Earlier this week, the New York Times unloaded some big news about Afghanistan:
KABUL, Afghanistan — Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade, gets regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to current and former American officials.
The agency pays Mr. Karzai for a variety of services, including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the C.I.A.’s direction in and around the southern city of Kandahar, Mr. Karzai’s home.
I won’t excerpt the entire article here, but it’s an enlightening read. Karzai, of course, denies both the payments and his role in the drug trade. But while the payments are a revelation, it’s long been a not-so-well-kept secret that he profits from Afghanistan’s opium production. As I’ve mentioned before, when an industry accounts for over a 1/3 of nation’s GDP, the powerful are either part of that industry or they risk losing their power. This is the dilemma we continue to face in Afghanistan and it’s the reason why the Taliban has been resurgent.
In order to really understand the depths of this clusterfuck, it helps to go back to another piece in the NYT from last summer, by former State Department anti-narcotic official Thomas Schweich. Schweich’s piece was a masterpiece of utter delusion, which I’d initially discussed here. Even then, I only scratched the surface of how clueless this man was in describing his genuinely earnest efforts to rid Afghanistan of opium plants. Here he is discussing a 2006 meeting with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice:
I emphasized at this and subsequent meetings that crop eradication, although claiming less than a third of the $500 million budgeted for Afghan counternarcotics, was the most controversial part of the program. But because no other crop came even close to the value of poppies, we needed the threat of eradication to force farmers to accept less-lucrative alternatives. (Eradication was an essential component of successful anti-poppy efforts in Guatemala, Southeast Asia and Pakistan.) The most effective method of eradication was the use of herbicides delivered by crop-dusters. But [President Hamid] Karzai had long opposed aerial eradication, saying it would be misunderstood as some sort of poison coming from the sky. He claimed to fear that aerial eradication would result in an uprising that would cause him to lose power. We found this argument perplexing because aerial eradication was used in rural areas of other poor countries without a significant popular backlash.
I’m not entirely sure how Schweich could’ve believed this considering that it was in December 2005 that a former coca grower named Evo Morales was elected president in Bolivia – the first country aerial eradication was ever conducted – as a backlash against America’s drug eradication efforts. And President Karzai, a man who’d already survived several assassination attempts, wasn’t about to do anything that would guarantee that he’d have even more guns fixed on him. Unfortunately there was already a push within the Bush Administration to give Schweich the green light on carrying out his drug warrior fantasies. Part of that push was to send former Colombian Ambassador Anne Patterson to Afghanistan:
Even before she got to the bureau of international narcotics, Anne Patterson knew that the Pentagon was hostile to the antidrug mission. A couple of weeks into the job, she got the story firsthand from Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who commanded all U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He made it clear: drugs are bad, but his orders were that drugs were not a priority of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Patterson explained to Eikenberry that, when she was ambassador to Colombia, she saw the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) finance their insurgency with profits from the cocaine trade, and she warned Eikenberry that the risk of a narco-insurgency in Afghanistan was very high. Eikenberry was familiar with the Colombian situation, but the Pentagon strategy was “sequencing” — defeat the Taliban, then have someone else clean up the drug business.
What Schweich fails to mention about Colombia (and Patterson pretends isn’t true) is that the overall amount of cocaine coming out of Colombia hadn’t changed much over Patterson’s time there. Instead, what happened was that pro-government right-wing paramilitaries just took over more of the trade as they were also gaining more influence within the Uribe government. The reason that FARC was losing out on drug profits was because the Colombian government was so utterly powerless to stop the corruption within the ranks of their own paramilitary supporters.
In Afghanistan, we’ve ended up with the same dynamic. Ahmed Wali Karzai’s paramilitary fights against the “narco-terrorists” in the Taliban for his brother’s government and NATO forces shrug off the fact that he’s just as involved in supplying the rest of the world with heroin. But as Schweich mentioned in his piece, the debates between Secretary of State Rice (who favored a stronger anti-drug push) and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (who didn’t want to get more involved with anti-drug efforts) were being won by Rice (with Bush being “the decider”). And despite continued push back from the Defense Department, more and more emphasis throughout Bush’s second term was being placed on trying to eradicate the opium plants.
One of the more puzzling moves in our time in Afghanistan was our prosecution of Haji Bashar Noorzai. Noorzai was an ally in southern Afghanistan who’d turned against the Taliban, but was lured to America (he believed he was coming to volunteer his help for American forces) and arrested for being a drug trafficker. He’s now serving a life sentence in an American jail. Nothing about this case ever really made sense, until the New York Times report from this week, which ended with this bit of information:
Some American counternarcotics officials have said they believe that Mr. Karzai has expanded his influence over the drug trade, thanks in part to American efforts to single out other drug lords.
In debriefing notes from Drug Enforcement Administration interviews in 2006 of Afghan informants obtained by The New York Times, one key informant said that Ahmed Wali Karzai had benefited from the American operation that lured Hajji Bashir Noorzai, a major Afghan drug lord during the time that the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, to New York in 2005. Mr. Noorzai was convicted on drug and conspiracy charges in New York in 2008, and was sentenced to life in prison this year.
Habibullah Jan, a local military commander and later a member of Parliament from Kandahar, told the D.E.A. in 2006 that Mr. Karzai had teamed with Haji Juma Khan to take over a portion of the Noorzai drug business after Mr. Noorzai’s arrest.
Even with this knowledge, the rationale behind our arrest and prosecution of Noorzai still makes no sense from a strategic standpoint, but it demonstrates how much power Ahmed Wali Karzai has that he could get us to undermine our nation building efforts in order to expand his own illegal activities – all while still being paid by the CIA. Either he’s a criminal mastermind of epic proportions or the people who were making decisions about how to wage that war were morons (and yes, I know which one it is).
Going back to Schweich’s article again, there’s one passage that’s just infuriating beyond belief:
By late 2006, however, we had startling new information: despite some successes, poppy cultivation over all would grow by about 17 percent in 2007 and would be increasingly concentrated in the south of the country, where the insurgency was the strongest and the farmers were the wealthiest. The poorest farmers of Afghanistan — those who lived in the north, east and center of the country — were taking advantage of antidrug programs and turning away from poppy cultivation in large numbers. The south was going in the opposite direction, and the Taliban were now financing the insurgency there with drug money — just as Patterson predicted.
It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy, dumbass. When you take the largest industry in the country and make it illegal, you end up with a well-financed insurgency. And as you try harder and harder to eliminate that industry, a higher percentage of the profits will end up being concentrated among the people most unwilling to submit to your authority. And if you do it for long enough, those insurgents will eventually start taking over parts of the country, which is why thanks to our attempts to eliminate the opium trade, the Taliban have once again recaptured large parts of Afghanistan and record numbers of coalition troops are being killed.
The New York Times article from this week tends to make the CIA look incompetent or even reckless, but the story is more complex than that. It’s probably because when I think of CIA agents, I get a mental image of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in Charlie Wilson’s War, but I can easily see them getting angry to the point of punching a wall over having to deal with people like Schweich and Patterson, whose boundless naivete drove the mission in Afghanistan into a hole. When I write about Afghanistan and what’s still possible to accomplish there, it’s easy to approach it from far too theoretical a perspective, without taking into account the damage that’s already been done. I’m done doing that. We’ve managed to fuck things up so spectacularly that anything other than a rapid withdrawal is a mistake. We simply don’t understand what we’re doing well enough to justify keeping a single soldier in that country.