Monday, October 12, 2009

Narco-imperialism, the opiate of the west

Gretchen Peters, Seeds of Terror: The Taliban, the ISI and the New Opium Wars, Hachette India, Delhi, 2009, pp xvii + 302, Rs 495, ISBN 978-93-80143-02-6.

Imtiaz Gul, The Al Qaeda Connection: The Taliban and Terror in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, Penguin India, Delhi, 2009, pp ix + 308, Rs 499, ISBN 978-0-670-08292-6.

Eight years ago, a poor and impoverished nation, devastated by decades of strife, was being pounded by the U.S. in a ferocious aerial bombing campaign. Many then thought the whole war strategy disproportionate and ultimately rather pointless. It seemed that the purpose was to “shock and awe” (though the phrase only entered the strategic vocabulary a little later, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq) rather than to achieve defined military objectives. Dissent was actively discouraged, but the few voices that managed to make themselves heard above the din of righteous nationalism, did point out that the didactic value of high-tonnage explosives launched from safe distances, was limited and short-lived.

George Bush, the U.S. president who ordered thousands of soldiers into action, knew they were doing nothing else than “pounding sand”. And clearly, he and his inner cabal – notably Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz – were half-hearted about the whole enterprise.

Richard Clarke, then principal counter-terrorism adviser to Bush, has written of how from the very moment that four aircraft were hijacked in U.S. airspace, of which three crashed into iconic structures in New York and Washington DC, Wolfowitz was busy planning an invasion of Iraq (Richard Clarke, Against all Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, Free Press, New York, 2004). That was perhaps an ideological commitment for the hyper-Zionist Wolfowitz, though his boss Rumsfeld, who carried none of that baggage, put out a rather more interesting and pragmatic rationale for the focus on Iraq – that it had a surfeit of targets that could be bombed, unlike Afghanistan, which had very few.

The September 11 havoc was promptly ascribed to Al Qaeda and the principal target of the U.S. military campaign that ensued was identified as Osama bin Laden. In the event, the fearsome aerial bombardment of Afghanistan, never too scrupulous about what came rather delightfully to be called “collateral damage”, did not manage to find and fry Osama bin Laden. The cordon that had been laid by land-based forces proved altogether too porous, since the U.S. could never commit enough troops to the mission. The Bush cabal chose, rather, to sub-contract the job of capturing bin Laden to a syndicate of local Afghan warlords who just happened to be, contingently, on the same side then.

Far from decapitating the Afghan regime, the U.S. left sufficient room for it to flee the battle and reconstitute itself. The prevalent wisdom is that the regime though locationally scattered, still has a coherent and centralised chain of command. The term “Taliban” is still an accepted description for the insurgent groups that continue to inflict a price in blood on the U.S. and allied military forces deployed in Afghanistan.

The resilience of the Taliban in turn is ascribed to infirmities in the transition process and the ineptitude and insincerity of those who were entrusted with the mandate of effecting a credible democratic transformation. Gretchen Peters, a journalist with long years of experience covering Afghanistan and Pakistan, now offers a rather different answer: the Taliban perhaps owes its survival to incompetent military strategy by the U.S. and its allies. But the Taliban resurgence and its continuing ability to threaten the regime of President Hamid Karzai, comes from its control over the flourishing narcotics trade that originates in Afghanistan and has linkages all over the world.

Afghanistan, says Peters, grows over nine-tenths of the world supply of opium poppy. In a book that documents the sordid history of fierce religious puritanism coexisting with the world’s most disreputable trade, Peters establishes that the Taliban has been among the most important sponsors and beneficiaries of the boom in opium cultivation. Indeed, “Taliban” has itself become something of a catch-all term, applied to every manner of entity. Beyond these entities’ single shared attribute, that they all oppose the Karzai regime in one form or the other, they have little else in common, except perhaps their active engagement in the narcotics trade.

A world audience that suffers from a chronic attention deficit may not have the inclination to piece together a pattern from media reports of the numerous attacks on occupation forces in Afghanistan. Peters reveals that insurgent actions in Afghanistan are “most often diversionary attacks to protect big drug shipments, rather than campaigns for strategic territorial gain. In many areas, drug smugglers have their own armies whose fighters are widely referred to as ‘Taliban’”.

The “new Taliban” as Peters puts it, is a world removed from the old. It is now a “fragmented, transnational force devoid of many of the group’s prior characteristics and political aspirations”. And as recounted by a senior Afghan security official: “These are not old Taliban. We don’t even know who they are anymore”.

Peters revisits the terrain of the initial emergence of the Taliban in an Afghanistan devastated by the virulent civil war that followed the collapse of the Najibullah regime in 1992. Najibullah had defied western estimations and survived almost four years after the withdrawal of his Soviet backers in 1988, warning just as his regime was tottering, that fundamentalism once ensconced in Afghanistan, would stay for “many years”. “Afghanistan (would) turn into a centre of world smuggling of narcotics drugs. Afghanistan (would) be turned into a centre for terrorism”, he said.

Najibullah’s warnings went unheeded. And the cabal of Islamic warriors who took the reins in Kabul under a deal brokered by Pakistan, soon carved the country up into a patchwork of warring fiefs, each of which became a quasi-autonomous state that zealously guarded rights of transit through the landlocked country. Levies imposed on the transit of legal goods through Afghanistan became the main sustenance for the warring tribal chieftains. But the yields from this traffic were modest. Transporting goods of great bulk and volume through Afghanistan’s wrecked transportation network was a logistical challenge that the warlords were unequal to. What they needed was a commodity with high value and relatively low volume.

If Peters had been familiar with the history of imperialism, she would have identified the strong connections between the Afghan Taliban’s response to this challenge and the pathway that British colonialism found in the mid-19th century, to settle its balance of payments problems in India. Opium, the British colonialists discovered then, was just the right stuff, with the optimal combination of both value and volume.

