The New Axis of Evil
Our battle group was a ragtag crew of scruffy Afgan and stony- faced American mercenaries. Our target was opium fields profiting the Taliban.
As the first light of day cast a pink glow across the desert, the Afghans rewound their turbans to cover noses and mouths, clicked ammunition clips into Kalashnikovs, and piled onto tractors and Bedford trucks. Wearing flak jackets, baseball caps, and dark sunglasses, the men from DynCorp silently checked their M4 rifles, and peered out across the bleak horizon.
I scribbled into my notebook as my colleague Nasir filmed the scene. John, my husband, was busy taking photos. Journalists rarely had access to ERAD, the poppy eradication force, especially in remote, lawless Helmand. Armed to the teeth and already covered in dust, our convoy looked like something out of Mad Max. We wanted to capture it all.
That morning before dawn, an advance team patrolling the roads had come upon a group of insurgents planting an IED in our path. Once the Afghan police colonel and the DynCorp team leader identified where the would- be bombers came from, they decided to pay their village a visit. As punishment, the ERAD team would destroy their opium crops.
Around the cloud of dust that rose as we bumped along the Zamindavar Plains, poppy fields stretched as far as the eye could see: intense fuchsia blossoms floating in brilliant seas of green. Simple mud huts hugged the banks of irrigation canals. Veiled women hoisted buckets of water out of wells. Turbaned farmers tended their crops, staining their fingers black with the opium gum as they scraped it off the buds. The scenery actually looked lovely, not that I was able to sit back and enjoy it. We were deep in Taliban country and would be lucky to make it through the day without an attack.
Inside our four- by- four, we rode in nervous silence. My mind replayed the array of nightmares that might befall us: ambush, IED, suicide bomb. Villagers along the road watched stonily as our convoy lumbered past. Each time a man approached on a motorcycle, or we slowed down to cross over a stream, my teeth clenched and my heart rose in my chest. It took about an hour to reach the target village. It felt like forever.
The Afghan police and the DynCorp soldiers quickly fanned out in a perimeter around the lush fields, their weapons ready. Tractors went to work churning up the poppy buds. Overhead, a Huey2 helicopter buzzed the pastures, patrolling for ambushes. We were hundreds of miles from any place that could justifiably be called civilization, with about a hundred boots on the ground and one bird in the sky to protect against a ferocious, battle- hardened enemy.
In the end, the only confrontation came when a skinny farmer, tears streaming down his face, emerged from his mud hut with two filthy children to hurl insults at the eradicators. "Why don’t you just shoot us now?" he shouted. "If you cut down my fields, we’ll all die anyway."
Next to him on her knees was his wife, toothless, in dust- covered robes. She reached her arms toward the sky and wailed loudly, beseeching Allah to inflict his wrath upon us. In this neighborhood, we all knew, her prayers had a decent chance of being answered.
That trip to Helmand, in April 2006, put a face to the fragmentary information I had been hearing for more than two years. I had already interviewed truck drivers, farmers, police, and several governors from the southern provinces. The insurgents, they said, had teamed up with criminals. Kandahar’s top counternarcotics cop, Ahmadullah Alizai, put it this way: "The smugglers forged a direct link to the Taliban and al Qaeda. They get the terrorists to move their drugs."1
U.S. authorities started seeing the trend, too. In late 2003, Amer-ican sailors boarded two rickety- looking dhows in the Persian Gulf. On board, they found a couple of wanted al Qaeda terrorists sitting on bales of heroin worth $3 million.2 A few months later, U.S. counternarcotics agents raided a drug smugglers’ lair in Kabul, confiscating a satellite telephone. When CIA agents ran numbers stored in its memory, they discovered the telephone had been used repeatedly to call suspected terrorist cells in western Europe, Turkey, and the Balkans.3
Suddenly, links between terror groups and narco- traffickers began popping up all over Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was the start of things to come. The Taliban insurgency launched a comeback in the spring of 2003, just as opium cultivation exploded across southern Afghanistan.4 U.S. troops searching a terrorist hideout in Uruzgan Province found a drug stash worth millions of dollars.5 U.S. spy satellites tracked cargo ships leaving Pakistani shores laden with Afghan heroin, and returning with weapons and ammunition for the insurgency.6 DEA agents brought smugglers with ties to Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden to the United States to face justice.
