Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda, by Gretchen Peters

by Joshua Foust on 7/9/2009 · 17 comments

Seeds of TerrorIt’s probably best to skip the first 130 pages of this book. That’s how long it takes Ms. Peters, who claims to be passionately involved in telling this story, to even begin to discuss the ways in which opium-based corruption has distorted the Afghan government in far more pernicious ways than merely fueling an insurgency. There, on page 134, Ms. Peters says that “almost everyone” she interviewed for this book agreed that “crooked members of Hamid Karzai’s administration are earning even more” from the drug trade than the Taliban.

Considering the finality of the book’s central thesis—drugs are funding the Afghan and global insurgency—it is a stunning admission. Why limit the discussion to just the Taliban and al Qaeda if there is almost universal consensus that the drug problem is much worse in the official government? This consensus carries into other discussions that fatally undermine Ms. Peters’ thesis: she notes the drugs trade is not why the insurgency is so strong in the FATA, for example (she notes, but doesn’t explain, why it is so significant that the Pakistani Taliban brag about imposing law and order by catching and executing bandits that rob locals).

Ms. Peters admits—quite briefly, for the most part—that the rest of her “evidence” supporting her thesis is disputed by “some U.S. officials.” The dispute centers around what looks like Agency in-fighting—something Ms. Peters doesn’t quite explain is part of the reason for the U.S. counternarcotics’ campaign fecklessness. Her sources stating that the proof of poppy’s deep ties with the Taliban and al Qaeda is obvious and incontrovertible are all DEA agents—who are, perhaps not coincidentally, saying exactly what you would expect DEA agents to say. The dissenters are mostly military analysts and CIA types. You can see how this slanted the insider-y information she was able to collect:

DEA agent Rich Fiano recalled his first meeting with then U.S. ambassador Deane Hinton when he arrived at [Islamabad] in June 1986. The U.S. envoy asked him, “Mr. Fiano, what do you think our biggest priority is out here?”

Fiano answered, “Drugs, sir?”

No, the ambassador replied curtly. It was fighting the Soviets. “Do you know what our second biggest priority is?”

Fiano took another shot. “Drugs, sir?”

Again, wrong. “It’s stopping nuclear proliferation,” the ambassador said.

The ambassador said the U.S.’s third priority was drugs. Ms. Peters recounts this episode as an act of outrage—surely it was obvious the mujahidin were involved in the drugs trade, so how could the U.S. not be aggressively attacking the drugs? In a world of limited resources—and, despite occasional behavior of limitless money and attention, the U.S. does indeed have resource limitations—you have to prioritize. In the 1980s, there was no “holistic” solution to the regional problems, and the U.S. decided to prioritize draining the Soviet Union over other campaigns.

There are other, curious sections of the book that make me wonder just how thorough her research was. For one, Ms. Peters never addresses the very important distinction between correlation—two seemingly related phenomena occurring simultaneously—and causation. She notes that the Taliban came to power in 2003 “just as opium exploded across southern Afghanistan.” Well, okay. Does that automatically mean opium caused the Taliban? She never really says. Similarly, Ms. Peters notes that a majority of the opium grown in Afghanistan is grown in Taliban-controlled areas. Okay again, we get that—but which came first? Again, she doesn’t really say.

Ms. Peters also can’t seem to make up her mind about who the major drug players are, or why they do it. On page 5 she claims the Taliban only cares about smuggling and money; on page 12 she claims the “definition of Taliban member and drug smuggler is blurring” and most attacks are diversionary tactics to protect drug shipments. On page 18, however, she says that terrorists raise money as a means to an end, and notes that there are massive capital outflows from Afghanistan. Two pages before, she noted that her research indicated “Islamic extremists connected to al Qaeda don’t move large quantities of drugs themselves, and there’s scant evidence of an organized network involving their leaders in the drug trade.”

So… what’s with the title of the book, then? Page after page of the first half of this book contradicts itself—on page 86 we see that U.S. counternarcotics officials say they have no evidence of Osama bin Laden’s direct involvement in the drug trade, but on page 89 we see a former NSC official alleging that bin Laden used Ariana Airlines to launder money and drugs. Make up your mind! On page 78, Ms. Peters admits there are zero disinterested parties who can discuss first-hand the drugs issue, especially along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Yet then she claims Osama bin Laden and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar used drug money to finance Chechen rebels.

