Most Americans think of the Taliban and al Qaeda as a bunch of bearded fanatics fighting an Islamic crusade from caves in Afghanistan. But that doesn't explain their astonishing comeback along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Why is it eight years after we invaded Afghanistan, the CIA says that these groups are better armed and better funded than ever?
Seeds of Terror will reshape the way you think about America's enemies, revealing them less as ideologues and more as criminals who earn half a billion dollars every year off the opium trade. With the breakneck pace of a thriller, author Gretchen Peters traces their illicit activities from vast poppy fields in southern Afghanistan to heroin labs run by Taliban commanders, from drug convoys armed with Stinger missiles to the money launderers of Karachi and Dubai.
This isn't a fanciful conspiracy theory. Seeds of Terror is based on hundreds of interviews with Taliban fighters, smugglers, and law enforcement and intelligence agents. Their information is matched by intelligence reports shown to the author by frustrated U.S. officials who fear the next 9/11 will be far deadlier than the first--and paid for with drug profits.
Seeds of Terror makes the case that we must cut terrorists off from their drug earnings if we ever hope to beat them. This war isn't about ideology or religion. It's about creating a new economy for Afghanistan--and breaking the cycle of violence and extremism that has gripped the region for decades.
Journalist Peters draws on 10 years of reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan for this important examination of the nexus of [drug] smugglers and extremists in the global war against terrorists. Citing firsthand testimony, classified intelligence reports and specialized studies, Peters builds a solid case for her contention that the union of narco-traffickers, terrorist groups, and the international criminal underworld is the new axis of evil. Ground zero is Afghanistan, where the rejuvenated Taliban depend on opium for 70% of its funds and there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence of Osama bin Laden's involvement in the drug trade. Peters argues that the failure to halt this money flow to terrorist networks is the single greatest failure in the war on terror, and warns that stanching the flood of drug money into terrorist coffers is essential. The author offers a less-than-convincing strategy to sever the link, including military strikes against drug lords, alternative-livelihood programs for small farmers, regional diplomatic initiatives and a public relations campaign. Prescriptions aside, Peters has exhaustively framed one of the thorniest problems facing policy makers in this long war. (May)
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Thomas Dunne Books
May 11, 2009
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Excerpt from Seeds of Terror by Gretchen Peters
The New Axis of Evil
Our battle group was a ragtag crew of scruffy Afgan and stony- faced American mercenaries. Our target was opium fields profiting the Taliban.
As the first light of day cast a pink glow across the desert, the Afghans rewound their turbans to cover noses and mouths, clicked ammunition clips into Kalashnikovs, and piled onto tractors and Bedford trucks. Wearing flak jackets, baseball caps, and dark sunglasses, the men from DynCorp silently checked their M4 rifles, and peered out across the bleak horizon.
I scribbled into my notebook as my colleague Nasir filmed the scene. John, my husband, was busy taking photos. Journalists rarely had access to ERAD, the poppy eradication force, especially in remote, lawless Helmand. Armed to the teeth and already covered in dust, our convoy looked like something out of Mad Max. We wanted to capture it all.
That morning before dawn, an advance team patrolling the roads had come upon a group of insurgents planting an IED in our path. Once the Afghan police colonel and the DynCorp team leader identified where the would- be bombers came from, they decided to pay their village a visit. As punishment, the ERAD team would destroy their opium crops.
Around the cloud of dust that rose as we bumped along the Zamindavar Plains, poppy fields stretched as far as the eye could see: intense fuchsia blossoms floating in brilliant seas of green. Simple mud huts hugged the banks of irrigation canals. Veiled women hoisted buckets of water out of wells. Turbaned farmers tended their crops, staining their fingers black with the opium gum as they scraped it off the buds. The scenery actually looked lovely, not that I was able to sit back and enjoy it. We were deep in Taliban country and would be lucky to make it through the day without an attack.
Inside our four- by- four, we rode in nervous silence. My mind replayed the array of nightmares that might befall us: ambush, IED, suicide bomb. Villagers along the road watched stonily as our convoy lumbered past. Each time a man approached on a motorcycle, or we slowed down to cross over a stream, my teeth clenched and my heart rose in my chest. It took about an hour to reach the target village. It felt like forever.
The Afghan police and the DynCorp soldiers quickly fanned out in a perimeter around the lush fields, their weapons ready. Tractors went to work churning up the poppy buds. Overhead, a Huey2 helicopter buzzed the pastures, patrolling for ambushes. We were hundreds of miles from any place that could justifiably be called civilization, with about a hundred boots on the ground and one bird in the sky to protect against a ferocious, battle- hardened enemy.
