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What the Taliban tax system has to do with their victory

A little over a year ago, the Taliban overran the last Afghan government positions.

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What the Taliban tax system has to do with their victory

A little over a year ago, the Taliban overran the last Afghan government positions. This collapsed within a few days after the foreign troops withdrew, and to this day many are wondering how this could have happened so quickly, and why public support was evidently so low.

The scientists Rahmatullah Amiri and Ashley Jackson are now providing a facet of the solution to this puzzle in a study. They show that the way the government collects taxes was a constant annoyance for many Afghans, while on the other hand they found the tax system that the Taliban introduced in their domain to be much fairer. Most importantly, this system gave the Taliban a semblance of legitimacy.

Amiri is an administrative scientist and has been researching the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan for almost 15 years. Jackson is co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups and author of a book on the Taliban. The two experts evaluated documents and, above all, conducted a large number of interviews with farmers, traders, townspeople, aid organization employees, tribal elders, but also with smugglers and Taliban fighters in order to fathom the Taliban's tax system.

“Before taking control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban had installed a remarkable state-like system of tax collection across the country,” they now state as a result. The construction of this system began around 2007, before that the Taliban had relied mainly on donations and extorted taxes.

When they resorted to collecting taxes, they justified it with the "jihad" they allegedly practiced, but they also invoked Muslim traditions such as tithing (ushr) or compulsory donations (zakat). The tax systems were initially very different, depending on the region, but over time overarching structures emerged.

Eventually, a finance commission was set up that had representatives in almost every province, lists were kept, and a veritable bureaucracy was set up, which finally levied taxes like a real state.

That was an important reason why the Taliban were increasingly accepted by the population. "Taxes are perhaps the most obvious way insurgents can show they govern," the authors write. "Put another way, one of the more subtle ways the Taliban exercised power was by behaving like a state." This was an important -- and often overlooked -- aspect of their military and political strategy.

When individuals, charities, or corporations refused to pay taxes, the Taliban usually argued that they would offer security in return. The threat of coercion was of course always present in the background, but the tax discussion was mainly conducted as a state would conduct it. "In their view, they were building institutions and rules to prepare for when they took power."

Most importantly, many of the Afghans the researchers spoke to found the Taliban's tax system to be fairer than that of the official government, where tax collection often involved a great deal of bureaucracy and corruption. "Even if they didn't support the Taliban, they believed the Taliban were not corrupt and they would not use the proceeds for themselves."

The Taliban took advantage of this rejection of state tax practices and subsequently made their system more flexible and considerate. The local commanders determined the most effective way of raising revenue without expecting much resistance. And there were even complaints procedures for those who felt they were being taxed too much, for example when customs duties were levied at various checkpoints in recent years.

All of this helped the Taliban gain legitimacy with the powerful traders and transport companies, and this later played a key role in the eventual takeover of power. Against this background, local business people were quick to accept a transfer of power to the Taliban. This is one of the main reasons why this takeover of power could be carried out so quickly in the end.

However, now that the Taliban are in power, the tax system is reaching its limits. The US Institute of Peace estimates that the Taliban government generated around $400 million in revenue in the last quarter of 2021. That's less than half of what the government took in in previous years over the same period.

However, one reason for this might also be that there are fewer and fewer people in Afghanistan who have anything at all that could be taxed.

"Everything on shares" is the daily stock exchange shot from the WELT business editorial team. Every morning from 7 a.m. with the financial journalists from WELT. For stock market experts and beginners. Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcast, Amazon Music and Deezer. Or directly via RSS feed.

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