Drug War in Afghanistan

Even as the Iraq war begins to recede, Afghanistan intensifies, threatening to openly spread to Pakistan. "We are now close to codifying a pattern by which a new president is expected never to give up one war without taking on another," writer David Bromwich recently noted. And like always, U.S. citizens are told that foreign wars are fought in pursuit of the benevolent "national interest." In the real world, once the direction of the national interest is determined by the elite political and business sectors of society, the coordinators—alternately described as the professional class—turn to the task of drawing up laws and policies to facilitate movement in the desired direction. On the lower rungs, the majority, the working class, does the heavy-lifting for this imperial project by supplying sons and daughters for wars, maintaining the domestic economy, and accepting the heaviest losses when imperial policies take a global downturn. Most importantly, elite motives are concealed from the American majority.

The Threadbare "War on Terror"

Despite the mainstream media's portrayal, there is increasing congressional dissent over the "war" which was unheard of in recent years. While the latest war funding bill ultimately passed the House, it was threatened by Republican opposition along with a record 32 Democrats. The executive branch, vigilant in pursuit of its foreign wars, recognizes this as a major threat to its regional plans. Further, some squarely within the mainstream have begun to take issue with the war in Afghanistan. Regarding the often repeated idea that Afghanistan will once again provide a base for al Qaeda terrorists, Ohio State Professor John Mueller states, "This argument is constantly repeated but rarely examined; given the costs and risks associated with the Obama administration's plans for the region, it is time such statements be given the scrutiny they deserve…. The very notion that al Qaeda needs a secure geographic base to carry out its terrorist operations, moreover, is questionable. After all, the operational base for 9/11 was in Hamburg, Germany. Conspiracies involving small numbers of people require communication, money, and planning—but not a major protected base camp." Al Qaeda consists of a few hundred individuals occasionally helping the Taliban. Mueller concludes that this activity "scarcely suggests that 'the safety of people around the world is at stake,' as Obama dramatically puts it." Furthermore, despite well-publicized 2002 reports to the contrary, the FBI has failed to uncover a single true al Qaeda sleeper cell or operative in the U.S.

The war in Afghanistan was designed by elites, for elites, and packaged under the benvolent-sounding puruist of the U.S. national interest. However, Americans are becoming weary of the Global War on Terror and its manifestation in Afghanistan. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently conceded, "American public support for the Afghan war will dissipate in less than a year unless the Obama administration achieves 'a perceptible shift in momentum'" (Dreazen and Cole, "Gates Says Taliban Have Momentum in Afghanistan," WSJ, 5/26/09). He has further elaborated that the initiative is with the Taliban who control major portions of the country and will continue to inflict increasing numbers of U.S. casualties throughout 2010. But plans to achieve this perceptible shift include deploying an additional 21,000 U.S. military personnel, known popularly as the "Afghan surge." Other ploys have included the firing of commanding General David McKiernan without specific cause, a move that drew the consternation of top generals, and publicizing Vietnam-era style body counts, in which the public is dosed with quantifiable measures of "success." The aptly titled article "Army Deploys Old Tactic in PR War" reports that, "U.S. officers say they've embraced body counts to undermine insurgent propaganda, and stiffen the resolve of the American public." A spokesperson for the 101st Airborne Division further clarifies the intent, "It's a concern that at home, the common perception is this war is being lost" (Phillips, WSJ, 6/1/09). In the Vietnam War, body counts became the one and only measure of "success." Now, body counts are being used in Afghanistan to an extent not seen since the practice fell into disrepute. But a cursory understanding of counterinsurgency warfare reveals that body counts have nothing to do with defeating an insurgency. Since the enemy already knows how many of their soldiers have died, body counts are instead a technique for controlling domestic thought. In fact, military officers worry that their use ostracizes the population which they are trying to control, thereby strengthening the insurgency.

