Recently, Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked “This war has gone on for seven years, the Afghans don’t understand anymore, how come a little force like the Taliban can continue to exist, can continue to flourish, can continue to launch attacks?” What sounds like an innocent query by someone truly bewildered by the strength of his political opponents is more of a rhetorical question than anything else. Karzai knows exactly how and why the Taliban are flourishing. He’s hoping that Americans, and the incoming Obama Administration, will finally start to ask themselves this question as well.
The answer lies primarily in the opium fields that yield over 90% of the world’s supply of heroin. Just as Mexican cartels have made themselves untouchable throughout much of their own country on drug profits, the Taliban are funding their massive resurgence through the same means. Unlike the Mexican cartels, however, they have a much more nationalist and anti-Western outlook, making this drug war failure potentially far more disastrous to our national security than anything encountered before it.
Like cocaine and marijuana, heroin was legal for Americans to purchase until the beginning of the 20th century. And like coca, it was an ingredient in many tonics that people could order through catalogs as well as being used by doctors as a drug for treating morphine addiction. The German company Bayer Pharmaceuticals originally marketed it as a cure for morphine addiction, but it was soon discovered to be even more addictive than morphine itself. Despite the efforts to stamp out the recreational use of heroin through prohibitions, use of the drug rose steadily throughout the 20th century.
Before the 1980s, much of the black market heroin in the world was originating in the region from Turkey to Southeast Asia. Throughout that time, however, a concerted effort to fight the trade in places like Turkey and Thailand eventually concentrated it in places where the rule of law wasn’t strong enough to dismantle it – like Afghanistan. But the strategy to remove black market heroin production during these times didn’t just rely on having more lawless areas for the trade to move to, it also relied on the fact that countries with large amounts of production like Turkey were allowed to start producing legal medications that come from the opiate plant. A number of other countries have legal opium farming, including India, Pakistan, and Australia. Afghanistan is still not among them, even as many poor countries report shortages of opiate-based medicines.
By the end of the 1990s, Afghanistan was responsible for the vast majority of the world’s illegal opium harvests, surpassing what was produced in places like Burma and South America (where Colombian cartels introduced it to the region in 1991). When the ultra-religious Taliban took power, American anti-drug officials thought they’d found a reliable ally. In the year before 9/11, the Taliban managed to dismantle much of the opium production across the country, although there’s speculation that they were only enriching themselves from the greatly increased prices that they could charge for the heroin produced under their control.
After 9/11 happened – planned by individuals living in Afghanistan that our drug war allies considered welcome guests – America’s drug war came into a direct conflict with its brand new “war on terror.” As we gathered up an international coalition to take out the Taliban, many of those within the country who would side with us were drug lords who’d seen their incomes plummet and farmers who’d seen their livelihoods destroyed. Donald Rumsfeld, to his credit, initially opposed having the Pentagon go after the drug trade right away. But by 2004, the amount of opium being produced in the newly liberated Afghanistan was surpassing even what had been produced in the 1990s. At that point, the British Government and the U.S. State Department began demanding that military assets be used to dismantle the trade, even if they balked at some of the more extreme tactics being suggested by some American anti-drug officials, like aerial eradication. The focus of our war began to shift, sending it down the path to the dire situation we find it today.
To get some perspective on how entrenched the heroin trafficking industry is in Afghanistan, it amounts to over half of the country’s entire GDP. Compare that to Mexico, where drug trafficking makes up less than 10% of the country’s GDP – yet is still far too powerful for the Mexican government to dismantle. The only real counterargument to the accusation that Afghanistan is a narco-state is that Afghanistan really isn’t a state at all, just a loose federation of warlords, many of whom profit from drug production. It’s an open secret among intelligence officials that even Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, profits from the trade.
For the last four years, however, trying to eradicate opium production has been a central goal of our effort to rebuild the country. Not only has the effort failed to eliminate the trade, but it’s funneled the profits from the trade towards those who most strongly oppose the presence of international forces. The strategy of targeting the opium trade hasn’t just been ineffective, it’s completely undermined our overall mission.
