How a pink flower defeated the world’s sole superpower
After fighting the longest war in its history, the United States stands at the brink of defeat in Afghanistan. How can this be possible? How could the world’s sole superpower have battled continuously for 15 years, deploying 100,000 of its finest troops, spending more than a trillion dollars on its military operations, lavishing a record hundred billion more on “nation-building,” and still not be able to pacify one of the world’s most impoverished nations? So dismal is the prospect for stability in Afghanistan in 2016 that the White House had to cancel a planned withdrawal of its forces and to announce to leave 10,000 troops in the country indefinitely.
Were you to cut through the Gordian knot of complexity that is the Afghan War, you would find that in the American failure there lies the greatest policy paradox of the century: Washington’s massive military juggernaut has been stopped dead in its steel tracks by a pink flower, the opium poppy.
For more than three decades, Washington’s military operations in Afghanistan succeeded only when they were fit into Central Asia’s illicit opium traffic, and suffered when they failed to complement it. The first US intervention in 1979 succeeded in part because it coincided with its Afghan allies’ use of the country’s swelling drug traffic to sustain their decade-long struggle.
But, this time all pacification efforts failed to curtail the Taliban insurgency because the US couldn’t control the surplus from the county’s heroin trade. Opium production, which has played a significant role in shaping the country’s destiny, surged from a minimal 180 tonnes to a monumental 8,200 in the first five years of US occupation and every poppy harvest yielded a new crop of teenaged fighters for the Taliban and transformed this remote, landlocked nation into the world’s first true narco-state.
Covert Warfare (1979-1992)
The CIA’s secret war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan transformed the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands into the seedbed for a sustained expansion of the global heroin trade. The CIA looked the other way while Afghanistan’s opium production grew unchecked from about 100 tonnes annually in the 1970s to 2,000 tonnes by 1991. It is important to note that by 1984, Afghanistan supplied a staggering 60% of the US market and 80% of the European one. Inside Pakistan, the number of heroin addicts went from near zero (yes, zero) in 1979 to 1,300,000 by 1985 — such a high rate that the UN called it “particularly shocking.”
In May 1990, as this covert operation was ending, the Washington Post reported that Hekmatyar was also the rebels’ leading trafficker. American officials had long refused to investigate charges of heroin dealing by Hekmatyar. Charles Cogan, former director of the CIA’s Afghan operation, admitted:
“Our main mission was to do as much damage as possible to the Soviets. We didn’t really have the resources or the time to devote to an investigation of the drug trade.”
The Civil War and the Rise of Taliban (1989-2001)
As that war wound down between 1989 and 1992, the Washington-led alliance essentially abandoned the country. Consequently, a vicious civil war broke out in a country with 1.5 million dead, three million refugees, a ravaged economy, and a bevy of well-armed warlords primed to fight for power. During these years, Afghan farmers raised the only crop that ensured instant profits, the opium poppy. In this period of turmoil, opium’s ascent should be seen as a response to the severe damage two decades of warfare had inflicted. With the return of those three million refugees to a war-ravaged land, the opium fields were an employment godsend, since they required nine times as many labourers to cultivate as wheat. In addition, opium merchants alone were capable of accumulating capital rapidly enough to be able to provide much-needed cash advances to poor poppy farmers.
In the civil war’s first phase from 1992 to 1994, ruthless local warlords combined arms and opium in a countrywide struggle for power. Hekmatyar, who had then become the nominal prime minister of a fractious coalition, failed to take the capital. It resulted in the rise of a new formidable Pashtun force, the Taliban.
By July 2000, the Taliban had ordered a ban on all opium cultivation; apparently, in an appeal for international recognition and aid. A subsequent UN crop survey of 10,030 villages found that this prohibition had reduced the harvest by 94%.
Three months later, the Taliban sent a delegation, headed by Abdur Rahman Zahid, to UN headquarters to barter a continuing drug prohibition for diplomatic recognition. That body instead imposed new sanctions on the regime for protecting Osama bin Laden. The US, on the other hand, actually rewarded the Taliban with $43 million in humanitarian aid, even as it seconded UN criticism over bin Laden.
