The Darker Side of the War in Afghanistan
While the Trump administration is subtly pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, many, including myself, are concerned as to the would-be state of affairs in the Afghan region if and when the U.S. withdraws altogether. What is more disturbing, as revealed by the Afghanistan Papers, is that American troops, including those who have been killed or wounded in action, have been pawns of an unknown dark and decades-long operation to reestablish an opium economy that would benefit the same Islamists they were ordered to fight when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—in response to U.S. covert operations in the region, which had been well in place for six months—Afghan opium, derived from the poppy seeds, entered the world market significantly for the first time and grew from nothing to about 60 percent of American consumption by 1980. It soared from two hundred metric tons in 1980, the first full year of U.S. support for the drug lord of the Mujahideen (Soliders of Allah)—the forefathers of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS—and future Prime Minister of Afghanistan Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to almost two thousand metric tons in 1991, when both the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to discontinue their aid.
Former Canadian diplomat Peter Dale Scott adds that the conspicuous (and rarely acknowledged) fact that backdoor aspects of U.S. policies have been a major causal factor in today’s drug flows does not of course mean that the U.S. has control over the situations it has produced. What it does indicate is that repeatedly, as a Brookings Institution expert wrote of the U.S. Afghan intervention of 1979–1980, drug control evidently became subordinated to larger strategic goals.
In any case, much of the opium was trucked from Afghanistan into the northwest Pakistani town of Darra by the Mujahideen where it was sold to the Pakistani governor, Lieutenant General Fazle Huq—he allowed hundreds of heroin refineries to set up in his in his province. From this opium the heroin was refined in labs in Darra, placed on Pakistani army trucks and transported to Karachi—the largest city in Pakistan and seventh largest city proper in the world—then shipped to Europe and the United States. In return, the CIA was able to set up a factory to manufacture Soviet-style weapons and give them to the Afghan fighters to fight the Communist Russians, simultaneously deceiving the world that the U.S.S.R. had been arming the Islamic terrorists.
Ironically, in 2000, the Taliban government with the support of the United Nations implemented a successful drug eradication program, which was presented to the UN General Assembly on October 12, 2001, barely a week after on the onset of U.S.-NATO invasion. Opium production had collapsed by 94 percent—in 2001 opium production went to 185 tons down from 3,300 tons in 2000.
The 2001 war on Afghanistan, as already indicated, served to restore as well as boost the multibillion dollar drug trade. It also contributed to the surge in heroin addiction in the U.S.
According to the United Nations Office Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), since 2001, the production of opium has increased 50 times, (compared to 185 ton in 2001) reaching 9,000 metric tons in 2017. It has almost tripled in relation to its historical levels. (See Fig below)
Today a rough estimate based on U.S. retail prices suggests that the global heroin market is above the 500 billion dollars mark. This hike is the result of a significant increase in the volume of heroin transacted worldwide coupled with a moderate increase in retail prices.
The White House has said its new strategy in Afghanistan is aimed at convincing the group there is no way to win on the battlefield, but its growing role in the drug trade is likely to make some elements of the Taliban less disposed to negotiations with the Kabul.
The Taliban’s move into heroin processing comes as it gains ground against the government, particularly in areas where the drug is produced.
Based on a 2017 UNODC report, opium production in Afghanistan is of the order of 9,000 metric tons, which after processing and transformation is equivalent to approximately 900,000 kilograms of pure heroin. In 2018, Afghanistan produced 82 percent of the world’s supply.
The White House admitted last year that the continued large-scale Afghanistan poppy cultivation and opium production further complicates the government of Afghanistan’s ability to maintain rule of law and promote a road to peace. “This trend,” according to the United Nations “has real consequences for peace and security in Afghanistan, as it encourages those within the Taliban movement who have the greatest economic incentives to oppose any meaningful process of reconciliation with the new government.”
The Taliban seeks to establish a puritanical caliphate that neither acknowledges nor tolerates forms of Islam divergent from their own. Consequently, they are dead set against democracy or any secular or pluralistic political process. And now that they are back in control of most of Afghanistan, they have changed their tune on the poppy seed realizing that it is their bread and butter—the top source of income for its terrorist campaigns. For the Taliban narco-jihadists and their associates, this lucrative economic engine will keep them in power since it is known to generate hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
It has now been two weeks since the U.S. has closed down five military bases and reduced the size of its forces in Afghanistan as part of the agreement reached with the Taliban in February.
Just a day before the base closures, while conveying to strive for peace, the Taliban detonated a car bomb at a government facility in Samangan province’s capital Aybak, near the office of the National Directorate of Security, a key intelligence agency, killing 11 security personnel and wounding at least 63 civilians, including children. And just last week, the Taliban set off a roadside bomb that killed three civilians, including a child, in Afghanistan’s northwestern Badghis province.
The Taliban, despite being lauded by the Trump administration for its “effort” to provide stability, continue to provide safe havens in remote areas of Afghanistan to terrorists, including al-Qaeda according to the Pentagon. This was sustained by UN reports, which state that the Taliban still maintains close ties with the jihadists.
Former Defense Department official Michael Rubin recently stated:
“The Trump administration is engaged in wholesale politicization of intelligence. The Taliban has failed to divorce itself from al-Qaeda. The fact that [they] are unwilling to adhere to [the terms of the peace deal] show that they consider the United States to be a laughingstock. The price for that humiliation will not just be paid by Americans diplomatically, but also ultimately in blood.”
Trump is caught between a rock and a hard place, yet it would be imprudent, if not careless, to pull out every remaining U.S. military personnel stationed in Afghanistan. If he does, the country’s multibillion dollar opium economy that has thus far been protected by US-NATO occupation forces will be assumed by both China and Russia—this would form a triumvirate of evil. This is not the reason the U.S. should stay in Afghanistan, nor should it continue to cover up this heinous operation, much less sustain it. But since it was the U.S. government that created the present-day mess in Afghanistan in the first place, it has the moral obligation to fix it!
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.