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Sep. 4 2009 - 9:39 am | 2 views | 0 recommendations | 9 comments

Afghanistan: One Year, Eight Times?

Smoke rises from the site of a suicide attack near NATO headquarters in Kabul in August 2009 (Keith Bedford/Getty)

Smoke rises from the site of a suicide attack near NATO headquarters in Kabul in August 2009 (Keith Bedford/Getty)

There is a – perhaps apocryphal  – anecdote I remember hearing about why the US lost the Vietnam War.

A number of years into the Vietnam War, probably 1971, a US Army general was asked why more progress hadn’t been made in defeating the North Vietnamese. After all, his questioner said, “We’ve been here seven years.”

“We haven’t been here seven years,” the general is said to have shot back.  “We’ve been here one year, seven times.”

In terms of US and European intervention in Afghanistan — diplomatic postings, military tours, and the ebbs and flows of interest by the international press — is it possible that we’ve only been in Afghanistan one year, eight times?

As the Obama administration considers its new steps forward in Afghanistan, here are some facets of the Afghanistan question that I don’t think have received the media attention they deserve.

Pakistan is Playing the US in Afghanistan To Stick It To India.

Everyone knows that the Taliban would not survive if not for their support coming from within certain segments of the Pakistani government, particularly Pakistan’s military intelligence services, the ISI.  (In fact, were it not for Pakistan, many, many more Afghans would be speaking Russian right now.)

Of course, Pakistan and India are (tediously) bitter enemies, owing to their claims to the disputed border region of Kashmir.

Both nations want it. Both stake their national identities on the concept of “resistance” to the other over Kashmir.  Both are nuclear powers.

Pakistan sees Afghanistan as an Indian client state. And they’re not wrong.  Since 2001, India has provided $1.2 billion in assistance to Afghanistan – making it the largest regional donor.

A destabilized Afghanistan makes Pakistan happy insofar as it prevents India from gaining a bigger regional foothold than it already has – especially by blocking new pipeline routes through Afghanistan to Central Asia (via Iran) that energy-starved India would profit from.

So, that IED you just read about killing US or British troops in Helmand? It doesn’t matter what the bomber thought when he was setting it. An IED’s political DNA could very well trace it back to Kashmir.

With compliments to Garry Trudeau.

With compliments to Garry Trudeau.

“Taliban” Fighters Will Defect at the Drop of a Hat. Now if only the US Would Find a Hat To Drop

As Foreign Affairs magazine points out, the history of warfare in Afghanistan is a history of mass defections.

Afghan fighters side with the winners. When the going gets tough, the Afghan fighter… leaves. He joins the other side.

As Foreign Affairs points out:

Afghan fighters are not cogs in a military machine but guardians of specific interests – the interests of the fighters pledged to them and of the tribal, religious, or political groups from which these men are recruited. Few factors have motivated Afghan commanders over the years more than the desire to end up on the winning side….

Their rationale was obvious: in a war that drags on, changing camps means living and holding on to power, as well as saving one’s family and one’s village. Thus in Afghanistan, battles have often been decided less by fighting than by defections.

The article goes on to list several examples of history being decided not by valor in the face of overwhelming odds, but by quitting.

The story of senior Taliban commander Abdul Wahid — and his patriotic rationale for having done so — is a case in point.

In December 2004, Wahid defected from the Taliban. Three years earlier, Mullah Omar asked Wahid to surrender Kandahar to coalition forces, which he did. Apparently after finding the on-going war a little difficult for his tastes, Wahid decided that the 2001 demand was his loophole:  by surrendering Kandahar, Mullah Omar no longer qualified as “Commander of the Faithful.” So Wahid would therefore follow the new leader – who clearly had the ability to lead Afghanistan through these troubled times. President Hamid Karzai was his man now, allowing Wahid to walk away, all the while reaffirming his commitment to the nation.

Critically, Foreign Affairs calls on the US and its allies provide improved security to ordinary villagers — probably bombing them a little less — hand in hand with an information campaign to portray those who align with coalition forces as “patriotic Taliban truly devoted to the causes of Islam and an independent Afghanistan.”  Once there’s a “good” Taliban – which makes villagers’ lives better — a tipping point would be reached whereby “bad” Taliban would see their anti-coalition position as a detriment to their pursuit of patriotism  – and would simply walk away.