But it’s not just Chechens—those mythical beasts of Afghan punditry. Given Ms. Peters’ close association with Ahmed Rashid, we have to hear about how Uzbeks will be the end of civilization. Ignoring the probably salient fact that the IMU got involved with al Qaeda after it had already begun “wreaking havoc” in Uzbekistan (and Kyrgyzstan!) she argues the IMU controls “as much as 70 percent of the multibillion-dollar heroin and opium trade through Central Asia.” If by “IMU” she meant “the government of Uzbekistan,” then that would make sense. She then goes on to tell us that the IMU got its start in the 1980s as members of the anti-Soviet Jihad, and that they “became partners with the Taliban in moving Afghan heroin through Central Asia to the West” (umm, that’s not really true, either). She then references Rashid again claiming that “many IMU incursions into other parts of Central Asia”—probably the 1999 bombings in Tashkent and the abduction of the mayor of Osh—were merely diversionary tactics to conceal their drug smuggling through Turkmenistan.

And here I thought the IMU, formed from the ashes of Adolat in 1998, was all about resisting and toppling Islam Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan. Let’s just ignore her bizarre argument about the IMU allying itself with a heretofore unknown commander of the UTO in Tajikistan to smuggle drugs with Abdulrashid Dostum in… well, she won’t say which year. Nor will she really source the claim (“another intelligence report shown to the author” isn’t much of a source). Not a peep about the severe degradation in the IMU’s capabilities after 2001, or the fact that their presence today is largely mythical, totally out of proportion to their real numbers and abilities.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing is a critical weakness during the first two-thirds of Ms. Peters’ book—all these anonymous officials, secret documents (is publishing the contents of still-classified reports a crime?), and unsourced claims introduce an incredible amount of doubt into the narrative. Halfway through, I contemplated giving up entirely until my friend Ian urged me to continue. I’ve not mentioned even a significant number of the questionable claims and sourcing I had flagged to this point, 133 pages in. For example, on page 14 Ms. Peters says the DEA thinks opium provides the Taliban with 70 percent of its funding. Let’s just say that is ridiculous on its face, and her footnote in her book is not convincing (“interviews with U.S. officials”). Before this book, the highest portion of income any military official had ever said the Taliban receive from opium is in the 40% range. Peters is way out in left field on this one. And it’s not immediately clear, aside from the selection bias noted above, why she chose to run with that number as the definitive one.

Indeed, by the time Ms. Peters gets around to explaining that it’s really not as cut-and-dried as she tried to make it in the first few chapters, that there is significant opium cultivation outside Taliban-controlled areas, that there is in fact a difference between the drug smugglers and the Taliban, and that there is little evidence al Qaeda does more than very small scale smuggling to raise money for individual sales… well, you’re left wondering what the point was. But it is at this point that the book changes, broadens its focus to a much larger discussion of the pernicious corrupting effects of the drug trade. The real story, which Ms. Peters waits hundreds of pages to tell, is that drugs are completely embedded into every level of the Afghan government, and into many levels of the Pakistani and Iranian governments as well.

In fact, if you can make it past all that, the book isn’t half-bad—a breezy exploration of drugs in South Asia. The title and subtitle are deeply misleading, but Ms. Peters’ policy recommendations are at least not ridiculous—though she vastly overstates the effect of interdicting drugs are when she notes that capturing and trying some of the largest drug smugglers has had zero impact on the drug situation in Afghanistan. Buried in her story is the realization that unless major progress is made in curbing the corruption within Pakistan, and until drug corruption is reduced in the Afghan government, the whole thing is an exercise in futility.

And that’s the key: I disagree quite sharply with Ms. Peters on the causal relationship between opium and insurgency (or terrorism). The very issue of causation is fraught with problems, starting with contradictory and extremely limited data. Ms. Peters discussion of opium in Afghanistan was almost entirely limited to Helmand and Kandahar, when Nangarhar has a chaotic and unpredictable opium market unrelated to actual levels of insurgency. It is because this relationship is so poorly understood—and that drug cultivation seems to be a feature of conflict zones—that the U.S. should be very careful about letting counternarcotic objectives overwhelm security ones (nor should an over-focus on opium obscure the role of cannabis). Until cultivating opium is not simply healthy economic behavior, there won’t be any way to untangle the economic issues from the many security ones—which is something, in fairness, Ms. Peters acknowledges.