Since 2004, when the international coalition began focusing more on eradicating the opium harvests, the opium growing has become far more concentrated in the south, in areas like Helmand province and Kandahar. These have traditionally been Taliban strongholds and been reluctant to go along with what the Karzai regime wants. What we’ve seen in this region is exactly what we used to see with FARC in Colombia. The Taliban are enriching themselves by either providing protection for the drug trade or just participating in the trade themselves. In some cases, we’ve seen the Taliban being paid for their services directly in high-powered weapons, which have fueled the last several “spring offensives” against coalition troops. The reason that this time of year is when the Taliban strikes has little to do with weather, but because the early spring is when the opium is harvested, processed into heroin, and sent to the west, leaving the Taliban flush with cash, weapons, and plenty of free time that had recently been spent protecting fields.
Our eradication efforts do little more than anger local farmers and encourage corruption. Local officials who are tasked with carrying out the eradications (the law still requires that Afghan forces carry them out) are easily bribed or threatened by the drug traffickers and the Taliban. A recent report on a local group of Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan by the Canadian Globe and Mail found that half joined the effort to fight the international coalition because their family’s livelihoods had been destroyed through opium eradication efforts. For another 25%, it was anger over heavy-handed military tactics, such as aerial bombings, being used by the coalition.
One of the best examples of how our approach to the opium trade is devastating to our efforts to rebuild Afghanistan is the case of Bashir Noorzai. Noorzai was an influential man from southern Afghanistan (he also had homes in Pakistan and the UAE). Like most, if not all, of the powerful people in that area, he had profited from drug trafficking. He was also a longtime ally of America in the region, going back as far as the early 1990s, when he helped tracked down weapons sent by the CIA to fight the Soviets, which they feared could end up in the wrong hands.
Despite being an early supporter of the Taliban, after 9/11, Noorzai worked with the international coalition to defeat them. As the focus of our mission there slowly changed in 2004 to fighting the drug trade, though, our relationship with him changed. He was put on a list of wanted drug traffickers. American Government contractors met with Noorzai in Dubai and convinced him to come to New York, assuring him that he would not be arrested. Noorzai came to New York believing that he would be providing American officials with information to location former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
It was a trap. When Noorzai arrived in New York in April 2005, he was questioned by U.S. officials over a two-week span and then arrested. He was convicted of drug trafficking in a Manhattan courtroom in September of last year. Mullah Omar remains free somewhere in Afghanistan, where the Taliban now once again control the areas where Noorzai had long been a valuable asset to American interests.
The reality of Afghanistan is that we cannot rebuild it while simultaneously trying to eliminate its primary source of income. That is, unless we invest a truly massive amount of money and military assets to move that industry elsewhere, something that our NATO allies aren’t likely to join us for. And even if we could do that, all we’d really accomplish is to move the trade to other places, like Uzbekistan, Waziristan, or even the increasingly lawless Iraq, where it was reported that illegal opium was being grown for the first time in 2007.
The main partners in our Afghanistan coalition – Britain, France, Holland, and Canada – have all struggled to sell the continuing occupation and drug eradication strategy to their populaces, even though so much of the heroin produced there ends up in places like London, Amsterdam, Marseille, and Vancouver. They, like much of the rest of the world, are slowly moving towards more sensible ways to deal with heroin addiction. While some (Holland) are further ahead than others (Britain) in understanding this, there’s a greater recognition outside of the United States that the only way to reduce Afghan opium production is to reduce demand at home.
The Swiss are among the leaders in doing this effectively. Cities like Zurich have long had problems with heroin addiction. In the 1990s, Zurich city officials decided to try an approach that was less reliant on law enforcement. Ignoring the hysterical wailing of American anti-drug officials, they allowed doctors to prescribe heroin to addicts in order to reduce overdoses and to cultivate an environment that made it easier for addicts to get clean. Ten years later, the experiment has been shown to be an unmitigated success. Crime related to drugs went down. Overdoses became nearly non-existent. And most impressively, the number of new heroin addicts plummeted by nearly 90%.