If the accumulating incidents were troubling, it wasn’t until I saw the vast scope of Helmand’s poppy crop that I felt real alarm. Sloshing about the muddy fields, I realized these lovely flowers could one day fund what ever deadly ambitions terrorist groups based in this region had. "Drugs are going to change everything," I thought.
In 2006, Afghanistan produced the largest illegal narcotics crop a modern nation ever cultivated in a single harvest. Two- thirds of it was grown in areas where the Taliban held sway, if not outright control.7 It’s no coincidence that it was also the bloodiest fighting season since Mullah Omar’s regime was toppled five years earlier, with about four thousand deaths. These two circumstances are codependent: the insurgency is exploding precisely because the opium trade is booming. In 2007, Afghanistan’s poppy crop expanded a further 17 percent, with 70 percent grown and processed in the Taliban- dominated south. In 2008, drought reduced Afghanistan’s poppy output by 19 percent. But more than 98 percent of it was cultivated in insurgent- held areas, where more than three thousand tons of opium were stockpiled, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Senior U.S. commanders now predict Afghanistan will turn out to be America’s "bad" war and Iraq the "good" one.8 An American soldier was more than twice as likely to die in Afghanistan as in Iraq by the end of 2007, reversing earlier trends, while Jane’s Information Group rated Afghanistan the third most unstable territory after Somalia and the Gaza Strip.9
In video statements, the insurgents no longer speak of their ambition to take Kabul; their battlefield tactics have shifted to protecting poppy fields and drug convoys. Campaigns for territorial gain, such as a 2007 Taliban push into Deh Rawood district in Uruzgan, now support smuggling activities.10 Deh Rawood is perched along the most important drugs- and arms- trafficking route in Uruzgan, connecting to Iran in the west and Pakistan in the south. Poor security in general is vital to the opium trade, preventing aid programs and other development that might offer poor villagers alternatives to the narcotics trade. "Drug smugglers do not want to see this country become stable," said Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister.11
Helmand Province, where I traveled with the poppy eradication force, is about the size of West Virginia. If it were a separate country, it would be the world’s leading opium producer, with the rest of Afghanistan in second place. It’s also where links between the Taliban and the opium trade are strongest. "Most of the insurgency there is drug- related," says Ali Jalali, Afghanistan’s former interior minister. "It’s 100 percent intertwined."12 The province’s total population is less than 1 million— with tens of thousands of families displaced by the fighting. Taliban gunmen patrol the streets of towns they control, hanging alleged spies for the NATO coalition in public squares.13
In 2007, UNODC valued Helmand’s total poppy output at $528 million, a figure that prompted the conclusion among U.S. and UN officials that Helmand is a wealthy place.14 Poppy fetches as much as twelve times more than other staple crops, like wheat and melons. "Helmand’s farmers are not poor," a senior UNODC official told me in 2006. "Actually there are a lot of rich ones among them."15 It is true traffickers and a handful of large landowners earn tens of millions off Helmand’s poppy crop, and we need to go after those individuals. However, the vast majority of farmers and sharecroppers are barely eking out a living. House hold data collected by the Afghan government, and analyzed by two leading scholars on the Afghan drug trade, calculate a per capita daily income of $1, hardly reflecting Helmand as a land of plenty.16 "We grow poppy, but the drug smugglers take it from us," said Haji Ramtullah, a farmer in Maarja district. "We sell it cheaply. Then they take it over the border into Pakistan. They make twice as much as we do."17
Another argument one hears from U.S. officials is that the poppy farmers have alternatives but do not take them. Helmand receives more U.S. aid than any other Afghan province, they often add. That’s true; however, much of the money has been spent on large infrastructural projects that won’t show concrete change for ordinary Afghans for years. Meanwhile, cash- for- work and alternative livelihood programs funded by USAID have been costly failures. One $18 million, U.S.- funded program shut down in 2005 after gunmen killed eleven of the local staff and guards.18
Everywhere you look, there are horrific reports filtering out about daily life in this violent and lawless province. Farmers there often say they must grow opium to survive, and they are not exaggerating. The Taliban threaten dire consequences for anyone who fails to meet opium quotas set by the traffickers. With too few foreign troops to launch a proper counterinsurgency campaign, NATO commanders are forced to rely on aerial bombardments, killing hundreds of civilians and hardening the Afghan villagers against the West. The provincial government and police are notoriously corrupt— with most profiting from the opium trade as well. "We are caught here between the Taliban and government," said Dastoor Khan, a Helmand farmer, expressing a commonly heard sentiment.19
Yet instead of intensifying efforts to go after the traffickers and money launderers behind the insurgency, the U.S. government has pushed for broadscale aerial spraying of poppy fields. Wide-scale spraying would play into the hands of traffickers and terrorists. If implemented, this policy would drive up opium prices, thus increasing profits for drug dealers and the Taliban, and make life even harder for already debt- ridden Afghan farmers— exactly the results the U.S. government and NATO don’t want.
