Seeds of Terror

How heroin is bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Seedsofterror Cover
Cover image of “Seeds of Terror.” Soldier by AFP stringer, poppy fields and mountains by Paula Bronstein.

“Eight years after 9/11, the single greatest failure in the war on terror is not that Osama bin Laden continues to elude capture, or that the Taliban has staged a comeback, or even that al Qaeda is regrouping in Pakistan’s tribal areas and probably planning fresh attacks on the West. Rather, it’s the spectacular incapacity of western law enforcement to disrupt the flow of money that is keeping their networks afloat.” So observes Gretchen Peters in “Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda” (Thomas Dunne Books), in which she argues that the best—and perhaps only—way to defeat the insurgents is to cut them off from their drug earnings. 

In the following far-ranging interview with Failure, Peters discusses the Obama Administration’s approach to Afghanistan, the evolution of the Taliban, the role corruption plays in perpetuating the drug trade, and her own personal experiences reporting from one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

The war in Afghanistan has received increased media attention recently. Why?
In part, because it is going badly. By some estimates the Taliban now controls or dominates as much as sixty percent of Afghan territory, and casualty rates are higher than ever. Also, President Obama said that Afghanistan would be one of his central foreign policy efforts. He said he would refocus attention on the war in Afghanistan and finish it the way it should have been finished from the start.

How does the Obama Administration’s approach to Afghanistan differ from that of the Bush Administration?
I, among others, am confused about what the Obama Administration intends to do. At this point, there seems to be growing divide between the White House and the Pentagon over the best option. Lt. General Stanley McChrystal has asked for a troop increase to launch a counter-insurgency campaign. However, senior White House officials appear to be pushing for a scaled-back option. Although the official numbers aren’t out, it’s estimated that General McChrystal is going to ask for between ten and forty thousand more American troops. The idea is that many will focus on training local forces and getting the local army and police up to speed, so they can take care of Afghanistan and U.S. troops can come home. But there is growing skepticism in the White House that the American public will be willing to send more troops and foot the bill for such an enormous counter-insurgency operation.

Obama has been criticized for not explaining why we’re still in Afghanistan. Is that a fair criticism?
A fair criticism is that the Obama Administration has failed to clearly define what it sees as a successful outcome in Afghanistan. Obama has said that failure in Afghanistan is not an option, but he hasn’t defined what success would be.

From reading news reports and speaking to a friend there, it seems that many Afghans are frustrated by the recent election and discouraged by this fig leaf of a democracy that the international community has hung on Afghanistan. Many parts of the country are run by warlords, and in parts of the south, the Taliban seems to be providing more effective governance than the government run by Hamid Karzai. That is seriously undercutting the confidence of the Afghan people in the Kabul regime.

What is amazing to me, having just moved back to the United States [after covering the conflict since 9/11] is that most people in this country seem to have forgotten about the attacks in New York and Washington. Americans seem to have forgotten that our nation set out to end the conditions that led to those attacks. In my opinion, walking away from Afghanistan—or scaling back—is not an option. Well, it’s an option, but it’s one that leaves the United States very vulnerable to another major terrorist attack.

Until the conditions that make Afghanistan and Pakistan havens for extremists and terror groups are removed, and until there is better local governance, the United States and its allies are going to continue to face a terrorist threat from the region.

The problem I have with the “counter-terrorism” strategy being advocated by some officials in Washington is that it’s the [same] strategy the United States and its NATO allies have pursued over the past seven years, and during that time the Taliban have gotten stronger and gained territory—both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The intelligence community claims that al Qaeda has been weakened, but the recent arrests in Colorado, New York and Texas indicate they are still plotting attacks in the U.S.

The strategy that General McChrystal is proposing is highly complex and will be immensely difficult to implement. But I worry that the “counter-terrorism” strategy is the national security equivalent of holding your thumb in the dyke. It’s not going to end the problem and eventually the flood gates will burst.

I also worry that the Obama Administration is going to be too sensitive to the public’s frustration with the war and isn’t going to resource it properly. Afghanistan is a conflict that has been massively under-resourced since the very beginning. That’s the reason Osama bin Laden escaped Tora Bora, that’s the reason the Taliban has been able to come back, and that’s the reason Pakistan is now facing a Taliban threat. There haven’t been enough foreign troops, there hasn’t been enough aid—or the money hasn’t been effectively spent—and there hasn’t been enough oversight. Billions of dollars have been squandered.

