How Alcis Research Team Unveiled the Scale of Afghanistan’s Undeclared Economy

Geospatial analysis of trade routes and choke points reveal how the Taliban funded its 20-year-long insurgency before storming back to power, culminating in the capture of the capital, Kabul, on August 15.

The Taliban has once again taken control of Afghanistan, in a timeframe that has left the international community stunned. The speed at which they swept across the vast swaths of land, as they marched towards Kabul, poses plenty of questions. For years to come, the international community will continue to hunt for answers. However, it is clear that we have failed to understand the situation and comprehend the Taliban’s strengths. Two questions that stand out are: Why was our knowledge on the Taliban so poor? What is it that conventional analysis got so wrong?

Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations on Earth. But there is far more to the country’s economy than official figures portray or multi-lateral agencies like the World Bank project. Trading caravans have traversed this country for millennia and much official and unofficial trade still crosses this land-locked country’s borders. Local warlords and tribal leaders have long extracted ‘taxes’ on the movement of goods through Afghanistan, but how do policy-makers understand the extent of this unofficial trade and its impact? This is the key question that Alcis, a UK-based Geographic Information Services company, and Dr. David Mansfield, a world-renowned expert on Afghanistan’s economy, sought to answer. They collaborated to produce a report for USAID in which they have endeavoured to uncover greater knowledge of the real economy.  

Their findings are significant and have challenged conventional economic thinking; in some cases, turned it on its head. For example, cross-border export of talc was estimated by the Alcis research team at twice the official figures (in volume), while other minerals were significantly under-reported. Fuel imported from Iran was estimated at two and a half times the official figure. A significant undeclared smuggling trade sees transit goods re-exported from Afghanistan into Pakistan over rugged mountain passes. Check points along the trade routes, whether manned by corrupt government officials or the Taliban, took a cut on the value of the goods based on the weight and volume of the cargo. This kind of unofficial taxation helped in funding the insurgency and reduced Afghanistan government’s official revenues.

Every day, approximately 250 trucks passed through Ziranj in Nimroz province on the Afghanistan-Iran border, carrying fuel and other goods

In a separate report for the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), examining one Nimroz province, on the border with Iran and Pakistan, the Alcis research team concluded that international donors’ funding has been a very small part of the economy in remote provinces compared to the roaring ‘off-the-books’ trade in legal and illegal goods. Such trade is a major revenue generator, far greater than drugs or minerals. By integrating different sources of evidence, Mansfield and Alcis challenge conventional assessments that tend to massively overestimate Taliban’s revenue from drugs. This will matter when diplomats negotiate with the Taliban in coming months. It also matters should neighbouring countries seek to cut off the movement of illegal goods or essentials like oil and fuel.

Those who know me will recall that I spent 30 years in the British Army, serving in many places, including Afghanistan. I learned about the power of real geospatial intelligence for decision making when leading 42 Engineer Regiment (Geographic). It taught me that ‘geospatial’ is not about surveyors but users, not about imagery but integration, not about data but knowledge. And geospatial knowledge is what Alcis delivers.

By mapping routes, the ‘choke’ points were determined. Then using commercial satellite imagery, activity at those choke points was analyzed to measure the volume of trade quantitively. But such analysis only told a part of the story. This was where Mansfield’s vast experience as a field researcher proved invaluable. His team conducted on-ground interviews with Afghan workers at these choke points and other targeted locations to generate an understanding of the economics of this trade, who was gaining from it and where the money was going.

The Taliban controlled key check points on official transit and smuggling routes to extract ‘taxes’ that funded the insurgency

The power of such integrative analysis is strengthened by ‘boots on the ground’. It may be expensive in terms of time and money, but it delivers quantitative triangulation, profound qualitative insight and diversity of thought. This integrative approach helps to generate better quality knowledges and can lead to far more effective policies, negotiating positions and decision making. After 10 years of developing the methodology the research team acknowledge that it can be perfected further, but it places them as a geospatial knowledge leader.

Richard Brittan, Managing Director, Alcis, was a fellow traveller in the British Army, but with far more thirst for adventure. He managed a disarmament camp behind the rebel lines in Sierra Leone after the 1999 peace deal and twice had to be evacuated as the Revolutionary United Front seized control of the country with no intention to disarm. This led him to realize that conflict spaces needed a far better understanding—economically as much as militarily. In 2004, he founded Alcis to help fill that gap. Since then, the company has grown and now has unrivalled experience working with governments, multilateral development agencies, and NGOs to make satellite imagery, geospatial analysis, and visualization more relevant to non-expert decision-makers.

Brittan, who during long daylight hours has been focused almost entirely in supporting people to leave Afghanistan and at nights on the Haiti earthquake, spoke with Geospatial World. I asked him why he concentrated on geospatial techniques. “Whether seeking to aggregate data flows, many from people on the ground, or influencing policymakers, a geospatial perspective adds significant value” he explained. “Getting policy makers’ attention is aided by story maps, visually displaying evidence, and by short videos.”

Alcis now uses these techniques extensively. Reports like the Lessons for Peace: Afghanistan and Managing Local Resources and Conflict: The Undeclared Economy use heavy geospatial visualization that draws readers into the details and are written with busy policymakers in mind.  Brittan feels that the geospatial community is placing too much faith solely in technology. “Our community risks descending into sensor-dominated methodologies where, without ground truth, we risk doing our users a huge disservice,” he said during our conversation.

Brittan has worked in and on Afghanistan for nearly two decades. It is not surprising, that next month he will be running the virtual London Marathon for Afghanaid—a charity dedicated for nearly 40 years towards supporting Afghanistan’s most vulnerable. You can learn more about both the geo-enabled virtual London Marathon and support Afghanistan’s people, with a strong emphasis on women, on Richard’s fundraising page.  

Editor’s Note: This story will not be placed behind paywall in public interest.