The West has turned to former Afghani drug traffickers to hunt insurgents. But these "covert armies" are producing unpredictable warlords as powerful as the ones they are tracking down.
Reports in late 2010 that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was running drugs in the Sahel for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) went largely unnoticed. This Islamo-Marxist transcontinental drugs nexus should have been a major issue but it appears to have been marginalised by other security concerns.
The reason it has been marginalised lies in our differing perceptions of drugs and violence. Most believe that drugs are something you can take or leave. Contrast that with our perception of terrorism for example — random, deadly, violent, with no respect for lifestyle or income bracket its images are visceral and ubiquitous.
In reality, terrorism and the drugs trade are often interrelated but whilst the former is fuelled by media attention the latter is most comfortable in the shadows. Emphasising this symbiosis, US Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield recently asserted that drug trafficking can no longer be considered separate from the political and ideological goals of terrorist and insurgent forces.
Funding is oxygen to an armed group: financial countermeasures must be at the forefront of any attempt to combat terrorism and insurgency especially when, in many narratives, they are enabled by globalisation. Globalisation when perceived as a negative phenomenon facilitates the flows of illicit goods and enables transnational criminal networks. It is argued that weak — or “failed” to use the popular term — states lacking strong centralised authority serve as bases for these networks.
Within this framework there is no alternative for the West but to engage in statebuilding. If you want stability, so the argument goes, prepare for intervention. This explains the strategic importance of Afghanistan on today’s world stage: the poorest country outside sub-Saharan Africa, it is currently the world’s largest producer of opiates and historically, the territory has lacked the strong centralised authority that would act to inhibit the effectiveness of illicit networks.
Tribalism and pastoralism developed in the region after Genghis Khan destroyed the cities and water works in Khurasan (today’s Northern Afghanistan) in the 13th century. The later rise of seaborne trade reduced the need for the land routes of the Silk Road upon which Afghan merchants had depended. As pastoralism increased, the reliance upon the group for survival and the difficulty of movement over large distances continued: tribes rejected the concept of belonging to a country and failed to recognise any sovereignty of national governments that would attempt to exert authority.
Against this backdrop, foreign powers have nevertheless attempted to install central governments in the territory. In the latter half of the 20th century, in its border dispute with US-allied Pakistan, Afghanistan had no option but to ally with the Soviet Union and thus came into its sphere of influence. Soviet control became more pronounced with its installation of puppet regimes which attempted to implement unpopular reforms, precipitating armed resistance that coalesced beneath the banner of Islam.
Shoring up support for its beleaguered communist puppet, the Soviets invaded in 1979, precipitating American and Saudi funding to the mujahideen, channelled through Pakistan’s military intelligence. Rosanne Klass argued that most of the US funding went to “the most extreme, radical and anti-Western groups, which had no broad political support among the Afghan people”. Soviet involvement receded with the Geneva Accords of 1988 which saw the erosion of military assistance for the mujahideen and implicitly provided for Soviet withdrawal. After the fall of the last puppet regime in 1992, warlords filled the vacuum precipitating internecine conflict bordering on anarchy.
The Taliban, a grass-roots movement composed mainly of Pashtuns from the Kandahar region and from the three million refugees in camps in Pakistani Baluchistan, restored order in the majority of the country in 1996. Imposition of order was asserted by strict adherence to austere Deobandi ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islam amid draconian punishments and retribution for opponents.
Operating as a reaction against the mujahideen, the Taliban reversed a number of warlord initiatives which had included the illegal appropriation of poppy crop by those factions from the farmers. Though the Taliban and opium industry were never easy bedfellows, the group applied the principles of ochor and zakhat to tax and distribute the proceeds from the trade and learnt to use the issue of opium production for diplomatic leverage on the world stage, conscious of their tenuous international position as a pariah state.
Assertions from the Taliban that they could eradicate poppy production in a year were greeted with a tepid response from the visiting director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDCP), Pino Arlacchi, in late 1997. Instead Arlacchi argued for a gradual transition from agriculture to manufacturing to elide economic meltdown. Though funding was in place to stimulate manufacturing, international donors, wary of the pariah status of Taliban Afghanistan later became reluctant to finance such projects.
In August 2000 Mullah Omar, perhaps gambling on developing positive international media attention, decreed absolute prohibition regarding planting of poppies that year, with resulted in a drop the next year from an estimated 71,000 hectares to approximately 100 hectares of poppy crop. In this radical move, the farmers’ losses were either offset by drug traffickers who had seen a marked decline in the market price for heroin after two successive bumper crops and wanted to drive up the price or, as Mullah Omar believed, this unprecedented move would bring international donors clambering to offer their investment, although this failed to materialise.
The loss of income was prodigious: reports suggested the opium eradication affected over half a million farmers living in southern Afghanistan. More than a million Afghans were dependent upon the opium business against a total population of approximately 24 million people. This disastrous policy lost the group their 75-100 million dollar income from the drugs trade and may have precipitated al-Qaeda, with whom the Taliban had never enjoyed a particularly easy relationship, stepping in to shore up financially the beleaguered regime.