In the end, the only confrontation came when a skinny farmer, tears streaming down his face, emerged from his mud hut with two filthy children to hurl insults at the eradicators. "Why don't you just shoot us now?" he shouted. "If you cut down my fields, we'll all die anyway."
Next to him on her knees was his wife, toothless, in dust- covered robes. She reached her arms toward the sky and wailed loudly, beseeching Allah to inflict his wrath upon us. In this neighborhood, we all knew, her prayers had a decent chance of being answered.
That trip to Helmand, in April 2006, put a face to the fragmentary information I had been hearing for more than two years. I had already interviewed truck drivers, farmers, police, and several governors from the southern provinces. The insurgents, they said, had teamed up with criminals. Kandahar's top counternarcotics cop, Ahmadullah Alizai, put it this way: "The smugglers forged a direct link to the Taliban and al Qaeda. They get the terrorists to move their drugs."1
U.S. authorities started seeing the trend, too. In late 2003, Amer-ican sailors boarded two rickety- looking dhows in the Persian Gulf. On board, they found a couple of wanted al Qaeda terrorists sitting on bales of heroin worth $3 million.2 A few months later, U.S. counternarcotics agents raided a drug smugglers' lair in Kabul, confiscating a satellite telephone. When CIA agents ran numbers stored in its memory, they discovered the telephone had been used repeatedly to call suspected terrorist cells in western Europe, Turkey, and the Balkans.3
Suddenly, links between terror groups and narco- traffickers began popping up all over Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was the start of things to come. The Taliban insurgency launched a comeback in the spring of 2003, just as opium cultivation exploded across southern Afghanistan.4 U.S. troops searching a terrorist hideout in Uruzgan Province found a drug stash worth millions of dollars.5 U.S. spy satellites tracked cargo ships leaving Pakistani shores laden with Afghan heroin, and returning with weapons and ammunition for the insurgency.6 DEA agents brought smugglers with ties to Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden to the United States to face justice.
If the accumulating incidents were troubling, it wasn't until I saw the vast scope of Helmand's poppy crop that I felt real alarm. Sloshing about the muddy fields, I realized these lovely flowers could one day fund what ever deadly ambitions terrorist groups based in this region had. "Drugs are going to change everything," I thought.
In 2006, Afghanistan produced the largest illegal narcotics crop a modern nation ever cultivated in a single harvest. Two- thirds of it was grown in areas where the Taliban held sway, if not outright control.7 It's no coincidence that it was also the bloodiest fighting season since Mullah Omar's regime was toppled five years earlier, with about four thousand deaths. These two circumstances are codependent: the insurgency is exploding precisely because the opium trade is booming. In 2007, Afghanistan's poppy crop expanded a further 17 percent, with 70 percent grown and processed in the Taliban- dominated south. In 2008, drought reduced Afghanistan's poppy output by 19 percent. But more than 98 percent of it was cultivated in insurgent- held areas, where more than three thousand tons of opium were stockpiled, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Senior U.S. commanders now predict Afghanistan will turn out to be America's "bad" war and Iraq the "good" one.8 An American soldier was more than twice as likely to die in Afghanistan as in Iraq by the end of 2007, reversing earlier trends, while Jane's Information Group rated Afghanistan the third most unstable territory after Somalia and the Gaza Strip.9
In video statements, the insurgents no longer speak of their ambition to take Kabul; their battlefield tactics have shifted to protecting poppy fields and drug convoys. Campaigns for territorial gain, such as a 2007 Taliban push into Deh Rawood district in Uruzgan, now support smuggling activities.10 Deh Rawood is perched along the most important drugs- and arms- trafficking route in Uruzgan, connecting to Iran in the west and Pakistan in the south. Poor security in general is vital to the opium trade, preventing aid programs and other development that might offer poor villagers alternatives to the narcotics trade. "Drug smugglers do not want to see this country become stable," said Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister.11
Helmand Province, where I traveled with the poppy eradication force, is about the size of West Virginia. If it were a separate country, it would be the world's leading opium producer, with the rest of Afghanistan in second place. It's also where links between the Taliban and the opium trade are strongest. "Most of the insurgency there is drug- related," says Ali Jalali, Afghanistan's former interior minister. "It's 100 percent intertwined."12 The province's total population is less than 1 million-- with tens of thousands of families displaced by the fighting. Taliban gunmen patrol the streets of towns they control, hanging alleged spies for the NATO coalition in public squares.13