What about the idea that Afghanistan is Obama’s Vietnam?
Afghanistan could become Obama’s Vietnam if it’s not handled correctly. Fighting an insurgency is very complex and requires a large number of troops, which is not cheap. However, if properly resourced and implemented I believe it will work. That said, after eight years of drift, it’s going to be very hard to turn things around.

Do you think it will take another 9/11-type attack to focus attention on how the drug trade is funding terror groups?
I hope not. There is now much greater understanding within the military that drugs and crime are a major source of funding for the Taliban and other extremist groups. In addition to the opium trade, which provides the Taliban and other groups with hundreds of millions of dollars in profits every year, the various groups are also engaged in kidnapping, extortion, and taxing legal goods. [The Taliban] is like a shadow government that is collecting tax, putting money into central coffers, and using it for their war effort. The Taliban is really out-governing the Karzai government. I’m not suggesting they are a model of good governance, but they are more effective.

What are they doing with the money?
That’s a very good question. They are earning far more than they need to conduct their operations. By my estimates, the Taliban are earning as much as half a billion dollars a year off of drugs and other criminal activities.

On the Pakistani side of the border the potential for earning is much higher, and there is clear evidence that various groups linked to al Qaeda are deeply involved with moving drugs as they leave the region. What are they planning to do with all that money? It’s something the West needs to be worried about, because you don’t see evidence of Taliban commanders living large the way a major drug smuggler like Pablo Escobar did. What are they saving up for?

The Taliban seem more like drug smugglers than religious extremists. 
The Taliban are in the process of morphing. I’m not suggesting that they have put aside their intention of driving western forces out of Afghanistan, and I think the rising casualty rates prove that. But there is evidence that an increasing number of Taliban commanders are just in it to make a buck. This is a transformation that has been witnessed in other insurgencies. Various anti-state groups—throughout history and across the world—regardless of their religious base or political affiliation have become involved in crime, and then their involvement in crime changes the nature of the group over time. I think we’re watching that happen in Afghanistan.

Doesn’t Islamic law forbid involvement with narcotics?
Absolutely. The Koran is unequivocal that the cultivation, use, or trafficking of narcotics is haram, or forbidden.

The Taliban use two bogus arguments to justify involvement in the opium trade. One is that it’s okay to traffic in drugs at a time of jihad. I have consulted numerous Islamic experts about this and the Koran does not give a pass in times of war.

The other argument is that it’s okay to grow opium as long as it’s sold to infidels. But the majority of the opiates produced in Afghanistan are sold in predominantly Muslim countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and other Central Asian states. They are making addicts of Muslims.

Just out of curiosity, can you describe what a poppy field looks like?
A poppy field is quite beautiful when in bloom. The poppies are vivid pink, or sometimes red or purple in color—brilliant flowers floating in a sea of green. It’s sometimes hard to remember that something that looks so peaceful and beautiful produces a product that is so deadly.

In the book, I argue that eradication of poppy fields is not the way forward. There are thousands of farmers who grow poppy, but the farmers are as much victims of the trade as drug addicts themselves. It’s very common for farmers to say they grow poppy because their lives depend on it, and I don’t think they are exaggerating. In some cases they are forced to grow poppy by the traffickers and insurgents. In some cases, no one except opium merchants visits their villages, so they can’t find buyers for any other crops. And in some cases, they decide to plant poppy because it sells for more than other farm products, and they need the money to get through the winter.

A much better strategy is to go after the trafficking groups, of which there are several dozen. I’m not suggesting this is easy, because they are wealthy and heavily armed. But it’s a smaller target, and they really are the bad guys.

Is the U.S. shifting away from a policy of eradication?
Yes. With the arrival of the Obama Administration there has been a dramatic shift off of eradication and onto interdiction. And there have been some major successes. Some of the biggest drug traffickers in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been captured, and many of them have been extradited to the U.S. Just recently DEA agents brought an individual named Haji Bagcho to the United States. He was a major trafficker in southeastern Afghanistan and when they captured his account books they found more than $169 million had passed through his hands in the last year alone.

