‘Money or Bullets’: How the Taliban Bribed and Threatened Their Way to Power in Afghanistan

The lightning-fast takeover of Afghanistan was made possible by a long-planned Taliban campaign of bribes and threats.
August 18, 2021, 3:03pm
‘Money or Bullets’: How the Taliban Bribed and Threatened Their Way to Power in Afghanistan
Taliban fighters move through a market area in Kabul after taking control of the city. Photo: HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

For ten years, the police sergeant worked at a suburban police station near one of Kabul’s four main gates. The decade had mostly been peaceful.

The senior officers at the station had in general treated the sergeant and his colleagues well, mainly because there were so many opportunities to steal or demand bribes, owing to the station’s location near a main artery going into Afghanistan’s capital.

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“It’s a very important post, the officers paid many thousands of dollars for this assignment,” the sergeant told VICE World News over WhatsApp.

About a week ago, as cities around Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, the sergeant noticed that senior officers had stopped coming to the station to collect the most recently acquired bribes. Each day another officer would fail to turn up, as Taliban fighters extended their control across the entire country apart from Kabul.

“Some officers had to leave because their father would call from Balkh Province and say he is with the Taliban, if he agrees to leave they give his father some money,” said the sergeant.

By Sunday night, as the Taliban seized power in Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, the sergeant was the most senior serving officer remaining at the station. Then he received a phone call.

“It was a Talib commander from my village,” he said. “He told me the Americans were gone and that Muslims and Afghans had to work together to fix the country after so many years of war. He told me a new commander would come and I should wait for him.”

Twenty minutes later, a pickup truck flanked by motorcycles arrived carrying the white flags of the Taliban. 

The new Taliban commander thanked the sergeant and gave him about $500 in cash to split among his remaining men – each received 5,000 Afghanis, or about $68.

“Some money to go home,” said the sergeant. “Now the Taliban are the police.”   

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was bloody: In the last three months, the now defunct Afghan government said thousands of Taliban fighters have died, while almost 250,000 civilians are thought to have been displaced. Hundreds of Afghan troops are thought to have died since May, while there are also reports of atrocities carried out by the Taliban.

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Security experts told VICE World News that the situation described by the police sergeant has been playing out all over Afghanistan over the past few months, as the Taliban used bribes and a rampant culture of corruption to accelerate their lightning-fast takeover of the country.

Plata o plomo, mate,” said a former British special forces soldier who, until the Taliban takeover, was working with the foreign ministry in Afghanistan. “Here is a generous offer of money and amnesty that I suggest you take because we control your father’s village and might just come back and shoot you,” said the soldier, who served multiple tours in Helmand province with the UK military.

“Afghans knew we would leave, and the Taliban knew we would leave, and so when everyone has to make a choice between dying or taking a bribe, accepting an amnesty and getting on with life, or fighting to the death for a bunch of non-Muslim foreigners,” said the UK soldier, whom VICE World News has granted anonymity due to safety concerns, “they’re going to pick life.”

Flush with cash from taxing the heroin trade and collecting tariffs on the trucking industry that supplies Central Asia with consumer goods, the Taliban worked for over a year using bribes, threats against family members still in rural villages, and offers of amnesty for most police and government officials.

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On Tuesday the Taliban announced a general amnesty for government workers and former soldiers in Kabul, even as fears of violent retribution for collaborating with the defeated, American-backed government drove thousands of Afghans and foreigners to Kabul airport in hopes of escape.

The decision to grant amnesty to their defeated foes followed what appears to be years of preparation by the Taliban to take over the country as US forces departed. The now-deposed Ghani, and security forces that the US and NATO spent 20 years and billions of dollars building, lost in a matter of months. It was an irregular warfare campaign that multiple experts told VICE World News would be studied for generations to come. 

US President Joe Biden announced earlier this year that all forces would withdraw by September, accelerating the Taliban plan to threaten and bribe their way to power, as reported by the Washington Post and confirmed by multiple sources to VICE World News.

“Brilliant work, but they beat us because it’s their country and they were always going to understand the nuances of Afghan and Pashtun culture better than our best people ever could,” said an ex-Italian special forces officer, who spent years in Afghanistan training counter-terrorism forces and commandos in Farah Province as well as leading multiple counternarcotics missions. He asked not to be identified by name for operational security reasons. 

“They realised in about 2006 that the local governance [backed by NATO and the US] was the same lot of warlords and criminals they’d overthrown in the 1990s and that no reform could take hold to manage the epic levels of corruption on every scale: From the village policeman to the governor to the ministers, every single person was stealing and abusing their power.”

Once the Taliban knew that the occupation wouldn’t sustain itself after the Americans, and their money and air support, departed, it became a waiting game. 

The former officer said the Taliban strategy was, “Punish the Americans and their allies with casualties every fighting season and wait.”

“After 2006, they stopped actually negotiating and just focused on the only question that mattered to them: When were we leaving?”