It’s easy to see how we got into this mess. Finding a way out presents a greater challenge. One can blame the current predicament on a combination of geography, poverty, and the "light footprint" approach. Landlocked Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most backward countries in the world, with social indicators on par with places like Burundi and Ethiopia. Almost one in four Afghan children die before they reach age five and average life expectancy is just forty- three years. Per capita GDP was estimated by the World Bank in 2003 to be a mere $310.
The nation’s infrastructure is pitiable, with one phone line for every five hundred people, few paved roads, not a single functioning sewage system, and a capital city that grinds along on just a few hours of city power per day. The economy is in shambles, inflation is skyrocketing, and along the rugged Pakistan frontier, many tribes have survived for centuries by smuggling goods through the forbidding mountain passes. Financial hardships weigh on ordinary Afghans as much as security concerns. In a 2006 survey by the Asia Foundation, Afghans named poverty and unemployment as more critical concerns than the Taliban.20
After 9/11, the international community paid lip ser vice to the strategic importance of a stable Afghanistan, but never committed the resources to actually create one. Despite troop increases to the NATO- led mission, Afghanistan has the lowest troop- to- population ratio and one of the lowest international aid- to- population ratios of any major conflict zone in the past ten years.21 The mandate for peacekeepers with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) did not go beyond Kabul for its first two years of existence, and there were fewer than ten thousand U.S. troops deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom— which covered the rest of the country— through 2002. As former national security advisor Richard Clarke put it, "There were more cops in New York City than soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan."22 It was the perfect soil for an insurgency and a criminal economy to take root and flourish.
As poppy output mushroomed, donor nations started bickering over how to deal with it. The Pentagon, with the largest number of people and greatest amount of resources to throw at the problem, refused to take command, saying it blurred the central mission of hunting down terrorists. Top U.S. commanders, including former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, often quipped: "We don’t do drugs."23
But many recognized what was coming. "Nobody in the military who’s been out here questions that drugs are the problem," says a U.S. official who used to be based in Kabul. "They just don’t want to deal with it." Before long, the problem became impossible to ignore. "The commanders all know how bad it is," continues the official. "I have been to landing zones where there’s poppy growing right up to their freaking wire."24 The Pentagon’s reluctance to take on the problem backfired badly for the Bush administration, which had to deploy more American soldiers rather than bring them home. Although public attention in the United States has been more focused on troop numbers in Iraq, there are now more American troops dedicated to Operation Enduring Freedom than ever. And it’s still not enough.
