By Lars Lofgren
As a journalist with a deep interest in Afghanistan, Gretchen Peters offers an extensively researched account of the evolution of the heroin trade within Afghanistan and Pakistan. The recent escalation of hostilities in the region and the resurgence of the Taliban can be directly attributed to the proliferation of poppy fields. Furthermore, Afghanistan can now be described as a narco-state that parallels the development of the FARC within Colombia more closely than the insurgency in Iraq. From personally meeting many of the major players within the opium trade to relentlessly obtaining access to confidential intelligence cables and documents, Peters has gone to great lengths to provide a substantiated narrative of the Afghanistan heroin trade.
Peters’ Take-Home Points:
- When the mujahedeen began engaging in prolific drug trafficking during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the existence of poppy fields was not a major tenant of policy for the United States (41). A lack of drug oversight combined with the internal power struggles following the withdrawal of Soviet forces resulted in a “complete integration of narcotics into the politics of the region (49).” These effects were amplified when the United States ceased active engagement with the region, leaving an impoverish nation no other means to sustain itself other than poppy cultivation (59).
- The Taliban has consistently supported the poppy trade to further its objectives financially and politically (76). This included taxation and regulation of the trade (82). In July 2000, Mullah Omar completely banned poppy cultivation. In contrast to notions that this was a diplomatic success by the UN, Peters argues it was actually a policy by the drug smugglers to drastically increase the price of opium and their profits (93-94).
- As the Taliban has become increasingly involved in the poppy trade, its cohesiveness as an organization and ideological roots have waned (104).
- Immediately following the invasion of Afghanistan, the role of drug trafficking was, once again, not considered a priority for the United States in contrast to the Global War on Terror and al Qaeda (107).
- The Karzai Administration, including Hamid Karzai’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has been implicated in having strong ties to drug networks by the UN (136).
- Despite the arrest of one of the most prominent drug summers, Haji Juma Khan (HJK), drug flows remained completely undisrupted (162-163).
- Western law enforcement have largely been completely unable to disrupt financial flows of drug money for several reasons including the hawala fund-transfer network, commodity barter systems, trade based money laundering, shell companies and real-estate, and the Karachi Stock Exchange (167-177).
- The West’s response to the opium trade has largely been unenthusiastic, inadequate, or rife with problems of consensus within NATO and the Karzai Administration (183-214).
- Poppy eradication policies will not work due to the economic devastation and increased support for the insurgency that’s likely to follow (215).
- Peters presents a nine-pillar strategy: support regional peace; launch a proper counterinsurgency effort; blend counterinsurgency and counternarcotics efforts; target criminals, not farmers; create a farm support network; improve the public relations campaign; isolate and obstruct drug money; provide alternative livelihoods before education; and focus on long-term stability and development, not just the elimination of the Taliban (218-233).
A pivotal book for understanding Afghanistan. Those interested in illicit networks, the intricacies of the Afghanistan insurgency, or the complexities of the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship will also find this book fascinating. The book is also easily accessible for readers without a background on these topics.
While Peters has extensively researched the connections between the Afghanistan insurgency, the numerous regional actors, and the poppy trade, the book suffers from a lack of broader context. Little discussion is given to the flows of opium once it exits the region beyond a brief mention of Europe being the primary recipient. Without a complete understanding of the opium markets that Afghanistan fuels, policy solutions will suffer as opium markets adapt to one-sided efforts.
This book is very much a journalistic account of the topic and suffers from a lack of theory. Peters largely neglects theoretical discussion of counterinsurgencies or counternarcotics operations. Many of Peters’ conclusions coincide with counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine and could have greatly benefited from incorporating principles of COIN within her work, giving it a more substantial theoretical basis. The U.S. Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual is excellent supplemental reading for anyone engaged with these issues.
Several important topics could have used far more discussion and depth. For example, Peters quickly dismisses the initial strategy for the Afghanistan invasion as inadequate “with predictably unfortunately results. (105)” Since the awareness of COIN doctrine has been a relatively recent phenomena (the U.S. Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual was published in 2006), initial operations within Afghanistan may have suffered from a lack of theoretical understanding of the nature of the conflict instead of blatant strategic errors. For Peters to claim that the current situation in Afghanistan was predictable from the start, far more depth is needed.
Peters’s discussion of Iran is also cursory. Even though Peters does document several instances of Iranian involvement, Peters avoids exploring whether or not this involvement is the result of official Iranian policy or the result of a few Iranian actors searching for profit.
In contrast, the connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly the ISI, are discussed extensively.
Peters, Gretchen. Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2009.
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