Drug Prohibition and Political Violence: Making the Connections 9/21/01

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Armies need money to function. If the armies are national armed forces, they can count on the revenues available to the central government to supply their needs. Non-state, political-military formations, whether guerrilla armies or "terrorist networks," must look elsewhere. And while last week's murderous attacks in New York and Washington have focused attention on the alleged links between the Afghan opium trade and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda (The Base) organization, the use of illicit drug profits to fund political violence is neither new nor limited to people whom Washington describes as "the bad guys."

In fact, bin Laden was once considered to be one of "the good guys," working in tandem with the CIA and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) in the $3 billion effort to drive Soviet armies out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Bin Laden was only one of a frightening array of multinational Islamic extremists cobbled together into an anti-Soviet alliance by the CIA. His role has been common knowledge for at least three years, when, in an eerily prescient piece titled "Bin Laden Comes Home to Roost," NBC reporter Michael Moran chronicled the Saudi millionaire's strange odyssey from American ally to public enemy number one.

"The decision was made to provide America's potential enemies with the arms, money -- and most importantly -- the knowledge of how to run a war of attrition violent and well-organized enough to humble a superpower," wrote Moran. "That decision is coming home to roost."

As part of that story, one of Moran's colleagues questioned Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and key decision-maker on the Afghan war, about the wisdom of such alliances. "Those were very important, pivotal matters that played a role in the downfall of the Soviet Union," said Hatch. "It was worth it." Hatch has not commented on the connection in recent days.

Another aspect of the anti-Soviet struggle was the well-documented and massive increase in opium production in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the CIA-sponsored conflict raged in the 1980s and mutated into an Afghan civil war in the 1990s, the opium crop became a virtual lifeline. In a report released earlier this year by the United Nations Drug Control Programme (http://www.undcp.org/adhoc/report_2001-06-26_1/analysis_afghanistan.pdf), the UN placed the beginning of the rapid expansion of Afghan opium production precisely in 1979, the year of the Soviet invasion and subsequent US-sponsored jihad. "It is no coincidence that Afghanistan began to emerge as a significant producer of illicit opium in precisely the period of protracted war that began in 1979, and still persists," the report noted. In 1980, Afghanistan accounted for less than 5% of global opium production; by 1999 it accounted for 71%, according to the report. (The Taliban announced last year that it was banning opium production, which has apparently occurred, and which prompted the US government in May of this year to give the Taliban $43 million in anti-drug assistance.)

(The curious coincidence between CIA involvement in Afghanistan and the rapid increase in opium production is the stuff of another story, one which would examine a number of other curious coincidences between CIA activities and sudden spurts in drug production or drug trafficking in various global hot spots over the past five decades.)

According to various sources, Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda have pocketed some of the proceeds. "There are increasing reports out of the region that, indeed, he is replenishing his coffers with drug money and helping move drugs across Afghanistan," Congressional terrorism researcher Kenneth Katzman told CBS News back in May.

John Thompson of the Mackenzie Institute, a Vancouver-based think-tank that studies crime and terrorism, told the Canadian Senate earlier this year that Islamic radical groups, which would presumably include Al-Qaeda, use illicit drug profits as a significant source of funding. "With the Islamic fundamentalists, it is maybe 25% to 30%," he said. "It is probably the single biggest money earner."

And in an announcement that illustrates the shadowy international connections between terrorism and different regional conflicts, Russian officials in February accused bin Laden of using profits from heroin trafficking to bankroll Chechen rebels in that breakaway Russian republic.

But the bin Laden drug connection is only the most striking example of the links between political violence and the black market profits of the illicit drug trade. French drug researcher Alan Labrousse, formerly of the now defunct Geopolitical Drug Dispatch and now with French Drug and Addiction Observatory, told the Canadian Senate that as many as 29 countries faced armed insurgencies financed in part by the drug trade. In Kosovo, for example, "the creation of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) was financed by heroin trafficking from Istanbul," said Labrousse. "The heroin was sold in Switzerland to buy Kalishnikovs and handguns."

And illicit drug profits have historically played a role in a large number of conflicts, including:

  • The Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s, when Japanese army officers helped the war effort by taking over existing opium distribution networks.
  • The fifty-year-old, multi-sided wars in the Golden Triangle of Burma, Laos, and Thailand, where armed actors including everyone from fleeing Chinese Nationalists to indigenous drug warlords such as Khun Sa to rebel ethnic armies such as the United Wa States Army have been fueled by profits from opium.
  • The Vietnam War, where US officials facilitated the opium trade of hill tribesmen in order to garner their political and military support against the Vietnamese communists. Earlier, the Vietnamese communists used opium revenues to finance their war of national liberation against the French. Earlier still, the French used officially-sanctioned opium revenues to pay the costs of their colonial occupation of Indochina.
  • The Central American wars of the 1980s, where, at the least, US policymakers turned a blind eye to cocaine trafficking by their Contra allies after Congress barred the US government from providing funds to them.
  • Peru, where in the 1980s, the Shining Path insurgency funded itself by protecting coca-growing peasants from the central government and taxing their crops.
  • Colombia, where in the early 1980s the Medellin Cartel waged bloody war on the Colombian state to try to prevent its cooperation with US anti-drug efforts. The Colombian experience of the early 1980s represents true "narco-terrorism," in the sense that the cartel killed for its own reasons of survival and market share, not to promote an ideological agenda. And, of course, in Colombia today, groups aligned with all sides in the brutal civil war profit from the cocaine trade.
In a September 14 piece in the Ottawa Citizen, reporter Dan Gardner put the drug traffic-terror connection squarely back on the media agenda with the boldly titled story, "Terrorists Get Cash from the Drug Trade." And Gardner asked a question that he characterized as obvious: "If illegal drugs are the single largest source of funding for terrorism, can you hurt terrorism by legalizing drugs?"

"Probably," replied the Mackenzie Institute's Thompson. "In fact, you could probably hurt it considerably." But Thompson does not think the world's governments will end prohibition to fight terrorism. "This is a sacred cow. It's going to be hard to kill," he told Gardner.

The link between the drug trade and political violence is sure to be closely scrutinized in coming weeks and months. Whether or not the drug reform movement wants to evade the issue, the other side is certain to be yelling "drugs fund terrorism." The counterargument -- that drug prohibition funds political violence -- will seem counterintuitive to many and possibly unpatriotic to some, but reformers had best be prepared to make that argument, and make it well.

(For a useful set of articles, papers, and links on political violence and the drug trade, see the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy at http://www.cfdp.ca/terror.htm online.)

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Issue #203, 9/21/01 Editorial: Fateful Decisions | After the Attacks: Drug Reformers Confront a Brave New World | Drug Prohibition and Political Violence: Making the Connections | Broad Coalition Forms to Defend Rights, Liberties in Wake of Attacks | Gov. Johnson Takes On DEA's Hutchinson in New Mexico Debate, Hutchinson Calls Student Loan Ban Unfair | Michigan: Rainbow Farm Marijuana Activists Laid to Rest, Friends Not Resting | British "Cannabis Cafe" Opens in Challenge to Marijuana Laws, is Raided Within Minutes | Action Alerts: Ecstasy Bill, HEA, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, John Walters | Job Opportunity: Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, DC | The Reformer's Calendar
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