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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Joining the dots between Afghanistan's opium trade and Washington’s failing struggle against the Taliban

Years of American intervention have done little to bring positive change to Afghanistan, writes Alan Philps

Opium production in Afghanistan creates serious problems not just for West and Central Asia, but across the world. Watan Yar / EPA
Opium production in Afghanistan creates serious problems not just for West and Central Asia, but across the world. Watan Yar / EPA

In November, the United Nations reported that opium production in Afghanistan had reached a new record of 9,000 tonnes. Given that the United States has spent $8.4 billion over the past decade on eliminating the drug trade in Afghanistan, this figure marked a catastrophic failure by successive US administrations.

The same month, the Trump administration stepped up its counter-narcotics actions. Giant B-52 bombers, Cold War relics designed to drop nuclear bombs on Russia, lumbered into the sky to blow apart the Taliban laboratories where opium is turned into heroin to feed drug users’ habits around the world.

At the same time, US special forces, which have been operating in Afghanistan for 16 years, are increasingly being used as the spearhead of efforts to disrupt the opium trade. According to the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, the value of the opium poppy grown in Afghanistan last year was $1.4 billion or seven per cent of country’s gross domestic product. The value of the crop once processed and its role in the economy may in fact be far higher.

But most important is the sobering fact that the drug provides 60 per cent of the Taliban’s funds for wages and weapons. This means that the insurgents always have money to pay for new recruits and strong support among farmers in the countryside, particularly in well irrigated Helmand Province.

It was not always thus. In 2001, the last year the Taliban controlled most of the country before they were unseated by US-backed forces, opium production was a mere 180 tonnes. The Taliban had tried to stop opium growing, for which they were applauded by the US government, until their harbouring of the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden prompted the George W Bush administration to force them from power.

The connection between the opium trade and Washington’s failing struggle against the Taliban is not a revelation. But in reality the drug trade is not a sideshow – it is the key to understanding the stalemate that persists the between the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban.

In the words of Alfred W McCoy, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of a new book, In the Shadows of the American Century, “Afghanistan is the world’s first true narco-state – a country where illicit drugs dominate the economy, define political choices and determine the fate of foreign interventions.”

The term narco-state is usually applied to countries where politicians, security forces and the business community are in league with drug growers or traffickers. Colombia, a hub for the cocaine trade, has often been accused of being a narco-state, but as the recent peace agreement reached with the Farc guerrillas shows, it has the resilience to fight back against insurgents bankrolled by drug interests.

Also, in Colombia the cocaine trades tends to be focused in the less accessible parts of the country. In Afghanistan, almost half of the opium is grown in Helmand Province, the most developed agricultural region where Washington funded irrigation projects in the 1950s.

Prof McCoy argues that war is a struggle between the government and the Taliban over the profits of the opium trade. It can be argued that the central position of the opium poppy in Afghan life was shown by the Taliban’s attempt, while in power, to eradicate the crop. This made it easier for rural communities to accept the fall of the Taliban in 2001, in the expectation that normal business would be resumed, as indeed it was, though this was hardly what the Americans intended.

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American politicians, including Sen John McCain, have warned that the US-backed forces are losing the war in Afghanistan. Certainly, the Taliban have been gaining ground in the countryside, but a more sober assessment suggests that the insurgents have trouble gaining or holding urban areas. They are a fundamentally rural-based force whose ultra-conservative dogma is distrusted by city dwellers, so the prospect of them taking Kabul still seems distant.

But that does not answer the question of what Donald Trump is going to do about Afghanistan. Next week the administration will issue its national defence strategy, shortly after which Mr Trump will give his first state of the union address. Allies will be looking to see where Mr Trump will focus defence spending to embody his American First slogan.

All the indicators point to priority being given to protecting the homeland through renewing the nuclear deterrent and improving anti-missile defences in the face of North Korea’s declared ability to target the US with nuclear weapons. In general, there is likely to be a greater focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

So far Mr Trump, who often seeks to do the opposite of his predecessor, Barack Obama, has pursed the wars he inherited with renewed vigour. He has lifted the Obama-era time limit on US troops in Afghanistan, and eased restrictions on attacks in Somalia. For a president who wants to focus on problems at home, it is surprising that his special forces now operate in 149 countries, three-quarters of the total number of countries in the world.

As the net of the US military expands over the world, the number of terrorist or hostile groups identified by the Pentagon grows every year. Is this because the military learn more about distant threats, or it is that the presence of a foreign army in your country is a recruiting sergeant for young men to sign up to armed groups? If so, global deployment seems a perverse way to justify ever more Pentagon spending.

In any case Mr Trump is unlikely to be happy to continue with business as usual in Afghanistan for another four or eight years, as seen by his promise to cut aid to Pakistan, the original backer of the Taliban. But that is just the beginning to tackling the Taliban-opium nexus, which has defied US administrations since 2001.

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