Related approaches have been taken in cities like Frankfurt, Rotterdam, Vancouver, and Sydney, all demonstrating the effectiveness of treating heroin addiction as a medical problem rather than a criminal one. By doing so, not only are lives being saved and lower numbers of people beginning to use drugs, but it starts to wear away at the profits made by black marketers. In Vancouver, the Insite program, a safe-site for addicts to use drugs in a supervised medical environment, has been so successful in reducing overdoses and related societal problems in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside that an official from the Harper Government strongly rebuked the Canadian Prime Minister’s attempts to shut it down in a report he released in 2008.
Much of the rest of the world is recognizing that these techniques, generally known as “harm reduction,” work far better at reducing the societal problems that stem from drug addiction. Swiss voters recently approved by a wide margin keeping their heroin maintenance programs. Even in cities like Frankfurt and Vancouver, where addicts still must obtain their drugs on the street but can take them in supervised facilities, the long-term reductions in the numbers of addicts has done far more to reduce demand than when drug use was considered a criminal act.
This past July in Vienna, drug policy experts from across the world convened for the United Nations’ Forum on International Drug Policy. The conference has historically been dominated by American anti-drug officials. Groups or individuals who have dared to challenge the use of law enforcement to reduce drug use and abuse, or to advocate for treating drug addiction as a health issue, have repeatedly been marginalized. But this year, the environment was different; in part because of America’s diminished influence in other areas, and in part because the effectiveness of alternate methods is too obvious to ignore. American drug policy officials found themselves in the minority, as NGOs from the around the world were able to put together proposals that deviated significantly from the typical strategies of the past. In response, representatives from the Bush Administration’s Drug Czar’s office disrupted several proceedings, prompting some conference attendees to compare them to children throwing temper tantrums.
President Obama and Vice President Biden have both expressed support for an increased troop presence in Afghanistan, but neither one has demonstrated that they understand how the effort to eliminate the opium production undermines the goal of building a stable government in Kabul. They continue to walk into this landmine insisting that it will be safely done in clown shoes. We all recognize that Obama is in charge, but what happens if he begins to question the decades-long mantra of drug war absolutism that has been Joe Biden’s trademark? Can Biden, after three decades promoting a no-tolerance approach to drugs, really take a back seat to a President who goes full-bore against that thinking?
One potential avenue for improving our approach in Afghanistan involves allowing for the legal production of opiates by Afghan farmers. It’s been estimated that dozens of countries around the world are lacking in supplies of opiate-based medicines. Without a simultaneous reduction in demand for illegal heroin, this approach certainly won’t end the illegal drug trade, but it could help limit some of the massive profits being made by the Taliban in certain areas of the country. The European Union even passed a resolution encouraging the international coalition to look at this option, but the approach was strongly rejected by the U.S. State Department under Condoleezza Rice.
For now, nothing but the status quo is ever mentioned when discussing the approach in Afghanistan. It’s an area where both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have seemed largely in agreement, even though much of the rest of the world’s drug policy experts are seriously questioning the wisdom of targeting the trade. Recently, it was announced that the coalition would focus more on targeting heroin-processing labs and the traffickers rather than the farmers. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but the likely outcome is that the Taliban will simply shift from protecting farms to protecting labs and shipments. It’s also possible that the labs will simply move across the border to Pakistan, where there’s a much higher geopolitical risk for the coalition to conduct operations.
As of the end of 2008, it was believed that the Taliban controlled up to 70% of the country once again. They’ve been able to do this primarily through the opium trade. Our mistaken belief that this illegal industry is a form of defiance akin with the anti-Western sentiments of al-Qaeda has been instrumental in allowing that to happen. Afghans have never participated in the opium trade in order to bring down the west. They participated in the trade in order to make a living in one the world’s most destitute places. But our inability to understand the difference has created a situation where our paranoid beliefs have become self-fulfilling prophecies. The Taliban, which has itself evolved from an ultra-religious entity to a more generally nationalist one, now does see the drug trade as a way to poison the western world. And we won’t be able to defeat them until we stop buying into that false notion.