The NATO- led force in Afghanistan now numbers more than 50,000 soldiers, but only some 10,000 are for combat, owing to large administration and logistical support ratios. Estimates of how many insurgents are fighting range from 5,000 to 20,000, with the total swelling or contracting depending on the season. Even with 3,200 U.S. Marines deployed to Helmand in 2008, NATO was only ableto slow the insurgency’s expansion.25
The international aid community has also shortchanged Afghanistan. Since 2001, the international community pledged $25 billion in aid but delivered only $15 billion, according to the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an alliance of ninety- four international aid agencies. An astounding 40 percent of that sum—$6 billion— goes back to donor nations in the form of corporate profits and the exorbitant salaries paid to foreign aid workers.26 Meanwhile opium income in 2003— estimated at $4.8 billion— was more than 70 percent greater than the $2.8 billion dispersed in foreign aid.27 "The poppy economy has filled the vacuum we created by not engaging in nation building," says Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst. "The danger that we reach a point where drug armies are controlling large areas of territory is real now."28
It’s hardly unusual, however. In hot spots around the globe, terrorist and other anti- state groups have forged symbiotic relationships with dope runners and the criminal underworld. Of the State Department’s forty- two designated terrorist groups, eighteen have ties to drug trafficking, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. And thirteen of the smuggling organizations the DEA believes are primarily responsible for the United States’ illegal drug supply have links to terrorist groups.29 "In the new era of globalization, both terror and crime organizations have expanded and diversified their activities," said Michael A. Braun, the DEA’s chief of operations in 2005. "As a result, the traditional boundaries between terrorist groups and other criminal groups have begun to blur."30
They flourish around the globe in places where good governance does not. The players may change by region, but the script remains largely the same. Whether it’s the Irish Republican Army moving ecstasy into Northern Ireland, Maoist insurgent groups in Nepal running hash into East Asia, or Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers moving Burmese heroin to the West, anti- state groups the world over are increasingly engaging in criminal enterprise, from drug smuggling to kidnap for ransom, credit card fraud, and extortion. Some, like Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, get their start by taxing traffickers who pass through their control zones. Their role deepens over time. French law enforcement estimates the PKK now smuggles 80 percent of the heroin sold in Paris.
For other groups, drugs provide an opportunity to break free from state sponsors whose support may be dwindling or politically conditional. Hezbollah, for example, got into drug production in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to fill the void when funding from Iran declined.31 Terror groups have every incentive to seek financial independence. According to a Stanford University study that examined why some conflicts last so much longer than others, crime was a crucial factor. Out of 128 conflicts, the 17 in which insurgents relied heavily on "contraband finances" lasted five times longer than the rest.32
Around Kabul, one often hears concerns that Afghanistan is turning into another Iraq.33 The parallels are actually closer to Colombia. The Taliban and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish acronym, FARC, both got their start like modern- day Robin Hoods, protecting rural peasants from the excesses of a corrupt government. Strapped for cash and needing the support of local farmers, both groups began levying a tax on drug crops. Over time in Colombia, the FARC was slowly sucked into the coca trade. They began using their soldiers to protect drugs shipments, and then took control of the factories refining coca into cocaine. FARC commanders started forcing farmers in the zones they control to grow coca. Eventually, the FARC became financially self- sufficient, and set up a parallel government.
The pattern sounds eerily familiar to police and military officials in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is undergoing a similar metamorphosis— only much faster. As one senior U.S. official who moved from Colombia to South Asia put it, "It’s like watching a bad movie all over again."34 As Afghanistan’s poppy crop explodes past $4 billion a year, "there is no question, no question at all, that the Taliban has been increasingly involved both directly and indirectly in narcotics," says Seth Jones, a Rand Corporation analyst and author of books on Afghanistan.35 "Nowhere, except perhaps in Colombia, has the linkage between the drugs trade and terrorism been stronger," writes Robert Charles, a former director of the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL).36
The Taliban still mainly confine their role in the drug trade to taxing farmers and protecting drug shipments, but that is changing, just as it did with the FARC, as opportunities for income grow. More important, the definition of Taliban member and drug smuggler is blurring. Taliban help organize farm output in the regions they control, and some commanders even run their own heroin labs.
Today’s battles are more often diversionary attacks to protect big drug shipments, rather than campaigns for strategic territorial gain. In many areas, drug smugglers have their own armies whose fighters are widely referred to as "Taliban." Unraveling the details is complicated by the fact that the Taliban itself is less of a unified movement today than it was at its start. In many parts of the Afghanistan- Pakistan border, it’s more a gangland- style grouping of tribal leaders, businessmen, regional warlords, and thugs. Media reports often describe the Taliban as profiting off the drug trade, but it’s more accurate to say they ser vice it, working for opium smugglers and the mammoth international organized crime rings behind them.