In 2007, UNODC valued Helmand's total poppy output at $528 million, a figure that prompted the conclusion among U.S. and UN officials that Helmand is a wealthy place.14 Poppy fetches as much as twelve times more than other staple crops, like wheat and melons. "Helmand's farmers are not poor," a senior UNODC official told me in 2006. "Actually there are a lot of rich ones among them."15 It is true traffickers and a handful of large landowners earn tens of millions off Helmand's poppy crop, and we need to go after those individuals. However, the vast majority of farmers and sharecroppers are barely eking out a living. House hold data collected by the Afghan government, and analyzed by two leading scholars on the Afghan drug trade, calculate a per capita daily income of $1, hardly reflecting Helmand as a land of plenty.16 "We grow poppy, but the drug smugglers take it from us," said Haji Ramtullah, a farmer in Maarja district. "We sell it cheaply. Then they take it over the border into Pakistan. They make twice as much as we do."17
Another argument one hears from U.S. officials is that the poppy farmers have alternatives but do not take them. Helmand receives more U.S. aid than any other Afghan province, they often add. That's true; however, much of the money has been spent on large infrastructural projects that won't show concrete change for ordinary Afghans for years. Meanwhile, cash- for- work and alternative livelihood programs funded by USAID have been costly failures. One $18 million, U.S.- funded program shut down in 2005 after gunmen killed eleven of the local staff and guards.18
Everywhere you look, there are horrific reports filtering out about daily life in this violent and lawless province. Farmers there often say they must grow opium to survive, and they are not exaggerating. The Taliban threaten dire consequences for anyone who fails to meet opium quotas set by the traffickers. With too few foreign troops to launch a proper counterinsurgency campaign, NATO commanders are forced to rely on aerial bombardments, killing hundreds of civilians and hardening the Afghan villagers against the West. The provincial government and police are notoriously corrupt-- with most profiting from the opium trade as well. "We are caught here between the Taliban and government," said Dastoor Khan, a Helmand farmer, expressing a commonly heard sentiment.19
Yet instead of intensifying efforts to go after the traffickers and money launderers behind the insurgency, the U.S. government has pushed for broadscale aerial spraying of poppy fields. Wide-scale spraying would play into the hands of traffickers and terrorists. If implemented, this policy would drive up opium prices, thus increasing profits for drug dealers and the Taliban, and make life even harder for already debt- ridden Afghan farmers-- exactly the results the U.S. government and NATO don't want.
It's easy to see how we got into this mess. Finding a way out presents a greater challenge. One can blame the current predicament on a combination of geography, poverty, and the "light footprint" approach. Landlocked Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most backward countries in the world, with social indicators on par with places like Burundi and Ethiopia. Almost one in four Afghan children die before they reach age five and average life expectancy is just forty- three years. Per capita GDP was estimated by the World Bank in 2003 to be a mere $310.
The nation's infrastructure is pitiable, with one phone line for every five hundred people, few paved roads, not a single functioning sewage system, and a capital city that grinds along on just a few hours of city power per day. The economy is in shambles, inflation is skyrocketing, and along the rugged Pakistan frontier, many tribes have survived for centuries by smuggling goods through the forbidding mountain passes. Financial hardships weigh on ordinary Afghans as much as security concerns. In a 2006 survey by the Asia Foundation, Afghans named poverty and unemployment as more critical concerns than the Taliban.20
After 9/11, the international community paid lip ser vice to the strategic importance of a stable Afghanistan, but never committed the resources to actually create one. Despite troop increases to the NATO- led mission, Afghanistan has the lowest troop- to- population ratio and one of the lowest international aid- to- population ratios of any major conflict zone in the past ten years.21 The mandate for peacekeepers with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) did not go beyond Kabul for its first two years of existence, and there were fewer than ten thousand U.S. troops deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom-- which covered the rest of the country-- through 2002. As former national security advisor Richard Clarke put it, "There were more cops in New York City than soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan."22 It was the perfect soil for an insurgency and a criminal economy to take root and flourish.
As poppy output mushroomed, donor nations started bickering over how to deal with it. The Pentagon, with the largest number of people and greatest amount of resources to throw at the problem, refused to take command, saying it blurred the central mission of hunting down terrorists. Top U.S. commanders, including former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, often quipped: "We don't do drugs."23
But many recognized what was coming. "Nobody in the military who's been out here questions that drugs are the problem," says a U.S. official who used to be based in Kabul. "They just don't want to deal with it." Before long, the problem became impossible to ignore. "The commanders all know how bad it is," continues the official. "I have been to landing zones where there's poppy growing right up to their freaking wire."24 The Pentagon's reluctance to take on the problem backfired badly for the Bush administration, which had to deploy more American soldiers rather than bring them home. Although public attention in the United States has been more focused on troop numbers in Iraq, there are now more American troops dedicated to Operation Enduring Freedom than ever. And it's still not enough.