The problem with that line of thinking is, it leads one to the conclusion that when it comes to opium it is probably best to do nothing. But talking about that doesn’t sell very many books, does it?


Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– 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 Registan.net. 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

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use

{ 16 comments }

Blaine July 10, 2009 at 3:02 am

Sounds like Ms. Peters is one of many who doesn’t always necessarily grasp the concept of “correlation does not always equal causation.” I’ve wondered for quite some time how much of the heroin trade can really be linked to actual Taliban members… because, at least from my own readings on the subject, the numbers tossed out in regards to how much of the drug trade and smuggling the Taliban is supposedly involved in wildly vary from source to source (most of whom are kept anonymous and thus can’t exactly be fact checked or even read up on to check their track record).

To be honest though, I’m a little suprised more people haven’t mentioned the strategy the US and UN used with Turkey, where they helped license poppy cultivation for use in legal drugs like morphine and codeine, thus ushering in legal poppy processing plants and choking off the stranglehold of the black market on cultivation. I’m not sure how well that would work in Afghanistan, as obviously the two countries (and Afghanistan’s current situation compared to Turkey’s in the early 70’s) aren’t similar, but I don’t see where it could hurt to give it a shot. It sure beats trying to persuade farmers to cultivate less profitable alternatives that aren’t as easy to tend to (or, as was the case for a while, forcably eradicating their poppy crops). Of course, I lean more toward decriminalization of drugs in general, so perhaps my bias skews my perception a little too much.

Péter July 10, 2009 at 6:44 am

Blaine: What was then called the Senlis Council gave a shot to the idea of legalised poppy cultivation a couple of years ago. But the village-level tablet production they thought would be profitable enough to make the alternative cost/benefit of being involved in the illicit opium trade acceptable to producers is not very workable in Afghanistan IMO. Especially if one’s expectation is that it should be part of the formal economy.

noah July 10, 2009 at 8:09 am

Blaine:

It’s funny that you mention it, because actually that suggestion comes up all the time. Peter is right that the Senlis council (sometimes unfortuantely nicknamed the “Senseless” council by people who don’t like their ideas for Afghanistan) is the main advocate for this idea. Unfortunately, the main problem is that it basically only works for one country–the demand for licit opium production is already filled. I dont’ remember the exact numbers off the top of my head, but the production levels in Afghanistan are insanely more than the amount needed for licit medication, and besides the need is basically already filled. Even if you converted something like 10% of Afghan production to licit opium and found buyers, you would still have to deal with the other 90%.

The other serious problem that has kept people away from this idea is the lack of regulation and government infrastucture in Afghanistan that creates the problem in the first place–if you don’t get rid of the illegal buyers who are always going to offer the farmers more than what the licit establishment can, you just put yourself in a bidding war that you can’t win. You can try to outprice them for awhile, but the illicit buyers will always be able to win in the end because they have a ridiculously high profit margin to work with.

The other sticky problem facing all the solutions is that all of this functions in a market, illegal as it is. As soon as you cut the supply of heroin, the prices skyrocket (cf. the Taliban’s 2000 “ban” on heroin production that drove prices back up exponentially) making it all the more attractive as an industry.

Another, but probably by no means the last, reason paying farmers for opium production is problematic is that Afghanistan is far from being self-sufficient in grain production now mostly because too much arable land is being devoted to opium production. There are problems feeding everyone already, and the first solution to this is to increase grain production. To do that, you have to manage to convince at least some of the people growing poppies to produce grain instead. In turn this will likely require subsidies, something USAID was basically allergic to throughout the Bush years.

Blaine July 10, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Peter,

I haven’t really read up a ton on the Senlis Council much, didn’t realize they had already proposed such an idea.

Noah,

Thanks for the reply. I read up a little bit about the Senlis Council after reading your post and Peters, and I checked the regulations for licit opium trade, and the problems you outline are big ones. It would seem the US mandates that drug companies buy a fixed percentage of licit opium from Turkey (I think around 80% if I can remember correctly) and much of the rest shipped in from overseas comes from India by the sounds of it… so it would seem the demand for legal opium cultivation is, as you already articulated, all filled up.