So in your estimation the farmers would rather be growing something other than poppy?
In the survey I did [of dozens of Afghan farmers] the vast majority said they wanted to grow something other than poppy. There’s a misperception in the U.S. that Afghan farmers grow it because they’re greedy and because it makes them more money. In fact, experts who have researched what poppy farmers earn have proved that the vast majority earn very little. That’s in part due to the predatory nature of the loans that the traffickers provide. The farmers end up with minute profits, if they profit at all. And the insecurity that comes along with the presence of the drug trade far outweighs any financial gains.

Afghan farmers are no different than people anywhere. They want schools, health clinics, and security. In the war-torn south, they have none of those things.

Speaking of security, when reporting for the book, were you concerned about your personal safety?
Yes, there were many occasions when I worried about my safety, but in general I had a great deal of trust in the local colleagues I worked with. They went out of their way to keep me safe, and I went out of my way to follow their instructions.

Can you recall any particularly harrowing experiences?
One day near Tora Bora, one of my colleagues noticed that we were being followed by two guys on a motorcycle who appeared to be speaking into a radio—a possible sign that somebody was setting up an ambush. We stopped the car and the Afghans jumped out, shook these guys down, and called in the local police commander. They claimed to work for the U.N., but when the police tried to raise the U.N. [on their radio] nobody answered. And the radio didn’t have a label or stickers that identified it as a U.N. piece of equipment. After that the local police stayed in front of our vehicle the whole time. I often think back on that as a close call, and about how lucky I was that my colleagues were alert to the situation.

But to be honest, what I worried about most in Afghanistan and Pakistan was not a terrorist attack but a car accident. People there drive like maniacs, and in the mountains the highways have hairpin turns where if your car tumbles off the edge or the road gives way because there has been an earthquake or mudslide, you plunge hundreds of meters to your death.

In your article in The Crime Report you propose augmenting our military forces with a large influx of law enforcement officers. Can you talk about that?
The village areas do not lack a military [presence], they lack an effective police force. When you listen to counter-insurgency experts talk about what troops need to do in a COIN campaign they talk about rounding up bad guys, maintaining security, and keeping the streets safe. Essentially that’s the job of cops on the beat. But nobody joins the Army or the Marines because they want to be a police officer, and our military is not training infantry troops to be policemen. Yet we are now talking about a strategy that will send thousands of American soldiers into remote Afghan towns and villages to keep the streets safe. We need to make sure they are trained for that kind of campaign.

Some military commanders seem to understand this and I’ve seen evidence that American soldiers are increasingly well-trained to do counter-insurgency work. But as the effort gets ramped up, one way to speed the process would be to embed police officers to help troops learn on the ground. That would support the effort to bring about stability at the local level.

What role does corruption play in the drug trade?
In my opinion, fighting corruption is going to be an even bigger challenge than fighting the insurgency. There are clear indications that drug-related corruption has reached the highest levels of the Afghan government, including the widespread allegation that President Karzai’s own brother is one of the main facilitators of the drug trade. Karzai and his brother both deny this, and have essentially dared the international community to provide evidence, but there are enough reports of his involvement that I believe the time has come for an international panel to investigate the president’s brother and other senior officials.

But it’s tricky. Who would appoint the investigators? And if a case went to trial, where would it be held? There still isn’t an extradition treaty between Afghanistan and the United States. The Afghans are demanding that if there is an extradition treaty that it be reciprocal, and the U.S. is resisting [because] U.S. forces could get extradited to face Afghan courts. At the same time, I doubt corrupt Afghan officials would want to face an American court. This is a sensitive issue on both sides, but it’s going to be very difficult for Washington to force an extradition treaty on Afghanistan that doesn’t go both ways.

So when corrupt officials get arrested and tried, they go through the Afghan court system. It’s quite clear that system is not working particularly well. And even when it does work, there are still problems. Before the presidential election, Karzai himself pardoned five convicted drug traffickers, one of whom was related to his campaign manager. In that kind of environment, it’s hard to see how an anti-corruption drive is going to take place.

To me this is the crux of the problem in Afghanistan. Insurgencies don’t exist in places where there is good governance. I don’t believe that NATO and the West are going to defeat the Taliban by shooting them all. The Taliban will only be defeated when they are replaced by something better. And most Afghans don’t see the government of Hamid Karzai as something better. Until there is effective and clean government in Afghanistan, it’s going to be very hard to see the end of the Taliban insurgency.