The NATO- led force in Afghanistan now numbers more than 50,000 soldiers, but only some 10,000 are for combat, owing to large administration and logistical support ratios. Estimates of how many insurgents are fighting range from 5,000 to 20,000, with the total swelling or contracting depending on the season. Even with 3,200 U.S. Marines deployed to Helmand in 2008, NATO was only ableto slow the insurgency's expansion.25
The international aid community has also shortchanged Afghanistan. Since 2001, the international community pledged $25 billion in aid but delivered only $15 billion, according to the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an alliance of ninety- four international aid agencies. An astounding 40 percent of that sum--$6 billion-- goes back to donor nations in the form of corporate profits and the exorbitant salaries paid to foreign aid workers.26 Meanwhile opium income in 2003-- estimated at $4.8 billion-- was more than 70 percent greater than the $2.8 billion dispersed in foreign aid.27 "The poppy economy has filled the vacuum we created by not engaging in nation building," says Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst. "The danger that we reach a point where drug armies are controlling large areas of territory is real now."28
It's hardly unusual, however. In hot spots around the globe, terrorist and other anti- state groups have forged symbiotic relationships with dope runners and the criminal underworld. Of the State Department's forty- two designated terrorist groups, eighteen have ties to drug trafficking, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. And thirteen of the smuggling organizations the DEA believes are primarily responsible for the United States' illegal drug supply have links to terrorist groups.29 "In the new era of globalization, both terror and crime organizations have expanded and diversified their activities," said Michael A. Braun, the DEA's chief of operations in 2005. "As a result, the traditional boundaries between terrorist groups and other criminal groups have begun to blur."30
They flourish around the globe in places where good governance does not. The players may change by region, but the script remains largely the same. Whether it's the Irish Republican Army moving ecstasy into Northern Ireland, Maoist insurgent groups in Nepal running hash into East Asia, or Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers moving Burmese heroin to the West, anti- state groups the world over are increasingly engaging in criminal enterprise, from drug smuggling to kidnap for ransom, credit card fraud, and extortion. Some, like Turkey's Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, get their start by taxing traffickers who pass through their control zones. Their role deepens over time. French law enforcement estimates the PKK now smuggles 80 percent of the heroin sold in Paris.
For other groups, drugs provide an opportunity to break free from state sponsors whose support may be dwindling or politically conditional. Hezbollah, for example, got into drug production in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley to fill the void when funding from Iran declined.31 Terror groups have every incentive to seek financial independence. According to a Stanford University study that examined why some conflicts last so much longer than others, crime was a crucial factor. Out of 128 conflicts, the 17 in which insurgents relied heavily on "contraband finances" lasted five times longer than the rest.32
Around Kabul, one often hears concerns that Afghanistan is turning into another Iraq.33 The parallels are actually closer to Colombia. The Taliban and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish acronym, FARC, both got their start like modern- day Robin Hoods, protecting rural peasants from the excesses of a corrupt government. Strapped for cash and needing the support of local farmers, both groups began levying a tax on drug crops. Over time in Colombia, the FARC was slowly sucked into the coca trade. They began using their soldiers to protect drugs shipments, and then took control of the factories refining coca into cocaine. FARC commanders started forcing farmers in the zones they control to grow coca. Eventually, the FARC became financially self- sufficient, and set up a parallel government.
The pattern sounds eerily familiar to police and military officials in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is undergoing a similar metamorphosis-- only much faster. As one senior U.S. official who moved from Colombia to South Asia put it, "It's like watching a bad movie all over again."34 As Afghanistan's poppy crop explodes past $4 billion a year, "there is no question, no question at all, that the Taliban has been increasingly involved both directly and indirectly in narcotics," says Seth Jones, a Rand Corporation analyst and author of books on Afghanistan.35 "Nowhere, except perhaps in Colombia, has the linkage between the drugs trade and terrorism been stronger," writes Robert Charles, a former director of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL).36
The Taliban still mainly confine their role in the drug trade to taxing farmers and protecting drug shipments, but that is changing, just as it did with the FARC, as opportunities for income grow. More important, the definition of Taliban member and drug smuggler is blurring. Taliban help organize farm output in the regions they control, and some commanders even run their own heroin labs.
