Letter from Washington — From the April 2018 issue

Mobbed Up

How America boosts the Afghan opium trade

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The campaign, in fact, was already in process. The attacks had begun on the night of November 19, in Helmand province, Afghanistan’s most bountiful opium-growing region, deemed by Bunch the Taliban’s “economic engine.” The US commander in the country, General John Nicholson, gave his own briefing in the immediate aftermath, supplying a running commentary for successive videos of individual strikes. One video featured the demolition of a “Taliban narcotics production facility” in the town of Musa Qala.

“As you look at this strike,” Nicholson told the crowd of journalists, “you’re going to see that inside this compound are multiple structures, and we destroy only two of them while leaving the third standing, which we did to avoid collateral damage.” The images followed the familiar pattern of such PR displays. A peaceful vista of assorted structures, apparently unpopulated, is violently interrupted by a silent flash that gives way to a cloud of thick, black smoke.

By the time Bunch made his remarks, three weeks after the campaign began, twenty-five such “narcotics production facilities” had been attacked. He noted the impact in very precise terms: the drug kingpins had lost $80 million in merchandise, and the Taliban had consequently been deprived of $16 million in “direct revenue,” meaning taxes on that merchandise.

Such certainty is questionable. Mike Martin, who spent years in Afghanistan as a British Army officer and then as a political adviser to the British forces, commented derisively to me: “Not long ago, the United States had over a hundred thousand troops in the country, plus a huge concentration of CIA and other intelligence resources. At that point, they couldn’t understand what was going on: Mullah Omar had been dead for two years before they found out. Today, they have a footprint one fifteenth the size, so do they understand? They don’t have a clue.”

Nicholson had proudly touted the intelligence efforts preceding the air strikes, which had involved “hundreds of analysts,” as well as drones, satellites, and spy planes “soaking the area for hundreds of hours to then find, pinpoint, [and] assess the targets.” What was missing from all this, Martin told me, was “human intelligence, which gives you context.” Without such context, he said, the video and signals were meaningless “pinpricks.”

For that matter, neither Nicholson’s audience nor those hundreds of analysts poring over pictures of the target area for weeks before the strike could have known for sure who or what might have been inside those buildings that night. As it happened, one house in Musa Qala had contained the sleeping family of a local opium trader, Hajji Habibullah. All of them were killed, including Habibullah, his wife, and six children, one of them just a year old. There was no mention of this collateral damage in US media coverage of the attacks, which was by and large uncritical and unquestioning of official claims that the Taliban had suffered a severe financial setback.

In any case, the claims of severe economic damage were highly dubious. According to information collected by local researchers for David Mansfield, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics, considered by many to be among the world’s greatest experts on the Afghan opium economy, the results of the raid were considerably less impressive than advertised. Of the nine buildings hit in Musa Qala, for example, two were reportedly empty. Six were indeed used for cooking opium into heroin — but they, too, were probably empty at the time of the attack, since traders would be loath to leave valuable inventory in a lockup overnight. The following day, according to these on-the-ground reports, it was business as usual at the local drug bazaar. Prices for opium and heroin were unchanged, as were the wages demanded by workers in the “production facilities,” which consisted of little more than a few oil drums, a hot plate, and a connection to a water source. Children playing in the ruins found little trace of opium. Meanwhile, the unhappy fate of the Habibullah family was attracting wide publicity in the region, generating considerable outrage.1

1 A military spokesperson in Kabul said, “There have been no validated instances of civilian casualties related to our strikes against enemy financial targets.” He added that before air strikes, analysts are “able to tell if drugs labs are active or not.”

Mansfield has spent much of the past twenty years investigating the realities of the Afghan opium trade, traveling to the most remote and dangerous areas of the country. In a recent conversation, he pointed out that even if the destroyed labs had indeed been full of narcotics, the claims regarding the value of the merchandise were completely implausible, as was the argument that the Taliban would have collected $16 million in taxes. Such a claim presumed that the Taliban was an efficient, monolithic organization exacting unquestioning obedience from a compliant population. “The idea that the Taliban runs a tax system that the IRS would be proud of, in remote rural areas of a country that doesn’t have a centralized government and never has had a centralized government,” he told me, “just doesn’t make sense.”

In any case, Mansfield argued, intelligence assumptions about such fundamental issues as the opium tax rate have long been wildly off. If the Taliban had been due to collect $16 million from the traffickers’ $80 million, that would suggest a rate of 20 percent. But Mansfield’s own research indicates that the figure is much smaller and varies according to the bargaining skills on either side. Displaying a refreshing affection for hard data collected firsthand, he calculated that the true tax rate for a farmer’s opium crop is a maximum of 3 percent, while the heroin rate is 1.5 percent. Not that everyone pays the full whack. “Everything is negotiable in Afghanistan,” Mansfield said, especially since the farming communities are well armed and liable, if pushed too far, to eject the militia or strike a deal with a more accommodating Taliban commander.

Furthermore, Mansfield argued that the $80 million figure cited by Bunch was equally implausible. Even in the (unlikely) event that all the merchandise was high-value heroin, currently priced at $1,100 a kilo in the bazaars, the twenty-five demolished labs would have had to contain an average of three tons of product apiece, worth more than $3 million. As Mansfield saw it, the numbers simply didn’t add up, in this case or in others. In his commentary on another attack video, this time of a building being obliterated by 2,000-pound bombs from a B-52, Nicholson stated confidently that there had been no fewer than “fifty barrels of opium,” worth “millions of dollars,” destroyed. Yet if Mansfield’s pricing information is correct, those fifty barrels, as he reported in a paper for the LSE, “would have been worth at most $190,750, if converted to heroin, and no more than $2,863 to the Taliban in tax.” Overall, he concluded, “The idea that the Taliban are reliant on opium for the war makes no sense whatsoever.”

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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