Foreign Policy Blogs

Obama's Wars: Exit Plan Ignores Narco-Terrorism in Afghanistan


In the UK, France, and Germany, security agencies are on high-alert, responding to intelligence leaked by the US press about planned and perhaps still percolating al Qaeda attacks on civilian populations.

The US State Department has also issued ominous warnings to Americans in Europe, suggesting (yes, seriously) they eschew behaviors that might make them stand out and avoid locations known to be frequented by foreigners.

US Can ‘Absorb” Another Attack: Bug Out Now

All of this follows on the heels of revelations–more ‘leaks’–from Bob Woodward’s soon to be published best-seller, “Obama’s Wars,” especially a specific and ‘bizarre,’ as the author calls it, statement by the President about the nation’s ability to ‘absorb’ another 9/11 type attack, and by inference, the inability of the US government (or any government for that matter) to safequard its citizens from the bombs, bullets, and bacteria that are terrorism’s stock-in-trade.

Mix what seems to be an impolitic reference to the inevitability of large-scale terrorist events on US soil with the Administration’s resistance to the advice of top military advisors (to ratchet up troop levels in Afghanistan by 40,00 or more, dropping the numbers back down to present levels by 2012, and exit by 2016 — counsel the President nixed as a strategy that would cost the support of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party), and what we’re left with is long odds on several high-stakes bets.

The first wager is rooted in the belief that the American people are sick of foreign wars, and, yes, the idea is a solid one. Resistance to the cost of such conflicts  in dollars and in lives has historically been a deterrent in both Congress and among the people.

This is the overriding challenge to conducting foreign policy in a democracy–as George Kennan noted, a tough nut for elected representatives.

War Versus Terrorism?

The question in this case, however, is whether the American people might be more opposed to a terrorist attack on US soil, should it occur, than they would be to funding and tolerating the losses linked to continuing military involvement in Afghanistan.

This is a tricky question, especially for politicians in quest of reelection, because there’s no way of knowing unless, as they say, the balloon actually goes up.

Right now, before the fact, a terrorist attack on US soil is the rock.

Continued military involvement is the hard place.

So, this brings us to the second dilemma: whether it is wise to hitch our national wagon and the President’s political destiny to the idea that getting out of Afghanistan is likely to be of more benefit than staying in.

Is Afghanistan Seat of Terrorism?

Where we come down on this particular bet involves a long-standing and familiar debate: does it make sense to focus our resources on Afghanistan, given the ‘non-state’ affiliation assigned to most terrorist attacks, the fact that we know terrorists are being trained in facilities across the world, and the knowledge that the next attack, say analysts, might even be triggered by ‘home-grown’ terrorists?

Supporters of continued involvement in Afghanistan will point to that region (along with frontier provinces of Pakistan) as the ‘cradle’ of al Qaeda-instigated terror and the refuge of Osama bin Laden.

They will cite (rightly, I believe) the nexus between Afghan heroin revenues and terrorist financing, the long and dangerous kinship between Pakistan’s ISI and the Taliban, and the security/impunity offered by an expanding culture of criminality, government corruption, and anti-western animus as a correspondent, if not direct, cause of future terrorist activity.

Less pessimistic factions, including those in support of the President’s wager to send 20,000-30,000 additional troops (as opposed to the 40,000 recommended by military advisors) to Afghanistan, and to exit that country by summer 2011 (instead of 2016), are betting that major al Qaeda leaders have already been killed, captured, or neutralized.

They are also betting that the importance of Afghanistan as the birthplace of 21st century terrorism and terrorist resources in that country have waned significantly, and that whatever threats may remain after the US ‘bugs out’ can be handled by allied security/intelligence agencies and proxy (including covert) forces that remain behind in Afghanistan and Pakistan (the torching by Pakistani forces this week of supply shipments to allied forces in Afghanistan notwithstanding).

Where is bin Laden and Does It Matter?

An aside: is the capture of Osama bin Laden still important?

Perhaps–certainly symbolically. But there is another view as well, one I heard at the United Nations, that rumors of bin Laden’s residency in the region around the Khyber Pass and the influx of allied forces in hot pursuit of the man have raised the economy in that region to levels unseen since the occupation of British forces in the late 19th century.

One official jokingly suggested that the US may well have agreed to ‘gift’ bin Laden to Pakistan as an inexpensive  means of bolstering Pakistan’s economy and enhancing the US-Pakistan alliance.

What is potentially more sinister, should the Administration’s hopeful assessment prove mistaken, is the possibility outlined on National Public Radio by Stephen Rademaker, former US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation:  according to Rademaker, Afghan/Islamic insurgents are far more likely to procure nuclear devices from Pakistan rather than Iran or North Korea.

According to Bob Woodward, Obama thinks Pakistan may be a problem as well:

“We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan,” Obama is quoted as saying at an Oval Office meeting on Nov. 25, 2009. Creating a more secure Afghanistan is imperative, the president said, “so the cancer doesn’t spread” there.

Note to White House re above-mentioned “spread” — too late.

While Pakistan’s overtures to Afghan insurgents may remain muted as long as coalition forces remain in-country, its interests in Afghanistan remain constant–business connections between sundry Pakistani officials and Taliban players in charge of that country’s international heroin industry are up and running.

Once the US withdraws, the criminal connections that already make Afghanistan and Pakistan (include Iran, and former Soviet states to the north) partners in a multi-billion dollar narco-industry can easily be tapped to ramp up other operations–global terrorism, for example.