During the latter years of the Soviet occupation, Afghanistan was rapidly increasing its area under opium cultivation, particularly in the southern province of Helmand. A pivotal figure in the opium traffic was Mullah Nasim Akhundzada, a Pashtu tribal chief and the main sponsor of the anti-Soviet resistance in the south. Opium grown in Helmand fed the refining centres in the east of the country, controlled by another powerful Pashtu chieftain, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

This arrangement of convenience was underwritten by the theological dictum that growing the narcotic substance was no sin, and neither was its trafficking. Vice lay rather, in the consumption of the substance. And as long as the “infidel west” remained the main locus of consumption, the conscience of the Islamic faithful remained unsullied.

In one of the few efforts by the U.S. to intervene in the situation, a top official from the embassy in Pakistan demanded a meeting with Akhundzada in Quetta, at which the deeply pious Pashtu warlord was shamed into issuing a diktat against opium cultivation. The crop in Helmand started dropping almost immediately, much to the ire of Hekmatyar, whose refining units were suddenly obliged to pay much higher prices for their basic input.

Akhundzada was assassinated in 1990 in Pakistan’s north-western frontier city of Peshawar. And his brother, who assumed leadership under accepted rules of tribal succession, lost little time in ordaining that opium cultivation should resume with all the earlier vigour.

Chaos deepened and commerce entered increasingly into conflict with territorial ambitions. The numerous warlords who had carved up Afghan territory began to be seen as obstacles to the free flow of the narcotics commerce. With a certain attitude of revelation, Peters tells us that the received wisdom of the Taliban being sponsored, promoted and given their entire start-up capital of money and firepower by Pakistan’s military intelligence services, is only half the truth. And like many half-truths, it obscures the greater reality: that it was the smuggling mafia that underwrote the emergence of the Taliban. The brief pretence that the Taliban made, of ordaining the end of opium cultivation in Afghanistan, was mere smoke and mirrors. The market-savvy Islamic militia was only seeking to cash in on the inevitable spike in prices that would ensue – and at the same time, harvest the aid bounty that it was promised if it were to accede to western demands to end opium cultivation.

Peters tells her story well, with justified moral indignation. Pakistan features heavily in her story with all its low intrigues in sponsoring the drug trade and the rise of the Taliban. But the larger geopolitical game, in which Pakistan was merely a link, is hardly dealt with. In this respect, it is best always to go back to original sources, written immediately after epochal events have taken place, when journalistic objectivity is yet uncompromised.

How else does one account for a silence that echoes through Peters’ book: on the role that the U.S. oil companies played in the rise of the Taliban?

This omission seems to be part of a larger pattern. The reader of Peters’ book for instance, would never guess that President Karzai’s regime itself is under the scanner for its possible involvement in the narcotics trade. Hemmed in by the obduracy of the warlords that he has been forced to talk terms with, unable to make much of the vaunted quantities of western aid that have been flowing to Afghanistan – because much of this flows back into western coffers through the corrupt rules of the international aid racket – Karzai himself has chosen to make his peace with the drugs trade.

Elements of the western security establishment are perturbed that their man in Afghanistan is quite so blatantly doing deals with the drugs cartel. In July 2008, a former counter-narcotics envoy for the U.S. wrote a mammoth article in the New York Times, documenting with a wealth of detail, how Karzai had made the opium fields in Helmand – a bequest of the Akhundzada clan -- a personal protectorate (Thomas Schweich, "Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?", The New York Times, July 27, 2008). There was no other source of revenue that he could tap to keep his regime afloat. And his western backers were never quite willing to crack down on the narcotics trade with the zero-tolerance attitude that they were apt to show towards weapons of mass destruction.

Peters acknowledges these realities rather cursorily and puts them down to corruption and incompetence. The reality, though, maybe more complex. Devoid of political authority, starved of resources through which he may seek to buy needed legitimacy, Karzai has brought back several old confederates of the Taliban into positions of power. To ensure that he is not toppled off his precarious perch, he has also decided to cultivate the favour of the drug-lords in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Bound by common ethnicity, Karzai and his Pashtu kinsmen in the south of Afghanistan, see the Helmand opium crop as perhaps their only sustenance in an unrelenting battle for political preeminence in Afghanistan, against the Tajik-Persian cabal that controls most other sectors of Afghanistan’s governance and commerce.

Meanwhile, a country conjoined with Afghanistan by history, has begun to be sucked ever deeper into the geopolitical trap. Pakistan, once regarded in the west as part of the solution – whether in the context of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the September 11 attacks in the U.S. – is now decisively, part of the problem.

When the Taliban seized power in Kabul in 1996, the U.S. had no more fervent wish than to see a new day dawn for Afghanistan, in which transit rights from the Central Asian oilfields for its multinational companies would be assured.

More reasonable commentators warned that the dangers of a fundamentalist takeover in Pakistan were more alive than at any time before.

It it comes, that fundamentalist takeover will not be inspired by any kind of overarching loyalty to an Islamic theology. Rather, there would be multiple affinities that propel the movement on, most important among them being the cross-border tribal ties that bind Afghanistan and Pakistan, across the arbitrarily drawn frontier that is increasingly seen as an illegitimate bequest of British imperialism.

Imtiaz Gul’s work shows with a wealth of detail, how the cross-border ties – which have been encapsulated under the rubric of two convenient terms, “Taliban” and “Al Qaeda” – are really rich in complexities. But for the global strategic affairs community, they have all been reduced to two terms that are expected to summon up the unthinking allegiance of all right-thinking folks.

Surely, there can be no more certain pathway to chaos, that could soon envelop India and the entire south Asian region.

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