The resurgent Taliban have gained a new income stream after taking over a major customs post on the border with Tajikistan.
The fundamentalist movement seized the Sher Khan Bandar border crossing north of the city of Kunduz recently as it extended its control across the northeast.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the guerrillas had negotiated the handover with the Tajik and Uzbek governments.
“We informed all these governments and assured them that the routine work of the border, the customs, will be running as before,” Shaheen said. “Even the staff members of the customs, we have not changed them, we told them: Do your work as it was. We haven’t even changed the stamps. The reason is that we don’t want to create problems for businessmen, for traders, for common people.”
Traffic through the customs post and half-mile-long bridge across the Panj river, built by US army engineers, is worth millions of US dollars annually. But the Taliban say traders have complained of corrupt border officers.
“Now, it is our area, so they should go to us,” Shaheen said. “Businessmen are very happy now. They say, before we had to grease the palms of officials, but now everything goes smoothly”.
Officials from President Ashraf Ghani's government claim trade across the border has been halted. But Sher Khan Bandar traders association head Sayed Mujtaba Hashemi, whose firm imports cement, steel and salt from Tajikistan, said the Taliban called all local businessmen to a meeting to reassure them that trade would continue uninterrupted.
“The tax that used to be taken by the government is now taken by the Taliban — but the Taliban charge a smaller amount,” Hashemi said.
Former US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez described the border post as “the crossroads of commerce, of peace, and of stability” at its 2007 opening ceremony attended by the Afghan and Tajik presidents, and compared it to the ancient Silk Road trade route — a concept since revived by China. The complex cost the US $40 million to build.
Taliban Rapidly Gaining Ground
The militants seized two districts in Takhar and Badakhshan provinces over the weekend, with 150 Afghan troops reportedly surrendering and more than 1,000 fleeing across the border into Tajikistan.
The US recently asserted that 650 troops would remain in the capital Kabul to guard the US embassy there, with another 350 mooted to defend the city's airport. On Sunday Shaheen warned that they would be treated as occupying forces and could come under attack.
Washington is also trying to persuade neighbouring countries to host a military base for launching airstrikes and special forces raids into Afghanistan against "terrorist" targets.