One thing is clear: as the insurgents get sucked deeper into drugs, commanders are losing ties to ideological roots of the Taliban movement. "There’s a very small core of true believers still left in the Taliban," says a top U.S. military official. "But our intel is that most of the guys are just in it to make a buck."37 My research came to a similar conclusion. Using local reporters, I surveyed 350 people who work in or alongside the drug trade in twelve areas along the Pakistan- Afghanistan border where the insurgency holds power or significant influence. Eighty- one percent of respondents said Taliban commanders’ first priority was to make money, rather than to recapture territory and impose the strict brand of Islam they had espoused while in power.
Again, the Taliban is following a pattern demonstrated by the FARC. They are no less violent— and in fact are far more ruthless— but their terrorist acts now serve to further their drug ambitions as often as their political ones. Individual commanders may be corrupted by the race for the almighty dollar, but I don’t mean to suggest the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies have put aside their ambitions to wreak havoc in the West. Far from it. As earnings soar, criminalized insurgents could make significant gains against the Kabul government— and beyond. Consider this: the FARC now controls 35 percent of Colombia, and earns more than $500 million from the cocaine trade every year. "People should be concerned about the FARCification of the Taliban," says Doug Wankal, who headed the counternarcotics task force at the U.S. embassy in Kabul until mid- 2007. "It does not take a lot of drugs money to fund their terrorist operations."
But how much are they making? Where does al Qaeda come into the picture? And what do they plan to do with all that money?
A senior Afghan security official says Taliban soldiers captured in battle have confessed that the bulk of their operational funding— including their salaries and cash for fuel, food, weapons, and bombs— comes from drugs. "It’s reached the point where about half of the opium we seize in the provinces has some link to the Taliban," General Ali Shah Paktiawal, director of the anti- criminal branch of the Kabul police, told me in 2006.
The DEA estimates opium now provides the Taliban with 70 percent of its financing.38 UNODC estimates that approximately 80 percent of Afghanistan’s 8,200- metric- ton opium yield in 2007 came from Taliban regions and sold at an average of US$86 per kilogram. This would have netted the Taliban more than $56 million in 2007 from the 10 percent tax known as ushr (from the Arabic ashr, which means "ten") that is collected at the farm level. Additionally, more than fifty refineries reportedly operate in Taliban- held areas, where insurgents collect about $250 for every kilogram refined.39 UNODC estimates that those refineries produced 666 metric tons of heroin and morphine base in 2007, which yields another $133 million and change per year.40 The Taliban also earn as much as $250 million annually providing armed protection for drug shipments moving through their region, as well as receiving tens of millions of dollars’ worth of material supplies from smugglers, including vehicles, food, and satellite phones.41
Added together, their drug revenue may even outpace that of the FARC. When putting numbers on criminal activity— especially in such a fluid atmosphere— even the best estimates are just that. But one thing is clear: the Taliban’s profits from the drug trade are now astonishingly high.
Nailing down how Osama bin Laden comes into the drug trade is far tougher, especially since the issue became embroiled in Washington politics. Today, senior U.S. officials often say evidence of al Qaeda’s ties to opium is fragmentary. The argument goes like this: bin Laden’s two public statements on drugs indicate that he, like Mullah Omar, is deeply opposed to the use of narcotics. (Neither man has gone public with his opinion on trafficking drugs.)42 As well, officials claim captured al Qaeda operatives have told U.S. interrogators that bin Laden warned his people to stay away from the trade, fearing it would expose them to greater risk.