The War on Terror (2001-2016)
After a decade of ignoring Afghanistan, Washington rediscovered it with a vengeance in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In October 2001, the US began bombing the country and then launched an “invasion” spearheaded by local warlords and finally, within a short time, the Taliban regime collapsed. Although the US air attacks inflicted considerable damage to Taliban, yet it seems likely that their collapse was propelled by the economic evisceration caused by opium prohibition.
Afghanistan had, over the years, devoted a growing share of its resources — capital, land, water and labour — to the production of opium and heroin. By the time the Taliban outlawed cultivation, the country had become, agriculturally, little more than an opium monocrop. The drug trade accounted for most of its tax revenues, almost all its export income and much of its employment. In this context, opium eradication proved to be an act of economic suicide that brought an already weakened society to the brink of collapse. Indeed, a 2001 UN survey found that the ban had “resulted in a severe loss of income for an estimated 3.3 million people,” 15% of the population, including 80,000 farmers, 480,000 itinerant labourers, and their millions of dependents.
To capture Kabul and other key cities, the CIA put its money behind the leaders of the Northern Alliance who had long dominated the drug traffic in north-eastern Afghanistan. It also turned to a group of rising Pashtun warlords and drug smugglers in the southeast of the country. Hence, when the Taliban went down, the groundwork had already been laid for the resumption of opium cultivation and the drug trade.
Once Kabul and the provincial capitals were taken, the CIA quickly ceded operational control to uniformed allied forces and civilian officials whose inept drug suppression programmes left the heroin traffic’s growing profits to the warlords. In the first year of US occupation, the opium harvest surged to 3,400 tonnes. In an unprecedented development, illicit drugs would account for 62% percent of the country’s GDP in 2003.
In late 2004, after nearly two years in which it showed next to no interest in the subject, outsourcing opium control to its British allies and police training to the Germans, the White House was confronted with troubling CIA intelligence suggesting that the escalating drug trade was fuelling a revival of the Taliban. The then-Secretary of State, Calin Powell, urged an aggressive counter-narcotics strategy, including a Vietnam-style aerial defoliation of parts of rural Afghanistan. But US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad resisted this approach, seconded by his local ally Ashraf Ghani (now the country’s president).
As a compromise, Washington came to rely on private contractors to train Afghan manual eradication teams. Two years later, as the Taliban insurgency and opium cultivation both spread synergistically, the US pressed Kabul to accept the kind of aerial defoliation but President Karzai refused, leaving this problem unresolved.
In mid-2008, to contain the spreading insurgency, Washington committed 40,000 more combat troops to the country, raising allied forces to 70,000. The US Treasury also formed the Afghan Threat Finance Cell and embedded 60 of its analysts in combat units charged with launching strategic strikes against the drug trade.
By 2009, the guerrillas were expanding so rapidly that the new Obama administration opted for a “surge” in US troop strength to 102,000 in a bid to cripple the Taliban. The new war strategy was officially launched on February 13, 2010, in Marja, a remote market town in Helmand Province. As waves of helicopters descended on its outskirts spitting up clouds of dust, hundreds of Marines sprinted through fields of sprouting opium poppies toward the town’s mud-walled compounds. Though their target was the local Taliban guerrillas, the Marines were in fact occupying the capital of the global heroin trade.
By attacking the guerrillas but ignoring the opium harvest that funded new insurgents every spring, Obama’s surge soon suffered that defeat foretold. Amid the rapid drawdown of allied forces to meet President Obama’s December 2014 deadline for “ending” US combat operations, reduced air operations allowed the Taliban to launch mass-formation attacks in the north, northeast, and south, killing record numbers of Afghan army troops and police.
At the time, John Sopko, the US special inspector for Afghanistan, offered a telling explanation for the Taliban’s survival. Despite the expenditure of a staggering $7.6 billion on “drug eradication” programmes during the previous decade, he concluded that, “by every conceivable metric, we’ve failed. Production and cultivation are up, interdiction and eradication are down, financial support to the insurgency is up and addiction and abuse are at unprecedented levels in Afghanistan.”
Indeed, the 2013 opium crop covered a record 209,000 hectares, raising the harvest by 50% to 5,500 tonnes. That massive harvest generated some $3 billion in illicit income, of which the Taliban’s tax took an estimated $320 million. As the 2014 opium crop was harvested, fresh UN figures suggested that the dismal trend only continued, with the areas under cultivation rising to a record 224,000 hectares and production at 6,400 tonnes remaining near historic highs.
