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    South Asia
     Jan 10, 2007
How the Taliban keep their coffers full
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Just as the Taliban move across the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan with impunity, so does the money needed to sustain the Taliban-led insurgency flow unrestricted between the countries.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, the financial squeeze instigated by the United States and its allies in the "war on terror" severely disrupted the flow of funds for al-Qaeda and the Taliban, mainly through closer international scrutiny of bank accounts.

However, as the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq testify, the money has certainly not been stopped. The major reason

for this is that Washington and its allies made the mistake of looking for and applying high-tech solutions.

Had the focus been more on the "unschooled wisdom" prevalent in the mountains of Afghanistan and in the deserts of Iraq, the US might not be in such a poor position as it is now.

The Taliban's moneymen
I met Habibullah and Abdul Jalil in a small room in Banaras Colony in Karachi, the largest Pashtun community (1.5 million people) in any city in the world. From here, the Pashtuns control all of the transport business in Karachi and beyond. We were later joined by several dozen more Taliban, all of them from southwestern Afghanistan.

Also joining us were several noble and rich Pashtun elders. Most of the Pashtun people in Karachi are unskilled laborers, while those higher up the social ladder have a firm grip on the transport business.

Once everyone in the room was settled, Jalil began to speak. "The jihad has been raging in Afghanistan [for five years] and it will be highly intensified this spring. We are confronting the enemy, which is a world superpower, and we have just the power of our faith. I invite you to visit Afghanistan and see how the mujahideen [holy warriors] are steadfast at the front. They have scarce food and few warm clothes to cover them in the cold winter nights.

"At the same time, we are confronting a superpower which is like an uncontrolled elephant aiming to crush us all under its feet. It has the world's most powerful technology, air supremacy and bombs. But we are the vanguard of Islam, and our only weapons are our flesh and blood to be sacrificed for our nation and for the religion.

"We need equipment and supplies to dismiss the foreign invaders once and for all from our soil. I beg you all to contribute to the liberation movement of Afghanistan and beg you to hand over your hard cash for the resistance and the mujahideen."

Within an hour, Jalil had collected 700,000 Pakistani rupees (more than US$11,600), with each person in the room handing over various sums of cash.

"Local Afghans have also contributed a lot and now, with this much money, our Panjwai district [in Kandahar province in Afghanistan where the Taliban have a strong presence] will have the resources to fight for six months," Jalil said.

Jalil's contacts and relatives in Banaras Colony had already tapped up people to make contributions, so the meeting was more of a formal handing over of the money, and an opportunity for him to say thank you.

Fellow Taliban sitting beside Jalil had already been to other places in Karachi and Lahore to gather money for their respective fronts in Helmand and Kandahar.

According to Jalil, local Kandahari tribesmen take care of all routine expenditures of food, satellite telephone cards, fuel etc, and the additional money is used partly to help injured Taliban receive treatment.

In essence, this is the traditional tribal system of taking care of their own, without the sophistication of a modern financial system.

Tribal connections
Within the Afghan tribal system, the Noorzai tribe is the most pro-Taliban, while the Achakzai tribal people partially support the Taliban. Between them, they dominate trade in the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Their region spans the southwestern parts of Pakistan and the southern areas of Afghanistan. On the Pakistani side, they control the Chaman markets and on the Afghan side the Spin Boldek markets.

Sardar Shaukat Popalzai is the president of the Balochistan Economic Forum, which conducts research on economic trends in Balochistan. Being connected with the royal Popalzai tribe of Afghanistan, Shaukat also keeps good track of the economic situation in Afghanistan.

"There are only 100 members of the Chaman Chamber of Commerce, but there are over 3,500 importers and exporters in the Chaman market," Shaukat told Asia Times Online.

"Most of them have offices in Dubai and Jabal-i-Ali [in the United Arab Emirates] and they deal mostly in motor vehicles and clothes. It really looks like a wonderland when you go to the wastelands of Chaman and find many really affluent people actually live there. They have such a monopoly on trade that the regional agent of Three Fives cigarettes - which is the most expensive brand in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia - is based in Chaman.

"They also have a monopoly on the import of used heavy vehicles, which they refurbish and resell in the regional markets, beside reconditioned cars. After Dubai, they have set up offices in Europe as well, importing vehicles," Shaukat explained.

"If you get the chance to go to the Japanese cities of Nagoya and Osaka, you will see Chaman businessmen operating successfully there. They have such an edge over everybody that they have ample cash liquidity - so much so that they can occupy whole floors of five-star hotels for months whenever they visit Japan," Shaukat said.

All of these traders are either from the Noorzai tribe (100% pro-Taliban) or from the Achakzai tribe (partially pro-Taliban). These tribesmen wield immense financial clout in Kandahar and most newly constructed hotels belong to them.

The UAE, though, remains the hub for the Taliban's finances, with money moving through the traditional hawala (paper-free transfer) system or through direct contacts.

Taliban commanders who have not yet made it on to any wanted list frequently visit the UAE, where they link with the Afghan diaspora to make financial appeals in support of the Afghan resistance. Before the spring offensive of last year, one-legged former Taliban intelligence chief Mullah Dadullah went to the UAE to raise money.

And getting the money back to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan is not a problem, as the Taliban don't use banks and they move freely across borders.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

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Taliban walk right in, sit right down ... (Jan 5, '07)

In the land of the Taliban. A series by Syed Saleem Shahzad


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