The close link between U.S. military and covert intervention and drug trafficking continues in Afghanistan today. When it invaded and occupied the country in October 2001, Washington replaced the ruling Taliban with President Hamid Karzai and the Northern Alliance, a group of warlords whose armies are financed by growing and selling opium. Since then, opium production in Afghanistan has skyrocketed and is now the main economic activity in the country.
Washington has been collaborating with narco-traffickers in its wars since 1943. These have included the Sicilian and Corsican Mafias, the Kuomintang in Burma, the Hmong in Laos, the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (1979-89), and the Contras in Nicaragua.
Today, Afghanistan provides 75% of the world’s opium and is the leading global producer of both opium and heroin. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), poppies are being planted in an unprecedented 28 out of 32 Afghan provinces (up from 18 in 1999). In 2003, opium farming and trafficking brought $2.3 billion to the country (more than double the amount received in reconstruction aid) and constituted half the economy.
“Out of this drug chest, some provincial administrators and military commanders take a considerable share,” said Antonio Maria Costa, the UNODC’s director. “Terrorists take a cut as well. The longer this goes on, the greater the threat to security within the country and on its borders.”
According to Costa, Afghanistan risks coming under the control of “drug cartels or narco-terrorists.”
Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan finance minister, has warned that the country could easily become a “narco-Mafia state.”
Afghanistan provides about 90% of Western Europe’s supply of heroin, and over 80% of that used in Russia and Central Asia. In contrast, less than 5% of heroin in the U.S. comes from Afghanistan. Up to 50% of the Afghan population is believed to be directly or indirectly reliant on the trade for their livelihoods.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy announced last November that opium cultivation in Afghanistan doubled between 2002 (30,700 hectares)and 2003 (61,000 hectares). The White House figures are lower than those of the UN, which estimates that poppy cultivation rose 8% in 2003, to 80,000 hectares from 74,000 hectares in 2002.
The Taliban benefited from opium cultivation during 1996-99, but banned it in 2000 to gain international recognition. The ban was extremely effective, cutting poppy growing by 95%; only 1,685 hectares were devoted to poppies in 2001, producing only 185 metric tons of opium. Most of the opium-growing area at this time was under the control of the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban. The Alliance controlled about 10% of Afghan territory before the U.S. invasion.
According to the White House, the massive rise in poppy-growing is due to “a challenging security situation that has complicated significantly the task of implementing counter-narcotics assistance programs and will continue to do so for the immediate future.”
The “challenging security situation” is a result of the U.S‚ decision to use the Northern Alliance’s opium- backed warlords to run Afghanistan. From the outset, the warlords have played a central role in U.S. military strategy. Wishing to avoid ground combat and resultant casualties, the U.S. fought the Taliban largely through aerial bombing, committing only 10,000 ground troops supplementred by 1,500 soldiers from other countries and the NATO-led 5,700-member International Security Assistance Force guards in Kabul. Rather than bear the burden of a large occupying force, the Bush government used the warlords to take over and rule Taliban territory. Today it depends on these same forces to control the country, support the Karzai government, and launch military operations against a resurgent Taliban.
This U.S. security arrangement is being financed by the sale of heroin, so it is not surprising that Washington has allowed opium production to mushroom since 2001.
The main warlords are Mohammed Qasim Fahim in Kabul (leader of the Northern Alliance); Gul Agha Sherzai, who rules Kandahar province; Hazrat Ali, who rules Nangarhar province; Ismail Khan in Heart, and Abdul Rashid Dostum in Mazar-i-Sharif. Together, they command about 200,000 armed militia.
President Hamid Karzai is known as the “Mayor of Kabul” by its residents. Lacking an army of his own and protected by U.S. bodyguards, he is little more than a figurehead whose “writ barely runs in the country.” (Karzai has banned opium production and trade, to little effect.)
An internal report on the Afghanistan situation commissioned by the Pentagon concludes that the conflict has created conditions that have given “warlordism, banditry, and opium production a new lease on life.”
Given its narco-warlord strategy in Afghanistan, the Bush administration faced charges at a Senate hearing in May 2003 that it is allowing Afghan drug production to boom. Critics declared that the administration has ignored the incredible increase in Afghan opium production, either because “it cannot control the countryside or because it does not want to undermine regional warlords who profit from the trade and are fighting America’s proxy war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.”
