Pay or Die: How the Taliban extorts its many taxes through violence and destruction

On April 19, 2022, a plea for relief from oppressive religious taxation turned deadly in a small village in the Qala-e-Zal district of Kunduz province. Taliban fighters opened fire villagers, who had gathered to demand a reduction in their tithes and taxes, resulting in two deaths and numerous injuries. The confrontation arose from a dispute over the Taliban’s heavy-handedness, and for the villagers, unjust and unaffordable taxes.

Nearly a year later, in February 2023, the Taliban’s Agriculture Department in Kunduz province reported collecting 226 million Afghanis (approximately $3 million) in tithes and zakat, not including taxes and customs. Typically, tithes amount to 10% of crops such as wheat, rice, and other grains, while livestock collects zakat.

In the initial months of the Taliban’s rule, sources from Ghor, Bamyan, Daikundi, and Ghazni provinces revealed that the Taliban administration imposed religious taxes on all properties and assets, including public utility projects, without any legal foundation. The group employs force to ensure compliance with their demands, occasionally raising the amounts of tithes and taxes.

In Ghor province’s Lal Wa Sarjangal district, the Taliban has imposed a tenth on various assets, including 3,500 Afghanis ($40) for four-cylinder tractors, 2,500 Afghanis ($30) for three-cylinder tractors, 2,000 Afghanis ($25) for electric mills, and 28,000 Afghanis ($300) per year for public-use potato reserves built by the previous government.

People, particularly those in rural areas, argue that the Taliban’s collection methods involve coercion and violence. The imposed taxes significantly burden impoverished farmers and livestock owners, who are already struggling to survive.

To persuade the international community of their superior governance capabilities compared to the previous administration, the Taliban periodically shares detailed information about government and religious taxes collected with media outlets and organizations. Their tactics have garnered some success, as publications such as The EconomistThe ConversationThe Wall Street Journal, and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) have lauded the efficacy of the Taliban’s tax collection system.

On April 10, 2023, the Taliban Ministry of Finance (Treasury) announced a “significant” rise in government revenue for the solar year 1401 (spanning April 2022 to March 2023). The ministry reported that the total revenue for the last fiscal year reached 193.912 billion Afghanis (around $2.236 billion), a 37% increase from the previous year’s revenue, which amounted to $1.407 billion.

Taliban revenue surge and people free fall into Poverty: a grim synchronicity

Despite the Taliban’s efforts to present their tax collection system as a success, the reality on the ground is far more complex and contentious. Experts and human rights activists criticize international media and institutions for failing to acknowledge the dark side of the story, such as the Taliban’s use of intimidation and coercion to extort money from most of the population living below the poverty line.

According to the World Bank and United Nations reports, the Afghanistan economy is shrinking day by day; unemployment is rising to record levels, 97%  of the population is sinking below the poverty line, hundreds of small and mid-level businesses are ceasing their operation, and women are banned from any economic activities. UNDP Afghanistan Socio-Economic Outlook 2023  also demonstrates that without continuity for girls’ education and women’s ability to work, prospects for the country’s recovery will remain grim, and “ GDP is estimated to have further declined by 3.6% in 2022. Restrictions on women threaten aid flows and growth and could have disastrous economic consequences.”

Mir Ahmad Shekib, a former executive at the Afghanistan Central Bank (Da Afghanistan Bank) and a Research Analyst at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, says the country has experienced a decline of roughly 35% in gross domestic product, with new investments dwindling to near zero. As hundreds of thousands of people flee the country, about one million have lost their jobs, and poverty levels have surged to 97%. “The Afghan banking sector is grappling with a systematic liquidity crisis, and the private sector continues to bear significant losses. Such circumstances defy economic logic, as tax revenues typically stay the same or decline amid crisis and widespread economic recession,” Shekib noted. 