I’m wondering then, if as Josh stated in his post, if the best idea is potentially being far more lax on the opium trade. It would seem to me subsidies would run into the large problem of Afghanistans crippled and corrupt Government, unless the US has a way of dolling out funds more directly… but even that seems like it might run into a few large bumps.

Lil July 10, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Did you see she was on the Daily Show last month?

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-june-8-2009/gretchen-peters

Just thought you might enjoy it.

Ian July 10, 2009 at 1:31 pm

I’m not sure why Noah only applies the market mechanism selectively. He says that demand for legal opiates is basically met, but demand is currently *severely* limited by the high cost of legal opiates. According to this website, “the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, together representing less than 20% of the world’s population, accounted for more than 95% of the total morphine consumption in 2005.”

If there were more supply, the prices would obviously drop, making them accessible to people in Botswana, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe. That would make the growing of poppy less profitable, yes, but nothing a simple subsidy effort wouldn’t remedy.

BTW I will assume Josh’s choice to quote the same passage I did in the first paragraph of my FEER article is coincidence, and not the highest form of flattery. 🙂

Joshua Foust July 10, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Actually, it IS a coincidence, Ian — I had begun writing my review before you sent me your article. But you and I feel very similarly, and very strongly about this topic. I wouldn’t have linked to your piece if I had any untoward intentions 🙂

Ian noted that is actually is NOT coincidence. He sent me his review when I was much earlier in the book. I didn’t have his review open in front of me, but he did point out that dramatic shift in tone, and I found it equally striking.

***
But I am not so sure you’re gauging the market well, either. It’s true most of the cost of opiates in the West comes from regulation and not supply, but at the same time as China and India (for example) have seen their incomes grow, the demand for opiate medicines in those countries has not grown to match. So it’s a bit more complicated than there merely being sick people who are starving for opium. Maybe. We don’t really know.

We can reasonably guess that the extreme amounts of regulation surrounding opiate drugs worldwide drives the cost up and restricts the current supply dramatically. We also know that at least within India, they cannot properly control their legal cultivators, and kinda sorta accept that a huge amount gets grown illegally right next to the legal crops (and the opium Turkey cultivates is different, as it’s derives from the stalks, but that’s a different story).

Lil, I like how Peters blames every IED on opium. That is hyperbole, very much at odds with the other open sources on how the Taliban and al Qaeda derive their funds, and blah blah blah. She’s selling her book to the war on drugs people, and they’re eating it up.

Noah July 10, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Ian;

I may be off on this one, economics and markets are not my strong suit, and with the cold that I have I’m kind of off on a lot of things today (Nathan was kind of enough to edit my comment because I actually spelled my own name wrong and didn’t notice the first time around).

I think I was accentuating the wrong spot. It’s true that there are artificial constraints in the market on the licit side and that there is a great deal for potential growth if you were to expand sales for medicinal derivative drugs to new, underserved markets, where people indeed deserve the same pain medication that we do. However, the end problem is not the constraint of demand, but that heroin is a much more profitable end use than licit medicine ever can be.

I don’t think you can solve the problem of the drug trade by outbidding the smugglers. Maybe if you could eliminate them you could successfully develop licit opium as an industry in AF, but then if you could do that you would have already solved the problem of the drug trade.

Gretchen Peters July 14, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Hi Joshua,

I wanted to respond to your blog post on Seeds of Terror both to clarify some issues for accuracy and to further public debate on the important subject of Afghanistan’s drug trade. Having looked around your website, we disagree on some issues and agree on others, including the extent to which ordinary Afghan people are victimized by the opium trade. You have obviously spent time looking at this topic and I thought your concerns deserved a more lengthy response than I would give a casual critic. I hope you will post it. I also plan to link to your review and post my response on my website.

You start off your blog post by saying that it takes me more than 130 pages to discuss corruption, which you regard as the more “pernicious” issue.

I actually agree that it will be a far greater challenge for the NATO alliance and the international community to find reliable partners – both in Afghanistan and Pakistan – and to root out the corrosive issues of corruption and criminality.

