Protected Drug Trade and American Hypocrisy

In a bid to import the Iraqi “surge strategy” into Afghanistan, the United States is fielding armed militias to fight the Taliban, the Associated Press reported.

Afghanistan’s interior minister announced the program had begun with the U.S. “paying for all aspects” including “buying Kalashnikov automatic rifles for members of the Afghan Public Protection Force,” modeled after the American-sponsored Awakening Councils in Iraq. A sceptical Afghan official told the Associated Press, “only criminals would join because most citizens wouldn’t want to face the Taliban in combat.”

But perhaps this is precisely the intent of the program; to wrest control of the lucrative heroin trade from unreliable elements beholden to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who allegedly derive $100 million a year from the global drug trade. What better means to disrupt the “Islamist” insurgency than to grant U.S.-allied criminals and warlords a piece of the action.

In this context, Craddock’s orders are all the more ironic when one considers that the forces currently battering NATO in Afghanistan grew rich during the 1980s when Washington turned a blind-eye to drug networks they themselves encouraged as a means to wound their Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union.

According to scholar Alfred W. McCoy, “During the 1980s CIA covert operations in Afghanistan transformed southern Asia from a self-contained opium zone into a major supplier of heroin for the world market.” As a cats’ paw for imperialism, the ISI doled out funds, weapons and expertise to far-right militants such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Coming to prominence as a thug who attacked communist students and infamously threw acid into the faces of unveiled women at Kabul University during the 1970s, Hekmatyar was a major narcotrafficker–and darling of the CIA and their ISI partners in crime. McCoy writes,

As the ISI’s mujaheddin clients used their new CIA munitions to capture prime agricultural areas in Afghanistan during the early 1980s, the guerrillas urged their peasant supporters to grow poppies, thereby doubling the country’s opium harvest to 575 tons between 1982 and 1983. Once these mujaheddin elements brought the opium across the border, they sold it to Pakistani heroin refiners who operated under the protection of General Fazle Huq, governor of the North-West Frontier province. By 1988, there were an estimated 100 to 200 heroin refineries in the province’s Khyber district alone. Trucks from the Pakistan army’s National Logistics Cell (NLC) arriving with CIA arms from Karachi often returned loaded with heroin–protected by ISI papers from police search. (The Politics of Heroin, CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991, pp. 453-454)

The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel revealed January 28 that “top NATO commander John Craddock wants the alliance to kill opium dealers, without proof of connection to the insurgency. NATO commanders, however, do not want to follow the order.”

In a classified document leaked to Der Spiegel, Craddock issued a “guidance” providing NATO troops with the authority “to attack directly drug producers and facilities throughout Afghanistan.” In other words, the United States wants to widen the free-fire zone that already exists, one directly responsible for thousands of civilian casualties.Der Spiegel reports,

According to the document, deadly force is to be used even in those cases where there is no proof that suspects are actively engaged in the armed resistance against the Afghanistan government or against Western troops. It is “no longer necessary to produce intelligence or other evidence that each particular drug trafficker or narcotics facility in Afghanistan meets the criteria of being a military objective,” Craddock writes. (Susanne Koelbl, “NATO High Commander Issues Illegitimate Order to Kill,” Spiegel Online, January 28, 2009)

German NATO General Egon Ramms and other European commanders are refusing to “deviate from the current rules of engagement for attacks,” a move that has outraged Craddock. Considered a loyal Bushist who “fears that he could be replaced by the new US president,” Craddock is threatening to remove any commander who doesn’t toe the new party line and “follow his instructions to go after the drug mafia.”

But here as elsewhere, things aren’t always what they seem. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that General Craddock, under pressure from the Obama administration’s new anti-Karzai policy, particularly now that Washington is eyeing newer, more compliant “provincial allies” in the Afghan Public Protection Force will target somenarcotraffickers–those in Karzai’s orbit–while handing their new “best friends forever,” Afghan warlords and Pakistani “businessmen,” the lucrative opium concession.

As Peter Dale Scott documented in Drugs, Oil and War, “conscious decisions were definitely made, time after time, to ally the United States with local drug proxies.” In Central- and South Asia such “drug proxies” and the financial institutions which served powerful political, intelligence and military interests such as the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) and that institution’s shadowy “Black Network,” helped transform the Afghan mujaheddin into al-Qaeda.

While espousing an overt Islamist discourse, al-Qaeda and their various affiliates continued to serve Western intelligence agencies as disposable assets used in various destabilization operations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia during the 1990s and today. While “the routes shifted with the politics of the times,” Scott writes, “the CIA denominator remained constant.”

Absurd? Consider this. When the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (known as Delta Force) “brought down” Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel in the early 1990s, they relied on other narcotrafficking cartels, notably the larger and more profitable Cali Cartel run by the Orejuela brothers, Gilberto Rodríguez and Miguel Rodríguez, to get the job done.

We now know with last year’s release of declassified CIA and U.S. Embassy documents by the National Security Archive that this was indeed the case. More importantly, the documents provided confirmation that CIA “anti-narcotics interdiction efforts” did not target the drug trade per se, but only those criminal gangs who ran afoul of wider U.S. geostrategic interests in resource rich Colombia.

In other words, U.S. policy in the area amounted to a protected drug traffic for allies engaged in anti-left counterinsurgency operations. While U.S. Special Operations Command and the CIA were targeting Escobar’s Medellín cartel, they were directly collaborating with a death squad that later morphed into the Colombian Army-allied paramilitary group, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). Founded by major international narcotrafficker Carlos Castaño, the AUC were close political allies of the Orejuela brothers and the man who would later become Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe.

The parallels between these two resource rich regions couldn’t be more striking. Pakistani investigative journalist Ahmed Rashid described a similar pattern when the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan began in 2001.

The Pentagon had a list of twenty-five or more drug labs and warehouses in Afghanistan but refused to bomb them because some belonged to the CIA’s new NA [Northern Alliance] allies. The United States told its British allies that the war on terrorism had nothing to do with counter-narcotics. Instead, drug lords were fêted by the CIA and asked if they had any information about Osama bin Laden. Thus, the United States sent the first and clearest message to the drug lords: that they would not be targeted. (Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, New York: Viking, 2008, pp. 320-321)

Under America’s ever so tolerant counterterrorist regional strategy, Afghanistan produced a staggering 8,700 metric tons of opium and now accounts for 92% of global opium production, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) in their 2008 World Drug Report.

Meanwhile, as the Obama administration and the Pentagon prepare a major military escalation in the region and the Taliban expand their writ, “efforts to stem cultivation of opium poppies and the narcotics trade that lines Taliban and government pockets,” the Washington Post reports, “have made little discernible progress.”

Rather, such “efforts” on the part of NATO allies and Islamist adversaries alike presage a strategic battle for control over the multibillion dollar heroin market. Whoever “wins,” the people of South Asia will certainly suffer the consequences.  read full article

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