by Peter Dale Scott
The United States will have to choose between two conflicting policies in Central Asia:
pursuing terrorists, or accommodating to a drug-driven status quo.
It's a bitter irony: The largely successful U.S. campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan is resulting in an increase of funds for terrorists around the globe.
It is true, as President Bush has insisted, that global terrorism is financed by the flow of illicit drugs. Yet by installing and rewarding a coalition of drug-financed warlords in Kabul, the United States has itself helped restore the flow of Afghan heroin to terrorist groups, from the Balkans and Chechnya to Tajikistan, Pakistan and Kashmir.
Thanks to the U.S. intervention, Afghanistan will again supply up to 70 percent of the world's heroin this year, 90 percent of the heroin reaching Europe and even a part of the heroin reaching the United States.
The Taliban successfully reduced opium production by over 90 percent, even if only to maintain prices by restricting supply. As soon as they were driven out, farmers -- often at the instigation of local warlords -- began replanting their fields with opium. It is estimated that the 2002 crop will be about 85 percent of the record-breaking 4,500 metric tons harvested in 1999.
The new Hamid Karzai regime introduced a token ban on production in January. But lacking effective means of enforcing its decrees, the central government has enforced the ban only selectively. It has also been forced to accept the influence of local drug-tainted warlords, such as Hazrat Ali in Nangarhar, and Gul Agha Sherzai, appointed governor of Kandahar province.
The London Observer reported recently that, in order to stave off rebellion against the weak central government, both Hazrat Ali and Gul Agha, along with other warlords, "have been 'bought off' with millions of dollars in deals brokered by U.S. and British intelligence."
The United States, while endorsing a drug-financed status quo, is not happy about making such payments. On the contrary, some U.S. officers suspect that Hazrat Ali, whose troops took part in the attack last winter against al Qaeda in the Tora Bora caves, secretly warned Osama bin Laden of U.S. plans to capture him, and perhaps even allowed troops to escort al Qaeda fighters into Pakistan.
U.S. actions probably reflect its complex relations with Pakistan, which regards both Gul Agha and Hazrat Ali as allies. For 20 years, the complex of heroin-terror networks in Central Asia has been fostered by Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI.
Since backing drug-trafficking mujahideen against the Soviet Union, the ISI has had a vision of using the drug traffic to project its influence beyond Afghanistan into Central Asia. Afghan opium and heroin from the mujahideen during the 1980s corrupted not just the ISI itself, but the whole of Pakistani society. Pakistan's opium-heroin economy reached at least half the size of its official one, and in terms of exports may have surpassed it.
Since seizing power in 1999, General Musharraf has cracked down on Pakistani terrorist groups, many of them formerly supported by the ISI, and on the ISI itself. But he has had to proceed carefully, since the goals of expanding Pakistani influence in Afghanistan and Kashmir are supported by many in his government. Above all, he needs to ensure that Afghan warlords traditionally friendly to Pakistan, such as Gul Agha and Hazrat Ali, will maintain their influence in the new government, which is largely dominated by the pro-Russian Tajik Northern Alliance.
This may explain why last November Gul Agha's associate, Ayub Afridi -- a major Pakistani drug trafficker who served a short jail sentence in the United States -- was suddenly released from a Pakistani jail. He then moved back to Afghanistan, allegedly to work with his old allies against the Taliban.
Sources in Washington have suggested that behind the Bush decision to tolerate the return of the Afghan drug traffic was the fear that eliminating it might destabilize the Musharraf government and further encourage ISI-linked extremists to overthrow him.
A simpler explanation is U.S. reluctance to take on further responsibility for restoring the Afghan economy, and instead let drugs do the job. A still more cynical possibility is that the Bush administration wants in the short run to limit the embarrassing stories of chaos and rebellion in Afghanistan, which could hurt the Republicans in the November elections.
Whatever the reason, the revival of the Afghan opium economy is good news for the Islamist terrorists from Kosovo to Kashmir, who have depended on it since the connection was established with ISI encouragement in the 1980s.
This is particularly true of the Islamist revolutionaries in Uzbekistan. These have for some time been allied with the ISI, even while in 1999 they shifted their alliance from the Northern Alliance to the Taliban.
Ultimately, the United States will have to choose between its two conflicting policies in Central Asia: pursuing terrorists, or accommodating to a drug-driven status quo.
Peter Dale Scott is a former Canadian diplomat, and co-author of Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America (University of California Press, 1992), with Jonathan Marshall. His Web page on 9/11 and Afghanistan can be found at: http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~pdscott/q.html