View Full Version : Hooked

09-12-06, 09:14 AM
September 12, 2006, 6:10 a.m.
The drugs which fuel the Taliban.

By Michael Yon

In Afghanistan, heroin has become the Devil’s cocktail. “Smack” is already one of the most addictive and destructive drugs on Earth, and now numerous academic studies show addiction levels on the rise, particularly among younger children. In the place where 90 percent of the world’s heroin supply originates, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and others harvest profits from opium poppy cultivation to buy weapons and equipment used to attack soldiers and civilians engaged in a mostly stalled reconstruction mission.

A reverse symbiosis is at work: Those who benefit most from the opium/heroin trades also benefit most from a destabilized Afghanistan, because a stable country with functioning government systems, reliable security forces, and a framework of laws is a bad climate for the drug trade. Conversely, farmers growing crops such as cotton and beans benefit from a stable government climate, which affords the opportunity to think beyond the next crop cycle. In order to make agriculture a more successful business venture, farmers need a stable government as a partner. But since the interests of poppy farmers and narco-kings are in aggressive opposition to any plan to stabilize Afghanistan, this partnership is not even in the talking stages.

According to a GAO “Congressional Report on Afghanistan Reconstruction,” approximately half of Afghanistan’s economy is based on opium, meaning roughly half the economy thrives in a chaos that also funds world-class terrorists. Experts who study the calculus of the narcotics trade know that the problem is growing out of control in Afghanistan because every additional poppy lanced for its opium unleashes an oozing flow of black-market dollars. Those dollars are not taxed by the Kabul government, but by the virtual government of the Taliban. Perversely, poppy farmers grow poorer with each successively larger crop, because their bounty boosts supplies while driving prices lower, and they need to grow more each year just to stay even.

2006 was a bumper year for the poppy crop — the largest harvest on record. In the 2006 World Drug Report, the U.N. estimated that there was only a 2-percent eradication of potential opium production in the previous year. According to locals I interviewed about this “eradication,” workers went out, slapped down a few fields with sticks, paid farmers for the poppy, and made photo ops. But at the same time, many workers left reconstruction jobs en masse to complete the poppy harvest; 98 percent of the crop survived, and it has begun to make its way to millions of addicts in Asia, Europe, and North America.

This seasonal work-boon causes setbacks for road and infrastructure projects. Given that nationwide dissatisfaction with the pace and progress of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan has now grown to such a level that concern about it is factored into reports and plans from the U.N., NATO, and the GAO (among others), this is just another example of the expanding zone of erosion that threatens to undermine all progress on all fronts in this battered country.

Heroin addictions are increasing around the globe. Here at home, there will be more addicts crawling through windows at night robbing houses and stealing jewelry to score drugs, just as they will be in Brisbane, Berlin, and London. According to health studies, the heroin now landing on the streets in Europe and America is increasingly pure. Many users continue to inject the drug, but because of the increased purity, some children are sniffing or smoking heroin, relying on a dangerous rationalization that “real addicts” always inject. Kids also are mixing heroin with other drugs such as cocaine, causing a spike in emergency-room visits and explaining the rise in drug related injuries and deaths for middle-school students. With burgeoning heroin supplies, lower street prices lower the addiction threshold, resulting in more heroin addicts. And when addicts use heroin over time, they need more and more to feel the high. Afghan farmers will likely oblige by planting more.

Despite the increasing human toll levied by opium production in Afghanistan, there is still no coherent plan for stopping the violence, shutting off the flow of money to the enemy, and eradicating and replacing poppy in Afghanistan.

Thousands of tons of opium from this year’s harvest are being processed at this moment, and much will be used to make the heroin that is about to flood our streets, all while the its monetary equivalent will be stuffing enemy pockets in the next few months.

Getting Stronger
We are seeing the results on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Instead of the planned shift toward stability that was expected to be far enough along to enable us to draw down U.S. troops and turn over the security operations to NATO forces, the Taliban has resurged, re-armed, regrouped, and re-emerged as a serious military threat.

