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Taliban, Collecting Bills for Afghan Utilities, Tap New Revenue Sources

The Afghan government faces a peculiar problem in at least two major provinces: It provides precious electricity, some of it imported at costly rates from neighboring countries, but Taliban militants collect most of the bills.

If the government cuts off power, it will further anger a population that is already disenchanted. If it does not, the revenue from the power will continue to provide more income to an already emboldened Taliban.

The Taliban, fighting the Afghan government and a large international military coalition, have long tapped into Afghanistan's lucrative drug trade and illegal mining, in addition to the streams of donations they receive from supporters abroad, mainly in the Persian Gulf states.

But as they have taken over increasingly large areas in the past two years, they have found new ways of diversifying and collecting revenue, according to interviews with officials, Taliban commanders and local residents.

The diversification of the revenue collection system, in the face of a central government largely dependent on Western donations and hobbled by corruption, has raised fears that the balance of the war could tilt even further in the year ahead, and that the insurgency is becoming more entrenched and acting as a shadow government in parts of the countryside.

"What it suggests, essentially, is that the group is becoming more efficient in systematically taxing the areas they either control or have a lot of influence on," said Timor Sharan, senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, a research institute. "Efficiency of taxation is quite significant in terms of sustaining the group for a long time."

In addition to collecting electricity bills from thousands of homes in provinces such as Kunduz and Helmand, the insurgents levy taxes on potato harvests, flour mills, teachers' salaries, marriage ceremonies, and fuel and vegetable trucks crossing their checkpoints.

At the same time, the Taliban continue to pursue their original sources of funding. The United Nations, in a recent report, said narcotics, illegal mining and external donations remained major income streams, with the drug economy bringing in up to $400 million in 2016.

But the United Nations report also spoke of the group's diversification efforts.

"Analysis of Taliban revenue sources suggests that they remain highly diverse, with various income streams that enable the Taliban to quickly substitute for declining asset streams," the report said.

Mr. Sharan said the increased revenue collection was largely due to a restructuring of the insurgency spearheaded by its former leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, who was seen more as a businessman heavily involved in the drug trade than a conventional Taliban ideologue. Part of the reason for the change was an expected decline in external funding amid growing competition for resources from other militant groups like the Islamic State.

"Mansour, in his restructuring, gave more autonomy to the local Taliban groups and tasked them with finding more locally driven revenues and securing their funding at the local level," Mr. Sharan said.

The Taliban have also been hit by a dwindling number of major NATO military contracts and development projects from which they could take a cut.

Western and Afghan officials say the greater fund-raising autonomy for local commanders is also a consequence of chaos within the Taliban leadership and infighting over resources after an American drone strike killed Mullah Mansour in May.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the group relied on a variety of resources, including Islamic taxes and offerings from farmers and local residents, donations from traders abroad and from Islamic countries, and booty captured from Afghan forces. He acknowledged that in their areas of control in places like Kunduz and Helmand, the Taliban collected the electricity bills.

"Our territory has expanded in some areas, and since our presence has increased there, our resources have also increased," Mr. Mujahid said.

At first glance, each strand of Taliban revenue might seem insignificant. But for an insurgency numbering about 30,000 men, who operate in small groups, it is a substantial sum.

The head of the power department in Kunduz Province, Hamidullah, said the Taliban were collecting electricity payments from close to 14,000 homes in the province, possibly as much as $200,000 for every two-month cycle.

Haji Ayoub, an elder from Boz Qandahari village, north of Kunduz city, said that two months ago, the Taliban had stopped government electricity workers and taken the bills they delivered by bicycle. Then, they started calling people to come to the local mosque and pay.

Mr. Ayoub said he owed the government about $200, for electricity used at his home and a flour mill he ran before it went bankrupt.

"The Taliban representative took the money," Mr. Ayoub said. "He didn't sign or stamp the bill. He just tore half of it and gave me back the other half and wrote something in his notebook."

He added, "I said, 'At least put your signature on the bill so I can bring it to the government to show that I have paid,' but he didn't."

In Helmand Province, members of the provincial council said most of the territory was controlled by the Taliban, who collected bills in places they held where there was electricity.

"We cannot switch off the electricity in Taliban areas, because then they create big problems for electrical poles along the way to cities like Kandahar and Lashkargah," said Nasrullah Qani, the power department's director in Helmand.

Residents in Helmand said the collection of electricity charges differed by district. In Kajaki district, the Taliban collect a fee once a year, from $60 to $150 depending on usage. In other areas, it is monthly.

"For each electric bulb you use, they charge you $2 a month," said Haji Ziaudin, a shopkeeper in Musa Qala district.

The Taliban have a multitude of ways to make money and to finance their local groups.

In the northeastern province of Badakhshan, a study last year found that the Taliban made as much as $6 million a year from illegal lapis lazuli mining. Then, there are taxes: up to $20 a year on water mills in their areas of control, and from $40 to $70 a year from electric mills. And one sheep per every 40 owned by farmers.

Just south of Kabul, the Taliban set up checkpoints, taxing vehicles transporting vegetables, according to residents. New York Times journalists saw copies of receipts the Taliban provided to drivers for vehicles they taxed.

In the western province of Ghor, farmers described paying taxes in cash and kind. Abdul Qayoum, 47, a potato farmer in Pasaband district, said he paid taxes to the Taliban twice a season, and two months ago had handed over about 220 pounds of potatoes.

"The reason we give tax to the Taliban is because we have to take our vegetables to the Dahane Jamal bazaar, which is the main market for us, and it is controlled by the Taliban," Mr. Qayoum said.

Sakhidad, 48, another resident of Pasaband, described how the Taliban had moved from an arbitrary system of collection, to a more ordered one enforced with strictness and fear.

When the Taliban first took over the district three years ago, Mr. Sakhidad said in an interview last year, all those who had worked for the government had to pay a fine. Then, they imposed a regular 10 percent tax on harvests.

Reached over the phone again recently, Mr. Sakhidad said that he continued to pay taxes to the Taliban and that he had given the new commander in the village $60 in taxes two months ago – a large sum for a farmer.

But he said he was relieved that the former Taliban commander in his village, Mullah Gul Agha, had been replaced. In one of his final acts, he said, Mullah Gul Agha pulled out his pistol and shot and killed a man who had protested paying his taxes, saying he had already paid one of the commander's associates, Mr. Sakhidad said.

"They force people to pay the taxes – it is not voluntary."

[Source: By Mujib Mashal and Najim Rahim, The New York Times, Kabul, 28Jan17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 30Jan17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.