Despite all its fulminations about wiping out the global drug trade, the US government is once again turning a blind eye to the trade when some of its key allies are the ones overseeing the drug running. The country in question is Afghanistan, by far the world's largest opium producer, and the allies with dirty hands are some of that violence-torn country's warlords. Despite longstanding allegations linking warlords including Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ustad Attas Mohammed to the opium trade, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld publicly embraced the pair at a meeting in Afghanistan early this month.
The defense secretary was not congratulating the warlords for their role in supplying Western Europe with cheap heroin. Instead, he was thanking them for ending armed clashes between their supporters and allowing the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai to take possession of some of the tanks and other heavy military equipment they control.
Rumsfeld's interest in the warlords is all about realpolitik. Since the overthrow of the Taliban government as part of the US "war on terror" in December 2001, the US has tried desperately to cobble together a regime that can govern the fractious nation, and the Afghan warlords are a central component in that plan. In fact, warlords like Dostum and Mohammed are the face of the regime in the vast areas they control; the central government headed by Karzai effectively governs only Kabul and its outlying areas. Dostum has also been rewarded by being named Deputy Secretary of Defense for the Karzai government.
And if Rumsfeld is interested in dalliances with men who do not allow scruples to get in the way of political necessity, he has certainly found his man in Dostum. An Uzbek from Mazar-i-Sharif in the Afghan north, Dostum rose to power as a Communist labor leader in the 1970s, forming militias to fight on the side of the Russians and then their Afghan puppet, Najibullah. But seeing that Najibullah was doomed, Dostum switched sides, joining the US-financed mujaheedin in their jihad against the Communists. During the 1990s, Dostum's forces switched sides repeatedly, helping plunge Afghanistan into the chaos that led to the rise of the Taliban in 1995. He fled to Turkey with the rise of the Taliban, returning to rejoin the US-backed Northern Alliance as it drove the Taliban from power in late 2001.
Dostum has been described as a "war criminal" by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which cite not only his role in the Afghan civil wars of the 1990s -- particularly massive rocket attacks on Kabul in 1994 by his forces that killed thousands of civilians -- but also his treatment of prisoners, including the deaths of hundreds who suffocated or froze to death in the shipping containers Dostum used to hold them in after the battle of Mazar-i-Sharif in December 2001. He is also notorious for his treatment of his own men: He is widely alleged to have punished troops by tying them to the treads of tanks and driving the tanks until nothing is left but pieces of flesh.
Dostum and the Northern Alliance, which now dominates the government in Kabul, have been linked repeatedly to the opium trade. According to the US State Department, after the Taliban ban on opium planting in 2001, almost all the opium in the country that year -- 77 tons -- came from areas dominated by the Northern Alliance. And since the Alliance-dominated government came to power, opium production has gone through the roof, with the area under cultivation more than doubling over last year and increasing 36-fold from 2001.
The opium crop is projected to generate a billion dollars in revenue inside Afghanistan this year, half of the country's Gross Domestic Product. And the fruits of that harvest are widely shared. "They're all benefiting: the Taliban, Al Qaeda, some former commanders, warlords who control their own territories," said Abdul Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the Institute for Afghan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, one of the leading Afghan studies programs in the US. "It is the higher up administrators and politicians who benefit more than the common people," he told DRCNet. "The warlords and commanders have used this to make money for years."
For the United Nations, US support of the warlords is doubly vexing. "Why is the international presence in Afghanistan not able to bring under control a phenomenon connected to international terrorism and organized crime?" asked Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN drug office, in February. "Why is the central government in Kabul not able to enforce the ban on opium cultivation as effectively as the Taliban regime did in 2000-01?"
The answer is that the warlords control the opium trade, and the United States supports the warlords because it needs them to fend off a resurgent Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies and to build a strong central government.
On December 9, the UN's top envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, again attacked the warlords. Many Afghans are angered by their corruption and prominent role in the government, said Brahimi in a discussion paper. "The perception that corruption exists... is coupled with the fear that the rapid expansion of the drug economy will undermine the nascent institutions of the state," he wrote. What is worse, Brahimi continued, is that the disaffection, particularly in the Pashtun-dominated south, home of the Taliban and scene of increased fighting in recent weeks. "Now, a critical stage has been reached," wrote Brahimi. "The Taliban never accepted defeat... They and others are taking full advantage of the popular disaffection."