Legitimizing the Afghan War

The Obama administration is using all three recent and easily discernable policy changes—troop increases, shuffling of the general staff, and a policy of body counts—to achieve "perceptible shifts," in hopes of keeping the current legitimizing cover intact. But there is another tactic that is preparing to enter center stage in Obama's war. This tactic is to tie the Afghan War directly to the global war on drugs. The logic is simple. Illicit narcotics, heroin in this case, are a commodity. Unlike tribal loyalties, hatreds, and desires, commodities can be easily quantified and posted on the 6:00 PM news. Furthermore, a drug war readily accommodates deception. The Administration, for example, can publicize acres of opium eradicated in one province without addressing proliferation in another province. As is often the case, deception will likely boil down to a matter of omission, instead of commission. Most importantly, when we set aside for a moment the tendency for drug wars to cause the proliferation of drugs, and increase profits, an additional aspect of waging a war on drugs is the moral aspect.

U.S. helicopter flies over Afghan poppy field

Supporting drug eradication efforts is an easy decision for the majority of the population to make when their crippling effects in cities and upon youth are publicized out of context. According to Stars and Stripes, "American authorities are planning a broad new campaign against terrorist financing networks in Afghanistan…. The surge of narcotics agents…would bolster a strategy laid out last week by the Obama administration to use U.S. and NATO troops to target 'higher level drug lords'…. Detailed plans described to members of Congress behind closed doors earlier this month suggest the effort will be modeled after the federal Drug Enforcement Administrations' [DEA] campaign against drug cartels in South America."

But the connection between al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the opium trade is not as nefarious as this new effort would leave us to believe. The majority of Taliban funding comes from overseas donors, according to Washington insider and Obama representative on Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke: "In the past, there was a kind of a feeling…that the money all came from drugs in Afghanistan. That is simply not true," Holbrooke said after a three-day trip to Pakistan. "Time and time again, people go back to private individuals who support the extremists, who bring money in various illegal ways" (WSJ, "U.S. Targets Flow of Funds to Insurgents," 6/6/09). Secretary Gates supports this conclusion and notes that "external funding channels" set up by wealthy Muslims in the 1980s, with U.S. support, to fund Islamic fighters may still exist. "It wouldn't surprise me if those channels have remained open," Gates said.

The Taliban, as is known, are not the principle recipients of drug profits in Afghanistan nor is opium their principal means of funding. Further, to show why the war on drugs in Afghanistan is a hollow cover, understanding the history of U.S. government complicity in global drug trafficking is essential.

U.S. Complicity in Global Drug Trafficking

As of 2007, Afghanistan supplies 92 percent of global opium, providing over one-third of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $11.5 billion. In this type of economy, the Taliban necessarily has connections and gleans funds from the global trade in narcotics. But the Taliban is a complex, rural-based collection of tribes without the legitimacy and global trafficking networks required to turn real profits. Paul Fishstein, the director of an independent Kabul-based research organization, explains the composition of the current Taliban. "We always have to be careful about referring to 'The Taliban,'" Fishstein says. "Often, anything violent—anything bad that happens—is attributed to either 'the enemies of Afghanistan' or more generally, 'The Taliban.'" Rivalries and local agendas have contributed to the resurgence of the movement. "What we generically refer to as 'The Taliban' is a set of different individuals and groups who have differing grievances, differing motivations, differing attitudes—and take a hostile attitude toward the [Afghan central] government…. There's an awful lot of groups out there that either have personal grudges, political grudges, or actually profit from the lack of law and order in the country," Fishstein concludes. Nevertheless, all opposition to the U.S. agenda is conveniently and collectively punished under the Taliban label.