There are indications al Qaeda has struggled for money, including a six- thousand- word letter allegedly intercepted in 2005 where the number two figure in al Qaeda, Ayman al- Zawahiri, asked the late Iraqi insurgent Abu Musab Zarqawi to send money, saying many of its "lines have been cut off" and "we’ll be very grateful" for financial help.43 American officials say donations from the Persian Gulf are what keep the movement flush, and argue that even though al Qaeda operates in a region where the opium business is booming, it doesn’t necessarily prove the terrorists are into it.44 "Our reporting was they were very worried drugs would corrupt their movement," a senior U.S. counternarcotics official told me. "I have seen nothing to indicate that has changed."45
This wasn’t always Washington’s official line, however. Back in 2000, CIA director George Tenet testified to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that "there is ample evidence that Islamic extremists such as Osama Bin Ladin use profits from the drug trade to support their terror campaign."46 In March 2002, former INL chief Rand Beers told the Senate’s Judiciary Committee: "Afghanistan’s opiate trafficking . . . was reportedly advocated by Osama Bin Ladin as a way to weaken the West."47 A month later, Asa Hutchinson, the DEA administrator at the time, said his agency "has received multi- source information that Osama bin Laden himself has been involved in the financing and facilitation of heroin trafficking activities."48
Then suddenly, as the Bush administration ramped up for war in Iraq, the official language on this issue took a 180- degree turn, to the immense frustration of U.S. officials who track it closely. "Suddenly I was only permitted to say that we had a ‘high probability’ of drug money going to the Taliban and ‘the possibility’ of it going to al Qaeda," says Charles, the former INL chief.49 It wasn’t clear whether top aides to Bush didn’t know how to deal with the narcoterror threat or if they simply worried the issue would distract the general public from their wider ambition to invade Iraq. Either way, the administration tried to stir up confusion over whether it was really happening. "It’s kind of like déjàvu all over again," complains a senior Republican aide, recalling years of debate in Washington over whether the FARC in Colombia was involved in cocaine smuggling. "We lost precious years there not fighting drugs and terrorists simultaneously, and we are doing the same thing in Afghanistan."50
Jack Lawn, a former DEA administrator and FBI agent, became so concerned about the nexus between terrorists and heroin in Afghanistan that he sat down and wrote letters to all relevant officials in the Bush administration, and to the chairs of all relevant committees of Congress. No one even bothered to answer him. "Why we are not speaking out on this— much less doing something about it— confounds me," Lawn says, adding, "Ultimately, we are all going to have to care."51 Other U.S. officials point to two July 2007 intelligence reports describing al Qaeda as better organized and better funded than any time since 9/11.52 "If you can’t figure out what opium is doing in that mix, you don’t deserve to be in this game," says one.53
Based on my research, Islamic extremists connected to al Qaeda don’t move large quantities of drugs themselves, and there’s scant evidence of an organized network involving their leaders in the drug trade. However, low- level al Qaeda operatives appear to get involved at the Pakistan- Afghanistan border, once the opium has been refined into heroin and is ready to get smuggled to the West. This is exactly the point where the profit margin is the highest. Respondents to our survey along the Pakistan- Afghanistan border had no evidence top leaders like bin Laden or his deputy al Zawahiri personally took a role, but 41 percent said low- level al Qaeda fighters regularly helped to protect heroin shipments for money.
The data makes sense when you consider that western intelligence officials believe top- tier al Qaeda leaders are largely cut off from the day- to- day running of their organization, leaving lower-level operatives to fend for themselves. "It’s wrong to think you’ll find Osama bin Laden with a bag of opium in one hand and a dirty bomb in the other," says a western official. "But the link is there. Increasingly, there are signs that al Qaeda fighters have learned to live off of drug money."54
That’s certainly true among terror cells in Europe. "Crime is now the main source of cash for Islamic radicals [here]," says attorney Lorenzo Vidino, author of Al Qaeda in Europe. "They do not need to get money wired from abroad like ten years ago. They’re generating their own as criminal gangs."55 Take the terrorists behind the March 2004 train blasts in Madrid, which killed 191 people and left 1,500 wounded. They got their hands on explosives by trading hashish to a former miner, and learned to construct bombs— all connected to Mitsubishi Trium T110 mobile phones— from Internet sites linked to radical Islamic groups. When police raided the home of one plotter, they found 125,800 ecstasy tablets, one of the largest drug hauls in Spanish history. Eventually, investigators recovered almost $2 million in drugs and cash— far more than they needed to pull off the operation. Although a man who identified himself as Abu Dujan al- Afghani, and who said he was al Qaeda’s "European military spokesman," claimed responsibility in a video released two days later, authorities never found any evidence that al Qaeda’s top leaders ever provided the Madrid bombers with financing or direct guidance.56
European authorities have linked drug money to the 2003 attacks in Casablanca, which killed forty- five people, and the attempted bombings of U.S. and British ships off Gibraltar in 2002. Eu ro pe an police knew for years that Islamic fundamentalists— some through links to Afghanistan dating back to the anti- Soviet resistance— were peddling drugs around the continent.57 "What is new is the scale of this toxic mix of jihad and dope," writes journalist David Kaplan.58 Investigators believe extremist groups have broken into as much as a third of the $12.5 billion Moroccan hashish trade, Kaplan reports, meaning they can not only reap enormous profits but also take advantage of extensive smuggling routes through Europe.
