The Taliban diversify into tobacco

LAHORE // The smuggling of tobacco is helping to fuel the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan, according to analysts and officials. While the poppy trade still contributes nearly half of the funds funnelled to the Taliban – both in Afghanistan and Pakistan – officials now believe the militants are increasingly turning to other sources, including tobacco sales and smuggling, kidnappings, logging and mining.

“We believe tobacco has been second only to drugs as a source of finance to the Pakistani Taliban,” David Kaplan, the editorial director of the US-based Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a non-profit organisation based in Washington, DC, said in a report last month.

With the US and Pakistan both engaged in fighting the Taliban, there is a growing consensus among officials that the only way to defeat the militants is to hit them where it hurts the most – their pockets.

But that is becoming increasingly difficult as the Taliban appear adept at switching sources of financing.

Reports by US intelligence and the Afghan government estimate the total funding reaching the Taliban on both sides of the border is about US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) a year, out of which about half is through drug trafficking.

But with efforts by the US to wipe out poppy farming in Afghanistan showing some success, and sanctions by the Pakistani government on charitable donations, the Taliban have been forced to look elsewhere for financial support.

According to the World Health Organization, cigarette and tobacco smuggling provides about $40bn a year to extremist groups, including the Taliban. Analysts inside Pakistan estimate the group receives about 20 per cent of its funding from counterfeit cigarette production and smuggling.

According to the CPI, factories churning out millions of counterfeit cigarettes every month have been set up across the lawless parts of northern and western Pakistan where the Taliban operate and the government has little sway. The Taliban take taxes and provide protection for the shipment of cigarettes across the country for sale in Central Asia, according to the CPI.

“It’s my understanding that tobacco smuggling is a major source of financing for the Taliban and the reason it has become so is because the government has been ignoring this issue for some years,” said Hassan Askari, a political analyst. “Now they have finally turned their attention to this issue so hopefully it should improve.”

But while the government has been slow to address tobacco smuggling, it has already started to clamp down on the other criminal activities that are also providing financial assistance to the Taliban. Thousands of kilometres from the Taliban stronghold in North-West Frontier Province is Karachi – the country’s bustling financial centre – where a number of criminals suspected of financially supporting the Taliban have recently been arrested.

Karachi police say they have made several arrests over the past few months for bank theft, robbery and kidnapping for ransom, all of which they say can be linked to the Taliban.

“There are four or five major sources of income for the Taliban,” said Brig Mahmood Shah, a political analyst. “One of the principal ones is kidnapping for ransom whereby these Taliban or one of the criminals who support them abduct businessmen and extort money from their families.”

Brig Shah said the Taliban were still holding at least 20 people.

“There is a system to how they work,” said a Peshawar-based journalist, Jehangir Shahzad. “Their gangs identify a well-off businessman and then abduct him. The person is taken to the tribal agencies and handed over to the Taliban for a fee. The Taliban then take the abductee to the Pakistan-Afghan border and hold him there while they make contact with the family. They dictate a certain amount and receive the payment in the tribal agency before releasing the person.”

Shahzad said a number of prominent businessmen had been abducted. “They kidnapped a man with multiple real estate holdings, held him for six months and received 2.5 million Pakistani rupees (Dh190,000) from his family.”

The surrounding tribal agencies also cough up other sources of funding in the form of illegal tax collection and mines.

In a television interview, Taliban commander Mangal Bagh admitted they charged a “protection tax” in the area.

“They way it works is that when smuggled goods are brought in from Afghanistan and the lorries move through tribal agencies, there is a high possibility of the goods being attacked. We take money from the drivers and ensure that the lorry will receive safe passage.”

Bagh said they usually charged between 5,000 to 10,000 rupees but Brig Shah said it was much higher. “The Taliban take taxes on everything ranging from flour and other food items to arms and ammunition passing through the tribal agencies,” he said. “And the amounts vary depending on the value of the cargo.”

Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, a former interior minister of the NWFP, said the Taliban were collecting money from wherever they could. In April last year, the Taliban took over a marble mine in a corner of the Mohmand tribal agency, and charged a tax on every lorry that ferried marble from the quarry.

“Mines are a somewhat recent source of income for them,” said Mr Sherpao. “When they had control of Swat, they took over emerald mines in the area and made approximately $6-$7 million. They still have control over the marble mines in Mohmand Agency where they receive taxes on every marble load heading out.”

Environmental protection agencies have also blamed the Taliban for illegal logging.

“When they had control of Malakand, they would make money off timber,” Mr Sherpao said. “Now they can only log timber in Dir and Bajaur agencies. They also impose a tax on timber coming from Afghanistan and through Waziristan.”

The flexibility of the Taliban in developing new sources of income shows the government needed to be one step ahead of them, Mr Sherpao said. “We need to move faster than them, and once we have dried up their funding, we can claim to have truly defeated them.”

© Copyright: National

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