“This is just outrageous,” said Larry Johnson, a former State Department and CIA official who is now a consultant to government and business on terrorism and narcotics. “If any other country was in the position we’re in now and allowing this to happen, we would accuse them of being complicit in the drug trade. The Bush administration is showing benign neglect.”
Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat-Delaware) expressed outrage over the administration’s “apparent toleration” of Afghan drug production. “Afghanistan has now regained its status as the world’s largest source of opium,” he said. “We can’t separate fighting terrorism and fighting drug trafficking, given the considerable linkages between the two.”
According to Alfred McCoy, author of the definitive book The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade and a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, “Heroin trafficking in Afghanistan is the result of two CIA covert wars fought there, one during 1979-89 and the other since 2001. Under a covert warfare doctrine first developed in Laos during the 1960s, Washington fought this war [against the Taliban] by deploying massive air power, CIA cash, and Special Forces as advisors to Afghan warlords. You have a contradiction in the U.S. policy in Afghanistan. You have U.S. forces chasing the Taliban and al-Qaeda with the warlords-cum-drug lords, and you have an effort to build a central government...So you won’t see much U.S. support for the official eradication policy of Karzai because we are in bed with the warlords. Also, Afghanistan is a monocrop economy. Opium is its only lucrative crop. If the U.S. stopped heroin trafficking, the economy would implode. Thirdly, the U.S. has no intention of committing billions of dollars in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan. In this situation, opium is the ideal drug for Afghan reconstruction as it is labour-intensive and needs little water in a country beset by massive unemployment and an arid climate.”
Opium production was one incentive the U.S. gave the warlords. The others were massive bribes and control of the government. As one observer describes it “the CIA simply handed suitcases of cash to warlords around the country” during the war against the Taliban. According to McCoy, the agency spent $70 million on “direct cash outlays on the ground in Afghanistan.”
President Bush called this “one of history’s biggest bargains,” and his cabinet joked that “you can’t buy an Afghan, but you can rent one.”
The CIA’s bribes included $10 million paid to Northern Alliance warlords. The (UK) Observer reported in 2002 that, to prevent rebellion against the weak Karzai government, the drug warlords “have been bought off with millions of dollars in deals brokered by U.S. and British intelligence.”
Government posts were another way for the U.S. to retain the loyalty of Northern Alliance warlords. They were given all four of the new government’s most important ministries: Defense, Interior, Intelligence, and Foreign Affairs. As a result, the country is largely run by drug traffickers. Northern Alliance leader Mohammed Qasim Fahim, probably the most powerful warlord in the country, is the Defense Minister and Senior Vice-President and holds the real power in the government. According to a report in the German magazine Der Spiegel, it is “an open secret that “even the topmost member of the central government is deeply mixed up in the drug trade.”
Running the government has allowed the warlords to renew the reign of terror they subjected Afghans to in the 1990s (which led to the rise of the Taliban) when they also ruled with U.S. backing and engaged in drug trafficking. According to Human Rights Watch, army and police troops kidnap Afghans and hold them for ransom in unofficial prisons; rape women, girls and boys; and extort money from shopkeepers and bus, truck and taxi drivers. HRW states: “The testimony of victims and witnesses implicates soldiers and police under the command of many high-level military and political officials in Afghanistan.”
As one observer put it, “The Northern Alliance has always indulged in opium production, but now it has captured some of the richest opium-growing lands in the country.” According to the UN, most of the Afghan poppy fields are in the five provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan (all three in the south), Nangarhar (east) and Badakshan (north). Out of these, Helmand and Nangarhar are the richest. According to Asia Times (Hong Kong), “Several reports claim that warlords of the five provinces where most of the Afghan opium is harvested have amassed immense power and fortunes. These warlords and their associates have fostered trade in a brutal underground economy that trafficks in drugs, weapons, and other contraband.”
Opium farmers sell their crops to regional warlords and associated drug traffickers, who turn the poppies into heroin in chemical and packaging factories in the area. The drugs are then transported to the Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Iran borders, with safe passage provided by warlords. Raw opium is smuggled as well. The heroin factories in Afghanistan have been set up since 1999 and now can be found all over the country. Previously, most of the poppies were refined into heroin outside the country. Each factory can produce about $700,000 worth of heroin a week.
