by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst and journalist specializing in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a comedic email list about the Middle East that you can join here.The Wars on Drugs and on Terror intersect in Afghanistan. The Taliban, which cooperates with al-Qaeda and includes US-labeled terrorist organizations such as the Haqqani Network and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, has evolved into a drug cartel. The insurgents grow tons of opium in the south of the country, then sell it throughout Asia and Europe. They use the profits to amass personal fortunes and finance their endless war against the US-Americans, their existential enemies.
When the Taliban ruled the country as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, its pre-9/11, short-lived Islamic state, the insurgents had at first banned the cultivation of opium. Employees of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who visited Afghanistan in 2000 confirmed the apparent success of the ban: the Taliban had stopped the illegal drug trade in the heart of the Golden Crescent. After the US invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Islamic Emirate, however, the Taliban found itself having a convenient change of heart.
Though Islam forbids recreational drug use, including opium and its derivatives such as heroin, nothing in the Quran or the Hadith prevents Muslims from growing drugs and selling them to so-called infidels. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told me as much of opium when I interviewed him for Motherboard earlier this year: “Its cultivation is negotiable in sharia, but the Islamic Emirate banned it.” The insurgents have relied on this flexibility. Even in September 2001, after 9/11 but before the US invasion, the Taliban asserted that it would lift the opium ban if the US attacks.
The Taliban earns up to four hundred million dollars a year from growing opium—funds often directed toward attacking US soldiers. In fact, Afghanistan has come to produce 90 percent of the world’s opium to date. — Austin Bodetti, “The DEA’s Opium War with the Taliban“, Motherboard, 12.06.2017.
The Afghan Armed Forces are attempting to counter the Taliban’s role in the illegal drug trade with US support. In 2015, Afghan commandos managed to arrest Mullah Abdulrashid Baluch, a Taliban emir doubling as a drug lord. They have received assistance from the DEA, which had sent two Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Teams (FAST) to Afghanistan to stem the flow of drugs from the Golden Crescent. The US post-2014 drawdown and withdrawal of FAST, though, has limited the DEA’s abilities in the country, meaning that opium production there has only risen.
The Taliban’s influence over the illegal drug trade should concern the international community. Much of the insurgents’ product finds its way to Britain and Russia. Nonetheless, the US’ example — failing to combat the illegal drug trade in Colombia, Mexico, and other countries in their own hemisphere — means that the international community’s renewed involvement in the War on Drugs in South Asia would likely meet little more success. Instead, analysts and journalists have tried framing the problem as a matter of counterterrorism: to take the Taliban off the battlefield, take away its opium.
The Golden Crescent presents another problem for the War in Afghanistan. Now that the Taliban is making hundreds of millions of dollars from selling opium, a practice that it could never continue as a peaceful political party or social movement, it may prove reluctant to accept a political settlement. The illegal drug trade has given the Taliban, the largest drug cartel in South Asia, influence, means, and wealth that the dividends of democracy and peace never could. The Taliban thus needs to mount an insurgency to maintain its war economy, meaning that, for the insurgents, war equals business.
Edward Follis, a former DEA attaché in Afghanistan, described the difficulties that the War on Drugs faced there to Mother Jones. He noted that the illegal drug trade fed off other social issues in Afghanistan, such as poverty, without which the Golden Crescent might cease to exist. The failures of Afghan democracy too stopped many farmers from finding an alternative to opium, and the DEA’s turf wars with the CIA, a competitor in Afghanistan, did little to help. Follis believed that a complete withdrawal from the country might provide the crippling blow.
As the US weighs how to escape their longest war, they will have to reflect on what effect they have had on the illegal drug trade. Few would call the results of the War on Drugs or the War in Afghanistan a victory, leaving analysts and journalists to ponder whether drugs may be allowing the Taliban to win the War on Terror too. The insurgents have learned much from their war with the US, including how to partake in organized crime. If, as sometimes seems likely, the Western world abandons its ambitions in Afghanistan, the Taliban may have the chance to build a flourishing narco-state.