It is the threat of a resurgent Taliban that finally roused US drug warriors to at least pay lip service to their nominally prohibitionist policy. Late last month, a few days before Rumsfeld met with Dostum and Mohammed, US drug czar John Walters launched a rhetorical broadside against the Afghan opium trade. "Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is a major and growing problem," said Walters. "Drug cultivation and trafficking are undermining the rule of law and putting money in the pocket of terrorists. The drug trade is hindering the ability of the Afghan people to rebuild their country and rejoin the international community. It is in the interest of all nations, including our European partners, to help the Karzai government fight the drug trade."
A strong US anti-opium effort in Afghanistan would be welcome news to the US's European partners. Britain, where much of the Afghan opium will end up as heroin, has for the past two years tried a limited Afghan eradication campaign, but with little result. Britain has not succeeded in getting US assistance in its anti-opium campaign.
And what goes on with Afghani poppies has a huge impact on the global opium market. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, when the Taliban ban on production went into effect in 2000, global opium production dropped by 19% to 4,700 tons. Since the end of the Taliban, Afghan production has spurred new growth in the global poppy crop, with the Afghans producing nearly 4,000 of the estimated 6,000 ton annual harvest this year. In its annual survey, Global Illicit Drug Trends, the UN reports that global production is increasing despite a shrinking number of acres devoted to the poppy. Poppy production is decreasing in Laos and Myanmar (see newsbrief below), but that crop is being replaced by more efficient Afghan production.
Walters also announced Operation Containment, designed to staunch the flow of opium from Afghanistan into Central Asia and on to Europe, but provided few details. If recent history is any indication, however, Operation Containment will ignore the warlords allied to the US. More likely to be a real operation is Operation Avalanche, which with 2,000 US troops sweeping toward the Afghan-Pakistan border in the southeast, is designed to root out Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters before the winter. It is the largest US military operation in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban two years ago. (As of December 10, Operation Avalanche has killed 15 Afghan children and two peasant farmers, but no Taliban or Al Qaeda.)
While Walters talks the prohibitionist talk, Rumsfeld walks the realpolitik walk, and the US hops in bed with some of the planet's largest drug dealers. This is not new. In fact, it is not even new in Afghanistan. That country became the world's largest opium producer during the 1980s, when the US, through its intermediaries in Pakistan's intelligence services, sponsored the mujahadin fighters in their jihad against the Russian occupiers. Those opium fields helped overthrow the Russians, and the US turned a blind eye.
Similarly, the US turned a blind eye to cocaine trafficking among its Contra allies in Central America in the 1980s, opium and heroin trafficking among its Hmong and South Vietnamese government allies in Southeast Asia in the 1960s, and to heroin trafficking by French and Italian mobsters in Marseilles in the 1950s. (Better the mob than the communist unions, went the argument.)
"This is not the first time we've had contradictory policies," concurred Ted Galen Carpenter, an international drug policy specialist at the Cato Institute (http://www.cato.org) and author of Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington's Futile War on Drugs in Latin America. "The CIA, for example, at least looked the other way while its allies in Central America trafficked in drugs," he told DRCNet. "The need to eradicate drugs collides with the overall US policy of promoting stability in Afghanistan. I can't imagine the US doing anything that would promote political instability there, and trying to crack down on the drug trade would certainly carry that risk."
John Thompson, executive director of Canada's Mackenzie Institute (http://www.mackenzieinstitute.com), a free-market think-tank that studies political violence, largely agreed, telling DRCNet neither the US nor the government in Kabul can afford to press the effort to wipe out the opium trade right now. "That would drive the peasants into the hands of the Taliban," he said. "What is really needed now is to stabilize Afghanistan, and to do that the best thing may be to achieve a degree of political stability without tackling the drug problem. If you undermine the Karzai administration by waging war on the opium crop, you will just create a chaotic situation like there was ten years ago, and that's what gave rise to the Taliban in the first place," Thompson argued. "Getting political stability, getting the refugees home, getting infrastructure repaired -- all of that should be a bigger priority than wiping out opium."
And trying to wipe out the trade probably wouldn't work anyway, Carpenter said. "In reality, we have little choice but to ignore it. We are not going to stamp it out. Opium has been a major cash crop for Afghanistan as long as anyone wants to remember. As we see with prohibitionist strategies in general, suppression doesn't work. If there is demand, there will be suppliers. If we do try to crack down, we will provoke political instability and probably hostility from the warlords against the occupation, and that could get American soldiers killed," Carpenter argued. "Walters will be overruled, although no one will say so out loud."
Maybe so. But it would also be nice if the US government could have a drug policy that did not stink of hypocrisy and situational ethics.