He further asserts that the Taliban cannot fundamentally create any systems, including a tax infrastructure. They have failed to set up a functioning system and dismantle some remaining systems from the previous republic era. Shakib further contends that considering the Taliban’s extortion from famine-stricken citizens as a successful revenue-generating effort would be highly inappropriate. 

Coercion and Exploitation of Farmers

Under the Taliban’s religious interpretation of Sharia, citizens must contribute 10% or one-tenth of their agricultural output to the government in Islamic states. This tithe system is complemented by the collection of Zakat from non-agricultural assets such as livestock. Local sources say that the Taliban enforces the payment of tithes and Zakat without considering an individual’s financial standing, even when facing extreme hunger or starvation.

Abdullah, who lives in the Urgun district of Paktika province, reports that the Taliban collects tithes and taxes from Jalghoza (Chilgoza) forest owners, merchants, and ordinary citizens. He reveals that the Taliban lacks a clear standard for tithes and alms, resulting in inconsistent amounts being demanded. 

Abdullah says the Taliban’s use of force when confronted with citizens’ inability to pay. He says, “We plead with the Taliban we have nothing to eat, let alone give them anything. Instead, now that they are the government and have all the power and resources, they should be helping us. Yet, they continue to force people to pay for what they ask.”

Mohammed, 58, who lives in a remote village in Ghor province, reports that a combination of drought, floods, and natural disasters has led to a significant decline in agricultural products in the area. As villagers await humanitarian assistance, the Taliban persists in collecting taxes, tithes, and alms from the already-struggling population.

“Over the past two years, our entire harvest of wheat, barley, potatoes, and other crops has been decimated. We’re left with nothing for ourselves, so how can we give to them? The Taliban extracts a tenth from all our agricultural products and livestock.” He noted.  

Intimidating and Extorting Business Sector

Business owners in numerous provinces have informed KabulNow the Taliban’s increased taxation on businesses and subsequent demands for immediate payment. 

Azizullah, who works in the construction materials sector, told KabulNow, “The Taliban demands a $15-20 tax on every $1,000 of capital per year, regardless of whether a profit was made or losses were incurred.” He further detailed the situation, stating that the Taliban evaluates trading shops based on their sales, inventories, and stock levels. “Subsequently, they calculate and impose taxes based on those factors. However, taxes should only be levied on the actual profits of businesses,” he remarked. 

In Firozkoh, the capital of Afghanistan’s Ghor province, shopkeeper Fereydoun has firsthand experienced the impact of increasing taxes. “This year, there was no business; I even suffered losses,” Fereydoun explains. “Before, I used to pay around 20,000 Afghanis (about $250) in taxes, but this year, the Taliban have collected 200,000 Afghanis (about $2,500) from me.” He describes the situation as “extortion” by the Taliban.

The country has seen food prices surge, sales plummet, and people’s purchasing power collapse, leading to high taxes that have crippled business owners. This has resulted in the closure and destruction of numerous small and medium-sized businesses across Afghanistan. Many entrepreneurs blame the Taliban, accusing them of extortion and ransom-taking under the guise of taxes and tax laws.

Abuse and Extortion Targeting the Public and Ex-Government Employees

Last year the New York Times reported that approximately 500 former military personnel and government employees had been killed or disappeared during the first six months of the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. 

A separate report by Rawadari, a human rights organization focused on Afghanistan, revealed that the Taliban had illegally and arbitrarily arrested and detained at least 1,976 individuals across 29 provinces between August 15, 2021, and November 15, 2022. This figure included 1,836 men, 136 women, and four children. Moreover, media reports suggest that the detention, torture, and killing of dissidents, former government employees, and military personnel increased in early 2023.

Nevertheless, a critical aspect often ignored in discussions of the Taliban’s apprehension, incarceration, and mistreatment of dissidents and former government and military personnel is the underlying motive of extortion. In their quest for control and influence, the Taliban leverages these tactics to extract resources and secure compliance, effectively expanding their power and instilling fear in those who dare to challenge their authority.