However, I did not set out to write an exposé about corruption in AfPak. I believe there has been extensive media coverage of the issue of corruption within the Karzai government and the Afghan police, and that monitoring groups like Transparency International have raised public awareness about the extent of corruption both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I did not intend (nor did I claim) to pen an encyclopedic book detailing every aspect of the AfPak drug problem.

Rather, I sought to research and write about how the drug trade supports the insurgency and extremist groups in the region. That is an issue I felt had not been well documented and about which, as you say, there appears to be much conflicting information.

I believe that insurgencies occur in places that lack good governance. I discuss this in Seeds of Terror, as you note in your review, and I also devote considerable time to the issue of corruption – even in those first 133 pages – especially the long history of connections between the Pakistan military, the ISI and the drug trade.

I am not going to respond to all of your points, but want to address a few broad issues you raised, starting with the issue of correlation vs. causation. You write:

She notes that the Taliban came to power in 2003 “just as opium exploded across southern Afghanistan.” Well, okay. Does that automatically mean opium caused the Taliban? She never really says.
Actually, I think I do. Now, the Taliban did not come into power in 2003, leaving me wondering whether you are referring to the birth of the movement in mid-1994 (and their subsequent takeover of Kabul in 2006) or if you are talking about the 2003 announcement by Mullah Dadullah that they were launching a comeback.

Either way: I discuss at great length the origins of the Taliban, the economic backdrop to their rise to power and their early links to smugglers (both of opium and other commodities) on pages 68-76. In case you missed that point, let me state clearly and for the record that I do believe there is a direct causal relationship between the opium trade (and other smuggling) in Afghanistan and the origins and rise to power of the Taliban.

With regards to the post 2001 Taliban resurgence, there are both correlative and causal factors. There is evidence, for example, that Taliban commanders in Helmand – where few western forces were deployed after the 2001 invasion – tapped into existing opium stockpiles and used money they raised by selling off that opium to regroup and rearm themselves. I’d call that correlative. But there are also “causal” examples, like the story of Taliban forces and trafficking gangs pushing into Farah and Nimroz provinces in 2004/2005 – where poppy cultivation then mushroomed (See page 11 of 2008 UNODC annual opium survey for recent data on the crop size in those provinces).

There is widespread evidence of Taliban commanders collecting tax, extorting businesses and local communities, and also evidence that some of them struggle for money at times (all of this happened during the Soviet resistance as well). There are communities that appear to be victimized more by the local police (take a look at this recent Reuters story, for example), and I have found clear evidence that the Taliban, at least in the south and in some parts of Pakistan, have earned some degree of public respect for implementing impartial justice (this issue is also discussed on page 3 of a recent Atlantic Council report). One thing I have come to learn about Pakistan and Afghanistan, is that nothing is ever black and white.

Another reason this situation is so complex to explain, and sometimes contradictory, is because the wider insurgency is so multi-faceted. It would have been far easier to explain had all the insurgents behaved the same way. But the truth is, and I believe you would agree, that there are various “Taliban” operating along the AfPak border, and they don’t all act alike. In addition to three separately commanded insurgent fronts within Afghanistan (the eastern flank, the southeastern wing and the “original” Taliban in the south), there are also criminal gangs that often get referred to locally as Taliban. Across the Durrand Line, there are various branches of the Pakistani Taliban, along with other Pakistani, regional and international extremist groups.

What is common among these anti-state groups – on both sides of the border – is that they all engage in criminal activity of some sort or another to raise funds. It might be timber smuggling, human trafficking or taking a cut on emerald mines. They also collect “taxes” on legal goods. I compare the way the various groups interact to the way Mafia crime families relate to each other. Sometimes they collaborate, and sometimes they fight each other. They hold regular meetings to decide who has rights to earn in what territory. And when they work together, it is often to earn money.

In this regard, anti-state groups in AfPak are following the pattern of insurgents and terror groups around the world. The phenomenon happening in South Asia is neither new nor unique: It’s happened to the FARC, the IRA and Hezbollah, among others. What is worrisome, among other things, are the growing indications that some fighters in Afghanistan have links to criminal gangs in the West.

