The Taliban's No. 2 cash source: ransom kidnapping

There were no seats left on the Kandahar-to-Kabul flight, so Johan Freckhaus decided to take a chance and return to Afghanistan's capital by car. After nine years in the country, the construction executive understood the danger, but with his long beard and fluency in Dari, the nation's most widely spoken language, he could pass for an Afghan. He might have made it, if one guerrilla at a highway checkpoint in Ghazni province hadn't searched the car carefully enough to find Freckhaus's hidden French passport.

The contractor was promptly shackled with tire chains, blindfolded and hauled away. For the next three weeks, the kidnappers moved him around the countryside every night before setting him free on June 19 this year. According to the commander of the Taliban fighters who grabbed Freckhaus, French authorities paid roughly $1.5 million for the hostage.

As if Afghanistan didn't have enough problems, the Taliban have spawned yet another: an epidemic of ransom kidnappings. Such crimes used to be rare, and the perpetrators were usually common thugs who stuck close to Kabul. That's changed in the last couple of years, as the Taliban learned to abduct foreigners and Afghan business people instead of killing them. Since then, kidnapping has become one of the guerrillas' main revenue sources, second only to facilitating and protecting the country's $4 billion-a-year narcotics trade. If you add up only the reported ransoms in some of the highest-profile kidnappings of the past two years, the total comes to more than $10 million a year—and that's a deceptively conservative estimate. Most abductions and payments are never publicized. The windfall has helped the Taliban to come back strong from near defeat, and the threat of kidnapping has made travel all but impossible in much of the country, crippling reconstruction efforts.

One of the earliest victims was Gabriele Torsello, a bearded, turbaned Italian photojournalist. Two years ago he was on a bus heading out of Helmand province when it was flagged down by a group of Taliban who were clearly expecting him. One gunman boarded the bus, ignored the other passengers and ordered Torsello off. "They came directly to me," Torsello recalls. "No one else was searched or questioned." He was freed on Nov. 3, 2006, after 22 days. The Italian government has refused to confirm reports that €2 million was paid for his release.

Four months later, the Taliban trapped another Italian journalist in Helmand. Fighters for the notorious commander Mullah Dadullah Akhund seized Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a war correspondent for La Repubblica, together with his driver and his translator. Dadullah's men killed the driver immediately. Three weeks later they freed the Italian reporter in exchange for an undisclosed sum of cash and the release of six jailed Taliban, including Dadullah's brother. Then they cut the translator's head off. Afghan President Hamid Karzai came under such heavy criticism for the prisoner release that he has never repeated it.

Despite that, hostage negotiations routinely start with the insurgents demanding a prisoner release. Taliban commanders seem embarrassed to talk about ransoms. But the talks always come down to money. (Among other things, cash can bribe underpaid prison guards or finance a breakout, like the one in Kandahar this June where at least 350 captured Taliban escaped.) "Nobody—no government—wants to acknowledge ransoms, but you gotta do what you gotta do," says Jack Cloonan, president of the U.S. crisis-management firm Clayton Consultants. "The truth is, everyone talks to [kidnappers], either directly or through back channels. And everyone pays ransoms."

Foreigners pay best. The Mastrogiacomo deal caught the attention of a top subcommander in Ghazni province, Abdullah Mansoor. A large, portly man with a mean streak even longer than his black beard, he ordered his men to keep a close eye on their stretch of the Kandahar-Kabul highway. In July 2007, two of Mansoor's fighters hit the jackpot—a big white passenger bus traveling unescorted with a group of 23 Christian missionaries from South Korea. Mansoor proved he was serious by killing two of them. The others were free by the end of August. The South Korean government denies that any ransom was paid, but Mullah Nasir and other Taliban sources say the price was at least $5 million, and a senior Afghan government official confirms that figure.

Still, most victims are Afghans. Hardly anyone else dares to travel overland now. Not long after the Koreans' capture, Mustapha Barakzai was grabbed on the same stretch of highway. The 22-year-old student, whose mother is a member of Afghanistan's Parliament, was heading for Kabul by car with his uncle and two friends, one of them a policeman named Pahlawan. Mansoor's gunmen were waiting by the road for them; one of them had the car's license number written on his hand. He showed it to Barakzai as the four men were being hauled away.

On the morning of Sept. 13—the first day of Ramadan last year—the gunmen dragged Pahlawan off, and half an hour later they took Barakzai to a nearby field. His friend lay in the dust, bound and blindfolded. The gunmen forced Barakzai to watch while one of them cut off the policeman's head. Then Mansoor stuffed a mobile phone into Barakzai's hand and ordered: "Call your mother." Barakzai's family paid $100,000 as fast as they could raise the cash. His captors set him free a few hours later, along with the other two survivors. The kidnappers kept the car, offering to return it for an extra $10,000. Soon after Barakzai's release he heard that Mansoor had been killed in a U.S. military operation. But more than a year after the ordeal, the young man still gets threatening phone calls saying money won't save him if he's ever caught again.

No one knows how many Afghans have been kidnapped by the Taliban. Until recently the field was a wide-open scramble among local guerrilla bands who kept most of the proceeds for themselves. This May the organization's No. 2 leader, Mullah Bradar, finally issued a set of rules for all Taliban kidnappings. Commanders are now required to notify the supreme military council, the shura, whenever a kidnapping takes place; no one but representatives designated by Mullah Bradar may negotiate terms for a hostage's release or take ransom payments, and at least two thirds of any cash deal must go to the central shura. A special panel has been set up to investigate alleged rule breakers.

Local chiefs have begun feuding over the best roads. In more than a half-dozen provinces, the shura has ruled that each backcountry subcommander will be granted a stretch of main highway. But the turf battles are starting to recall the days of the warlords in the early 1990s. In some places, Taliban kidnappers appear to be working with professional criminals and corrupt police, much as the three groups collaborate in the opium provinces. And the threat is spilling across the border into Pakistan's tribal areas.

The attacks have paralyzed large parts of Afghanistan. International aid workers have been forced out, major projects have been halted and business confidence, already shaky, has been all but destroyed. One reason Afghans welcomed the Taliban's rise in the '90s was because the armed group drove out the bandits and warlords, making it safe to move around the country. Now the same group is making it anything but. The Afghan National Army is stretched too thin to keep even the main highways secure, and the Coalition has never had enough forces in the country to fill the gap.

It's small comfort that the Taliban are having trouble keeping order in their own ranks. For kidnapping Johan Freckhaus, the military council awarded $20,000 to Anwar Farooq, the local chief who directed the job, along with $2,000 to each of the 23 fighters who carried it out. That's good money in a country as poor as Afghanistan, but Taliban sources say Farooq was furious: he thought he and his men deserved a far bigger cut. At last word he was still arguing with the higher-ups.

Freckhaus himself says he's not sure what his freedom cost. "The Taliban said there would be a prisoner exchange," he told NEWSWEEK last month at a café in Paris. "The government said a ransom was paid. Both sides have their story." One thing he's sure of: he's not moving back to Afghanistan until the place gets a little safer—and that might take a while.