Afghanistan: It Can Be Done

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October 10,2008:  NATO and U.S. commanders are urging their governments to allow them to go after the drug gangs. The reason is simple; the billions of dollars in cash the heroin trade generates sustains the Taliban violence, and the widespread tribal resistance to government control in southern Afghanistan (where some 90 percent of the heroin production takes place.) This has been resisted by the government, where many officials have been bribed by the drug gangs, or are more actively involved in the drug business. Apparently, the Afghan government is split, with some into clean and efficient administration, and others out to make all they can. The tribes, as they have done for thousands of years, are out for themselves, and see the central government as a bunch of foreigners who have to dealt with carefully. Same with the NATO and U.S. forces.

The drug gangs can be beaten, but only if you deliberately go after them. This means attacking on several levels. First, destroy the poppy growing. This can be done by providing incentives to switching crops, or spraying poppy fields with herbicides to kill the plants. Then raid the drug gang bases to destroy the labs set up to convert opium to heroin. This interrupts the chain of drug production. It goes like this. Farmers can obtain 7-15 pounds of opium per acre (8-17 kg per hectare), or create the opium which is refined into heroin. The farmer is paid about a thousand dollars per acre for the opium. But the value of that opium increases fifty times once it is refined into heroin and sold in the West. Most of that increase goes to middlemen (refiners, smugglers and distributors). Most of the increase in value occurs once the heroin gets out of the country, but that still makes the opium and heroin trade the biggest single segment of the Afghan economy. It's that big, and it's illegal. Western experts have already persuaded the NATO and American forces to assist in stopping the flow of acetic anhydride, the chemical needed to turn opium into heroin. Used in many industrial and medical applications, there is no company in Afghanistan with a legitimate use for acetic anhydride. So it's pretty straightforward to search for, and stop any acetic anhydride coming into the country. This has been done more vigorously of late, causing the drug gangs much grief and expense. Many of the "Taliban" attacks are actually drug gang operations to prevent troops from interfering with acetic anhydride shipments.

Finally, there is the attacks on the drug money. This is done by cracking down on the banks, which the U.S. has developed better skills at in the last decade. It would be nice to interrupt the smuggling, but this involves shutting down corruption in many adjacent countries. This is very difficult.

The Taliban and drug gangs are backing away from using large groups of gunmen, who are too vulnerable to air power, and gone more to death squads sent to kill or intimidate prominent, or simply effective, individuals who oppose the drug trade, or support good government (and things like education for girls and foreign aid). The drug gangs do not want to take on NATO or American troops, and generally stand down when those forces come by. Unlike the Taliban, who want political power, the drug gangs just want to make, and enjoy, money. They will fight anyone, including the Taliban, who try to interfere with this. Western commanders want to take on drug lords before their growing death squad network becomes too powerful.

The drug trade has caused a lot of problems in neighboring Iran and Pakistan. One result of that has been a push to force the remaining 1980s era war refugees to return home. So far this year, over a quarter million Afghan refugees have returned (mostly from Pakistan, where the war with the Taliban there makes Afghanistan appear as a better place to live.) Iran is encountering much resistance from Afghan refugees who do not want to go home, and are doing quite nicely (not just from the drug business.)

While the Taliban has no trouble working with the drug gangs (which often become quite popular with locals by spreading lots of cash around). Al Qaeda is another matter, as their suicide bomb attacks are unpopular because of the large number of civilians killed. There is growing pressure within the Taliban to cut cooperation with al Qaeda, or even to turn on the Islamic terrorist organization.

While some Western military commanders and diplomats feel the situation is hopeless in Afghanistan (because of the anarchy, corruption and drug money), most commanders know that their troops are unbeatable, and that the real enemy is the drug trade. Go after the drug gang assets (cash, crops, smuggling), and the gangs can be beaten. It's been done before in other parts of the world. With more troops, and more political resolve against the corruption in the Afghan government, it can be done.

 

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