I’m not sure where you get the idea that Chechen and Uzbek are fighter are “mythical.” There has been widespread reporting of the IMU and Chechen presence in South Waziristan and the FATA in recent years, where they have battled both the Pakistani army and other militants and tribal elements. The IMU routinely puts out videos, like this one or this one. One of the local journalists who helped me research Seeds of Terror personally met Uzbek fighters who were supporting Mullah Fazlullah in Pakistan’s Swat Valley in 2008. There were reports Tahir Yuldeshev was recently wounded in Waziristan, and even more recently an Afghan reporter emailed me to say there are reports Yuldeshev has since decamped to northern Kunduz.

You accuse me of contradicting myself:

On page 86 we see that U.S. counternarcotics officials say they have no evidence of Osama bin Laden’s direct involvement in the drug trade, but on page 89 we see a former NSC official alleging that bin Laden used Ariana Airlines to launder money and drugs. Make up your mind!
My mind is made up. I believe bin Laden played a key role facilitating the drug trade during the 1990s. But that doesn’t mean I think he routinely got on his sat phone to coordinate jingle trucks full of dope that were traveling down the Chaman highway. Over and over, I heard how senior leaders – be they corrupt state actors, muj commanders or terror chiefs – did not personally muddy their hands in the day-to-day running of drug or other criminal operations. But they made contacts and facilitated relationships that made those deals possible across tribal lines, district and national borders.

Throughout Seeds of Terror, I have labored to present evidence and counter-evidence, and then to analyze that information instead of just cherry picking details that suit my argument. I am the first to agree with you that the conflicting information coming out of different U.S. government agencies has stymied attempts to formulate a coherent counternarcotics policy towards the region.

In my conclusion, I call for greater information sharing and cooperation among the various U.S. agencies that collect intelligence on Afghanistan and Pakistan. I believe the intelligence community, law enforcement agents and the U.S. military would all benefit greatly from a broad, detailed and classified study of how the insurgency finances operations, as well as how terror groups operating along the border fund themselves. Much more analysis of this issue is needed.

Unfortunately, I do not think much analysis has been done on this issue. As you note, on page 14 I quote U.S. officials as saying that the DEA believes that 70 percent of the Taliban’s financing comes from drugs. You then link to an AFP story quoting the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan Dan McNeill as saying the figure is more like 40 percent. But actually, if you read the next line of that same AFP story, Gen. McNeill goes onto say, “he had been told by an international expert that this figure was likely low and could reach up to 60 percent.”

So where does the truth lie, at 70, 60 or 40? McNeill didn’t seem to know for sure. I’d raise another question: Can anyone really know? Since Seeds of Terror went to press, I have come to conclude that wondering what percent of the Taliban’s funding comes from drugs is a fairly futile exercise, given that Taliban commanders appear to keep few paper records and, as I said before, there is no longer just one Taliban.

Rather than trying to quantify the amount of money the Taliban and other anti-state groups are earning, I believe the focus should be on identifying and disrupting flows of criminal proceeds reaching insurgent, extremist and terror groups (as well as, of course, corrupt state actors). Degrading the enemy’s source of funding, while simultaneously improving governance, are critical pillars to any counterinsurgency campaign, and Afghanistan and Pakistan will be no exception.

Kind regards, Gretchen

Joshua Foust July 14, 2009 at 5:21 pm

Gretchen,

First of all thank you for such a detailed response. I’m glad we can discuss this in sober terms (that’s not always the case for these things, as I’m sure you know).

I think up front I should clarify probably a big way in which our thinking diverges: I draw a sharp distinction between affairs in Pakistan and affairs in Afghanistan. That isn’t always the perfect picture of reality, but the interests of parsimony, I think, necessitate a bit of a limitation of scope (much like how you had to downplay the role of government corruption since your focus was the Taliban).

It is that divergence which I think explains the bit about corruption and even the Chechens and Uzbeks. With regards to the corruption, you spend a great deal of space discussing the Pakistani government’s problems with corruption, but I don’t believe I missed you discussing the Afghan government’s problem until page 134. And I’m afraid I have to stand by my original point that if there is broad, almost universal consensus that government corruption is a bigger and more difficult problem than a narco-insurgency… why write about the narco-insurgency?

I get that al Qaeda attacked us, and we have to stop them (believe me, I really do get that). And I think you and I are in very strong agreement that fixing the Afghan (and Pakstani) government is probably the only long-term solution to doing that. So… wouldn’t the real challenge be fixing the government? Colombia didn’t see a lot of progress on its drug front until its politics settled down and became significantly less violent. For example.

