Maybe Reading a Bit Too Much

by Joshua Foust on 9/29/2009 · 4 comments

“Diverse Sources Fund Insurgency In Afghanistan,” the Washington Post emotes. “The Taliban-led insurgency… generates cash from such an array of criminal rackets, donations, taxes, shakedowns and other schemes that U.S. and Afghan officials say it may be impossible to choke off the movement’s money supply.”

Aside from providing me an opportunity to tell Gretchen Peters I TOLD YOU SO, there’s something else to explore. We have these words “the insurgency,” and “funds” and “private donations.” They’re all very useful in describing the conflict in Afghanistan, and often I use the word “Taliban” as a shorthand for “the various insurgent groups.” But this WaPo article seems to use “the insurgency” and “the Taliban” as if they are literally the same thing, especially when discussing funding blacklists.

Then there is the issue of how private donations may or may not directly fund the Taliban. Much like how many Islamic charities shut down in the United States after September 11 turned out to have been donating to extremist causes without their donors’ consent, it is entirely possible that many of these front organizations operate without their donors’ knowledge.

It also seems clear from that article that “funding” itself is a slippery concept. In the South, both taxation, checkpoints, and “legitimate” business/security arrangements with the smuggling rings represents a big chunk of income for the Taliban groups down there. The insurgents operating in a place like Khost, on the other hand, most likely do not have money wired to them from Quetta. Similarly, it seems clear the insurgents up in Nuristan get their income from timber and gem smuggling, and probably not from the chromite smugglers further south.

All of which goes to show just how complicated the insurgent landscape is. A lot of military spokesmen speak of an “insurgent syndicate,” which is meant (I believe) to imply a certain confluence between illicit economic activity and the insurgency. The challenge with such a term is it also implies a certain degree of top-down organization structure, which is simply not born out by the publicly available facts.

In this sense, the government’s otherwise-understandable insistence on secrecy starts to make less sense. It is possible that many donors to Persian Gulf charities are simply unaware their money might be going to fund the Taliban. Publicizing that could potentially reduce the available number of donors, if for no other reason than the “taint” of publicly knowing some wealthy man’s money went to fund terrorism. But in order to describe the enemy and its funding streams properly, they reveal just how much they’ve been able to learn about them (or not, as the case may be). This is obviously an age-old problem for democracies in wartime, and I have no idea where the appropriate trade-off is. But it needs to be adjusted—right now, the current balance is simply not very effective.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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myra macdonald September 29, 2009 at 7:20 pm

One question though:

Can you turn around this whole thing and say it is not religious, not territorial, and not political, but rather about money?

Maybe that’s a bit simplistic, but when someone (an academic) asked me this question I began to wonder whether we’re all paying a bit too much attention to the first three factors and not the fourth.

Joshua Foust September 29, 2009 at 7:24 pm

I think it easily could be. The little bit I’ve been able to figure out about resource flows and (especially) the sad state of economic and financial institutions in the country leads me to suspect the economic side of the war is hugely important, and sadly ignored.

Which extends the question I think the Afghanistan debate keeps begging without answering: if the biggest problems we face there are actually political corruption and economic underdevelopment, why is the only real discussion about troop levels? I see security in that sense, to a large degree, as a symptom to be managed, not a final end state, since other, more fundamental problems seem to be driving things.

Dafydd September 30, 2009 at 7:20 am


it’s about power. Religion/territory/politics/money/drugs, they are all about one indivisual or group exercising power over another.

myra macdonald September 30, 2009 at 6:49 am

You also hear this on the Indo-Pak/Kashmir side of the story. Those with vested interests in keeping conflict going are fanning the flames.

I picked up this stuff on Dawood Ibrahim and the Mumbai attacks months ago, but it’s all so murky it doesn’t get much attention:

Will be very interested in anything you get that helps to make sense of it.

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