Nangarhar province is ruled by Hazrat Ali, head of Afghanistan’s eastern military command. A favourite of the American commanders, Ali has a reputation for being among “the biggest heroin and opium Mafia in Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt.” (Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group and live mostly in the south and east). He played “a pivotal role” in eliminating al-Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan. It was his men who fought with the U.S. against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda at the Tora Bora caves (near the Pakistan border) at the end of 2001. According to McCoy, al-Qaeda fighters at the caves were able to escape to Pakistan after paying Ali’s officers $5,000 a head.
Journalists’ reports “consistently link Hazrat Ali to the opium trade and smuggling networks now choking Jalalabad” [capital of Nangarhar]. His commanders live in mansions said to be built with drug money. Ali ran Jalalabad airport in the mid-1990s at a time when weekly flights to the Gulf States and India transported massive amounts of opium to the West. Now he controls the best opium land in Afghanistan. Ali is “one of the most prominent violators of human rights in eastern Afghanistan,” according to Human Rights Watch.
After Ali took over Jalalabad from the Taliban, the New York Times described the place as “a city in the hands of thugs and crooks...the land where almost everything is corrupt.” According to the newspaper, Ali stole food aid for the poor and engaged in massive extortion of foreign journalists. Since then, Ali’s forces have been seizing land, homes and property belonging to residents, engaging in wanton looting and robberies, and extorting money from truck, bus, and taxi drivers. Troops and police under Ali are known for carrying out arbitrary arrests, torture, beatings, kidnappings, and the rape of women, girls and boys.
Another U.S. favourite is Gul Agha Sherzai, “a major opium godfather” who rules Kandahar province, former stronghold of the Taliban. The New York Times called Sherzai “the biggest warlord of them all.” He reportedly controls the heroin trade in southern Afghanistan, and opium production “dominates economic life” in Kandahar. Sherzai ruled Kandahar as governor from 1992 to 1994, as well and during this time the area was one of the largest sources of opium in Afghanistan.
During the fight against the Taliban, Sherzai drove into Kandahar accompanied by 12 U.S. Special Forces advisors, with his way paved by U.S. air strikes. According to one observer, “the campaign’s military strategy was dictated by the Americans.” Sherzai’s 1,500 troops were armed with U.S. weapons and dressed in second-hand American uniforms. Today, Washington continues to work “so closely” with Sherzai that one of the warlord’s brothers keeps a compound on the U.S. base at Kandahar airport, where he and his troops provide “perimeter security.”
Sherzai’s name evokes shock and horror in the villages around Kandahar whose residents were subjected to his rapacious rule during 1992-94. At that time, Sherzai and other warlords stripped Kandahar city of “everything of value,” while rape, robbery, and extortion were widespread. As Ghlume Walli, a Kandahar resident put it, “The men of Gul Agha will kill you even if you have nothing.”
In spite of all the wealth and power showered on the narco-warlords by Washington, they have not been able to stop the Taliban’s resurgence. In recent months, the militia has returned to Afghanistan with a vengeance. Since August 2003, the Taliban have killed more than 400 Afghans and four U.S. soldiers. U.S. bases and Afghan government forces are attacked almost daily, and international aid agencies have fled southern Afghanistan after the Taliban murdered 15 aid workers. Most of Zabul province is now controlled by the militia, and about half of Kandahar and much of Oruzgan province are “beyond government authority.”
The U.S. toleration (if not approval) of the massive poppy boom has backfired as the Taliban have used heroin money to fund their assaults. A major factor in the Taliban’s resurgence has been the violent and corrupt behaviour of the warlords, which has alienated many Afghans once more and increased public support for the militia. As a recent study by the Council on Foreign Relations states, “Washington’s plans to pacify Afghanistan appear to be unravelling.”
(Asad Ismi is a writer on international politics who has written extensively on U.S. policy towards the Third World. He is winner of a 2003 Project Censored Award. For his publications, visit www.asadismi.ws . This article is a shortened version of one recently published in Covert Action Quarterly.)