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Toward a radical middle

a time for fear
Sunday, December 28, 2003  

Heroin, opium and morphine production dominates the Afghan economy. It is controlled by Northern Alliance warlords, military commanders and drug cartels, with political connections that extend to the hierarchy of central government. Farmers extract opium from abundant poppy fields largely located in the East; it is processed into heroin at illegal production facilities. In July 2000 the Taliban outlawed the cultivation of poppy plants and closed down the laboratories used to produce heroin. That same year, they cashed in their last opium reserves for huge profit, flooding Europe and North America with vast quantities of unusually pure heroin (a disaster for San Francisco). With the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the Northern Alliance took control of the drug trade, along with criminal cartels ready to exploit the new war economy. Warlords and gangsters retained control of a booming industry, with a cut of the profits taken by provincial administrators, military commanders and terrorists. Farmers became reliant on the drug trade to maintain a decent standard of living (consequently, any attempt to return to a purely agrarian economy would be doomed to failure without overt (or covert) force).

Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium and exports 90% of Europe's heroin. According to The Economist, the huge revenues extracted from this trade will help military commanders buy influence in the forthcoming summer elections, as well as large caches of arms and equipment for Northern Alliance warlords. Afghanistan will become the world's premier narco-state.

Afghanistan's mature heroin industry has its roots in the murkiest of Cold War realpolitik escapades: the war between the Soviets and Islamisc jihadists (the Mujahedin) between 1979-89. The Carter administration saw the Soviets' reluctant entry into war in Afghanistan as a potential Cold War equaliser: an opportunity to create the USSR's own Vietnam. Covert support for the Mujahedin was irresistible: a way to divert, weaken and humble Soviet will and military power on the World stage. The Reagan administration inherited this plan and implemented it with a vengeance. It was a delicate operation: America would not directly arm the Mujahedin fighters so the Pakistani Secret Service (ISI) was engaged as a willing intermediary. The ISI was powerful; an Islamist force, virtually independent and easily able to influence the Pakistani government. Arms, ammunition and money were channeled from the CIA via the ISI across the Pakistan/Afghan border to the Mujahedin fighters. The CIA purchased hardware from countries friendly to the US, most of whom exploited the opportunity to offload obsolete weaponry. CIA funds flowed into accounts controlled by the ISI to meet the endless costs of purchasing and transporting equipment, building and maintaining storage facilities, paying the salaries of Islamist party commanders and Mujahedin fighters and releasing them from jail. The ISI ran up a bill of about $5 billion a year.

Furthermore, American money was siphoned by endless layers of bribery and corruption. The ISI would steel arms and skim funds, Pakistani border control demanded bribes for delivering weapons, and so on. By the time American aid reached the Mujahedin fighters a substantial amount of the initial cache had disappeared. Islamist fighters in Afghanistan found themselves hungry and short of arms despite massive US assistance. To match this deficit the CIA had to reach into the "the black budget": secret funds retained by the Pentagon for the finance of covert operations, for example the Contras in Nicaragua.

To fulfill mounting costs, adequately arm the anti-Soviet fighters and perpetuate the Soviet quagmire, the ISI and the CIA turned towards illicit trade, most prominently contraband and drugs. The localised drug industry was expanded by the ISI with the tacit agreement of the CIA. Most of the heroin extracted from this blooming trade ended up in North America: in effect, the CIA fed America's voracious drug appetite. Poppy planting was encouraged by taxes imposed on farmers by the advancing Mujahedin. Expansive poppy fields were planted in new regions. The ISI increased heroin production and smuggled the drugs through routes in Pakistan with the aid of the Pakistani army and the leading Muslim bank (the BCCI) who funded the operation. Narcotics took over the agrarian infrastructure as Afghanistan became the main source of heroin for Europe and America.

Now, with production back in the hands of the Northern Alliance, ISI and BCCI-sponsored smuggling routes through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and the Balkans (the Islamist lines) have been largely abandoned. The Northern Alliance favor an alternative route through Central Asia into Russia. Tajikistan-based traffickers act as a conduit between the Northern Alliance and Russian border guards. The Tajikistan route generates huge profits for an enriched Russian Mafia, making inroads into the American market via links with Columbian and Mexican drug cartels, and increasing government corruption and gang violence.

In Afghanistan, allied forces turn a blind eye to poppy growth and heroin production; the problem is too complex, entangled and explosive. To challenge the unholy alliance of warlords, criminals, and military officials would constitute an undeclared act of war that would multiply problems within an already fractious and lethal war economy.

1:13 PM

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