Monday, June 29, 2009

Afghanistan: Opium profits, the Taliban and al Qaeda

By Jessica Thompson especially for Justice and Drugs

Kathy Gannon provided an insightful review of Gretchen Peters’new book “Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda” for the Wall Street Journal Friday. In her book, Peters’ promotes a crack down on the Afghan opium trade to undermine the Taliban and al Qaeda’s major source of funding as an essential feature of the “war on terror.”

However, Peters was not the first to discover the $ 2.8 billion opium trade is funding the Taliban and al Qaeda. Phil Smith of DRCNet/StoptheDrug reported that after former Clinton drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey visited Afghanistan in 2005 he said "Is there a relationship between $2 billion in this impoverished 14th-century desperate land, and the appearance of brand-new guns and shiny camping gear? Of course there is." Read more from journalist Phil Smith’s on-the-ground reporting of the drug war here.

Although Peters is correct that the opium trade funds the enemies of the U.S., Gannon raises a critical question regarding the identity of the beneficiaries from the opium trade. “Is it the Taliban and al Qaeda or members of Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government?” Gannon says both. She explains that after removing the Taliban in late 2001, the U.S. and its allies filled the Afghan government with the kingpins and drug lords who had fought against the Soviets that had previously been replaced by the Taliban in 1996.

Not only did Peters miss the key issue by over-emphasizing funding of the Taliban and al Qaeda, she fails to seriously consider the solution to funding of these groups from the illegal drug trade. With no genuine consideration of the legalization and consequent regulation of the opium trade, Peters introduces, discusses and dismisses the idea within a single paragraph in her 238-page book.

Today the U.S. government announced it is ceasing the failed opium eradication policy it has pursued for eight years. The full scope of the policy is unstated. Yet, it is hard to imagine that this is not a prelude to a regularization, normalization and control of the market in opium to assure that farmers get their income, but profits don’t go to criminals.

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HD4Liberty said...

This is a great topic to discuss, as it will become increasingly important to U.S. policy in confronting the grave threat Afghanistan poses. Miss Thompson, your criticism of Gretchen Peters' failure to emphasize a potential solution to the problem at hand is well deserved.
Moreover, while the current issue is of high priority, the U.S. policy of the past is also relevant to note. This demonstrates the grave consequences a failure to create a mini-Marshall-esque Plan may ultimately lead to 25 years down the road. Furthermore, the U.S. should also look to 20th century history to recall the results of the 18th Amendment--and the subsequent repeal thereof--in forming modern drug policy.

Unknown said...

Hi Steve,

I just came across your blog and Jessica Thompson's blog about the WSJ review of my book, Seeds of Terror. I am pleased to see increased debate about this important subject, and I am glad to find your thoughtful platform that pushes for a more sensible narcotics policy in the U.S.

However, I would like to set the record straight with you about one aspect that I think the WSJ review -- and your blog on that review -- misinterpret about my book and my intentions.

I certainly agree with Ms. Gannon, the author of the WSJ report, that Washington has gotten into bed with unsavory actors in the "AfPak" region. And I argue in Seeds of Terror that fighting drug-fueled corruption – both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan – will likely be a greater challenge to the international community than fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda.

State corruption and the insurgency are inter-related problems that feed each other, a point I make repeatedly in Seeds of Terror.

In recent meetings I have held at the Pentagon, the National Security Council and with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, I have been gratified to see that Washington now appears to understand that a comprehensive effort to develop better governance in AfPak will be critical to any exit strategy.

Insurgencies exist where good governments do not. I argue that point in Seeds of Terror.

However, the central purpose of my book is not to report on government corruption in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two problems that have been well-documented, in my opinion, by monitoring groups like Transparency International as well as the media.

Rather I seek to expose an issue I believe had not been well-researched previously: how the Taliban, al Qaeda and other extremist groups along the border are morphing into criminal gangsters, similar to the transformation made by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, when the Maoist rebels got sucked into the cocaine trade. I appreciate the chance to set the record straight on your website.

Gretchen Peters

Anonymous said...

(something had to be done...)

Afghanistan, Opium and the Taliban
Papaver somniferum: the opium poppy

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (February 15, 2001 8:19 p.m. EST

U.N. drug control officers said the Taliban religious militia has nearly wiped out opium production in Afghanistan -- once the world's largest producer -- since banning poppy cultivation last summer.

A 12-member team from the U.N. Drug Control Program spent two weeks searching most of the nation's largest opium-producing areas and found so few poppies that they do not expect any opium to come out of Afghanistan this year.

"We are not just guessing. We have seen the proof in the fields," said Bernard Frahi, regional director for the U.N. program in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He laid out photographs of vast tracts of land cultivated with wheat alongside pictures of the same fields taken a year earlier -- a sea of blood-red poppies.

A State Department official said Thursday all the information the United States has received so far indicates the poppy crop had decreased, but he did not believe it was eliminated.

Last year, Afghanistan produced nearly 4,000 tons of opium, about 75 percent of the world's supply, U.N. officials said. Opium -- the milky substance drained from the poppy plant -- is converted into heroin and sold in Europe and North America. The 1999 output was a world record for opium production, the United Nations said -- more than all other countries combined, including the "Golden Triangle," where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet.

Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader, banned poppy growing before the November planting season and augmented it with a religious edict making it contrary to the tenets of Islam.

The Taliban, which has imposed a strict brand of Islam in the 95 percent of Afghanistan it controls, has set fire to heroin laboratories and jailed farmers until they agreed to destroy their poppy crops.

The U.N. surveyors, who completed their search this week, crisscrossed Helmand, Kandahar, Urzgan and Nangarhar provinces and parts of two others -- areas responsible for 86 percent of the opium produced in Afghanistan last year, Frahi said in an interview Wednesday. They covered 80 percent of the land in those provinces that last year had been awash in poppies.

This year they found poppies growing on barely an acre here and there, Frahi said. The rest -- about 175,000 acres -- was clean.

"We have to look at the situation with careful optimism," said Sandro Tucci of the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention in Vienna, Austria.

He said indications are that no poppies were planted this season and that, as a result, there hasn't been any production of opium -- but that officials would keep checking.

The State Department counternarcotics official said the department would make its own estimate of the poppy crop. Information received so far suggests there will be a decrease, but how much is not yet clear, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We do not think by any stretch of the imagination that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has been eliminated. But we, like the rest of the world, welcome positive news."

The Drug Enforcement Administration declined to comment.

No U.S. government official can enter Afghanistan because of security concerns stemming from the presence of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Poppies are harvested in March and April, which is why the survey was done now. Tucci said it would have been impossible for the poppies to have been harvested already.

The areas searched by the U.N. surveyors are the most fertile lands under Taliban control. Other areas, though they are somewhat fertile, have not traditionally been poppy growing areas and farmers are struggling to raise any crops at all because of severe drought. The rest of the land held by the Taliban is mountainous or desert, where poppies could not grow.