Published on Thursday, December 4, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
In Afghanistan and Colombia, America's Allies in the War on Terror Should be its Enemies in the War on Drugs
by Isabel Hilton
In early November 2001, as the war in Afghanistan was getting under way, the United Nations held a press conference in Islamabad to announce the latest scores in the global drug eradication effort. Those journalists who bothered to attend were surprised to learn that the previous year the Taliban had all but eradicated the opium poppy from the areas it controlled.
At the time, it was the crimes of the Taliban regime - from its treatment of women and its love for Osama bin Laden to its promotion of heroin addiction among western youth - that were of interest. To discover that the Taliban had eradicated the opium poppy did not fit the picture of unhallowed evil that the moment demanded. The story made little impact. Even if it was true - as it undoubtedly was - there was a feeling that the Taliban did not really mean it: they probably had their fingers crossed. Praise was politically impossible.
Besides, if the story had been given more play it might have been noticed that in those parts of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance - who had successfully auditioned for the parts of noble heroes in the melodrama of the war against evil - opium production had risen sharply. Had too much attention been paid to that, it might have raised the question of what would happen if our new friends, the warlords, had the whole country in which to plant their favorite crop.
We know the answer to that now. After the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan swiftly recovered its position as producer of two-thirds of the world's heroin and main supplier to Europe, including the UK.
Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, has banned it of course, but the gesture is futile. If the latest UN estimates are correct, opium brings in twice as much to Afghanistan as foreign aid does. (That's after the country became a priority case for assistance - or rather for promises of assistance.)
Opium revenues are equivalent to half of the country's GDP. Its agriculture, roads, communications and irrigation systems are in such bad shape that many farmers see little alternative to the poppy. And whatever Hamid Karzai says, the warlords are hardly going to suppress a crop that offers them such quantities of easy money.
The trouble is, what are they doing with the money? They are doing what warlords do: consolidating their power, buying arms, making sure that the central government doesn't get above itself.
Belatedly, though, the US seems to be worried that the wrong people might be getting hold of the revenues. The US Drug Enforcement Administration has launched an urgent initiative - Operation Containment - which is supposed to get the traffic under control. The reason for the belated concern is the fear that it is funding the wrong warriors - the resurgent jihadis and the Taliban. From war against terror to war against drugs, we appear to have come full circle.
To wage an effective war against drugs, however, the US will have to confront some of its major allies in the war against terror, and that is unlikely to happen. It complicates the narrative of good and evil for one thing. As the administration well knows, the words war and drugs are closely related, but not always in the way we like to pretend. The pompously titled "war on drugs" - a meaningless umbrella term that covers a variety of policies - has been a resounding failure by most rational measurements. But the close association between drugs and war is as strong as ever.
The drug business can be both a motive for armed conflict and a means of sustaining it. A cursory glance at the history of Afghanistan - and of conflicts elsewhere - reveals it is not just the guys in the black hats who have found it useful. Afghanistan's drug trade took off in the 1980s, when the CIA was sponsoring the mojahedin war against the USSR. The cocaine trade in Central America flourished when the US administration was backing the Contras to fight the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Clandestine flights that took arms to Central America returned with other illegal cargos. It helped the wheels of the war go round.
It helps the wheels go round in Colombia too. The writer Robin Kirk estimates that the New York street price of a kilogram of cocaine pays the wages of 250 Colombian fighters for a month, or buys 180 AK-47 rifles, or 120 satellite telephones. And given that some 6 million Americans spend at least $46bn on cocaine and heroin a year - most of it from Colombia - there's plenty of life in the war yet.
The US government is pouring money into the civil war in Colombia on the pretext of fighting drugs. In this rather simple scenario, the rebels - the FARC and the ELN - are "narco-terrorists" and the Colombian army must be helped to defeat them. But the army is closely allied to paramilitary forces who are paid, fed, clothed and armed by drug money, and the Colombian legislature is full of senators and congressmen whose electoral campaign expenses were funded by drug money. If defeating the FARC and the ELN resulted in the end of the Colombian drugs business, the age of miracles would truly be upon us.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003