Marines hand out candy in front of poppies

The U.S. State Department, in line with Fishstein's characterization, explains how the Taliban profits: "The narcotics trade has strong links with the anti-government insurgency, most commonly associated with the Taliban. Narcotics traffickers provide revenue and arms to the Taliban, while the Taliban provides protection to growers and traffickers and keeps the government from interfering with their activities…. For the most part, farmers choose to plant opium poppy because it is a profitable, hardy, and low-risk crop" (2008). According to the United Nations Office of Drug Control (UNODC), Afghanistan now processes almost all of its opium into heroin prior to export. It has created a "vertical manufacturing monopoly"—the most highly concentrated in the world. This achievement has removed the foreign middle-man in the processing of opium, thereby increasing profits retained in Afghanistan. The key point is that local growers—Taliban, their protected associates, or otherwise—provide only the raw product and receive a relatively small cut of the profits in the form of taxes or weapons. Value is then added, by manufacturing heroin out of raw opium, and the product is exported through a vertical, highly centralized system.

The bulk of the profit, therefore, goes to the network of individuals and organizations with the level of legitimacy and connections to manufacture heroin and export it through global trafficking networks. In a "vertical manufacturing monopoly," the hierarchy must end near or in the central government. Therefore, it should come as no small surprise that since 2005 when secret U.S. military documents were discovered at a bazaar in Afghanistan, Afghan President Karzai's connections to the drug trade have been publically known. Specifically, his best known connection is through his younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai's heroin trafficking. Further, in July 2009, Karzai pardoned five individuals for heroin trafficking. These pardons included a smuggler related to Deen Mohammad. Deen Mohammad is the head of Karzai's re-election campaign and a member of a powerful eastern-Afghani family (Salahuddin, "Karzai Pardons Five Afghan Heroin Traffickers," Reuters, 7/9/09).

Further understanding is found in the detailed works of British International Relations scholar Doug Stokes and the work of Peter Dale Scott (Scott and Marshall, Cocaine Politics, 1991; Stokes, America's Other War, 2005). Both accounts describe portions of the war on drugs in Central and South America from which Afghan policy is to be modeled. These works outline the brutal humanitarian consequences of the war on drugs, the culpability of U.S. intelligence services in furthering drug profits of favored actors, and the disconnect between stated foreign policy intentions and actual results. In essence, the war on drugs in these regions is another aspect of U.S. imperialism, couched in a palatable legitimacy cover for U.S. domestic consumption. These regions have characteristics similar to the evolving drug war in Afghanistan. Therefore, it should come as a warning to U.S. citizens when reports indicate that DEA efforts in Afghanistan will be modeled after efforts in South America.

Big Business Drug Funds for U.S. Allies

But the definitive account of the global trade in narcotics was penned by Professor Alfred McCoy in his seminal work, The Politics of Heroin (2003). The global trade in illicit drugs is big business. As of 1998, the UN estimates international drug trafficking to account for an equivalent of 8 percent of world trade. McCoy notes that this is larger than many other major industries including steel, automobiles, or textiles. From the end of WWII until the early 1990s, the CIA fought three major covert wars. McCoy explains that, "These wars were generally fought at the margins of states that didn't support [U.S.] efforts, in ethnic-minority-populated areas where the main cash crop was opium…to fight covert wars in such remote regions, it had to ally itself with local warlords…. At the start of each of these wars opium production was localized. Very quickly, however, both the scale and scope of the traffic expanded in order to fund the war." Afghanistan was one of these covert wars, from 1979 till 1992, and it was the "purest case of transformation" from local opium production to global trafficking. Between 1981 and 1991, opium exports increased ten-fold in Afghanistan from 200 tons to 2,000 tons, while UN reports place opium at over 6,724 tons—a 50 percent increase over its mind-numbing production of 2005 (UNODC 2007). Further, according to the U.S. State Department, in 2007 opium production again rose 34 percent above 2006 levels with, "The export value of [2007]'s illicit opium harvest, $4 billion, [making] up more than a third of Afghanistan's combined total [GDP] of $11.5 billion."