Amid a rushed evacuation of its regional offices in the threatened northern provinces, the UN released a map in October showing that the Taliban had “high” or “extreme” control in more than half the country’s rural districts, including many where they had not previously been a significant presence. Within a month, the Taliban unleashed offensives countrywide that aimed at seizing and holding territory, threatening military bases in northern Faryab Province and encircling entire districts in western Herat.
Not surprisingly, the strongest attacks came in the poppy heartland of Helmand Province, where half the country’s opium crop was then grown. By mid-December, after overrunning checkpoints, winning back much of the province, and setting government security forces back on their heels, the guerrillas came close to capturing that heart of the heroin trade, Marja, the very site of President Obama’s media-saturated surge rollout in 2010.
By early 2016, 14-plus years after Afghanistan was “liberated” by a US invasion, and in a significant reversal of Obama administration drawdown policies, the US was reportedly dispatching “hundreds” of new troops in a mini-surge into Helmand Province to shore up the government’s faltering forces and deny the insurgents the “economic prize” of the world’s most productive poppy fields.
Meanwhile, as the 2015 harvest ended, the country’s opium cultivation, after six years of sustained growth, slipped by 18% to 183,000 hectares and the crop yield dropped steeply to 3,300 tonnes. While UN officials attributed much of the decline to drought and the spread of a poppy fungus, conditions that might not continue into 2016, long-term trends are still an unclear mix of positive and negative news. Buried in the mass of data published in the UN’s drug reports is one significant statistic: as Afghanistan’s economy grew from years of international aid, opium’s share of GDP dropped steadily from a daunting 63% in 2003 to a far more manageable 13% in 2014. Even so, the UN says, “… dependency on the opiate economy at the farmer level in many rural communities is still high.”
Simultaneously, a recent UN Security Council investigation found that the Taliban have systematically tapped “into the supply chain at each stage of the narcotics trade,” collecting a 10% user tax on opium cultivation in Helmand, fighting for control of heroin laboratories, and acting as “the major guarantors for the trafficking of raw opium and heroin out of Afghanistan.” No longer simply taxing the traffic, the Taliban are now so deeply and directly involved that, it “has become difficult to distinguish the group from a dedicated drug cartel.” Whatever the long-term trends might be, for the foreseeable future opium remains deeply entangled with the rural economy, the Taliban insurgency, and government corruption whose sum is the Afghan conundrum.
With ample revenues from past bumper crops, the Taliban will undoubtedly be ready for the new fighting season that will come with the start of spring. As snow melts from the mountain slopes and poppy shoots spring from the soil, there will be, as in the past 40 years, a new crop of teenaged recruits ready to fight for the rebel forces.
Cutting the Afghan Gordian Knot
For most people globally, economic activity, the production and exchange of goods, is the prime point of contact with government, as is manifest in the coins and currency stamped by the state that everyone carries in their pockets. But when a country’s most significant commodity is illegal, then political loyalties naturally shift to the clandestine networks that move that product safely from fields to foreign markets, providing finance, loans and employment every step of the way.
After 15 years of continuous warfare in Afghanistan, Washington is faced with the same choice it had five years ago when Obama’s generals heli-lifted those Marines into Marja to start its surge. Just as it has been over the past decade and a half, the US can remain trapped in the same endless cycle, fighting each new crop of village warriors who annually seem to spring fully armed from that country’s poppy fields. At this point, history tells us one thing: in this land sown with dragon’s teeth, there will be a new crop of guerrillas this year, next year, and the year after that.
However, there are alternatives whose sum could potentially slice through this Gordian knot of a policy problem. As a first and fundamental step, maybe it’s time to stop talking about the next sets of boots on the ground and for President Obama to complete his planned troop withdrawal.
Next, investing even a small portion of all that misspent military funding in rural Afghanistan could produce economic alternatives for the millions of farmers who depend upon the opium crop for employment. Such money could help rebuild that land’s ruined orchards, ravaged flocks, wasted seed stocks and wrecked snowmelt irrigation systems. If the international community can continue to nudge the country’s dependence on illicit opium down from the current 13% of GDP through such sustained rural development, then perhaps Afghanistan will cease to be the planet’s leading narco-state and just maybe that annual cycle can at long last be broken.