In early July 2006, an Afghan truck driver for the Central Asian Development Group (CADG) was kidnapped between Camp Bastion and Lashkar Gah on a road that I had recently traveled. The surrounding area is a full-on battlefield every bit as dangerous as Iraq. When the driver was kidnapped, the owner of CADG, Steve Shaulis, immediately called his Lashkar Gah branch office to ask which village his man was from. Shaulis then dispatched an employee to the village to inform the man’s family. As Shaulis told me, “I also informed — of course — the government and the Coalition, but — of course — they could do nothing more than take the information with a vague sort of promise to look into it.” While the Coalition and the Afghan government apparently fell inert on the matter, the victim’s family went immediately to the Taliban — who have a functioning structure in these parts — and secured the release of the man without ransom. Shaulis wasn’t so lucky in getting his truck back, however. But since he’s had other incidents with less fortunate outcomes, a truck is an easy loss to absorb. While I was in the province, an ambush of CADG trucks occurred, during which one of the drivers was murdered and another wounded. This area has become so dangerous since my departure that Shaulis has been forced to lease an airplane to visit his projects.

There is a widespread notion that Afghanistan is safer for our troops than Iraq, yet Coalition and NATO combat deaths in Afghanistan are per capita nearly identical to those in Iraq. In 2007, it looks as if per capita combat deaths will likely be significantly higher in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Why? There are many reasons, but one of the most important is that our European allies have been slow to recognize the reality that a monster really is under the bed. After years of neglect and dawdling, they are finally beginning to adjust, but they are still not keeping pace with the threat. They are still not providing their people with proper equipment, all while the Taliban is getting stronger from the billion-dollar narcotics backwash that floods enemy coffers. As in Iraq, troop numbers are also dangerously low in Afghanistan, and the handfuls of friendly forces there lack sufficient air power to stretch their security resources.

NATO is tentatively confronting the proximate and growing threat by sending more troops into battle, but they are sending troops with insufficient force protection. During my trip, I visited several bases. To convey just one exchange, but a revealing one: Shaulis needed to meet some Danish engineers who were to fly into Tarin Kot the next day by helicopter. When Shaulis asked an Australian special-forces officer how to identify which helicopter the Danish engineers would arrive in, the Australian officer grimly answered, “It will be the only helicopter flying alone.”

According to retired four-star General Barry McCaffrey, who recently returned from a trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan:

In my view, there is little question that the level of fighting has intensified rapidly in the past year. Three years ago the Taliban operated in squad sized units. Last year they operated in company sized units (100+ men). This year the Taliban are operating in battalion sized units (400+) men.

Afghanistan is the new hot war — and it’s getting hotter.


09-12-06, 10:08 AM
This not a new problem as I have been reading about it for years. I know as a fact that our government has the proven ability and means to defoliate and lay waste to these destructive corps. Since we are at war we could easily strike a major blow in the war on terrorism and drugs at the same time. Is it a matter of the Afgahan economy that prevents this? Some thing does not add up.

09-13-06, 07:19 PM
September 13, 2006, 4:54 a.m.
The deadly cocktail of poppy and incompetence.

By Michael Yon

Half a decade ago, Steve Shaulis gave me a copy of the excellent book written by his Pakistani friend Ahmed Rashid , Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Shaulis had been working in Afghanistan for several years before the book was published, and had long maintained that we would suffer for ignoring Afghanistan. Rashid, a Pakistani journalist with extensive ties in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the West, clearly spells out, long before the 9/11 attacks, the structure of the Taliban and their close association with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. The closing paragraph of his book proved prophetic:

But if the war in Afghanistan continues to be ignored we can only expect the worst. Pakistan will face an Islamic-style revolution which will further destabilize it and the entire region. Iran will remain on the periphery of the world community and its eastern borders will continue to be wracked by instability. The Central Asian states will not be able to deliver their energy and mineral exports by the shortest routes and as their economies crash, they will face an Islamic upsurge and instability. Russia will continue to bristle with hegemonic aims in Central Asia even as its own society and economy crumbles. The stakes are extremely high.