After the routing of the Taliban in the US-led invasion and either oblivious to history or consumed by hubris, signatories of the Bonn Agreement in December 2001 sought to make Afghanistan one of the world’s most centralised nation-states. The agreement stated that the Interim Authority “shall be the sole repository of Afghan sovereignty” where “upon the official transfer of power, all mujahideen, Afghan armed forces and armed groups in the country shall come under the command and control of the Interim Authority.” The other great failure of the Bonn talks was the absence of any opposed factions, becoming in effect a post-conflict peace treaty for a country still in the grip of armed conflict.
Given the historical trajectory of the country, there can be no surprise that there is a lack of consensus as to what constitutes the Afghan state amongst a population kaleidoscopic in nature. The aid that Karzai receives from foreign donors has negated the traditional need to negotiate with his public for revenues or subordination. The West may have applauded the democratic process that led to the formation of government in Afghanistan, but in the words of Chantal Mouffe, “elections in and of themselves do not guarantee democracy if they are mechanisms for legitimating governments which, once elected, are not responsive to the needs of the citizens.”
Indeed, the norm has been for a diffusion of power to rapidly evolving autonomous peripheries through initiatives such as the National Solidarity Programme. The counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen has observed that there are “about 40,000 villages in Afghanistan” and that NATO have been focusing on “actually creating a connectivity between the government and its population. Of course, if you are extending the reach of a government that is unpopular, you are actually making the situation worse.”
Sustained by US forces, the government in Kabul is unable to develop relations of reciprocity with the governed. By contrast, when the Taliban were ousted and lost the monopoly on violence they were forced to negotiate with their local populations, leading to a de facto remit to govern. The average Afghan is more concerned by corruption — the large-scale theft of money by the governing elites rather than the day-to-day commonplace exchanges — than security. A functioning state is as much about IOUs as it is about IEDs.
Observers tend to view the state economy as the normative structure whilst the illicit networks are seen as aberrations but historically the reverse is true; centralised governments are a relatively late development, superimposing centrality upon informal systems. The massive incomes derived from illicit economies in Afghanistan allow parallel welfare states to form that act in competition with those initiatives from Kabul. The farmers have a stake in these illicit economies, and it represents them in a much more proportional manner than elected government. Although only 9 to 10 per cent of Afghans support the Taliban, the group is forced to interact with the population in a way which the government and NATO are not.
Further alienating farmers, the government initiated a poppy eradication programme in 2005 at the behest of the US, who sought to incorporate Afghanistan into its greater war on drugs. This was a propaganda coup for the Taliban, who stepped in to compensate farmers in the short term whilst developing security and ensuring crop redevelopment. Kandahar is the spiritual home of the Taliban but is also the area, along with Helmand to the West, of the greatest poppy cultivation. 50 per cent of all income in the green zone — the fertile banks of the Helmand River — is derived from narcotics.
These developments have not gone unnoticed. The international community has moved from the peace planning of Bonn in 2001 to the issue of reconciliation with the Taliban at the London Conference in 2010. The idea mooted there was to enter into discussion with the insurgents, buy them off and reintegrate them, but the Taliban have little to gain from integration into the Kabul government since they themselves possess the more durable networks and offer more responsive social services comparative to what Rubin Barnett calls the “glacial pace of reconstruction” afforded by the international community. The recent escape of nearly 500 inmates from Sarposa prison in Kandahar highlights the fragile grip that the Afghan Security forces have on the region, the extent to which state elements are colluding with the rebel forces, and the tenacity of insurgent groups.
Then there are the shadow networks that the US propagates, undermining its own attempts to create strong central government. In the hunt for al-Qaeda forces, Bob Woodward has reported that the CIA funds a 3,000-strong “covert army” — basically an Afghan militia used to hunt insurgents. Some sources suggest that this militia is composed of formerly imprisoned drug traffickers in Pakistan, whose release was negotiated by the agency because they possess intimate topographical knowledge of the country. There is, consequentially, a new stratum of society forming in the country — a group of warlords who have been converted into businessmen: private contractors whose interests span both the formal and informal economies.
Highlighting this, a US Congressional Subcommittee report last year suggested that millions of dollars were possibly being diverted by private contractors to buy off the Taliban in order to keep vital NATO supply routes open. The report showed that private contractors employed to fight the Taliban along these routes create their own problem. For instance, Commander Ruhullah is “prototypical of a new class of warlord in Afghanistan”; commanding 600 “armed guards”, he is the single largest security provider for the US supply chain in Afghanistan and operates along Highway 1, the main transportation artery between Kabul and Kandahar. Indicative of the dubious nature of private contractors, during his rise to power, Ruhullah was detained by US special forces on drugs charges. This demonstrates the paradox of outsourcing to indigenous private contractors: fighting insurgents has produced powerful warlords — non-state actors who perform their roles in a grey area of law.
Afghanistan matters. The arc of the past decade has tended towards a country in which insurgents have adapted, recast themselves as representative of the population and become ever more tenacious. Warlords about which little is known straddle the formal and informal networks in the region and benefit from the reconstruction dollars available, positioning themselves as providers of security and cultural expertise. Power has diffused from Kabul, concentrated amongst myriad armed actors who operate in geographically amorphous areas, playing the monster to our Frankenstein. The drugs network, vital to the insurgents, is a fundamental challenge to NATO: it links a number of shadow economies, propagates transnational movement and destabilises attempts to create security on the ground. The question now becomes: how do we defeat our own monster?