About the governance bit, we are in agreement that drugs flourish in ungoverned spaces. My research, however, would indicate that is merely a feature of ungoverned spaces and conflict zones, and that they do not necessarily require an insurgency to drive their cultivation (whether an insurgency exploits it is another matter entirely). You can see this in Afghanistan, where before the Taliban took over the North, contested or Northern Alliance areas of the country had the greatest amount of opium cultivation, and not the Taliban strongholds. I guess this can very quickly devolve into a fruitless and circular discussion of root causes, but there is a big difference between “the Taliban and AQ happen to take advantage of the drugs” and “the Taliban and AQ are primarily responsible for the drugs.”

The reason I remain so hesitant to draw a hard and fast correlation between the two is that a) in many areas like Khost and Nangarhar, poppy cultivation (or its absence) has been unrelated to the deepening insurgency; and b) there remains tremendous ambiguity about the militants’ precise relationship to the drug.

You’re right to note that this results in deeply contradictory information, and you presented some of that, but that doesn’t make it into the absolutism of your central thesis: a causes b, heroin causes al Qaeda. Even with the data you presented in your book, that conclusion just isn’t supported.

I guess where my skepticism overpowers my knodding head is in the conflation of drug lords, Taliban commanders, petty criminals, and whatever else might be contributing to the problem. We both would agree that the problems in Afghanistan are incredibly complex, and that all of these factors overlap and influence each other. I wish more leeway than scattered mentions of it showed up in your book, then.. which again, I get isn’t the point.

Who knows. Maybe I’m just complaining the scope is too narrow to accompany the real breadth of the opium problem in Afghanistan. Which is why when you note that insurgent and militant groups engage in illicit activities and tax legal goods to raise funds, I again nod my head in agreement and wonder why you only limited your discussion to opium. Because

For the record, I limited my discussion of Uzbek and Chechen militants to Afghanistan alone. I’m intimately aware of what they do in Pakistan.

Finally, I need to cop to not doing sufficient justice to the last, policy-oriented section of your book. While we part ways on whether even going after traffickers is a good idea or not, that is definitely the strongest part of your book, and the part I enjoyed reading the most. And to an enormous degree, we are in agreement in that area as well.

So I think what we have is really a disagreement on the margins, with substantial agreement on the broadest strokes of the severity of the opium problem. Which ain’t bad (and it’s why my review is so overwrought), you know?

Ian July 14, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Josh, why are you willing to go to the mat with Smucker over Chechens in eastern Afghanistan if you are “intimately” aware of their presence in Waziristan?

(Images of you strolling hand-in-hand with a Chechen down a picturesque lane in Miranshah come to mind, when what I think in reality what we are talking about is that you read something on your computer)

Joshua Foust July 14, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Ian, despite doubts raised to the contrary, there is some evidence of Chechens having a limited presence in Pakistan (I’m talking less than a hundred). Their actual effect on the war, however, is extremely limited, as is the effect and influence of the Uzbeks. My comment was more general than I meant it to be. And I remain adamant that there remains no evidence beyond rumor of these hyper-trained hyper-violent Chechen ninjas roaming the Afghan countryside. That is obvious poppycock… in both countries actually.

And no, this actually comes from discussions with intelligence analysts and officers who were active in the area. The presence of Uzbeks is relatively uncontroversial, though I still have serious questions as to how much can actually be blamed on them as a group.