The message here is not that Osama bin Laden has morphed into Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian cocaine kingpin. Nor has Mullah Omar become the world’s new Khun Sa, the infamous Burmese heroin warlord. Rather, there is a blurring of distinction between terrorist and criminal. They may not share the same values, and sometimes even come into conflict, but they are fellow travelers in the underworld, locked in an increasingly symbiotic relationship. One crucial distinction remains: The classic drug smuggler is driven by greed. The terrorist raises money as a means to an end.
So what are they saving up for? By mid- 2004, U.S. Treasury Department agents monitoring drug and terrorist finance flows started watching large sums of illicit money moving out of Afghanistan and Pakistan— a region that had traditionally attracted large inflows of cash, mostly in the form of donations to jihadi groups.59 Where that money ended up— and just what it might eventually pay for— no one quite knows. One thing everyone agrees on: the world should be worried. September 11 cost al Qaeda only $500,000, according to the 9/11 Commission. Terrorist groups can now earn that from the dope trade every week.
Just days before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, my office in Pakistan received a mysterious delivery. It was the taped statement of a man claiming to be a new spokesman for al Qaeda. His face was wrapped in a kaffiyeh and he spoke English with an American accent. He turned out to be Adam Yahiye Gadahn, the Orange County native turned al Qaeda front man who has since been indicted for treason. One thing Gadahn said in that statement always stuck with me as I researched this project. When the next 9/11 comes, he warned, "the casualties will be too high to count." For years, western intelligence has documented al Qaeda’s efforts to get its hands on weapons of mass destruction. Former CIA director George Tenet repeatedly called it the thing that kept him up at night.60 Extremists have widely disseminated assembly instructions for an improvised chemical weapon on the Internet and experimented with rudimentary biological- chemical attacks in their former camps in Afghanistan. Experts say it will be technically difficult for a terrorist group to successfully pull off an attack using weapons of mass destruction. But one thing will make their goal a lot easier to reach: lots and lots of money.
I hope it won’t take a massive terrorist attack to focus the international community’s attention on this problem. Debate finally seems to be ending among senior policymakers over whether the Taliban is making money from Afghan opium. But so far the world’s governments have not responded coherently to the tempest brewing along the Afghanistan- Pakistan border. Militarily, the NATO coalition in Afghanistan has failed to adapt to the changing nature of its enemy. Even after UNODC released 2007 crop figures showing the clearest link yet between the poppy trade and the Taliban, senior NATO officials reiterated their disinterest in getting involved. "The fight against narcotics is first and foremost an Afghan responsibility, but they need help," declared Jim Pardew, NATO deputy assistant secretary- general for operations, adding blandly: "We are doing the best we can. We would ask others to do more."61
It’s unclear who NATO’s commanders hope will step up to the plate. No one has much hope for the corrupt and inept administration of Hamid Karzai. The president of Afghanistan, an ethnic Pashtun, derives much of his political support from the country’s Pashtun- dominated south, where he has resisted efforts to curtail poppy cultivation. Karzai has refused to dismiss, much less prosecute, high- level officials in his administration widely believed to be tied to drugs, prompting some former officials to conclude that he’s protecting relatives and cronies suspected of earning enormous profits. "Karzai was playing us like a fiddle," wrote Thomas Schweich, the State Department’s former point man on counternarcotics in Afghanistan, in an unusually frank 2008 editorial. "The U.S. would spend billions on infrastructure improvement; the U.S.and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai’s friends could get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term."62
Washington hasn’t done a very good job of choosing allies in Afghanistan. Since 9/11, the U.S. government— the Pentagon and the CIA in particular— has worked with unsavory individuals in Afghanistan, regional warlords and thugs with known ties to drug smuggling, saying they were helpful in the effort to capture al Qaeda fugitives. In fact, few high- value targets have been snared, thanks to such dubious allies, and Washington possesses a wealth of evidence that some of these individuals are enriching themselves through the opium trade. Fighting corruption and official involvement in drug trafficking in Afghanistan is as critical a challenge to rebuilding the country as defeating the Taliban. A central reason the Taliban insurgency is now flourishing is the failure of the Kabul regime and the international community to establish good governance in Afghanistan.