Ebadi (not his real name), who worked as a security officer in Balkh province, shared his experience of being targeted for his involvement with the previous government. After being detained and tortured for nearly five months, he said, “Taliban prosecutors told me to ‘cleanse my sin,’ I had to pay a certain amount, or I would die in prison.” Ebadi eventually paid $10,000 to the Taliban, selling his home to secure his release.

Last December, the ZanTimes news agency reported a tragic case in Jowzjan, where 37-year-old Mohammad Yousuf and his 15-year-old son were killed in the Taliban’s detention when the family couldn’t provide the demanded ransom. Yousuf, a schoolteacher and foreign exchange dealer, faced a grim fate, as a source close to him explained; the deputy of Taliban intelligence in Jowzjan demanded money for Yousuf’s release. Yousuf and his son were killed when the funds couldn’t be provided.

On March 13, 2023, Afghanistan International reported that local money changer Raj Wali met a similar end in Kabul after being subjected to Taliban torture. Raj’s brother, Rahmat Wali, recounted, “Raj was arrested at his shop nearly two weeks prior and transferred to the Taliban’s intelligence headquarters in Jalalabad and later to Kabul.”

Diverting aid to families of suicide bombers and wounded Taliban fighters.

The Taliban’s extortion and coercion tactics extend beyond individuals and businesses to encompass humanitarian and aid organizations. On Wednesday, April 19, 2023, the top inspector general for Afghanistan expressed concerns to The House Foreign Affairs Committee, stating, “I cannot assure this committee or the American taxpayer we are not currently funding the Taliban.” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), further noted during a House Oversight Committee hearing, “Nor can I assure you the Taliban are not diverting the money we are sending from the intended recipients.”

In the 2023 High-Risk List presented to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the report emphasizes that the Taliban has tapped into international funding by imposing customs duties on incoming shipments, levying taxes and fees on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and charging additional fees on vendors such as commercial landlords, suppliers, and cell phone companies. 

On February 12, 2023, aid agencies in Ghor province, including the World Food Program (WFP), abruptly halted their operations, citing Taliban extortion as the primary cause. Sources revealed that the Taliban demanded these organizations hand over 30% of food or cash aid intended for the people.

In a recent report by NBS News, the Taliban has been coercing aid workers into paying fees and providing services to the militant group. Aid workers have reported that the Taliban directly solicits services from relief organizations that receive financial support from the United States. In one instance, a Taliban governor even demanded that 15% of humanitarian aid be allocated to the group’s guards and other members before being distributed among the civilians. 

As detailed in a CBS News report, Abdullah Khan, an aid worker employed by a U.N. agency in Afghanistan, disclosed that during a meeting with a provincial governor, the Taliban instructed them to provide aid to the families of deceased suicide bombers and to injured Taliban soldiers who are alive but unable to work. 

Addressing the UN Security Council in June 2022, Martin Griffiths, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator revealed that Taliban authorities are increasingly interfering with delivering humanitarian aid. Griffiths stated, “National and local authorities are increasingly seeking to play a role in selecting beneficiaries and channeling assistance to people on their own priority lists, citing an almost universal level of need.”

Rahman Atabak, Lecturer and Vice-Chancellor at Women’s Online University posits that the Taliban’s revenue sources stem from extortion, drug cultivation and trafficking, and illegal mining. Atabak also cites a recent UNODC report, which reveals that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan surged by 32%, and opium income jumped from $425 million in 2021 to $1.4 billion (a ~330% increase) in 2022, equivalent to 29% of the entire agricultural sector’s value in 2021.

“The Taliban has resumed exporting coal to Pakistan. Additionally, they have signed numerous mining contracts with Chinese companies,” Atakbak explains. “Now, we are observing a dramatic rise in the Taliban’s tax revenue, which offers insight into their revenue generation strategies, encompassing extortion, fostering opium cultivation and trade, and exploiting Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.”