Departure of most foreign combat troops and infighting between rival groups has weakened perceived legitimacy of war
By Jon Boone and Sami Yousafzai
A gathering of a breakaway Taliban faction in the border area of Zabul province,
Afghanistan, in August. Photograph: Mirwais Khan/AP
The Afghan Taliban are facing a cash crisis with donors unwilling to bankroll an insurgency whose victims are increasingly civilians rather than foreign troops, according to several members of the movement.
Mullah Rahmatullah Kakazada, a senior diplomat under the Taliban regime, told the Guardian that the Taliban was in an increasingly precarious financial position despite chalking up several dramatic battlefield successes in the last year.
“The war is becoming unpopular because of all the bad publicity on civilian casualties,” he said. “These people who give money don’t want to spend it on mines that kill children.”
The Taliban have long collected donations from sympathisers around the region, including wealthy Afghan and Arab businessmen in the Gulf.
But now the movement’s finances are so weakened that some of its most seriously injured fighters are no longer welcome at Pakistan’s private hospitals because they cannot settle their bills, according to Taliban sources.
Kakazada said the departure of most foreign combat troops since 2014, and the outbreak of bloody infighting between rival Taliban groups, had weakened the legitimacy of a war the Taliban still portray as a struggle against “foreign occupation”.
Although not a participant in the 15-year insurgency, Kakazada remains close to the movement’s leaders. His views echo those of active Taliban officials who spoke to the Guardian.
One senior figure in the Taliban’s leadership said donations had first slumped after the announcement in July last year that the founder of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, had died years previously.
The death in a US drone attack of his successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, this year further damaged the movement’s fundraising efforts because Mansoor, a well-connected businessman, personally dealt with many of the donors.
The Taliban’s other main source of funds, the taxing of economic activity in areas they control – especially the massive opium economy of southern Afghanistan – has also been disrupted by infighting.
In the summer the movement’s current leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, an Islamic law specialist derided in some quarters for his lack of combat experience, clashed with Mullah Ibrahim Sadar, the head of the military council, who is based in opium-rich Helmand.
A Taliban source said Ibrahim defied demands to send cash to the Quetta Shura, as the Taliban’s leadership council is known, and in a letter taunted Akhundzada for living in safety in Pakistan.
“Helmand used to send lots of funds to Quetta Shura in the Mansoor era. But Ibrahim has stopped sending money and instead told Akhundzada to move to Helmand,” a Taliban intelligence officer said.
Kakazada said there was widespread agreement among senior figures that the Taliban must try to negotiate an end to the conflict with the Afghan government, although many of its foot soldiers disagree.
“The fighters on the ground have no idea, but 90% of people in leadership positions believe it is not going to plan and we are not going to repeat the 1990s again,” he said, referring to the Taliban’s earlier conquest of almost the entire country.
He said some of the Taliban’s recent successes, such as overrunning the city of Kunduz, did not mean the movement could win an outright military victory.
“For the Kunduz operation the Taliban prepared for one year just to take a city for one week. Afghanistan has 34 provinces so it would take 34 years to take the country for just one week,” he said.
“We don’t have momentum. But the government can’t win either. It’s a stalemate but we are using all our energies on fighting and not thinking about peace.”
Kakazada said there was a strong peace lobby within the Taliban, including under the leadership of Mansoor, seen by some analysts as a hardliner on talks. “He knew that war was not in the interest of Afghanistan and he was serious about starting a dialogue between Afghans,” Kakazada said.
Mansoor endorsed a 2013 strategy drawn up by Kakazada that called for talks with the Afghan government and efforts to “reach an understanding” with the international community.
But Mansoor pulled out of a Pakistan-brokered process after just one meeting between the Taliban and representatives of the Kabul government, held in the Pakistani hill station of Murree in July 2015.
Kakazada said neither Mansoor nor other leading figures in the Taliban would allow any peace process to be dominated by Pakistan, a country that is both an essential partner for the Taliban but also the object of widespread resentment and suspicion.
“The Taliban want to get away from the influence of Pakistan in order to have respect among Afghans,” he said. “They don’t want to give the impression they are being forced into talks in someone else’s interest.”
A spate of recent arrests of senior Taliban officials in and around the city of Quetta has been widely seen as an attempt by Pakistan to assert control over the movement.
Pakistan was reportedly alarmed last month when Taliban diplomats held talks without Islamabad’s knowledge with Afghanistan’s intelligence chief in Qatar, the Gulf state where the movement has established a presence that is largely outside the influence of Pakistan.
Kakazada said such pressure tactics had made Pakistan increasingly unpopular within the Taliban, and the country was “running very fast towards isolation”.
“Arrests are not a solution the Taliban will accept,” he said. “Pakistan can facilitate but not interfere.”
The level of anger towards Pakistan among some members of the Taliban was revealed last month in a letter written by Syed Mohammad Tayyab Agha, the former head of the Taliban’s Qatar office, to Mullah Akhundzada.
Agha demanded the Taliban dramatically reduce violence in Afghanistan and cut all ties with Pakistani intelligence, and said the Taliban’s leadership should abandon their sanctuary in Pakistan.
“How can the Taliban leadership, now camped in Pakistan, demand that people in Afghanistan or elsewhere pledge allegiance to them?” he wrote, according to Radio Free Europe, which obtained the letter.
“To be able to make independent decisions, you, the members of our leadership council, and heads of our various commissions, should leave Pakistan,” he wrote. “The presence of our movement’s key decision-makers and institutions in the prevailing situation there means Pakistan can impose things against the interests of our movement and Afghanistan.”
Kakazada dismissed the idea as impractical. “If we left Pakistan we would not survive one week,” he said.