Gretchen Peters July 14, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Thanks for replying so swiftly. I would clarify that I am not trying to suggest that “the Taliban and AQ are primarily responsible for the drugs” or that “heroin causes al Qaeda.” That is why I traced the growth of the opium trade in Afghanistan over three decades, and from before either group existed. I am trying to suggest that from the days of the muj, fighting groups that have operated along the border have been tied to drugs, and other criminal activity, and that their deepening involvement is changing these groups. Also, if we follow the money, I believe it will lead us to the leaders of those groups. This is known as an “organizational attack structure” by law enforcement. That is how I would describe the central theme of my book.
But I believe that we are in broad agreement about what Afghanistan and Pakistan (and Central Asia, for that matter) need, and that is rule of law.
Riffing off of David Kilcullen’s model of four overlapping frameworks that define today’s threat environment (pp 7-27 of the Accidental Guerrilla), I would make a similar analysis of the criminal economic environment in AfPak. There are a variety of overlapping frameworks that can help explain the complex situation along the border: one is the global history of insurgencies morphing into criminal groups (and if you look back in history, the Sicilian Mafia, China’s Triads and Japan’s Jakuza all started out as anti-state groups…meaning that the Mullah Omar of today could be the Tony Soprano of tomorrow. Another, as you correctly note, is the fact that ungoverned spaces are a magnet for extremism, crime, gangsterism and lots of other bad stuff. A third model which comes into play in parts, but not all, of the Afghan side of the conflict are decades and sometimes centuries-old tribal rivalries, and the way these groups compete for a slice of the pie.
I’m afraid I still don’t really get your argument that I shouldn’t write a book on subject X just because subject Y has a bigger dollar value. To my mind, and with all due respect, that’s like saying, we shouldn’t study diabetes since more people die of cancer. But we can agree to disagree on that.
I think there are gaps of knowledge about how money is raised by the various AfPak anti-state groups and how it moves between them. I tried to fill some of those gaps, but I think there is far more work to be done. Again, thank you for responding so quickly.

Ian July 14, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Josh, you’re fudging the Uzbek/Chechen thing. I’m never mentioned Uzbeks at all, or their uncontroversial presence (and Gretchen’s comment that she’s heard Yuldashev has moved to Kunduz is fascinating).

Nevertheless, sourcing your claim of Chechens in Waziristan by citing your special access to anonymous “intelligence analysts and officers” is weak–show me the evidence–and I can quote an email you sent me with you writing that exact line, if you’d like.

Joshua Foust July 14, 2009 at 9:38 pm

Ian, I’m not fudging it, Ms. Peters mentioned the two in the same breath and I followed her convention. I already admitted I was too general in that remark. Way to twist the knife.

As for Gretchen’s comment about Yuldashev in Kunduz, sure it’s little more than rumors, but I’ve heard those same rumors.

jim August 2, 2009 at 7:53 pm

from what i undertsand,the taliban beheaded people that cultivated opium. it wasnt untill 2001 that the taliban got rid of the opium(except the northern alliances,who helped america topple the taliban)oviously they knew the blowback effects and didnt want to loose support but it got to a point they wanted to drive usa out. at the same time maybe OBL had nothing to loose and destoryed the WTC because there was no aid coming in to help grow other crops,or bush did it himself.infact the attacks were in september,nato was in november, the month to plant the crops,in 2002 afghanistan was a larger heroin lab then ever before,and bigger then anything like it.(remember 80% of americas prisons are filled with non violent drug offenders) and after 2002 it just kept getting bigger,and this puppet democratic regime does very little for afghans suffering and makes profit of heroin like bush.prior to 9/11 if the taliban were making money of heroin why did they take in osama bin laden,such a threat to the taliban security.its more likely the drug barons were the ones who stockpiled and benefited from the 2001 eradictaion,or even the NORTHERN ALLIANCE. afghans have there hands and feet,no machines and no irrigation systems,opium is the only usefull crops for them nowadays(and for the war on drugs) lets say we had to pay afghans 5 times more money for wheat then its worth,it would help the global food shortage and certainly be cheaper on are healthcare,are prisons our tax dollers,and cut the taliban off money to fight NATO,i dought if the price was good the drug barons could convince afghan farmers to keep growing opium,and if they did then we could spray the stupidly big opium crops and not give them a damn cent,from what I here from the farmers,they are tootaly desperate,they arent proud of the opium,one even said if your starving to death you can eat pork,we are desperate,we grow opium. juding by that if the price was rite the farmers would grow food. infact barrack obama is now trying to eradicate opium crops,pay them to grow food,and grow the NORMAN poppy in other countries(which contains expensive and powerful alkaloids,and no morphine,which means no heroin) this ofcourse is a tactik bush and his administration insisted shouldn’t be done,because they must focus only on evil doers,who only are fighting because of the tens of millions of dollers the taliban make of heroin post 9/11.Is it a secret the whitehouse floods its country and the world with drugs to satisfy the major corperations?? regarless of the facts,one thing is forsure america and europe are far larger problems with the drug then afghanistan.

Previous post:

Next post: