Control over people, territory, or natural resources is not the main pivot of civil wars. Groundbreaking new research reveals that, instead, it’s control over roads. From Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and from Syria to Somalia, armed groups are flocking to highways to finance their operations.
Across conflict zones, fighters are adopting a new, lean business model, which consists of setting up shop with a few Kalashnikov rifles on the roadside, taxing everything that moves. The problem is multinational companies and aid organizations are not exempt. The complexity of their supply chains effectively hides structural payments to rebels from view—adding to the success and sustainability of the roadblock business model.
In particular, western nongovernmental organizations operating on the ground are caught between rebels demanding transit taxes and the realization that if their activities, which structurally contribute to financing armed conflicts, were revealed, this would call into question the entire humanitarian project and wipe out much of their appeal to Western audiences. To prevent this and stop multinationals and aid groups from financing civil wars, the world needs new rules for global supply chains.
Roadblocks, or checkpoints, are an endemic feature of conflict zones around the world—whether active war zones or simmering low-intensity conflicts. They often figure anecdotally in reporting, but the drivers of conflict are usually explained in terms of control over static people, territory, or natural resources. Captivated either by the mineral myth or by an outdated state-centric framework, academics and policymakers alike have misdiagnosed rebels’ business model. No wonder interventions to cut conflict financing have been ineffective.
Take the Democratic Republic of the Congo, usually portrayed as a victim of the “resource curse,” with dozens of rebel groups fighting for control over precious minerals. But why does conflict also keep dragging on in those corners of the vast Central African country, where few mineral resources are to be found?
In 2013, I reported in Foreign Policy that Heineken, the world’s second largest beer brewer, ended up financing an armed group called the March 23 Movement (M23) in war-torn eastern Congo. The armed group ruthlessly took over major trade routes and border crossings and set up shop levying transit taxes. It made an estimated $180,000 a month from their checkpoints, turning their year-long rebellion into an economically viable and potentially self-sustaining enterprise. It is for this reason one M23 roadblock operator could claim in an interview, “here; the road passes through here,” while pointing to his pocket. Heineken’s local beer delivery, it turned out, was not exempt.
M23’s strategy hardly fit with scholarship of what drives conflict in this part of the world, but it was hardly surprising to locals. In this part of the world, anyone with a claim to power flocks to trade routes, and roadblocks finance the exploits of many Central African armed groups—particularly so if, like M23, they don’t control much mineral-rich territory. Or as Jean, a Congolese rebel doubling as an army commander, put it to me: “The first thing you do when you are deployed somewhere is to build a hut against the rain. The second thing is to set up a roadblock to get food and make some money.”
Jean seems to speak for all Congolese rebels. Together with locals, I’ve mapped more than 800 roadblocks in just two of eastern Congo’s provinces. The density of roadblocks there is about 1 every 10 miles, and there literally isn’t a road which doesn’t have one. In the past, it has been estimated that Congolese armed groups collectively raise between $14 to $50 million a year exclusively through road taxes.
Roadblocks in the Provinces of North and South Kivu
Between 2016 and 2019, more than 800 roadblocks were located in just two provinces of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo—about 1 every 10 miles. Most of the roadblocks in North and South Kivu are operated by the Congolese army and/or armed groups. People are most often taxed for passing through roads, though they also may be taxed for accessing natural resources or markets.
That may be slightly overstated because about half of all roadblocks are operated by the Congolese army: Given the absence of reliable salaries, every army deployment needs to be self-financing and involves a pop-up roadblock. But as a result, state soldiers and rebels often fight about roadblocks. Fifteen years of United Nations Expert Group reports on the Congo provide ample evidence of the fact that many clashes between rebel groups and army factions take place at, and for sake of control over, roadblocks situated at strategic bottlenecks along whatever flows of goods are lucrative at any given moment in time.
With more than 120 armed groups by the latest count, the Congo is a textbook example of a fragile state because like others in that category, it hardly controls its territory or population. Like many so-called fragile states, across much of the Congo—which is the roughly the size of Western Europe—frankly, there isn’t much to govern. Why would rebels deploy all across the dense rainforest, inaccessible mountains, or empty savannahs? Of course, these places make for terrific hideouts, but to raise cash, it makes more sense for aspiring rebels and rulers to simply move to the closest trade route and force anyone who passes to pay up—whether it is aid convoys, minerals, or consumer goods.
The evidence shows this is, in fact, the business model of choice for rebels around the world.
Consider Afghanistan, where illegal road taxes were, in fact, an important part of why the Taliban emerged in the first place. When the group debuted in 1993, truckers and traders were among the most avid supporters of the group because the Taliban promised to weed out the rampant illegal taxes on Afghanistan’s trade routes. A big part of U.S. support for the Afghan army after 2001 was to help it set up a whopping 10,000 checkpoints, which the army then used to raise about $3.9 billion in bribes and—unsurprisingly—turned into the main target of Taliban attacks.
Along the way, researcher David Mansfield, who has tracked conflict financing in Afghanistan since the 1990s, said, “the Taliban learned that it was far easier to finance its struggle taxing the large volumes of diesel, cigarettes, and car tires moving along Afghanistan’s highways than hanging around the poppy fields.” As the United States retreats from Afghanistan, the Taliban are aggressively expanding their control over highways, systematically raising millions of dollars in checkpoint taxes to fund its war effort.
In Iraq, all main roads are littered with checkpoints at the front lines between different factions, which use the proceeds to extend their patronage networks and finance fighters. Private paramilitary groups are even known to lease the right to operate checkpoints from high-ranking security officials for high sums, allowing them to systematically extort truck drivers. In the Central African Republic, the Seleka rebel alliance that swept the country in 2013 fell apart again when different factions began fighting for control over profitable roadblocks a year later. Today, different rebel factions control about half of the 300 checkpoints along the country’s main trade routes.
In Syria, since the beginning of the conflict, checkpoints at internal and external border crossings have provided a key revenue stream for armed groups. At the height of the conflict in 2013 and 2014, more than 1,000 checkpoints existed around Aleppo alone. And in Somalia, illegal checkpoint taxes are a main source of income for al-Shabab.
At its checkpoints, the group enforces a strict, centralized regime of taxes on transiting vehicles (gadiid), transported goods (badeeco) and livestock (xoolo), collectively furnishing the movement with tens of millions of dollars a year. In contrast to the Somali government, al-Shabab makes truckers pay checkpoint taxes only once in exchange for a receipt that grants passage at other al-Shabab checkpoints. As an additional incentive for transporters to opt for al-Shabab-controlled routes, the group makes sure strategic roads not under their control are constantly under attack.
The failure to recognize the central role of roadblocks is due to the stubborn myth that armed actors behave like aspiring Westphalian states, trying to control as much territory and people as possible. But around much of the world, rulers have never been interested in territorial control; instead, they have contented themselves with occupying certain chokepoints and taxing trade.
Part of the problem is up until recently, maps of conflict zones have tended to display rebel control in terms of mutually exclusive swaths of territory, perpetuating the idea that rebels are in control of territory and after more. Only in 2015 did maps appear showing the Islamic State’s presence as a series of slivers within existing states—stretches of land that corresponded with key population centers and strategic trade routes.
There’s little to be gained controlling empty deserts, jungles, and mountains. So it should come as no surprise that in flocking to trade routes, rebels are often just copying what their states did in the first place—occupying the tax-imposing outposts that are the only sign of the state. It’s a simple and cost-effective business model: Anyone with a piece of rope and a few Kalashnikov rifles can basically pull it off.
Another part of the problem has to do with tunnel vision on conflict minerals. Promoted by donors and academics alike, it holds that “lootable” mineral wealth funds conflict. But as it turns out, it’s much easier to tax a passing vehicle than to oversee a mine—let alone dig for minerals yourself.
Most rebels don’t discriminate between what transacts across their roadblocks, and mineral flows are but one of the “obstructable” forms of wealth that finance their exploits alongside supply chains of aid and multinational corporations—supply chains so murky those steering them often have no clue how their foot soldiers move material on the ground. Although Western governments focus on regulating informal miners and holding mining companies accountable, Western taxpayers and multinational corporations may collectively be funding roadblock rebels to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
That’s because Western companies rely on outsourcing transport in conflict zones to opaque layers of logistical subcontractors, a scheme insiders call “arm’s length trade,” basically a ploy allowing lead firms to claim they don’t know what goes on in their supply chains. Although activists smear global clothing brands for using this scheme to hide labor abuses, other companies use the same trick to hide payments to armed groups. Rebels have made it standard practice to tax logistical subcontractors catering to multinational firms. Their global clients are very much aware of this but ask transporters to hide these payments in lump-sum invoices.
More of an affront is relief organizations big and small adopt the same practice, working with the same commercial contractors to get aid past strings of tax-levying rebel groups. Officially, transporters are prohibited from paying illicit taxes at roadblocks. However, armed groups running the checkpoints are aware these transporters are well paid by their international clients and therefore, in practice, most are forced to pay regular roadblock taxes. Understandably, aid workers in conflict zones are sensitive about the topic. As a humanitarian logistics officer in the Congo who wishes to remain anonymous told me: “Of course we pay at roadblocks. This is something everyone knows but no one can admit.” That’s because admitting they help finance violent armed groups would cause their donor base to dry up.
In the Congo, just six trucking subcontractors working for international clients, including the United Nations and aid agencies, paid $1.7 million in road taxes a year in one province alone. In Syria, relief organizations recognize that navigating the multiplicity of checkpoints is a major issue, and reports suggest paying so-called inducements to checkpoint operators is a frequent tactic. In South Sudan, where half of the population relies on food aid, the main supply route from Juba is consistently home to anywhere between 50 and 100 checkpoints, costing trucks delivering humanitarian relief somewhere between $1,500 and $4,500 per trip.