On top of that, it’s not possible to handle the insurgency and the opium trade as separate issues. Whether NATO’s commanders like it or not, they are already fighting a drug war in Afghanistan. In 2006, Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of UNODC, made a dramatic call for a shift in NATO operations across Afghanistan "to stop the vicious circle of drugs funding terrorists and terrorists protecting drug traffickers." He publicly asked the NATO- led coalition to destroy heroin labs, disband opium bazaars, attack opium convoys, and bring to justice the major narcotraffickers. "In Afghanistan," Costa declared, "drugs are now a clear and present danger."63 Costa is right. It’s time the international community stops bickering over who has responsibility for counternarcotics, and starts putting resources toward programs that will cut the profits reaching traffickers and insurgents.
The purpose of trafficking narcotics is to make money: lots of money. It’s crucial to keep that simple fact in mind. The United Nations calculates the global illegal drug trade to be worth $400 billion a year— more than the entire U.S. Department of Defense bud get. Illegal drugs make up 8 percent of global trade, while textiles make up 7.5 percent and motor vehicles just 5.3 percent.64 The harder we make it for our enemies to access these vast profits, the closer we will come to defeating them.
The union of narco- traffickers, terrorist groups, and the international criminal underworld is the new axis of evil. It doesn’t stop at Afghanistan’s porous borders. This is a transnational problem and so, too, must be the response. As insurgent and criminal networks become more deeply intertwined, they will swell in economic and military might, and then what began as a regional headache will become a global security nightmare: the perfect storm. Chasing down heroin smugglers along the Pakistan- Afghanistan border is not only crucial to beating back the Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan. It’s essential to winning the global war on terror.
My message here is simple: if you want to go after terrorists, you have to go after drugs and the smugglers’ ability to profit from them. Just as this shift in strategy presents a fresh challenge to the intelligence community, which has been stymied in its efforts to kill or capture top terrorist leaders, it also presents an opportunity. Because traffickers and terrorists are working closely together, we will find terrorists if we track smugglers. As one U.S. official observed, "When you run with the dogs, you’re going to find fleas."
In Chapters 2 and 3, I will map out how the heroin trade has shaped the conflict in Afghanistan since the 1980s. Recent history set the stage for today’s mess and shows how the international community, and Washington in particular, is repeating the mistakes of the past. In Chapter 4, I’ll examine how heroin money saved the Taliban from the brink of extinction and show how this reincarnated, reloaded Taliban is a very different and far more ruthless animal from the one that governed Afghanistan in the 1990s. Chapter 5 profiles a sheepherder-turned-kingpin whose heroin network moves quantities of dope that put him in a league with world-renowned drug smugglers like Pablo Escobar or Mexico’s Arellano-Felix brothers. Yet he remains unknown to the general public and even to many U.S. policymakers focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is critical to grasp the power wielded by such businessmen, who bankroll the insurgency and who could fund wider violence.
I’ll follow the money trail in Chapter 6, tracing the shadowy South Asian crime boss Dawood Ibrahim, who is linked to Pakistan’s spy agency and powerful Arab sheiks. This is not fanciful conspiracy theory: individuals profiled in this book are listed in government indictments and most- wanted lists. In Chapter 7, I’ll follow muddled U.S. counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan and the botched case against Haji Bashir Noorzai, an opium smuggler with links to the Taliban and al Qaeda who is behind bars in a high- security Manhattan jail, awaiting sentence. The long journey bringing him there reveals the challenges and complexities international law enforcement faces.
I’ll examine why our policy has failed in Afghanistan, and put forward ideas for a way out in Chapter 8. One thing is clear: counter narcotics experts, long time Afghanistan observers, and our own intelligence community have sounded warnings and offered clear advice for preventative action. "The biggest tragedy of where we are today," says a UN official with years of experience in Afghanistan, "is that this was all so fucking avoidable."65
Excerpted from Seeds of Terror by Gretchen Peters.
Copyright © 2009 by Gretchen Peters.
Published in May 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.