The “Taliban” Are Narco-Traffickers First, Jihadists Later

Gretchen Peters’ book “Seeds of Terror,  How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al-Qaeda” reveals in frightening detail the extent to which the Taliban has survived – and thrived — courtesy of the heroin trade, and how little has been done the by the US and its allies to counteract it.

Peters (a former colleague of mine in the Cambodia press-corps) explains how outside the top tier of Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, very few of the so-called “Taliban” are ideologues bent on a campaign of global jihad.  “Taliban” has now become a term encompassing “a gang-land style grouping of tribal leaders, businessmen, regional warlords, and thugs”  all of which work in the global heroin trade.

In a broad stroke, impoverished farmers grow poppies to survive; it’s bought by smugglers, who pay the various elements of the “Taliban” taxes to transport the drugs across their chunks of territories, a process that is repeated an ever changing amount of times, (including a stop where raw opium is processed into heroin), until the drugs reach the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where the highest taxes are paid, this time, profiting the upper reaches of the Taliban linked with al-Qaeda.

There are no direct links between drug traffickers and Mullah Omar, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Osama bin Laden. But there doesn’t have to be.

It’s a myth, Peters reports, that  Mullah Omar’s Taliban were ever opposed to  the heroin trade as “unIslamic.” Rather, it’s the use of narcotics that is unIslamic, Mullah Omar and company have said — but there is no edict against its cultivation.

What’s more, the Bush administration policy of spraying poppy fields actually plays into the hands of terrorists, by driving the price of heroin up.

In fact, during their rule of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, the Taliban stockpiled heroin specifically in order to drive the prices up.  Then as now, vast heroin stores function as the Taliban’s “federal reserve.”

Peters has met with US Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, who press reports suggest is serious about redefining how the US counters the Afghanistan drug trade – and the millions it makes for the Taliban.

As Peters point out, the 9/11 Commission estimates the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington only cost $500,000 to carry out –  about what terrorist groups can earn dealing heroin in the space of a week.


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  1. collapse expand

    Ms. Nunan,

    I think you are quite correct, the “Taliban” seems be a blanket term for anyone fighting NATO forces. It is not at all clear if “al-Qaeda” is playing any part in the on-going day to day fighting, perhaps they play a role in suicide bombing. The vast majority, if not all, of the fighters with rifles and RPGs are Pushtun speakers from Afghanistan or Pakistan (maybe even Iran) who are less interested in re-establishing the Caliphate than defending tribal prerogatives, keeping the local feudal lord in power, and making some bucks off of the opium business.

    However, there is one vital element I think you have overlooked, the killing of civilians by NATO forces. This creates a enormous tactical and strategic problems. While it is true that one might expect an fighter to defect when things go wrong militarily, all other things being equal, the death of blood relations by violence means all other things are not equal. This guarantees that the local civilian population will be hostile to NATO forces and certainly play no role helping those forces combat local fighters. Conversely, the local civilians will assist local fighters (recognizing the fluid distinction between “civilian” and “fighter” in the local setting). Further, this reservoir of ill feelings and ruptured honor makes any sort of “deal” with various anti-NATO forces much more difficult.

  2. collapse expand

    Nice call on “one year eight times”. Easy to forget the difference, and it is telling in long engagements with rapid turnover, and mission drift from goals to process.

  3. collapse expand

    Ms. Nunan,

    Just as a technical note, you really need to explain the significance of the title and your lead. Steveintransit correctly notes what your apocryphal general probably meant but I am not sure that that is what you meant, or if that is what you meant, what it has to do with your piece. You point seems to be about lose of a clear military / political objective for the war in Afghanistan, which is a completely different point from having troops and officers constantly rotating in and out of the battle zone.

    • collapse expand

      Hi Davidla – thanks for both your notes.

      You’re right, what “Foreign Affairs” is suggesting is a pretty big ask. It would probably require many more ground forces than the US and allies have right now to make villagers feel secure. We’ll have to see what President Obama and Congress put together in the next few weeks – though I’m skeptical that there will be a surge in the numbers required.

      I made perpipheral reference to the bombings of civilians with the link to the NYT story today. Alas, I didn’t go into it because I feared this blog entry was getting too long.

      My friend and colleague Phil Zabriskie, also on TrueSlant, comments on this issue quite a bit.

