THE Afghan Taliban said their former leader travelled frequently to the Middle East from Pakistan over the past decade to raise funds for an insurgency against US-led forces, highlighting the ease with which the group was able to move around the region.

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a US drone strike on Saturday, used a Pakistani passport to visit the United Arab Emirates, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s main spokesman, said by phone. Mansour had been on a United Nations no-fly list since 2001.

“He held meetings with Afghan businessmen and Islamic nations in the UAE to discuss our Afghan holy war and raise funds for Taliban operations in Western-occupied Afghanistan,” Mujahid said. He added that Mansour also travelled to neighbouring Iran on “unofficial trips”.

The claims help explain how the Taliban have managed to maintain a credible fighting force after the US spent almost $700 billion and lost more than 2,200 troops since it invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

The Taliban on Wednesday confirmed Mansour’s death and named Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada as his successor.

Mansour used the alias Wali Mohammad to travel mainly from Karachi’s international airport using a Pakistani passport over the past nine years, according to an Afghan security official. He went to Dubai 18 times and Bahrain once, the official said.

“Ongoing battle obligations” obliged Mansour to visit areas in Iran near its borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Mujahid. Iranian border police didn’t recognise Mansour because he was carrying a passport under a different name, he said.

Earlier this week, Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari denied that Mansour had crossed its border before the strike.

Afghan security agencies are investigating Mansour’s international trips, according to Sayed Zafar Hashemi, the deputy spokesman to President Ashraf Ghani. He told reporters on Tuesday that he couldn’t provide further information.

“His trips were likely to get funds from intelligence agencies there in exchange to keep their strategic interests and influence across our region,” Ahmad Saeedi, a former Afghan diplomat to Pakistan, said by phone. He might also have made tens of millions of dollars in cash from selling drugs there.

Prior to taking over as the Taliban’s leader, Mansour was a prominent drug trafficker and was responsible for the Taliban’s finances, Saeedi said.

The Taliban primarily fund their insurgency through illegal mining of Afghan minerals, drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and foreign donations, according to the Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan.

Pakistan has long been accused of harbouring the Taliban’s top leadership. It sees the group, which is predominately Pashtun and based in southern Afghanistan, as a counterbalance to ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks who are more aligned with India.

Mansour’s death is a major blow to Pakistan and possibly also Iran, which may have forged links with the Taliban to undercut US interests in the region, according to Waheed Muzhda, a former Foreign Ministry official in the Taliban regime who is now a political analyst in Kabul.

“Iran has always opposed the US presence in Afghanistan,” Muzhda said. “Iran may also have been behind the curtain to stab the US in the back using Taliban militants.”

By arrangement with Bloomberg-Washington Post

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2016