Chasing the dragon, pt. 1

us_opiumPart 1…lying sidelong on a divan in the Senate cloakroom

That John Kerry and his Senate Foreign Relations Committee are a regular bunch of cards. Their Aug. 10 report, “Afghanistan’s Narco War: Breaking the Link Between Drug Traffickers and Insurgents”, is funnier than a barrel of drunk monkeys. It opens with the statement: “At the end of March when President Obama fulfilled his pledge to make the war in Afghanistan a higher priority, he cast the U.S. role more narrowly than the previous administration: Defeat Al Quaeda and eliminate its safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To accomplish these twin tasks, however, the President is making a practical commitment to Afghanistan that is far greater than his predecessor—more troops, more civilians, and more money.”

First, hasn’t that always been the goal of the U.S. in Afghanistan? Second, good luck. Third, only in Washington could someone say that the new, smaller goal is actually larger than the old, big goal with a straight face. No, the rest of the report doesn’t get any better. It’s full of whitewashes, diversions, sins of omission, and gaping holes. Welcome to rationalizations for a quagmire that you can believe in.

This report boils down the Obama administration’s change in talking points. Since it refuses to define “Taliban”, it is at pains to focus the discussion of Afghanistan as a narco war.

The drug trade that finances the insurgency must be stopped in order to provide security to stabilize the nation. True, so far as it goes. But it neglects to mention that opium has, since its criminalization, always found fertile ground in remote places that lack security. To be fair, the report does admit that opium cultivation increased after the U.S. invasion; however, it refuses to honestly address the fact that the U.S. invasion destroyed whatever security there was in Afghanistan and just how much opium production increased under the U.S. occupation. The Senate prefers to call the poppy boom an “unintended consequence”, which translates into something similar to “collateral damage” and suggests that the Senate is not very good at planning for the future.

Laying the historical context of opium in Afghanistan is the second most painful portion of the report. It’s fine if the reader has never opened a serious history book (Senators?), but otherwise reads like a shifty teenager trying to explain the stains on the carpet and smell of stale cigarette smoke when his parents return from vacation.

Before 1978, Afghanistan produced a paltry 300 tons of raw opium. Then it was “dragged through a decade of brutal warfare”…with no mention of the U.S. involvement. Not surprisingly, opium production grew amidst the chaos in agriculture that war generally produces. Those unintended consequences are a bitch. Again, there is no mention of the U.S. turning a blind eye (or aiding and abetting*) the opium trade that helped to fund the Afghan insurgents when we called them freedom fighters. We are treated to an oblique admission of some guilt on the part of the U.S. in the opium war-lords securing positions of power in the post-Taliban Afghan government. This was the unintended consequence of invading on the cheap.

It’s also nothing new. The South Vietnamese government was riddled with heroin traffickers, in this case selling mostly to American GI’s. In both cases, the U.S. finds itself between the rock of needing so-and-so in the existential fight against what’s-it-called and the hard place of so-and-so being deeply involved in the drug trade. But Richard Holbrooke has stated recently that the majority of the Taliban’s funds do not come from trafficking opium. They come from good old-fashioned racketeering, the payoffs being skimmed off the top of reconstruction money. (And, yes, Richard Holbrooke says a lot of things that may or may not be complete bullshit.)

The “Taliban” profits from the drug trade and the warlords-cum-government officials profit from it. Chances are that not a few Americans and perhaps some of America’s intelligence services have profited from the Afghan opium trade. The Russian mafia is certainly profiting, and Kosovar organized crime probably is too. That’s the thing about the drug trade, particularly the opium trade: there’s so much profit that everyone finds some. What’s interesting is that the Senate has come to the conclusion that Al Qaeda is not profiting from the Afghan drug trade. “Surprisingly, there is no evidence that any significant amount of the drug proceeds go to Al Qaeda.”

If our goal is to remove Al Qaeda and deny it safe haven, and Al Qaeda is not involved in the Afghan opium trade, then what does this beautiful little narco war have to do with our stated objective?

*“The CIA has admitted involvement with the money laundry known as the Shakarchi Trading which had handled both Kintex and Globus transactions as well as acting for the mafia in Sicily. The owner of the company, Mohammed Shakarchi, declared his firm had cleaned $25 million for the CIA between 1981 and 1988, which was used to support the Mujaheddin insurgents fighting the Russian occupation army in Afghanistan.” (Booth, 338) Kintex/Globus operated as a state-owned company in Bulgaria, earning fame and fortune by running guns into the Middle East and heroin into Europe.

Image credit: UPI

10 replies »

  1. Lex,

    I’ll have to read the report, and you certainly seem to be right that fighting a drug war, or even nation-building, cannot be part of a “narrower” mission.

    One thing I think you’re being unfair about, though, is the US role in the war between the insurgents and the Soviets. US assistance came relatively late in that war, so that the country was “dragged through … brutal warfare” long before the US did much but boycott the Moscow Olympics. Did the US screw the pooch by failing to foresee that a Soviet presence in a stable Afghanistan would be far superior to a theocratic state opposed to all that is America? Oh yes. I’m in your chorus on that one. But security issues came with the Soviets. The American assistance was relatively small compared to what they poured into the country.

