It’ll Be a Doozy

by Joshua Foust on 7/7/2009 · 5 comments

So buried in this ridiculous, misleading Danger Room post is a tidbit from ABC correspondent Gretchen Peters:

Helmand province is the center of opium production and provides almost 90 percent of the world’s supply. The Taliban get 70 percent of their money to buy supplies and fund attacks from opium, according to Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Okay, so I got a review copy of her book yesterday and I’ve been reading it. Let’s just say the 70% claim is ridiculous on its face, and her footnote in her book is not convincing. She also takes all the UNODC numbers and ignores the State Department numbers for opium cultivation patterns, with no explanation for why one is preferable over the other (I could guess, since UNODC makes it all seem worse, but that’ll be in the review). Before Peters, the highest portion of income any military official had ever said the Taliban receive from opium is in the 40% range. So it’s not hyperbole to say she’s way out in left field on this one. Why Peters arrived at a number that is almost double what the U.S. government itself says will be for someone else to answer.

Then again, I’ve found the first three chapters of her book to be almost unreadable, so shoddy is the argumentation and sourcing. The fourth is getting better, but it takes her 100 pages to either make a point someone else hasn’t already made years ago, or to say something she doesn’t contradict a few paragraphs or pages later. Given my initial skepticism of her entire thesis, I’m not sure how much I’ll like the rest of her book, or even if I’ll find any value in it.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Ian July 7, 2009 at 8:03 pm

Well, she does give the lower figures that U.S. officials cite too–they just get much less play in the book than the alarming ones, book-selling ones.

David M July 8, 2009 at 9:40 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 07/08/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Alex July 8, 2009 at 9:48 am


While funding from Opium is obviously part of the problem I have always been skeptical of the higher end assessments. There seems to be big debate (in intel/policy circles) about the breakdown in sources of Taliban funding. Do have any insight into that breakdown that you care to offer? What are the other sources?

We frequently hear about timber and precious stones in places like Korengal and Swat, but what else it there? Gulf funding? ISI? I am gonna throw a guess out there: 40% opium, 40% Gulf/ISI, 20% “smuggling” (i.e. timber, precious stones, fuel and other NATO supplies captured). How does that sound?

Joshua Foust July 8, 2009 at 6:36 pm

It sounds reasonable, though it’s worth noting that there is disagreement about whether opium is really 40% or not. Richard Holbrooke, for example, said that’s clearly way too high.

jtapp July 9, 2009 at 4:20 pm

From her recent interview on PBS NewsHour I gather that her thesis is that the drug activity is controlled by a relatively few individuals well-placed in the Afghan and Pakistani govts. Take them out and you can badly damage the drug trade (and thus Taliban funding). It seems to me that she’s right about the well-placed individuals, such as Karzai’s relatives. Do you think she’s right, that we could limit the drug trade by really and truly going after the drug bosses?

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