Ahmed Rashid was painfully correct. Half a year after publication, four jets filled with passengers rammed into buildings in the United States, the culmination of a plan that had launched from Afghanistan. Of the current situation in Afghanistan, Rashid told me

People are very frustrated; they have not seen the kind of development and reconstruction that they had hoped. They have not seen the kind of security because of a lack of foreign forces and also the very slow pace of building up Afghan forces. And in the midst of all this, the Taliban insurgency has gone on, at a low key for the last two or three years. But this summer it has exploded as NATO brings in more troops and tries to take control, for the first time, of Southern Afghanistan. That is the Taliban stronghold. That is where the insurgency is happening and it has been boosted by the public frustration and also by the fact that the Taliban and Al Queda have now formed links with Iraq. They are importing a lot of the tactics and methodology of the insurgency in Iraq.

Until recently, suicide bombings were virtually unknown in Afghanistan. Today they are common. Several CADG employees, including one Brit, were driving on a dangerous section of road recently and came upon a fresh car-bomb detonation. An Afghan employee got out and picked up the hand and brought it back to the car, took it to the office, and buried it. Five suicide bombings have occurred this year in the immediate vicinity of CADG operations, although each attack was targeting a different person. Daily attacks of various sorts make reconstruction projects increasingly difficult to complete.

Steve Shaulis is saying what he has been saying for several years: We are fumbling in Afghanistan, and one of our greatest threats is a beautiful flower once memorably described as “attractive to the eye and soothing to the senses.” The threat derives not so much from the ravages opium and heroin inflict on people and societies, but from the Coalition and NATO’s tolerance of it and their half-measures to eradicate it, which render us unreliable allies in the eyes of many Afghans. Shaulis cautions that Afghans may be uneducated people, but they are not fools. As he explained in an e-mail:

Basically, the problems are simple.

1. Governance: Ask yourself why the Taliban is gaining strength? It is because of the lack of governance and distrust of the people for the government.
2. Justice: Case in point is the recent arrest and release of Haji Naimat, who is from Musa Qala village, who was caught in the town of Baramcha with four tons of opium and half ton of refined heroin. His appeal went up to the highest levels in Kabul, and he was quietly released. These smugglers are the same people that feed the Taliban in order to keep an unstable environment which suits them.
3. Why are the drug eradication forces being given more and more money, when they cannot even eradicate 2% of poppy? In Tirin Kot, they finally arrived on site, and are spending $1 million to build their compound which has caused them to completely miss the poppy harvest, since they are focused only on getting their pre-fab housing in place!
The fact is that educated Afghans can see through this scam, because that is what it is. Uneducated Afghans simply understand now that they will have no long-term sustained protection from the Coalition, and no governance from their own leaders. The Taliban is now starting to strike that populist resonance with people in the countryside again.

Shaulis’s words were corroborated by Afghans with whom I spoke as we toured farms and worksites across southern Afghanistan, many of whom think we are in cahoots with the Taliban. The fact that we are not eradicating poppy, Afghans say, is only one piece of evidence. They do not trust their new government, or us, and they point to cases like the one Shaulis referenced, or to all the wasted reconstruction dollars that go to foreign contractors who deliver shabby work, if and when they deliver anything at all.

Unlike many Islamic countries where anti-American sentiment is rampant, most Afghans were hopeful that the investments promised in 2001 would result in changes that improved their lives. They were genuinely happy to shed the Taliban. Now their views have shifted. Many Afghans turn to the Taliban now simply because they are the only group that delivers on both threats and promises. They may be the devil, but they are a devil who can get the job done.

As Rashid explains:

Until this spring, I think people generally, even in the south, were tolerating the Taliban more out of fear than out of love. After all we should remember that the Pashtun population in southern Afghanistan has been through the worst period of the Taliban. They suffered under the Taliban regime. They know very well that the Taliban would not care for them, or be able to provide jobs or health or education for their children. But the fact is they have waited now five years for the government and the international community to do what they promised to do back in 2001, which was to provide jobs and health care and education, and roads and infrastructure, and electricity and water, and all the rest of it. And, really, they haven’t seen it. For many, many people in Afghanistan, their lives have not changed very much. Apart from when they do go to the cities, where they see extraordinary wealth and very big houses made by the drugs barons or by the warlords.