In a country where the government elite extracts rapidly dwindling oil revenues directly from the state oil company’s account, these checkpoints may form the de facto taxation system keeping soldiers and rebels from all-out looting. As one aid worker, formerly involved in humanitarian logistics for a large aid organization who requested anonymity, put it: “The enormous checkpoint taxes we pay government soldiers and rebels are an open secret among aid organizations here. I left because I couldn’t morally defend trying to help people in need while supporting a corrupt regime at the same time.”
But the most glaring instance was surely when the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform revealed 10 years ago that coalition supply chains in Afghanistan had been subjected structurally to hefty checkpoint taxes by warlords who controlled stretches of Afghanistan’s main roads, which in turn paid off the Taliban for their own security. Tellingly called “Warlord, Inc.,” the report revealed how U.S. and NATO forces outsourced logistics to transport companies, which warlords forced to pay protection money for safe passage. This could reach a stunning $3,000 per truck for a stretch of road under the control of each individual warlord.
These warlords, in turn, systematically paid the Taliban and other coalition-targeted insurgents for protection. These protection fees, the report found, could have amounted to an astonishing $2 million per week. After its own investigation, where it found that up to $360 million had been diverted to “malign actors” from a $2.16 billion trucking contract, the U.S. military replaced dozens of contractors. But the U.S. supply chain in Afghanistan has remained mired in issues of corruption.
To understand how these checkpoint taxes are hidden, take a look at the above image.
It shows the reverse side of a nongovernmental organization waybill, signed and stamped by all rebel checkpoint operators along a stretch of road in the Central African Republic. Documents such as these have become the centerpiece of roadblock finance’s unofficial paper trail. Truckers not only need to present it to roadside authorities but need to take the signed and stamped document back to their clients as proof of the transit taxes they incurred—but are kindly asked not to invoice separately. Together with the receipts that some roadblock operators issue, it is part of the ways nonprofits manage the contradictory demands of having to pay for roadblocks (on the ground) and being prohibited from doing so (by their head offices).
As one humanitarian logistics officer in the Central African Republic commented, requesting anonymity: “We know very well there are roadblocks, we know who operate them, and we also know that skirting them is impossible. So we close our eyes to it and work with those transporters that include the price of roadblocks in the offer we communicate to you, the client.”
Hidden in exorbitant lump-sum transport prices, Western tax dollars are ending up in the pockets of rebels, prolonging conflict around the globe. The overall system of roadblocks is sustainable because contracted transporters across conflict zones basically don’t care since they can invoice the costs of roadblocks onward to their corporate or nonprofit customers. Those, in turn, prefer to ignore the situation to avoid risking exposure as complicit to conflict financing. In fact, the ease with which rebels can extract substantial payments from global actors may form an incentive to take to the road.
So what can be done? A number of initiatives—the U.S. Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and equivalent European mineral supply chain rules—push for more transparency in mineral supply chains to make sure reliance on technology doesn’t finance conflict in the Congo. But every year, 70 percent of U.S. companies required to report on conflict minerals can’t confirm whether they’re sourcing them from the Congo or not.
It turns out that much the same holds for corporations steering other kinds of global supply chains. A recent survey by Deloitte revealed most multinationals have no oversight whatsoever beyond the first tier of suppliers—and what happens in conflict zones is several levels of outsourcing removed from corporate accountability. Companies and aid organizations can pretend they know nothing of the abuses down their supply chains until governments force them to be accountable for the whole chain.
The problem with current supply chain regulation is it’s premised on due diligence—that is, self-reporting and initiatives by the very actors that need regulation in the first place. Under current rules, they claim conformity and devolve responsibility to their own contractors, making them sign generic documents without checking compliance or engineer certification schemes that overlook abuses rather than address them. There are two ways out.
First would be accepting aid gets more expensive. As a matter of fact, rebels as a rule don’t tax U.N. or nongovernment organization vehicles; they just tax their logistical contractors. But aid organizations outsource transport because it’s cheaper—even with the added checkpoint costs, outsourcing logistics allows them to do the best they can with limited budgets. If donor countries aren’t willing to foot the bill for conflict-free aid, they can instead enact robust legislation involving independent compliance monitoring for firms and aid organizations operating in conflict zones. No less costly, but donor countries are already bearing the cost for the checkpoint problem as it is and spending taxpayers’ money on paying bribes to rebels and soldiers.
Until this happens, control over roads will remain the prize of conflict for rebels around the world. The larger question is whether rebels financed through taxing global aid and trade provide a modicum of stability and security to locals and what rebels will do if the West takes it away. As one high-level U.N. officer in South Sudan who requested anonymity put it: “The checkpoints? It’s just another way for us to put money into the local communities.”
This article is adapted from the book Roadblock Politics: the Origins of Violence in Central Africa. FP readers get 20 percent discount with the promo code ROAPOL20.