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Funding the Pakistani Taliban

Poppies, tobacco and the "timber mafia." But that's not all.

Pakistani Taliban fighters gesture toward the camera before leaving Buner, about 60 miles northwest of Islamabad, April 24, 2009. (Stringer/Reuters)

MARDAN, Pakistan — Standing in the lush plains of Mardan in the Northwest Frontier Province, the rugged and arid mountains that enclose the Peshawar valley on all sides may appear farther than they actually are. A few dozen miles to the north and west in the mountains, the Pakistan army has been engaged in a bloody battle with Taliban militants for years over the control of territory.

The armed guerrilla fighters have avoided forays onto the flat plains of Mardan, but driving through the main market of the city where vendors sell everything from kebab to Kalashnikovs, or among the cattle in leafy tobacco fields, or the large 16-wheeler trucks on the potholed roads, there are traces of Taliban, even here.

You don't see Taliban foot soldiers — young men with the signature long hair, black turbans and beards — cruising the streets in the backs of pick-up trucks shaking down shop owners like gangsters. But in this bustling town and many others much farther away from the war zones, the Taliban's financial engine is chugging at full force right under the nose of law enforcement.

“The money is coming in from more sources than we know,” said Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, a native of the nearby town of Charsada, who served as the interior minister under former President Pervez Musharraf. Sherpao was the man responsible for organizing civilian law enforcement when the Taliban first emerged on the scene in Pakistan.

Having survived two targeted assassination attempts and no longer serving in the government, he said “if they can dry up their revenues, (the militants) won’t last for long.” But tracking the money, he said "isn’t an easy job.”

And it's not just Sherpao who's worried. Cutting off the revenue streams of the Pakistani Taliban is something that U.S. President Barack Obama’s Af-Pak special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, has linked to the successful completion of the American campaign in Afghanistan.

During his last visit to Pakistan in June, Holbrooke told reporters that in the past the traditional belief in Washington was that all the money came from the drug trade in Afghanistan. “That is simply not true,” he was quoted saying. In a press conference in Islamabad he announced that a member of the U.S. Treasury Department will be added to his staff to find out "where the money really comes from."

Traditionally, guerrilla groups thrive on one large favored revenue stream. For example, the FARC in Colombia has leaned heavily on the trade of coca for three decades and the diamond trade has fueled years of war in Africa. Just over Pakistan's border, the Afghani Taliban have a deep hand in the cultivation and trade of poppy. 

While poppy has been largely eradicated from Pakistan, the political leadership and military planners in the country say that a chunk of the Afghan drug money still makes its way to Pakistani Taliban hands — to the tune of $200 million dollars a year, according to Pakistani military estimates.

An official at the Anti-Narcotics Force in Pakistan said that tracking terrorism funds is "far beyond our official mandate." But the force is working closely with the military to "stop drug money from getting into dangerous hands" and is stacked at all levels with retired and serving military generals.