Raw Materials Could Become a Huge source of income for Taliban Government
Hardly anyone in Germany knows the Taliban as well as Florian Weigand. He traveled to Afghanistan again and again and wrote his doctorate in Kabul. He explains the political and economic parallel world of the divine warriors – and their agenda.
Florian Weigand is a researcher at the London School of Economics and co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed groups. This research unit is part of the London think tank ODI and deals with the domestic sociology and political agenda of armed groups. The political scientist’s research focus in recent years has been on Afghanistan and the Taliban. Weigand has just finished a book about the country.
Mr. Weigand, as a scientist and employee of international organizations, you have traveled to Afghanistan time and again and have lived there for a while. How did you perceive the country?
Florian Weigand: I have always received an incredible amount of respect and hospitality. I was in Afghanistan for the first time in 2011. At that time you could still move around the country relatively freely. In some regions you could even go hiking. In all honesty: I felt subjectively safe then and in the years that followed. However, in recent years the security situation has deteriorated dramatically and it has become logistically more difficult to travel to rural areas.
As a scientist in Afghanistan, did you have direct contact with Taliban representatives?
The West underestimates how diverse the Taliban are internally. Sure: there are those who are very traditional or religiously fundamentalist. But there are also those who came for very personal reasons. For example because they lost close relatives in an air strike. Or because they feel robbed or ripped off by government officials or security forces, for example with property issues or legal disputes.
What do we know about the Taliban’s political agenda for 2021?
It’s hard to answer. The Taliban are currently trying to be much more liberal than they were before 2001. In one of the country’s most important TV stations, a woman was just allowed to interview a Taliban leader – previously unthinkable. These are images that one would not have expected and that show how the Taliban would like to be seen by the public – currently. It remains to be seen whether this is just a show and whether the Taliban will return to old, more fundamentalist behavior patterns and restrict freedoms over time. This is entirely possible, especially outside of Kabul, where the behavior of the Taliban receives less international attention. A particularly critical question is how much tolerance the Taliban will bring with them in the future for people who criticize them or want to pursue a different lifestyle.
Are the Taliban even logistically capable of taking over government affairs?
That will be challenging for the Taliban. You have to turn an armed movement into a government. But the Taliban are not just hordes on motorcycles. In the rural regions in which they had control, they had built up a parallel political system for years. There were so-called shadow governors at the provincial and district levels. The Taliban have also built their own tax system. Ten percent is due on agricultural products in their sphere of influence, customs duties are levied at borders, and there are also checkpoints on the streets where truck drivers have to pay a fee and often even receive an official receipt. That can be hundreds of dollars. Shops also have to pay an annual fee to the Taliban.
That sounds more like protection money in Mafia men. Is there such a thing as a Taliban’s economic doctrine?
No. The main interest of the Taliban so far has primarily been in collecting money for itself. It is relatively unclear what the future government’s economic policy will look like. In principle, the Taliban are rather slow when it comes to developing political strategies. However, they are under pressure in the next few months: They have to finance the government apparatus and pay salaries that have so far been largely taken over from abroad. Governing an entire country and controlling it economically is a completely different challenge than putting a demoralized state army to flight.
Good cue. Hardly anyone foresaw how quickly the Afghan army, which had been upgraded by the West, surrendered to the inferior Taliban. What has happened there?
In the past few months, the Taliban have used their informal channels to reach agreements with the Afghan military and government officials at the local level. In addition, many districts in the country had been de facto under the control of the Taliban for a long time. This was not always noticed because the Taliban often did not touch the district capitals, so that the government was formally still in power. The military advances made in the past week have also had a domino effect. Many security forces have lost faith that the government can survive. You’d rather surrender than fight. The fact that Kabul fell without a fight speaks for itself.
What role does the high level of corruption play in the change of power?
A significant one. The corruption of the Afghan state administration has contributed significantly to the rise of the Taliban. The Taliban have presented themselves as fighters against corruption and have established their own judiciary in their areas. They presented themselves as an alternative to the corrupt civil servant and judicial apparatus, where, in the event of disputes, it was often only through bribe payments that proceedings could be concluded or an advantageous court judgment could be obtained. Otherwise, the clarification of an inheritance case took a few years.
In recent years, the private sector in Afghanistan has at least rudimentarily developed. How big is the Taliban’s problem with entrepreneurial freedom and private businesses that go beyond small family businesses?
I don’t see any contradiction. The Taliban have an interest in getting economic life back on its feet quickly. They want to prove to the frightened population that everyday life gets better with them – or at least not worse. For purely economic reasons, the Taliban must also have an interest in foreign investment. Here the question arises rather the other way around: Do investors dare to go into the country now? Many will probably wait a few months and then assess the situation.
Geologists suspect huge deposits of raw materials in Afghanistan. Will the Taliban use that?
I think so. Raw materials could become a source of income for a Taliban government. The Taliban have already sold concessions for the extraction of raw materials in the areas they control. So you know very well what treasures you are sitting on. However, the necessary technology is still often lacking in the country. The Taliban also need international partners for larger raw material projects.