      On the second point, the “one year, eight times” is relevant to my points about Afghanistan given that there the dimensions to the on-going war that I’ve discussed are only receiving scant attention – in part because of the rotations of personnel and ebbs and flows of interest. I thought the Vietnam/ Afghanistan comparison was pretty obvious — but I guess not.

      Thanks again for your comments.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    You make an interesting point about “collective” lack of wisdom. I think in this case, it is valuable to point out that the collective here is NATO. After demands from the American left to “internationalize” the conflict we have seen what generally comes from that, which is very little. At this point, following President Obama’s world tour, we have no doubt discovered that Europe’s lack of meaningful participation had little to do with disliking George W Bush and a lot to do with a general unwillingness to meet their NATO commitments. Obama will find it easier to make effective decisions in Afghanistan once he gets clear what resources he has at his disposal. And those resources are 90% American with no change in sight.

  5. collapse expand

    Interesting, except that heroin prices have not been going up at all. Farm gate prices for opium in Afghanistan have fallen from $150/kg in 2004 to $70/kg in 2008, and recent reports have them falling further to a current $48/kg. European heroin prices (the main destination for Afghan heroin outside of the region) have also been falling.

    The “Taliban” – the definition of which gets fuzzier the longer we’re there – certainly make money in the opium trade. But they would make money on whatever trade is occurring. Try performing a financial transaction in the US without it being taxed by someone.

    Everyone who can takes a cut of the drug trade, but that doesn’t make the Taliban traffickers first and foremost. Just a few weeks ago Holbrooke said that the majority of Taliban funding was not drug related.

    The Afghan narco war meme is already very tiring (because it’s so badly constructed) and it’s barely off the ground.

    • collapse expand

      Alexi – it’s hard for me to respond to your comment, because I don’t know how you’ve sourced your information.

      The Peters book is thoroughly well-researched and footnoted, citing court documents, DEA reports, CIA reports, State Department reports, UN reports, press reports and hundreds of her own interviews across the spectrum – from poppy farmers to senior Afghan, Pakistani, US, British officials – and yes, some of the Taliban financial support structure, etc – including information on the extent to which heroin money might have fueled the stunning growth in the Karachi Stock Exchange. You’re right, heroin prices fluctuate from year to year, and quality varies (is your kilo morphine or crystal base?) and Peters has charts to track Afghanistan’s output.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I used the UN World Drug Report for 2009, which shows rather steep declines over the last half decade. Heroin prices fluctuate and are not always directly linked to opium prices because the largest mark up comes after it has left the region. Transport into developed markets is far more difficult than farming/harvesting/processing. And that’s where the real money is made; moreover, that segment of the trade is almost certainly not controlled by the “Taliban”.

        Furthermore, eradication programs are likely to have little effect on a short season crop like opium. Farmers can simply plant again (though this would replace a second crop like maize).

        The article does not say where heroin prices have risen, and that’s important. US heroin prices are not closely linked to the Afghan trade since much of the US heroin supply comes from Mexico.

        I haven’t read Peters’ book (but i will); however, the absolute least trustworthy source for drug information is the US government…particularly the CIA which has its own long history of active involvement.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I'm a freelance journalist and writer who has recently returned to the US after 17 years living overseas, primarily in Southeast Asia.

    In 1992, I went to Cambodia – then at the height of the UNTAC peacekeeping mission - to cut my teeth on journalism.

    ….I was in Hong Kong, for the 1997 Handover to Chinese rule; and then it was off to

    …..Indonesia - for the fall of President Suharto in 1998, through the the reformasi movement; the East Timor conflict, its independence ballot and peacekeeping mission; the fallout from September 11th in “the world’s most populous Muslim nation” and the Bali bomb, and myriad points in-between during a five and a half year span;

    …. and onwards to India, where I was Voice of America radio/television correspondent for South Asia between 2003 and 2006, which included rotations in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with my “patch” of India, including Kashmir; Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

    I’ve freelanced my way in and out of Bosnia, Burma, Egypt, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand. I’ve also filed out of Vietnam and Malaysia.

    My name is Mary Patricia Nunan, and I vastly prefer “MP.” If you’ve heard me on the radio or seen me on tv – NPR, VOA, CBC, BBC or others -- it would have been as “Patricia Nunan.” I’ve never had much use for the “Mary.”

    See my profile »
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    Contributor Since: August 2009
    Location:New York City