In Afghanistan, rumors and innuendo serve as morning papers and nightly news broadcasts. They can have sweeping and devastating influence in shaping public opinion. This is something with which many Westerners doing business in Afghanistan have had to contend. In a mostly excellent article called “Afghanistan: The Night Fairies,” written for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Sarah Chayes writes:

This state of affairs is so bewildering that Kandaharis have reached an astonishing conclusion: The United States must be in league with the Taliban. They reason that America, with its power and riches, could bring an end to the "insurgency" in a month, if it so chose. They figure that America remains a close and munificent ally of Pakistan, the country that is sponsoring the "insurgency," and so the continuing violence must be a deliberate element of U.S. policy. The point is not whether there is any factual basis for this notion; it's that everyone here believes it. In other words, in a stunning irony, much of this city, the Taliban's former stronghold, is disgusted with the Americans not because of their Western culture, but because of their apparent complicity with Islamist extremists.

More than mere rumor is at work in many southern provinces. There, the Taliban murder people who do not cooperate, make videos of the “executions,” and openly flaunt their control. Rumors may enhance the drama and volume of incidents, but the fact is, the Taliban are in control of parts of Afghanistan. Our military footprint is no larger than a few deer tracks.

Our military and our allies kill Taliban by the dozens on a regular basis, but in an area the size of Afghanistan and the surrounding region, this is irrelevant. Combine the populations of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida; Afghanistan has more people. Killing a few dozen Taliban here and there is like coming to Florida and killing a few dozen rabbits. But in Afghanistan, we hunt using satellites, spy drones, and so forth, then swooping in on the killer rabbits with expensive airmobile operations. What does it really cost to kill one terrorist in Afghanistan? The answer is probably in the millions of dollars, and since reconstruction has been a failure, if the entire budget, along with the true long-term costs and soft-costs, of the war in Afghanistan is divided by the number of real terrorists killed, the price of killing one easily-replaceable, illiterate terrorist might be in the tens of millions, or more. It’s as if we were shooting diamonds at them, while dropping bombs made of gold. If killing bad guys is all we do, we will be spending a lot of money to lose a war.

Afghanistan has become a sustainable hunting lodge — “sustainable” meaning we are not running out of game; we can hunt for as long as we are willing to spend the money and lives. Even among military leaders, it is unclear how willing we will be for how long.

In his June 2006 assessment report on the situation in Afghanistan, General Barry McCaffrey (Ret.) wrote:

We will encounter some very unpleasant surprises in the coming 24 months that will require US fighting forces which can respond rapidly throughout this huge and chaotic country to preserve and nurture the enormous successes of the past five years. The Afghan national leadership are collectively terrified that we will tip-toe out of Afghanistan in the coming few years—leaving NATO holding the bag—and the whole thing will again collapse into mayhem. They do not believe that the United States has made a strategic commitment to stay with them for the fifteen years required to create an independent, functional nation-state which can survive in this dangerous part of the world.

Besides the fact that killing bad guys alone will not win the war, the fact that most of the NATO forces streaming in simply do not have the resolve and the killer instincts needed to win there is something the Taliban have noticed and acted on. As Rashid explains (listen here):

They are targeting NATO troops, some of whom are coming from countries which are not fully committed to combat. They are more committed to peace-keeping than to combat. This is contributing to the sense of doom and gloom amongst many Afghans who fear that the Taliban may be coming back.

We must get serious, and not leave NATO to be chewed up in Afghanistan. NATO cannot handle it alone. But first we must stop the poppy, the Taliban’s ATM. Eliminating the ATM is the first step to eliminating the Taliban as a security threat, and the first step to rebuilding the faith and confidence of Afghans in the international community that middling efforts to date have so severely eroded. Although none will work quickly or at arm’s length, there are alternatives.