Drugs, War and Terror

Poppy Production Fuels Insurgency

Posted May 18, 2009 at 3:00pm

Some young American soldiers who will fight in Afghanistan for the first time this year are too young to remember Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s “king of cocaine— who was killed by special forces in 1993.

Escobar terrorized Colombians and outsiders who attempted to damage his enterprise. He gained even more notoriety after Forbes magazine listed him as one of the richest men in the world, with an income derived from trafficking cocaine throughout the Americas and Europe.

Bringing down Escobar and hobbling the prosperous Colombian cocaine empire took more than just U.S. military strategy. It took cooperation from the Colombian government, fierce CIA agents infiltrating Escobar’s inner circle and a colossal public relations campaign in the United States that used such catchphrases as “just say no.—

But the war against drug trafficking in Colombia is only part of our campaign against drugs today. While the U.S. continues to wage war on Escobar’s successors, the military is also rapidly escalating its footprint in Afghanistan to fight and apprehend suspected terrorists.

Despite assertions from the military’s top brass who acknowledge that Afghanistan’s Helmand Province is ground zero for the world’s opium production, they stress their focus is on al-Qaida suspects, the Taliban and other individuals with intent to harm Americans.

In “Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda,— journalist Gretchen Peters argues that terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan are employed by an umbrella operation controlled by an international consortium made up of prominent poppy farmers, narco-traffickers and savvy entrepreneurs who control Helmand’s opium cultivation and distribution.

This organization delivers about 90 percent of the world’s heroin, and rakes in tens of billions of dollars — a portion of which, Peters learned, is used to pay suspected terrorist groups so they will protect the poppy farms.

The CIA knows some of these men; they include Dawood Ibrahim, Haji Bashir Noorzai and the recently captured Haji Juma Khan.

Collectively, Peters says, these men — and several others — are the rulers of an opium empire, and are way more powerful and far richer than Escobar and his cartel ever was. With their money, they buy off Afghan and Pakistani officials, senior leaders within Pakistan’s intelligence service, and known terrorists, such as Osama bin Laden.

They also pay the Taliban, and local gangs who call themselves the Taliban, to be bodyguards for farmers throughout Helmand, making the small region one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

“It wasn’t until I saw the vast scope of Helmand’s poppy crop that I felt real alarm. Sloshing about the muddy fields, I realized these lovely flowers could one day fund whatever deadly ambitions terrorist groups based in this region had,— Peters writes.

Throughout her five years traveling throughout the most hostile regions in the Middle East, she interviewed local farmers and government officials and even members of a smuggler’s ring, who she thought were going to kill her. Peters’ research showed that with their drug money, extremists working in the opium trade were able to fund their own attacks.

Peters, who worked as a reporter for the Associated Press before becoming a correspondent for ABC News, notes her sources told her that insurgents get about 70 percent of their funds from opium.

She learned these profits are virtually untraceable because corrupt banking officials transfer the funds from banks in Kabul to Karachi, Pakistan. “The Karachi Stock Exchange is whispered to be another good place to hide your black money,— she explains.

Eventually, the money reaches unregulated banks throughout the United Arab Emirates, specifically Dubai. Peters lays out in great detail how the money laundered at Dubai is then accessed by legitimate operations, which would invest in corrupt businesses that would employ members of the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Moreover, Peters interviews intelligence officials and military leaders who agree that the Pakistani intelligence agency also launders money for the drug dealers and protects the opium cartel.

She succeeds at painting a grim picture of the realities in Afghanistan — known to historians as the “graveyard of empires.—

The Obama administration says it has a war strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that addresses Helmand: Offer the poppy farmers a different crop to cultivate. But such a plan, Peters says, would ultimately fail.

“Wiping out poppy fields would actually drive up poppy prices and put more money in the pockets of drug dealers and terrorists. It’s basic economics. … One actually hears opium smugglers saying they hope the United States will launch an aggressive spraying campaign.—

And nobody knows how long the U.S. can afford to stay in Afghanistan.

This year, the U.S. soldiers will be fighting these drug lords on their home court. And unlike their fight against Escobar, the U.S. should not expect support from the local governments, because Peters found that “an empty truck never passes over the rugged Durrand Line, the disputed border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.—

The only chance the U.S. has is for the world to stop consuming opium.