Gretchen Peters disturbingly illuminates the Taliban’s elusive opium trail, says Vikram Sood
INSURGENCIES AND terrorism need ideologies — real or perceived — to start, but need access to weapons, funds and sanctuaries to succeed. Invariably and inevitably, they soon transform into something even more sinister as the need for finances becomes the need to keep terrorism going – to make their millions. The need to keep killing and creating lawlessness is paramount for both the terrorist who needs the criminal for his money, and the criminal who needs the terrorist for protection.
Various solutions to AfPAk have been offered, but the most elusive and essential aspect of the war against terror, which is rarely discussed, is how to curb the money flow from drugs. Gretchen Peters’ book is a chronicle of missed opportunities from the 1980s till today.
It’s assumed that defeating the Taliban or Al Qaeda, through the so-called troop surge and development efforts or a change of guard in Kabul, will lead to a satisfactory solution. The pursuit of happiness through elections and the installation of democracy in an essentially tribal society, without first providing basic law and order or livelihoods, was not going to be a game-changer. Unless the drug menace is tackled, neither the Taliban nor Al Qaeda will be controlled.
In 1986, US Ambassador to Pakistan Deane R Hinton was advising his DEA man in Islamabad that for America, drug eradication was a lower priority to defeating the Soviets and preventing non-proliferation. The Soviets withdrew, Pakistan proliferated, the drug trade and terrorism flourished. Two years later, Robert Oakley, Hinton’s successor, cabled Washington that the fight against the ‘heroin-Kalashnikov culture’ was critical to Pakistan’s security; by 2003, Mullah Dadullah Lang announced that the Taliban had regrouped. Today, the Taliban control 80 percent of Afghan territory and the drug trade.
This book disturbingly illuminates the disaster lurking in spreading jihadi extremism in a narco-state. At $400 billion annually, the illegal global drug trade today is 8 percent of total trade (legal trade in textiles is 7.5 percent and motor vehicles 5 percent). Terrorist groups earn $500,000 weekly in the drug trade, which is what 9/11 is estimated to have cost them. By 2004, with the world distracted with Iraq, it was noticed that the money flow had reversed, and dollars were flowing out of Afghanistan and Pakistan to unknown destinations. Both Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar used to hoard opium to manipulate profits. The heroinopium trade is now pegged at $10 billion, far more than Afghanistan’s budget and about a quarter of Pakistan’s GDP. With a fascinating cast of characters (including sheikhs, Dawood Ibrahim, Victor Bout, Pakistani military and Afghan warlords), Peters takes us through the intrigue of this multinational corporation and its unaccounted billions. In the 1980s, armed drug convoys consisting of specially-equipped Pajeros moved to Iran via Balochistan, and were protected by Afghan tribals armed with Stinger missiles, Kabul’s approval and Islamabad’s cooperation. Consignments would reach Europe via Turkey. The ISI was involved and the CIA knew but didn’t want to investigate. Druglords had patrons both in Nawaz Sharif’s PML and in Benazir Bhutto’s PPP. So no one cared when Mohammad Najibullah begged in March 1992 that “if fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many years”. And so it came to pass, except that it now engulfs both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Any AfPAk policy will fail if it doesn’t control money flows to the terrorists, the drug trade and take on the sanctuaries. Adam Yahiye Gadahn told the author in 2004 that when the next 9/11 comes, “the casualties will be too high to count”. Empty threat? Boastful claim? One wouldn’t want to find out.