The last group of actors commonly associated with the Afghan/Central Asian drug trade are insurgent and terrorist groups including the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Although these groups are not necessarily the most powerful or important players in the larger picture, they have been the focus of international observers largely because of their capacity for perpetuating violence and instability in the region. Given ongoing misunderstandings – such as the suggestion that they control the trade and directly traffic in narcotics themselves – surrounding their role in the drug trade, a focus on the role of warlords, insurgent groups and terrorists should provide a more thorough understanding of the dynamics of the regional drug trade and of the role of the crime-terror nexus.
Warlords exist in abundance throughout Afghanistan and Tajikistan as a result of their experience with civil war. Since the early 1990s in Afghanistan, warlords such as General Abdul Rashid Dostum commonly shifted political allegiances in order to attain or maintain influence within a geographical area that would free them to engage in a combination of licit and illicit activities. Prior to the Taliban's assertion of authority throughout much of Afghan territory in the late 1990s, warlords were predominantly involved in the drug trade in two ways. First, some warlords profited from the trade by collecting "taxes" from local farmers and traffickers transiting territory under their control. Second, several warlords allegedly controlled production facilities and were more deeply involved in the trade as processors and traffickers, often using narcotics as their primary currency for buying weapons and other supplies.
It is important to recall that shortly after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, then collapsed, Tajikistan, which was one of the Soviet Republics, went through a period of civil war. Some of the players in that war came from Afghanistan; others came from Uzbekistan (the Uzbekistan connection will be made in future posts, including Part 4 of this series).
Although warlords continue to be involved in the regional drug trade, many of their operational movements have been restricted since 1998 as a result of cooperating with either the Taliban or the Northern Alliance. For example, warlords helped to collect taxes on behalf of the Taliban. Given the history and nature of their activities in Afghanistan, however, some warlords continued to profit from the drug trade by engaging in independent activities on the side. As suggested in the previous section, the presence of warlords in the current interim government necessarily complicates future attempts to construct peace and eliminate the drug trade. The future of Afghanistan is endangered by international pressure to control the drug trade "at a time when it relies on drug-dealing warlords for support and legitimacy. The new leaders in Kabul are reluctant to alienate these warlords because they command powerful armed factions which could disrupt Afghanistan's delicate political settlement."
A question that I have asked before: at what point does a war, which is funded to some extent on both sides by narcotrafficking, become a war to control the drug trade?
Insurgencies, on the other hand, refer to the operations of the Taliban and Northern Alliance – the two groups directly engaged in the battle for control of Afghanistan prior to September 11. The groups' involvement in the drug trade was not identical; in fact, evidence strongly indicates that Northern Alliance troops were directly involved in the production and trafficking of opiates, whereas the Taliban primarily benefited by collecting taxes from farmers and traders.
Does a legitimate government "collect taxes" from an illegal trade? Or, would the doer of that be considered organized crime?
Confronted by the power of domestic drug mafias and warlords operating in Afghanistan, the Taliban entered into tacit agreements with drug traders. In return for paying a 10-20 percent tax on their profits, drugs mafias secured their immunity. The Taliban raised between US$15-40 million of its estimated US$100 million annual budget from taxing the drug trade. However, despite this source of profit, drugs never constituted the main economic source of the Taliban war effort. Most of the Taliban's finances were secured from the cross-border smuggling of licit commodities, such as consumer and durable goods and fuel, to and from Pakistan and Central Asia.
Assuming the Taliban was the legitimate government, what do you call a government that taxes a drug cartel?
Conversely, does organized crime not "tax" (i.e., shake down) both legal and illegal businesses that are on its turf?
In addition to taxation, Russian authorities released a report to the United Nations Security Council implicating senior Taliban officials in drug operations. Although several high-ranking Taliban officials were likely involved in the regional trade, it is not necessarily correct to see this as evidence of Taliban control over Afghan opiates. Many of the official Taliban links to the trade existed because of strong personal ties to drug mafias and warlords and thus were often limited to personal gain. If the Taliban did control the majority of the trade, the Afghan drug scene would have been far more organized and centralized than it ever was. Dominating up to 95 percent of Afghan territory prior to their downfall and having installed a relatively effective system of collecting taxes with armed men placed throughout the country, the Taliban could have replaced the power of the drug mafias and organized the trade themselves. The Taliban's successes in diminishing the area of territory under opium poppy cultivation with the opium ban in 2000 is thus best understood as the Taliban taking advantage of a decision made by drug mafias and transnational criminal organizations to force the price of opiates up, while eliminating stockpiles.
Makarenko has studied this extensively, and has a great deal of information and expertise in this field. While for the moment deferring to Makarenko's interpretation, I would humbly point out that other interpretations of this situation are possible.
The Northern Alliance, on the other hand, has been directly linked as a group to the production of opiates. Its ties to drugs existed before it retreated to its last northern strongholds as a result of successful Taliban military operations. By 2001, the Northern Alliance was well positioned as a result of the Taliban opium ban to capitalize on its role in the regional drug trade. Previously limited by market demands and the power of the drug mafias, the Northern Alliance was able to raise the area under opium cultivation in Badakhshan province from 2,458 hectares in 2000 to 6,342 hectares in 2001. It was able to significantly increase opium cultivation within its territory because the ban did not apply there and because the Northern Alliance was able to circumvent the Afghan drug mafias by dealing with transnational networks. Furthermore, despite having leveraged its way back to Kabul by cooperating with the international coalition, the Northern Alliance has further increased the area under poppy cultivation in Badakhshan today to approximately 13,000 hectares, according to UN estimates.
This is a key paragraph: the Northern Alliance were the "good guys" in our attack on Al Qaeda, and on the Taliban for sheltering Al Qaeda.
Assuming Makarenko's interpretation is accurate: Isn't it ironic how we blame Al Qaeda and the Taliban for trafficking heroin, when they were only peripherally involved, taking advantage of the situation? Isn't it ironic how we then side with the true narcotraffickers of the area? We attack Al Qaeda for having attacked us, we attack the Taliban for sheltering them -- and, oh, by the way, these guys are so bad that they traffic heroin, too -- and, having driven them out, opiate production surges.
These islamofascists are a threat to the whole world, including to their fellow Muslims. They need to be fought, and better over there than over here.
But, it sure looks like this whole situation is awfully convenient for somebody, doesn't it?
Here is the last paragraph to be reviewed in this post from Makarenko's paper; please read it carefully:
Therefore, it is of great concern that members of the Northern Alliance constitute a considerable portion of the interim government, due to an increase in opium poppy cultivation by over 200 percent on its territories in 2001. Ironically, Northern Alliance members in the Interior Ministry are now responsible for counter-narcotics initiatives. Furthermore, high-level officials in Kandahar, Helmand and the Defense Ministry are also allegedly tied to the drug trade. This situation is further exacerbated by numerous recent allegations that soldiers from the interim government's security forces have been guarding drug markets.
The mice are in charge of the cheese -- and backed by US and allied military power, no less!