Today's battles are more often diversionary attacks to protect big drug shipments, rather than campaigns for strategic territorial gain. In many areas, drug smugglers have their own armies whose fighters are widely referred to as "Taliban." Unraveling the details is complicated by the fact that the Taliban itself is less of a unified movement today than it was at its start. In many parts of the Afghanistan- Pakistan border, it's more a gangland- style grouping of tribal leaders, businessmen, regional warlords, and thugs. Media reports often describe the Taliban as profiting off the drug trade, but it's more accurate to say they ser vice it, working for opium smugglers and the mammoth international organized crime rings behind them.
One thing is clear: as the insurgents get sucked deeper into drugs, commanders are losing ties to ideological roots of the Taliban movement. "There's a very small core of true believers still left in the Taliban," says a top U.S. military official. "But our intel is that most of the guys are just in it to make a buck."37 My research came to a similar conclusion. Using local reporters, I surveyed 350 people who work in or alongside the drug trade in twelve areas along the Pakistan- Afghanistan border where the insurgency holds power or significant influence. Eighty- one percent of respondents said Taliban commanders' first priority was to make money, rather than to recapture territory and impose the strict brand of Islam they had espoused while in power.
Again, the Taliban is following a pattern demonstrated by the FARC. They are no less violent-- and in fact are far more ruthless-- but their terrorist acts now serve to further their drug ambitions as often as their political ones. Individual commanders may be corrupted by the race for the almighty dollar, but I don't mean to suggest the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies have put aside their ambitions to wreak havoc in the West. Far from it. As earnings soar, criminalized insurgents could make significant gains against the Kabul government-- and beyond. Consider this: the FARC now controls 35 percent of Colombia, and earns more than $500 million from the cocaine trade every year. "People should be concerned about the FARCification of the Taliban," says Doug Wankal, who headed the counternarcotics task force at the U.S. embassy in Kabul until mid- 2007. "It does not take a lot of drugs money to fund their terrorist operations."
But how much are they making? Where does al Qaeda come into the picture? And what do they plan to do with all that money?
A senior Afghan security official says Taliban soldiers captured in battle have confessed that the bulk of their operational funding-- including their salaries and cash for fuel, food, weapons, and bombs-- comes from drugs. "It's reached the point where about half of the opium we seize in the provinces has some link to the Taliban," General Ali Shah Paktiawal, director of the anti- criminal branch of the Kabul police, told me in 2006.
The DEA estimates opium now provides the Taliban with 70 percent of its financing.38 UNODC estimates that approximately 80 percent of Afghanistan's 8,200- metric- ton opium yield in 2007 came from Taliban regions and sold at an average of US$86 per kilogram. This would have netted the Taliban more than $56 million in 2007 from the 10 percent tax known as ushr (from the Arabic ashr, which means "ten") that is collected at the farm level. Additionally, more than fifty refineries reportedly operate in Taliban- held areas, where insurgents collect about $250 for every kilogram refined.39 UNODC estimates that those refineries produced 666 metric tons of heroin and morphine base in 2007, which yields another $133 million and change per year.40 The Taliban also earn as much as $250 million annually providing armed protection for drug shipments moving through their region, as well as receiving tens of millions of dollars' worth of material supplies from smugglers, including vehicles, food, and satellite phones.41
Added together, their drug revenue may even outpace that of the FARC. When putting numbers on criminal activity-- especially in such a fluid atmosphere-- even the best estimates are just that. But one thing is clear: the Taliban's profits from the drug trade are now astonishingly high.
Nailing down how Osama bin Laden comes into the drug trade is far tougher, especially since the issue became embroiled in Washington politics. Today, senior U.S. officials often say evidence of al Qaeda's ties to opium is fragmentary. The argument goes like this: bin Laden's two public statements on drugs indicate that he, like Mullah Omar, is deeply opposed to the use of narcotics. (Neither man has gone public with his opinion on trafficking drugs.)42 As well, officials claim captured al Qaeda operatives have told U.S. interrogators that bin Laden warned his people to stay away from the trade, fearing it would expose them to greater risk.
There are indications al Qaeda has struggled for money, including a six- thousand- word letter allegedly intercepted in 2005 where the number two figure in al Qaeda, Ayman al- Zawahiri, asked the late Iraqi insurgent Abu Musab Zarqawi to send money, saying many of its "lines have been cut off" and "we'll be very grateful" for financial help.43 American officials say donations from the Persian Gulf are what keep the movement flush, and argue that even though al Qaeda operates in a region where the opium business is booming, it doesn't necessarily prove the terrorists are into it.44 "Our reporting was they were very worried drugs would corrupt their movement," a senior U.S. counternarcotics official told me. "I have seen nothing to indicate that has changed."45