Proliferation of opium allows U.S.-allied warlords to raise an army on opium profits, which provides arms, supplies, and political support. This makes the selected warlord more powerful and able to consolidate control even further. As the tribal warlord grows in power, he takes over the household economy of local farmers in his area, opium farming, which further increases his power and provides a greater base of support and resources. It was therefore in the CIA's interest to tolerate, and in some cases facilitate, opium production because it made their chosen allies more effective combatants. Following the Soviet war, Afghanistan's postwar economic problems proliferated. Opium was the ideal recovery solution for an agrarian society ravished by a decade of war—because it required a heavy pool of labor and commanded a high international price. Therefore, opium drove the economy until a brief hiatus in 2000. Starved for international recognition, the Taliban ceased opium production in areas under their control—the majority of Afghanistan—in hopes of garnishing international recognition.

On top of crushing the economy, the prohibition failed to win international recognition. Still, only one area of the country, the area controlled by the Northern Alliance, continued to produce opium at the time of 9/11 and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion. According to McCoy, "When planning the Afghan War, the United States realized that the only allies we had were the Northern Alliance—the same warlords we had armed back in the 1980s, and who in the 1990s had operated pretty much as independent drug lords. The Northern Alliance controlled the one territory inside Afghanistan that hadn't banned drugs, and they were still very large opium producers and heroin smugglers. More important, they had huge stockpiles of opium left over from the 1999 bumper crop, which the world market simply hadn't been able to absorb—about 60 percent of the opium had been held back after the harvest. The Northern Alliance now transformed much of that opium into heroin and smuggled it into Europe and Russia…. These are the forces with which the U.S. allied itself to fight the Taliban, and the forces we have since installed in power in Afghanistan."

Given this, what are we likely to see develop as the war on drugs becomes an increasing part of the overall agenda in Afghanistan? Based on past history, local warlords who are in the favor of the U.S. will continue to produce and market opium under the implicit approval of the U.S. in order to consolidate their power base. High-level traffickers in or closely connected to the Afghan government—the biggest dealers in the country—will not be targeted by the DEA. Rather "higher level drug lords" will be a political term to connote those who do not agree to the U.S.-led plans for Afghanistan. These drug lords will be prosecuted, when it can be done without causing political embarrassment, and the number of these prosecutions is likely to be small. In most instances, inconvenient drug lords will simply be killed before their connections can be flushed out in a court of law.

It seems likely that this will be the principal form of U.S. acceptance for global drug trafficking: turning a blind eye to the increase in heroin trafficking so as to channel the proceeds towards pro-U.S. factions, all the while ensuring the U.S. public believes in a morally-righteous drug war. But there is always a darker possibility.

According to McCoy, complicity in Laotian heroin-smuggling operations of the 1970s went so far as to employ the CIA-established Air America in the transport of heroin for the benefit of their highland allies. Indeed, there are whisperings of similar action today in Central Asia. Since the initial collapse of the Taliban, there has been an explosion in heroin use in Russia that has transited through Central Asia out of Afghanistan. This has brought border concerns to the forefront in the region. Kyrgyzstani President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced in January that he was evicting U.S. forces from an air base that has been a crucial supply line for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Reported by the Wall Street Journal, "Russian state television, which is broadcast throughout [Kyrgyzstan], has beamed in a steady stream of reports critical of the U.S. presence, alleging the U.S. base here was a center of high-tech surveillance and drug dealing. The U.S. denies that."      

The Administration fervently desires to expand the Afghan war and has few qualms about manipulating public opinion in order to do so. For the sake of public support, metrics of achievement will focus on quantifiable numbers—the "Afghan surge," body counts, acres eradicated, and drug busts made—while eschewing elite motives driving policy. If the global war on terror morphs into the global war on drugs, it could spread fast and furious. There are already reports of an increasing trade in illegal drugs in Iraq; at least one political scholar has argued for the necessity of continued intervention on this front. Is it possible that, as the American populace becomes increasingly weary of the war on terror, we will see a re-birth of the war on drugs in a new and more sinister form to fill its place?



Originally from northeast Ohio, Christopher Smith moved to California during active-duty as a Marine officer. Following his required service, he completed a Master of Arts in International Relations at Bond University, Queensland, Australia.