Letter from Washington — From the April 2018 issue

Mobbed Up

How America boosts the Afghan opium trade

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Rational or not, it is a proposition that has long appealed to Western politicians looking for excuses to occupy Afghanistan. Explaining his logic for joining the American invasion after 9/11, British prime minister Tony Blair assured Parliament that “the Al Qaeda network and the Taliban regime are funded in large part on the drugs trade.” In fact, the Taliban government had effectively banned poppy growing the year before, and Al Qaeda was largely Saudi-funded. When the burgeoning crops that soon followed the regime’s overthrow began attracting international attention, Blair successfully solicited the lead role for Britain in combating this supposed source of Taliban revenue. In Washington, too, bureaucrats at the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs division (known in Washington as Drugs and Thugs) were quick to promote the notion of the Taliban as a drug-fueled enterprise, as did the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The State Department had already developed a taste for such operations. On the other side of the world, the United States was sponsoring Plan Colombia, premised on a similar theory that the FARC insurgency was dependent on the cocaine business. The government used that as a rationale for spraying toxic herbicide across crops and people in coca-growing regions. William Wood, who as US ambassador to Colombia forcefully pushed the narco-terrorism narrative, moved to head the Kabul embassy in 2007, bringing equal zeal for this approach to his new posting.

For its part, the US military was initially reluctant to treat the conflict in Afghanistan as a drug war, as was the CIA. “Attacking the drug trade,” Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, told Congress in 2006, “actually feeds the instability that you want to overcome.” (At the time, in fact, the CIA was paying a healthy retainer to Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s half brother and a major player in the local narcotics business.)

For those American officials who considered fighting narcotics as key to combating the Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan, Gul Agha Sherzai, who had been appointed the governor of Nangarhar province in 2005, was a welcome and indeed exciting ally. “Their attitude was, ‘He’s a real tough guy, and he’s our friend,’ ” recalls Matthew Hoh, a senior civilian adviser in the province during those years who later quit the State Department in protest at the futility of the war. “They were thrilled to know him. He was ‘our Tony Soprano.’ ” Burly, famed for his record as an anti-Soviet guerrilla commander in the Eighties, Sherzai earned the nickname Bulldozer for his ability to deliver, especially on projects cherished by the Americans.

Most importantly, as US officials increasingly fixated on opium as the source of Taliban revenues, he was hailed for ridding his own province of the crop. In 2008, the UN declared Nangarhar “poppy free” — an achievement that earned Sherzai $10 million from a Good Performers Initiative fund set up by the United States and Britain to encourage communities fighting narcotics. Ambassador Wood, known as Chemical Bill for his eagerness to import toxic spraying to the poppy fields, nominated Nangarhar as a “model province.” American aid soon swelled to a torrent. Even presidential candidate Barack Obama dropped by in July 2008 and was so charmed that he invited Sherzai to his inauguration.

The reality was a little different. In his previous role as the governor of his native Kandahar, Sherzai had earned a well-deserved reputation for corruption and cruelty, as well as garnering a healthy income from his extensive involvement in the local opium business. Sarah Chayes, who arrived in Kandahar in 2001 as a journalist, later founded an NGO to help Afghans find an alternative to opium farming, and ultimately served as a senior adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, well understood the reality behind America’s favorite Afghan governor. “He was deeply involved in poppy in Kandahar,” she recalled recently, and when appointed governor of Nangarhar, “what he did was move into processing.” So while Sherzai was basking in plaudits for stamping out opium growing (and impoverishing farmers in the process), he was manufacturing heroin. “Those rewarding him should have known,” Chayes told me. “This was not just the Afghan rumor mill.” Her sources, she said, were at NATO headquarters in Kabul, meaning intelligence. “It was utterly typical of the double games we put up with and rewarded and thus became guilty of ourselves.” 2

2 Queried for his reaction, Sherzai, who currently serves as Afghanistan’s minister of border and tribal affairs, responded with copies of glowing testimonials from American officials going back to his Nangarhar days. Speaking through a representative, he further insisted that he had “fought against opium cultivation” in the Nineties and that he had “kept doing that his whole life,” even during his tenure as governor of Kandahar.

There is a truism about Afghanistan that gets updated every year. Currently it runs: America has not been in Afghanistan for sixteen years; it has been in Afghanistan for one year, sixteen times. The complete lack of institutional memory may help to explain why the fervor of the anti-opium crusade keeps waxing and waning with policy shifts in Washington. The military, for example, had at first declined to play a major role — but then got on board after counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) had supposedly helped to best Al Qaeda in Iraq. Applying COIN thinking to Afghanistan, they concluded that Afghan farmers should be weaned from growing opium, thereby lessening Taliban influence. To that end, the military eradicated crops whenever possible and induced farmers to grow something legal and supposedly profitable, such as wheat (though this is normally a subsistence crop in the country). However, Richard Holbrooke, appointed by President Obama to oversee Afghan policy, soon surmised that eradicating crops on which farmers depended for a living was a poor way to win support, and got that stopped, at least for a while. He also questioned the assumption that the Taliban depended on narcotics for funding, brandishing CIA reports that traced much of the group’s money back to our allies in the Gulf oil kingdoms.

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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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April 2019

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