A farmer prepares to harvest poppies in Khosh Gombaz, Afghanistan, in April of 2002. (Chang W.Lee/The New York Times)
It has long been known inside Afghanistan that heroin dealers in high positions benefit from the United States and Afghan governments' counternarcotics policies.
Now the American public can get a glimpse. US embassy cables published recently by WikiLeaks expose the insider opinion that Afghan officials are using poppy eradication teams to weed out the competitors of major traffickers with whom they are linked.
The leaked cables follow previous observations, investigations, government reports and testimonials by former contractors that say eradication efforts have long been corrupted and misused, and that Afghan officials have consistently thwarted any serious attempts at stemming the heroin trade.
The US and Britain began the operations in 2002, with the Afghan government acting as a silent partner and contractors like DynCorp pulling security. The theory was that if the Taliban was to be defeated, it would largely be through removing their access to the heroin industry and its associated taxes and bribes.
But many of the people who were and still are responsible for the eradication program are corrupt officials in the Afghan government, most of whom are just as involved in the heroin economy, if not more, as the growers they are targeting.
Indeed, instead of hurting the Taliban, the operations, in the words of former US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, were "driving farmers into the hands of the Taliban." [i]
It was for that reason that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has stepped back recently, giving the Afghan government the reins in order to give the programs an "Afghan face."
But there's more to NATO's shift than farmers running to the Taliban after having their livelihoods destroyed by eradication teams.
US embassy cables written in 2007 and leaked this December suggest that poppy eradication teams have been used by warlords and other powerful provincial leaders to consolidate power.
In one cable leaked recently, former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan Gen. Dan McNeill tells US Office of Drug Control Policy Director John Walters that "eradicators are only going where the local power brokers allow them to go." [ii]
The cable then identifies corruption among some of the major players in eradication efforts, like former Kandahar governor Asadullah Khalid, who Royal Netherlands Army Maj. Gen. Van Loon accuses of eradicating "only those fields not controlled by powerful people in the Province." [iii]
In the 2002-2003 poppy growing season, a Center for American Progress (CAP) and Center on International Cooperation (CIC) report stated that the eradication campaign was "generally targeted against the more vulnerable [farmers] and that the crops of the wealthy and influential were not destroyed." [iv]
The report explains that these eradications happened "in the absence of any prosecutions or even stigmatization of warlords and militia commanders allied with the US-led Coalition but known to be involved in narcotics." [v]
In his 2007 book "Opium Season," Joel Hafvenstein writes of the 2005 eradication program, making similar observations. "The powerful landowners and traffickers were insulated from eradication by the system of debt," he says, "and by their ability to buy off the enthusiastically corruptible police." [vi]
He describes Helmand Province, where "virtually every government institution was led by a trafficker" as an example of the eradication campaign's hypocrisy. "The police do not bring tractors to their relatives' fields, or the fields of people who pay them," a colleague told Hafvenstein, "and the commanders' own poppy is never hurt."[vii]
It's not just farmers and international observers like Hafvenstein who know that targeting one person's poppy over another person's poppy is a confusing strategy. On SOCNET, an online forum for contractors and former military members, former DynCorp contractors' posts explain the anger born from these targeted eradications.
"What would piss me off is to drive miles and miles through beautiful poppy fields, as far as the eye could see and watch them go by ... only to pull in to some pathetic farmer's field and chop his down and essentially ruin him," wrote one.[viii]
In response, another former contractor who served in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 explains similar confusion. "I was one of the guys behind the guns flying cover and I never did understand how the decisions were made on what field got cut," he wrote.
"It also seemed that the chosen fields were almost always hard to find and deep inside other fields that would not get cut."
Shifting responsibility of the eradication program to those working directly for Afghan President Hamid Karzai has opened new doors to corruption.
Take Kandahar for example, where President Karzai's heroin-trafficking half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai holds ultimate power.
According to the same 2007 leaked-cable sources, Gov. Asadullah used Afghan police instead of civilian workers to perform eradications, "which further damaged the already corrupt reputation of the police among average people" and "allowed Asadullah to pocket the funding he had been given to hire local labor." [ix]
"Opium Season" describes the "occasional" run-ins between police. "In most cases," Hafvenstein and his team were told, "the police sold this contraband on to Helmand's most powerful kingpins." [x]
When Afghan counternarcotics officers and American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents raided Governor Sher Muhammad's mansion in Lashkargah in June 2005, they discovered "the largest single cache of opium the DEA had found anywhere in Afghanistan," Hafvenstein writes. "Sher Muhammad coolly replied that he had confiscated it from drug traffickers, and was only storing it until he could dispose of it properly."
