province alone. Each of the hundreds of mineral trucks leaving the province daily had to be a tax of $500. According to a BBC Report of 2018 the Taliban received more than $50 million annually in revenue from all mining operations across Afghanistan.
This report says, the Taliban’s annual export of opium fetched a “revenue” of a whopping $3 billion. In addition a 10% cultivation tax was collected from opium farmers. The Taliban ran over 500 drug laboratories of which the US forces claimed to have destroyed 200. This was made possible because the Taliban had active control over 70% of the total land area of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has been a source of gems and precious stones for thousands of years . The Taliban made billions of dollars through illegal mining rights and levying taxes on the export of gemstones . Afghanistan has historically been a major source of lapis lazuli, a deep blue, semi-precious stone that has been mined in the country’s northern Badakhshan province for thousands of years, as well as other gemstones such as rubies and emeralds. The finest grades of lapis lazuli can fetch up to $150 per carat, according to a 2019 Afghan report, the majority of gemstones mined in the country leave the country illegally, mostly to Peshawar in Pakistan.
Afghanistan is rich in resources like copper, gold, oil, natural gas, uranium, bauxite, coal, iron ore, rare earths, lithium, chromium, lead, zinc, gemstones, sulphur, travertine, gypsum and marble.
The Taliban had a finger in literally every pie originating from Afghan soil, its proportions of garnering “revenue” has been phenomenal to say the least. Gold resources were much more modest at an estimated 2,700 kg, worth almost $170 million, while base metals like aluminium, tin, lead and zinc were mined from multiple locations across the country.
Throughout the 20 years of Taliban insurgency, 80% of the Afghanistan Government’s budget was financed by the U.S. and a consortium of international donors. But with the fall of Kabul and the Taliban takeover of the country the U.S. Treasury froze billions of dollars in Afghan government reserves lodged in banks in the U.S. to prevent the Taliban from getting it.
Here comes into play the natural resources of the country which even by conservative estimates exceed $3 trillion at 2010 values which could well be worth 3 times at current market rates. A Reuter Report had made a rough estimate of Afghanistan’s untapped natural resources. Afghanistan has around 1.6 billion barrels of crude oil, 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and another 500 million barrels of natural gas liquids under its soil. Copper reserves stand close to 60 million tonnes, worth hundreds of billions of dollars at current prices as demand for the metal grows.
Incidentally two Chinese entities Metallurgical Corp of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper took on a 30-year lease for the largest copper project in the country, Mes Aynak, in 2008. Afghanistan has more than 2.2 billion tonnes of steelmaking quality iron ore, worth over $350 billion at current market prices. The country has the highest reserves of Lithium in the world. Lithium is widely used in batteries for electronics devices due to its low-carbon transition.