As the last US troops get ready to leave Afghanistan, the Taliban has swiftly moved to seize control of more territory and launch unrelenting campaigns against the Afghan national forces across the country. But without crucial US air support, the Afghan forces have struggled to counter the Taliban war machinery and the insurgents have now added to the territory they control.
Close to 20 years of fighting with the US seems to have made little difference to the Taliban’s capabilities and, as Washington formally withdraws from the scene, it threatens again to overrun the country and impose its version of harsh Islamic law on Afghanistan. Here’s what we know about how the Taliban funds itself and finds fighters and support on the ground.
HOW MANY FIGHTERS DOES THE TALIBAN HAVE?
According to a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report, the Taliban have between 55,000-85,000 full-time fighters and “the group is stronger now than at any point in the last nineteen years”.
Experts say that while they have suffered tens of thousands of fatalities among its rank following the US invasion, the Taliban have a well-oiled recruitment network inside Afghanistan and its leadership also draws on the close to 2 million Afghan refugees in neighbouring Pakistan to fill its ranks.
A report earlier this year by the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US Military Academy at West Point said that the group comprises “60,000 core fighters, give or take 10-20 percent”. The report says that the best estimates of its strength, which go back to 2017, suggest that “the group’s total manpower exceeds 200,000 individuals” and, apart from the core fighters, includes “another 90,000 members of local militias, and tens of thousands of facilitators and support elements”.
Compared with this, the Afghan national forces is made up of about 185,000 personnel across the army, air force and special operations forces as of July last year. Further, the country’s total police forces number a little over 100,000. But the military and police combined, the country has managed to fill only 82 percent of their sanctioned strength and the West Point study said that all told, the government can call on an “estimated on-hand army fighting force of about 96,000 soldiers”.
WHAT IS THE TERRITORY IT CONTROLS?
The CFR report cited estimates that said that in early 2021, the Taliban controlled about a fifth of the total of about 400 districts in Afghanistan while the government-controlled about a third with the rest of the districts being contested territory.
However, the latest reports say that as the US troops march out, the insurgents have expanded their footprint to “roughly half of the nation’s 400 districts, several important border crossings, and have laid siege to a string of vital provincial capitals”.
WHAT IS THE SUPPORT IT ENJOYS AMONG AFGHAN PEOPLE?
The Taliban is made up of mainly the Pashtuns, who are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. CFR says that “Pashtuns comprise a plurality in Afghanistan and are the predominant ethnic group in much of the country’s south and east. They are also a major ethnic group in Pakistan’s north and west”. In fact, ‘Taliban’ means ‘students’ in the Pashto, the language spoken by the Pashtuns.
After the departure of the Soviet forces, the group gained support among Afghans with its promise of bringing stability as rival mujahideen, or local militias, fought among each other to gain control of the country.
The group is still seen as enjoying support among Pashtuns in the country’s interiors who were against the western occupation of Afghanistan and the imposition of western forms of government and administration.
Further, reports say that within the group itself, there is unity and proper chains of command despite its decentralised structure that sees regional and local commanders responsible for the running of their own battle units.
HOW DOES THE TALIBAN FUND ITSELF?
Drugs, levies on the movement of goods, illegal mining have all contributed to the Taliban now enjoying earnings of over $1.5 billion annually. According to a NATO report cited by RFE/RL, “the Taliban has expanded its financial power in recent years through increased profits from the illicit drug trade, illegal mining, and exports” and made an estimated $1.6 billion in the fiscal year ending March 2020.
“That financial independence enables the Afghan Taliban to self-fund its insurgency without the need for support from governments or citizens of other countries,” the report says.
WHAT SUPPORT DOES IT GET FROM PAKISTAN?
Recently, at a conference on regional connectivity in Uzbekistan, where Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was one of the attendees, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani slammed his neighbouring country, saying that “more than 10,000 jihadi fighters” had entered Afghanistan from Pakistan as US troops withdrew. He also alleged that Islamabad had not been able to push the Taliban to participate “seriously” in the peace talks.
“Contrary to repeated assurances by Prime Minister Khan and his generals that Pakistan does not find a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in Pakistan’s interest and short of use of force will use its power and influence to make the Taliban negotiate seriously, networks and organisations supporting the Taliban are openly celebrating the destruction of the assets and capabilities of the Afghan people and state,” Ghani said. Khan for his part said it was “unfair” of Ghani to level such charges against Pakistan.
But it is common knowledge that Pakistan has long sheltered the top Taliban leadership and has supported the insurgents to regroup as it fought with the US troops. So much so that the former US President Donald Trump had accused the country of seriously undermining the US efforts in Afghanistan.
“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” Trump had said in a 2018 tweet.