Is the Taliban now the world's wealthiest extremist organization?

Now it appears that the Taliban are a superior commercial enterprise in Afghanistan, getting more bang for their buck than the United States.
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Taliban fighters in Kunduz city, northern Afghanistan. (Photo credit: PTI file)

The Taliban are regarded to be one of the wealthiest insurgent groups in the world, and they now dominate Afghanistan after two decades of fighting US and partner forces.

The organization presently sits on undeveloped natural resources valued up to $3 trillion in 2010, but with commodity prices soaring, that number might be much higher.

Afghanistan has a wealth of natural resources, including iron, copper, oil, gold, rare piles of earth, and coal, to name a few. The question is whether Afghanistan can remain stable long enough to reap part of that wealth!

What is the Taliban's net worth?

On TV news clips, the Taliban of 2021 appear to be considerably different from the Taliban of the late 1990s. For one thing, the transmission quality has undoubtedly increased, as has the Afghan terrorist outfit's outward appearance.

Their weapons appear to be brand new and shiny; their Humvee or Humvee-like vehicles appear to be in great working order; the clothes they wear appear to be clean and new, and their immaculate coiffure is a welcome change from the tousled appearances of the past.

Overall, the Taliban of 2021 doesn't appear to be the frenzied, ragged, and dishevelled force seen on grainy shaky footage caning and killing women (and men) during their cruel dominion over Afghanistan.

An elite Taliban unit at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday.Credit...Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

They now resemble a trained legion of well-fed, well-heeled fighters on a mission to seize control of the country. And why shouldn't they appear arrogant and content? Their organization is well-funded, as everyone knows that nothing says success like a bulging wallet.

From 1996 to late 2001, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan before being deposed by US forces.

Despite a 20-year battle and the deaths of tens of thousands of Taliban fighters, the group's geographical grip and military power have grown in recent years.

According to the US, they had 70,000-100,000 fighters by mid-2021, up from approximately 30,000 a decade before.


Maintaining this level of insurgency has necessitated a substantial amount of finance from both domestic and international sources.

In 2016, Forbes ranked the Taliban as the fifth wealthiest of the ten 'terrorist' groups they had profiled. ISIS was the top dog at the time, with a turnover of 2 billion dollars, while the Taliban, at number five, had a small annual turnover of $400 million.

The Taliban's main sources of cash, according to Forbes, are drug trafficking, protection money, and contributions, and this was in 2016 when the Taliban was not even the most powerful force in Afghanistan.

According to a confidential NATO report obtained by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Taliban's yearly budget for the fiscal year 2019-20 was $1.6 billion, a 400% increase in four years when compared to Forbes statistics from 2016.

RFE/RF provided a breakdown of the revenues, listing the many sources of income for the Taliban.
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  • $464 million in mining - Afghanistan is rich in minerals and precious stones, much of which has gone untapped due to the fighting. According to Afghan government officials, the mining industry in Afghanistan is worth an estimated $1 billion each year.

    The majority of the extraction is done on a small basis, and much of it is illegal.

    The Taliban have taken over mining sites and are extorting money from both legal and criminal mining companies.

    The UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team reported in its 2014 annual report that the Taliban received more than $10 million per year from 25 to 30 illegal mining activities in southern Helmand province.

Lapis stones, which are popular in jewelry, are mined in Afghanistan.

  • $416 million in drugs - Long suspected of running a revenue system to fund their insurgent operations, including the illegal drug trade, the Taliban have been accused of running a taxation system. Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of opium, a substance that may be refined into heroin.

  • Opium is a significant business, supplying the vast bulk of heroin worldwide, with an estimated yearly export value of $1.5-$3 billion. According to Afghan government officials, opium farmers pay a ten per cent cultivation tax.

    Taxes are apparently collected from both the laboratories that transform opium into heroin and the smugglers of the illegal substances. The Taliban's annual earnings from the illicit drug economy are estimated to be between $100 million and $400 million.

