The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
The Drug Gangs of Afghanistan
by James Dunnigan
U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan have found that local tribesmen are not willing to help sweep al Qaeda camps for surviving terrorists and al Qaeda documents and munitions.
The tribes along the eastern border have more pressing financial matters to deal with than picking up a few bucks working for the Americans. The eastern Pushtun tribes control the most lucrative part of the country's drug trade. They not only grow poppies, but run most of the drug factories that refine the plants into drugs. Some of these facilities were wound inside of al Qaeda camps.
Since Pakistan stamped out the drug trade in the late 1990s, the Pushtun tribes there simply moved their operations across the border. In some cases, the 19th century border cuts right through the territory of tribes, leaving related clans on both sides of the border. The tribal cousins in Afghanistan were glad to get into the lucrative drug trade. They had noted how wealthy their Pakistani kinsmen had become growing poppies and refining them into opium, hashish, morphine and heroin. The evidence of this success was obvious. New trucks and SUVs, satellite dishes on newly built walled villas, new clothes and jewelry for the women and even schools for the kids.
This border region had long prospered from illegal activity. Smuggling had been a major business ever since the British set up and tried to guard the frontier. Gun running and banditry were considered a birthright. Earning a living with one's weapons was a Pushtun tradition going back thousands of years. And the fanatically religious Taliban, although they were brutal with banditry, were content to tolerate the drug business as long as they got a cut of the proceeds - $40-50 million a year. One reason the Taliban leadership, and bin Laden, have been so hard to catch is that these guys fled with a lot of their drug profits.
The Taliban banned poppy growing in 2000 in an attempt to gain international recognition of their government. This didn't work, and the Taliban dropped the ban just before they were run out of power. But the Northern Alliance also tolerated and taxed the drug trade in their territory, which was much smaller than the operations in the south.
Many tribes have run lucrative smuggling rackets for generations and consider the drug business a natural addition to this traditional trade. It's all very organized and everyone in the tribe benefits. In typical Afghan fashion, deals are made with the provincial governor and border guards to get the drugs out of the country. Where the border guards could not be bribed (as on the Iranian and Tajik borders), you went armed and fought your way through. The Iranians have been very hostile to the Afghan drug smuggling operation. In the first six months of 2001, Iranian troops and border police killed 221 drug runners. Afghan arrested another 1,489. Activity dropped after September 11, but is picking up again. There was less action on the Tajik border, guarded by two divisions of Russians, who tend to be pretty trigger-happy.
The drug business has spread the money around. The tribes that grow poppies get 30 times as much money for their crop than if they grew wheat. With the three years of drought, there is another bonus: poppies use only a quarter of the water wheat needs. The tribal territory the drugs pass through earns a fee from the smugglers to guarantee safe passage. Tribes on the Iranian border have taken over the smuggling end of things and often fight each other over who controls the most lucrative routes.
When U.S. troops moved into the territory of the drug tribes along the Pakistan border, they discovered two things. First, the Special Forces had little or no experience with these tribes and, two, the tribes wanted to keep it that way. The tribes were upset that this war on terrorism was interfering with their business. Foreigners, no matter how well armed, were not welcome. The tribes held their fire, but the threat was obvious. Not wanting to see one accidental (or otherwise) firefight escalate into a full-scale tribal war, America decided to put as few troops as possible into the area.
But it will probably get worse. The new government in Kabul has just restored the Taliban ban on poppy production. At the moment, the government has no troops or police to enforce the ban, as the Taliban did. But it's also important to note that the Taliban only outlawed Poppy cultivation, not smuggling. When the Poppy ban went into place, there were still several thousand tons of drugs waiting to be smuggled out of the country. So in 2001, the smuggling went on. Some suspect that the Taliban would have lifted the Poppy growing ban after a year anyway. If the new government does get its new army and police force organized, it might find taking on the drug tribes a losing proposition. This has been the experience in places like Colombia and Burma. In both places, thriving drug operations survived for decades in the face of government efforts to root them out by force.
Worse yet, when drug gangs manage to set up their own mini-governments, they are open to sheltering anyone with money, or other advantages. This includes terrorists. The United States is reluctant to get into battles with the tribes, and no central government in Afghanistan has been very successful at it either.
The Special Forces guys can see what's coming; it's time the rest of America does as well.
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