    As for defining “Taliban,” I can see the problem. As I understand it, the word “talib” means simply something like “student.” Defining all students, or even all students of the Koran, as enemies would be unwise, I think. And, after all, what’s in a name?

  2. JS,

    Really? Carter had signed two directives by July of 1979. Brzezinski and Gates have admitted (the later in print) that the CIA was involved in destabilizing Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion. The Reagan administration had ramped up funding to the neighborhood of $600M/year by 81-82 (every dollar matched by the House of Saud). The stingers didn’t arrive until ’85-’86, but the CIA had been training mujahidin in outright terrorism tactics before that. We spent the money to force the Soviets to spend even more money.

    I won’t argue that the Soviet investment was higher, but let’s not forget that the $1.2B/year was just the on-the-budget. It’s been written in multiple places that the CIA (which was neck deep in the drug trade during the ’80’s) actively encouraged opium growing.

    I’m also under the impression that talib simply means “student”. But whatever the Taliban now is not, exactly, the same group that won the civil war after the Soviet withdrawal…partially with heavy military equipment captured during Gulf War I and sent to Afghanistan in contravention of the US-Soviet agreement to not fund warring parties after the Soviet withdrawal.

    Last week when the Germans called in the airstrike on the hijacked tanker truck, the news pointed out that the “Taliban” had hijacked the truck. Except the hijacking was in a northern province while the Taliban is traditionally a Pashtun group. Maybe it was the Taliban that hijacked the truck; my point is that any individual or group that doesn’t back the government is called “Taliban” in an effort to A. simplify things for Idiot America and B. give the impression that they’re all the same people who helped OBL attack America.

  3. Lex,

    I recommend the book “Ghost Wars” by Stephen Coll. It is an in-depth analysis of America’s involvement with Afghanistan just prior to and after the Soviet invasion, right up to Massoud’s assassination. I think it’s widely believed to be the definitive history to date, and includes what I think is stunning research and first-hand accounts. I think you’d really enjoy it.

    There are plenty of Taliban in the north, which was also a surprise to me when I first learned about it. Kondoz was a regional capitol of sort for them as I understand it, and when the Taliban government began to fall apart, those from Kondoz scattered into the countryside and took up lives in the province (which is much richer, fertile, and better irrigated than most parts of Afghanistan. Pushtuns can be found all over Afghanistan, sometimes in substantial numbers, but you’re correct that most are in the northern and eastern parts of Pushtunistan, which is a region generally along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. So, Ghazni and Kadahar are hotbeds of Taliban/Pushtun activity, but Herat, in the west, isn’t that far behind, and one can find perhaps 50% Taliban or Taliban sympathizers even in remote, central towns like Chaghcharan.

  4. What’s “the beginning”, JS? And how do you define “feeble”? Is destabilizing a sovereign nation in order to provoke problems for a third nation “feeble”? Or as William Casey briefed Reagan, “Far fewer people and weapons are needed to put a government on the defensive than are needed to protect it.” (Cole, 97)

    So yes, the $400M (combined US and Saudi money) that had been spent – openly – by 1984 isn’t all that much in the grand scheme of things. But we’re just talking about what Congress doled out here, which almost certainly wasn’t all of the money, and see above on how much less it costs to fund an insurgency than an occupation force. Or ask the Obama administration.

    Look, i’ve read your words long enough to know that you’ve got a pretty strict Cold War world view: a hatred for all things Russia and a willingness to explain away all sorts of nefarious behavior on the part of the US so long as it was directed at the Soviet Union. And i know full well that you will ignore or deflect any piece of evidence that doesn’t fit your view, like the US destabilizing Afghanistan (and i don’t care if it was cheap or not).

    Would you like to discuss the numerous overtures made by the Soviets to get out of Afghanistan much earlier than they did? (Cole discusses them so i’m sure you know the page numbers already) You know, the ones that were consistently rebuffed by the US because our splendid little war was going according to plan.

    But, hell, just for shits and giggles, why don’t you provide me with page numbers to back up your argument that our aid was “feeble”.

  5. Well, Lex, if you think I have “a strict Cold War view” of the world, then I don’t think you’ve read my words very carefully at all. In fact, I was one of the ones trying to point out (with little success) the insanity of the paranoia loop fueling the Cold War right up to its end. Mine was a very weak and ineffectual voice, granted, but at least I was in the chorus.

    I simply believe in not overstating things, because doing so leads to both incorrect assumptions and incorrect decisions. I believe you overstated something important. That’s all.

    I won’t characterize you in an ad hominem attack the way you did to me, but I would urge you to ask yourself a hard question for anyone to ask of him or herself: Do you think you tend to demonize those who have honest disagreements with you?

  6. JS, you once said that you hate Russia (and will not forgive the nation) because of government pogroms in the 19th Century. I don’t know what you thought, felt, or said during the Cold War, and if i mischaracterized your views, then i apologize.