    According to US commander General John Nicholson in the 2018 Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (Sigar) report, the drug trade accounts for up to 60% of the Taliban's annual revenue.

    However, some experts believe that this amount is exaggerated.

    The Taliban frequently deny involvement in the drug trade and take satisfaction in having outlawed opium poppy production for a time in 2000 when they were in power.

Afghan farmers harvest opium sap from a poppy field in the Darra-i-Nur District of Nangarhar province May 10.


  • Donations from outside the United States: $240 million - Several Afghan and US officials have long accused Pakistan, Iran, and Russia of providing financial assistance to the Taliban. They typically deny this behaviour.

    Individual donations from Pakistan and other Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, are said to be the largest.

    Although tough to quantify precisely, these financial streams are considered to account for a major amount of the Taliban's revenue. Experts estimate that it might be as much as $500 million per year.

    These ties have been in place for a long time. According to a confidential US intelligence report from 2008, the Taliban got $106 million in foreign aid.
    Over time, the organization's reliance on foreign donations and contributions have decreased. It received an estimated $500 million in foreign funding in 2017-18, accounting for about half of its total funding at the time; by 2020, this had dropped to roughly 15% of total revenues.

    In the same fiscal year, the Afghan government's official budget was $5.5 billion, with defence accounting for less than 2% of the total. The United States, on the other hand, took up the majority of the funds for the 'keep Taliban out of Afghanistan effort.'


Taliban Kills A Relative of a DW Reporter While on the Lookout for Him


  • $240 million in exports - According to the United Nations Security Council, the Taliban buy and export a variety of everyday consumer products in part to launder illicit funds. The global Noorzai Brothers Limited, which imports car parts and sells reassembled vehicles and spare automobile parts are one of the company's well-known business affiliates.

    The Taliban's export revenue is estimated to be over $240 million each year. Because this figure covers poppy exports and plundered minerals, there may be some financial overlap between drug and mining revenue.

Taliban standing with their handheld guns


  • $160 million in taxes (protection/extortion money?) - The Taliban's financial network is far more extensive than merely opium taxes.

    In an open letter published in 2018, the Taliban urged Afghan traders to pay taxes on a variety of items, including fuel and construction materials, when passing through territories held by them.

    Following the overthrow of the Afghan government, the Taliban now control all of the country's key commerce routes, as well as border crossings, opening up new cash opportunities from imports and exports.

    A large amount of Western money has also wound up in Taliban wallets unwittingly during the last two decades.

    To begin with, the Taliban have imposed a tax on development and infrastructure projects, like roads, schools, and clinics, which are largely sponsored by the West.

    Second, the Taliban are said to have made tens of millions of dollars each year by taxing truckers who deliver supplies to multinational soldiers stationed around the country.

    They are also reported to have profited handsomely from services given by the Afghan government.

    In 2018, the chairman of Afghanistan's Electricity Company told the BBC that the Taliban made more than $2 million a year by charging electricity customers across the country.

    There's also money made directly from the battle. When the Taliban take control of a military base or a city, they empty the treasury and grab a large number of weapons, as well as cars and armoured vehicles.

  • $80 million in real estate - According to Mullah Yaqoob and Pakistani TV channel SAMAA, the Taliban hold real estate in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and maybe other nations. According to Yaqoob, the annual real estate revenue for NATO is roughly $80 million.
    The Taliban leadership was pursuing self-sufficiency in order to create an autonomous political and the military entity, according to a confidential NATO analysis.


    The US has spent about a trillion dollars in military expenditures in Afghanistan over the last 19 years, either directly fighting the Taliban or training Afghan forces to combat the Taliban.

    Now it appears that the Taliban are a superior commercial enterprise in Afghanistan, getting more bang for their buck than the United States.

    From a purely economic standpoint, the Taliban's return on investment (ROI) is improving by the day; no wonder they appear so pleased with themselves as they quickly fill the gap left by the dislodging of US and NATO forces; their business is thriving; the prospect of higher profit is almost a reassuring prospect.