The article by Jean MacKenzie originally appeared in GlobalPost. This is part of a special series by GlobalPost called Life, Death and The Taliban. Click here for a related article Funding the Pakistani Taliban.
KABUL — It is the open secret no one wants to talk about, the unwelcome truth that most prefer to hide. In Afghanistan, one of the richest sources of Taliban funding is the foreign assistance coming into the country.
Virtually every major project includes a healthy cut for the insurgents. Call it protection money, call it extortion, or, as the Taliban themselves prefer to term it, "spoils of war," the fact remains that international donors, primarily the United States, are to a large extent financing their own enemy.
"Everyone knows this is going on," said one U.S. Embassy official, speaking privately.
It is almost impossible to determine how much the insurgents are spending, making it difficult to pinpoint the sources of the funds.
Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, former Taliban minister to Pakistan, was perhaps more than a bit disingenuous when he told GlobalPost that the militants were operating mostly on air.
"The Taliban does not have many expenses," he said, smiling slightly. "They are barefoot and hungry, with no roof over their heads and a stone for their pillow." As for weapons, he just shrugged. "Afghanistan is full of guns," he said. "We have enough guns for years."
The reality is quite different, of course. The militants recruit local fighters by paying for their services. They move about in their traditional 4×4s, they have to feed their troops, pay for transportation and medical treatment for the wounded, and, of course, they have to buy rockets, grenades and their beloved Kalashnikovs.
Up until quite recently, most experts thought that drug money accounted for the bulk of Taliban funding. But even here opinion was divided on actual amounts. Some reports gauged the total annual income at about $100 million, while others placed the figure as high as $300 million — still a small fraction of the $4 billion poppy industry.
Now administration officials have launched a search for Taliban sponsors. Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told a press conference in Islamabad last month that drugs accounted for less of a share of Taliban coffers than was previously thought.
"In the past there was a kind of feeling that the money all came from drugs in Afghanistan," said Holbrooke, according to media reports. "That is simply not true."
The new feeling is that less than half of the Taliban's war chest comes from poppy, with a variety of sources, including private contributions from Persian Gulf states, accounting for much of the rest. Holbrooke told reporters that he would add a member of the Treasury Department to his staff to pursue the question of Taliban funding.
But perhaps U.S. officials need look no further than their own backyard.
Anecdotal evidence is mounting that the Taliban are taking a hefty portion of assistance money coming into Afghanistan from the outside.
This goes beyond mere protection money or extortion of "taxes" at the local level — very high-level negotiations take place between the Taliban and major contractors, according to sources close to the process.
A shadowy office in Kabul houses the Taliban contracts officer, who examines proposals and negotiates with organizational hierarchies for a percentage. He will not speak to, or even meet with, a journalist, but sources who have spoken with him and who have seen documents say that the process is quite professional.
The manager of an Afghan firm with lucrative construction contracts with the U.S. government builds in a minimum of 20 percent for the Taliban in his cost estimates. The manager, who will not speak openly, has told friends privately that he makes in the neighborhood of $1 million per month. Out of this, $200,000 is siphoned off for the insurgents.