    But all i said in the original piece was “with no mention of the U.S. involvement.” I did not write that it was all the US’s fault, nor did i make any statements concerning the scope of US involvement. In fact, this is about opium…not the Soviet Afghan War per se. You made it a point to defend US involvement by minimizing it (correctly or incorrectly, but that’s rather beside the point). My only point in writing the original statement was that the Senate is pretending that our hands are clean when they’re not.

    To answer your question, no i don’t. I’m one of the few here who can have an honest disagreement with Jeff without demonizing him. Though i will say that i refuse to be intellectually intimidated by anyone, and i will come out swinging hard when i feel that’s the case. I’d like to return the question: Do you think you tend to take a condescending attitude towards people who have honest disagreements with you?

    Read my response to your first comment. Does that look like demonization or honest disagreement? I didn’t get angry until you started obliquely suggesting that i don’t know what i’m talking about and that i should educate myself with a particular book that i’ve already read. And then wrote a snarky reply to my indication that i’ve already read the book. Look at my posts with numbers and dates and yours with broad words like “feeble” and “beginning”. How am i supposed to have an honest disagreement with someone who won’t even define their position?

  7. Lex,

    You’re right about one thing. I should have made clear that what I was objecting to was the irrelevance of the issue of whether or not the US had minor involvement in the Soviet-Mujahideen War. The fact was, beginning in 1979, the people of Afghanistan were, in fact, dragged through a brutal war. Whether the US had any slight culpability in that is immaterial to the issue at hand, as is the issue of whether Pakistan and India and the Soviets themselves had culpability. The fact remains. They were dragged through a brutal war. Yes?

    Anyway, I apologize for not making that clear.

    Because you used the date “1978,” I simply wanted to point out that US involvement in the Soviet-Mujahideen War (which began in late 1979, I think) was quite weak in the beginning.

    Same with the word “Taliban.” I don’t know how you would define a talib (student) as an enemy unless he also happens to be a violent, religious extremist. Personally, I wouldn’t try to define the word. I’d find an acronym (like VRE for “violent, religious extremist”).

    But, no matter.

    Lex, I think you see condescension in … well, I don’t know what. Like yours, my copy of Ghost Wars is … well, not dog-eared exactly. I’m looking at it right now and the spine is disintegrating. I’m going to need another copy.

    Anyway, I didn’t think you’d read it because my reading of its overall thesis varies quite strongly from yours, it would seem. To me, the book says, basically, the following:

    1. We badly neglected that part of the world prior to the Soviet invasion
    2. Once the Soviets invaded, we chased our tails for a while doing almost nothing
    3. Once we decided to do something, we funneled military aid through the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI), and they had their own motives, weakening guys like Massoud and strengthening really, really bad men like Hekmatyar
    4. The Saudis gave matching funds, also completely out of our control, and also had their own ends in mind, including a huge network of radical schools to train new VREs
    5. Once the Soviets withdrew, we continued to funnel aid through the ISI to get rid of the freestanding communist government because we seemed to be stupid enough to think that a VRE government would be better
    6. When the communist government collapsed, we disappeared from the scene pretty much completely
    7. GHW Bush didn’t even realize the war was still going on when he was briefed, so we were back to ridiculous neglect and lack of attention
    8. The Clinton Administration continued the neglect and lack of attention legacy
    9. In the end, the VREs won out and the rest is history.

    As for my saying something to the effect of, I “hate Russia (and will not forgive the nation) because of government pogroms in the 19th Century,” that’s not only utter nonsense, it’s also a gross misrepresentation of anything I have ever thought. I barely recall the issue at hand, but as I recall, it had to do with an assertion I made that anyone would be foolish to ignore historical, national tendencies when dealing with other nations. I believe you pooh-poohed the idea that there is such a thing as cultural norms of behavior. This would put you in the minority, I think.

    Do I think the Soviets were all a bunch of good guys who just wanted to get along with everyone and had completely given up on the idea of world hegemony and a warm-water port? Nope. Do I think Putin is a good guy? Nope. Do I think the Soviets or Russians were/are ravening warmongers itching to go to war at the drop of a hat? Nope. Do I think Americans are perfect angels on the imperialism front? Nope. Do I think Americans are evil? Nope.

    I DO think, though, that it’s a very good idea to recognize that cultures have, and still do, react to situations in various ways that demonstrate historical norms of behavior, and that in the absence of evidence that those norms have changed, it behooves us to pay close attention to them. It would be foolish, for instance, to think that the US would react calmly to a sneak attack, given the evidence of Pearl Harbor and 9/11.

  8. Great article and great information. I appreciate the link to the Senate report. The U.S. involvement in Afghan opium has been going on much longer than the late 1970s. During World War II, the U.S. was Afghanistan’s major customer of opium, storing it in the Treasury vaults. Post-WWII, the U.S. pulled the rug out from Afghan efforts to get international recognition as a legal producer. Then, unintentionally, the U.S. (among other countries) created the irrigation systems in the Helmand Valley that helped led to record opium harvests post-1979.