The excuse worked, and Muhammad continued as governor. When the growing season exposed his clear refusal to cut heroin production and poppy cultivation, British officials pressured President Karzai to take action against him. His punishment was a seat in the upper parliament of Afghanistan.[xi]
But this isn't just the observation of an author - the embassy cables openly admit that the eradication teams are not targeting the major trafficking networks.
"They [US military officials] recognize that going after corrupt officials may be too difficult, given the delicate tribal and other balances needed to keep the Afghan government generally intact," says former US ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann, "but they hope to use the increasing connections between traffickers and insurgents to their advantage." [xii]
The Sydney Morning Herald reported last year that "there is a growing belief in the south that those working for the government are more actively involved in the trade in narcotics than the Taliban."[xiii] This belief lines up well with United Nations (UN) statistics and observations by government officials. [xiv]
The Taliban's Minor Role
When the Taliban banned poppy cultivation from the late 1990s up until 2001, prices rose and the Taliban profited because they had stockpiles to sell. During the growing ban, the market thrived, and the rest of the industry continued with business as usual.
A leaked 2009 Congressional Research Service Report looks at this development in some detail. "This strategy would reflect a desire by the Taliban to use their 'monopoly' position to maximize profits, i.e. restrict supply by restricting cultivation; drive prices up dramatically; and sell from an extensive supply of stockpiled opium."
Those stockpiles, the report says, reached up to sixty percent of the opium crop, according to the UN.[xv]
The document also says that "according to US drug enforcement data, the price of a kilo of opium in Afghanistan and bordering regions has jumped almost tenfold from $44 per kilo to between $350 and $400 per kilo" in 2001, and "UN officials report that the price has jumped as high as $700."
"While the livelihoods of poppy farmers are hit by the loss of opium yield," said Mohammad Aliyas Daee and Abubakar Siddique in an article from May of last year, "declining supplies are pushing opium prices higher."
"This is expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in bonus profits for drug lords and the insurgents who have stored hundreds of tons of opium," said Daee and Siddique. [xvi]
And while, according to the UN, Afghanistan's total estimated drug trafficking revenue is about $3 billion, the Taliban's share of profits was only estimated at $125 million as of 2009.[xvii] This means the other nearly $2.9 billion must go to either corrupt government officials or other warlords and drug networks.
In an article in The Globe and Mail, two western officials said about 50 to 70 percent of weapons making it into the hands of the Taliban "arrive in the country by road, facilitated by corrupt figures in the Afghan government."
This statistic, the article says, "shatters the image of Taliban hauling shipments of guns and ammunition through snowy mountain passes, as usually portrayed by NATO leaders; instead, many insurgents apparently find it more convenient to buy supplies from corrupt authorities." [xviii]
US officials talk a good game to the public about the Taliban's links to heroin, but rarely do they admit the extent to which their closest allies are involved in the industry.
These cables show some of their real understandings, and what insiders, investigations and UN statistics have already suggested: that the Taliban is just one fish in a sea of heroin traffickers, and that when targeted eradication efforts are employed by the Afghan government, they increase the profits of major drug networks linked to those in power. This in turn increases the price of opium and heroin, bringing those networks huge profits.
Understanding such economic incentives suggests that those lobbying for eradication as a policy may be linked to those who benefit from the rising price. These lobbyists represent the world's largest heroin dealers.
If the path out of Afghanistan for US forces is paved by teaming up with those who are now consolidating power through the international heroin market, we are opening doors to future wars, and those wars will be fought both internationally and in the streets of the United States.
[iv] Barnett R. Rubin. "Road to Ruin: Afghanistan's Booming Opium Industry." Center for American Progress, Center on International Cooperation. October 7th, 2004.
[v] Barnett R. Rubin. Road to Ruin: "Afghanistan's Booming Opium Industry." Center for American Progress, Center on International Cooperation. October 7th, 2004.
[vi] Hafvenstein, Joel. "Opium Season," 2007. Lyons, Connecticut. p. 214
[vii] Hafvenstein, Joel. "Opium Season," 2007. Lyons, Connecticut. p. 214
[xi] Hafvenstein, Joel. "Opium Season," 2007. Lyons, Connecticut. p. 312
[xiii] Lynne O'Donnell , "Afghanistan opium poppies hit by mysterious disease." Sydney Morning Herald. May 13, 2010.
[xiv] Hafvenstein, Joel. "Opium Season," 2007. Lyons, Connecticut. p. 312
[xvi] Mohammad Aliyas Daee, Abubakar Siddique. "As Afghan Opium Blight Spreads, Farmers' Lives Wilt," Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, May 18, 2010.
[xvii] UN Office on Drugs and Crime. "Addiction, Crime and Insurgency: The Transnational Threat of Afghan Opium." October 2009.
[xviii] Graeme Smith, "Afghan officials in drug trade cut deals across enemy lines." The Globe and Mail, March 21, 2009.