Logic tells us that that Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, the Hezb-i-Islami, and other groups the US considers enemies will  certainly increase after US troop withdrawals, since Pakistan regards these groups as surrogate forces in Afghanistan, their own hedge against threats they see emanating from India.

Right now, with thousands of US troops still on the ground, US military officials are (carefully) voicing concern about what appears to be an increasingly cozy relationship between ISI and the Afghan Taliban.

One top military official told the press that it is sometimes difficult to determine whether ISI’s outreach to the Taliban in Afghanistan is for the purpose of ferreting out dangerous insurgents (according to US plan) or for collaborating, and perhaps strengthening, relationships with them.

How hard is it to read between these lines?

Factor in an October 7th report by the Wall Street Journal:

Members of Pakistan’s spy agency are pressing Taliban field commanders to fight the US and its allies in Afghanistan . . . a development that undercuts a key element of the (US) strategy for ending the war . . . .

And you just can’t help but begin to wonder . . .

What happens when US and NATO troops pull out and the Taliban resumes open and unchallenged control of a $US 55 billion global market for Afghan heroin?

Do we think Pakistan won’t want a bigger piece of that pie–that criminal mergers and acquisitions across the region won’t invite an even greater  rapproachment between druglords and jihadists?

Do we think that Afghanistan’s borders with Iran, Pakistan, and surrounding states will not be rendered immaterial by an expanding criminal coalition between Afghan opium suppliers and profiteers throughout the region–and beyond?

If NAFTA, APEC, or ASEAN is your idea of a powerhouse Free Trade Zone, hold on to your seat.

Legitimate Authority in Afghanistan?

The last high-stake bet driving the decision to bug out of Afghanistan sooner than later turns on the ability of the Afghan government, military, and police to take up the challenge, the good fight, so to speak, and offer that nation’s citizens security and a reliable judicial infrastructure.

Given the level of corruption and criminal malfeasance throughout the Afghan government (the NYT speaks to a ‘family crime group‘)  among its regional, tribal leaders and throughout Afghan society (a UNODC survey estimates Afghans paid upwards of $US 2.5 billion in bribes and related payments in 2009), and the fact that corruption is also rife along trafficking routes all the way from Afghanistan to the destination markets of Europe and the Russian Federation, it’s clearly unrealistic to believe US and allies forces can transfer responsibility for good governance to Afghan authorities anytime in the near future –certainly not by 2011, or even 2016.

Former UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa has indicated that terrorist cells presently exist even within the ranks of the Afghan security forces. This is worrisome for a number of reasons — it poses an immediate threat and suggests that as the coalition prepares to hand over authority to the Afghans (BBC reports the date as 2014), the Taliban may begin to insert its own operatives into the ranks of the Afghan army. Readiness is all.

Afghanistan: Growing Source of Transnational Crime

Afghanistan is a narco-state, supplying 90% of the world’s heroin to Russia, Asia, Europe and the United States. The majority of  Afghans are involved in some way in the illegal heroin industry–not just in growing and smuggling, but also in packaging, manufacturing packages, servicing trafficking vehicles and other ‘benign activities’–and the lives of farmers and urban dwellers are dominated by the politics of narcotics.

Primary trafficking routes wind through Pakistan, a supplier of precursors and other services, and Iran, moving through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the Russian Federation.  Russia and China also supply precursor chemicals for the processing of heroin, and like a criminal ‘black hole,’ Afghanistan continues to draw state and regional players in search of  illicit profits into its expanding orbit.

Afghanistan is also ideally placed to become a major player in the global hashish market, testimony to the inevitable diversification of criminal enterprise.

According to the UNODC 2010 report, The Globalization of Crime,

Widespread corruption, violence, and impunity have undermined the confidence of the Afghan people in their government, furthering strengthening the hand of the insurgents. Indeed, a portion of the Afghan Taliban are non-ideological, more ‘opportunistic’ fighters motivated by a mixture of political discontent and financial need.

At present, various insurgent groups control large swathes of the Afghan countryside, preventing aid from reaching some of the most vulnerable communities . . . insurgents are able to carry out brazen terror attacks in major population centers, such as Kabul.  International aid is tied up in the eighth straight year of fighting the insurgency. Given the  transcontinental dimensions of the Afghan heroin trade and the difficulties of combating drug trafficking in the context of an active conflict, internationally coordinated action against the global heroin market is vital.

That internationally coordinated action against the heroin market in Afghanistan has never materialized–in  many ways, fighting a “war against drugs’ is far more complicated (politically, practically, and philosophically) than fighting a ‘war against terrorism.”  Since the beginning of coalition  involvement in Afghanistan, US and NATO forces have sidestepped the problem of poppy production, pursuing instead separate and not always complementary missions.

The threats posed by the situation in Afghanistan have been compartmentalized, with the US keen on hunting down the terrorist organizations linked to 911, and  NATO focused on providing broader support to the Karzai administration, a reflection of real and often contentious foreign policy differences.

These missions have also suffered. A lack of integration, disparate foreign policy goals, and competing, or at least non-aligned, operational objectives have often blocked progress for the US and its allies–European countries whose constituents have regularly complained about troop deployments for what they called, until last week perhaps, ‘America’s War on Terror.’

At the same time, both the US and NATO missions, neither of which has specifically targeted the production of heroin, have been undercut by the criminal velocity of heroin trafficking operations and the viral nature of narco-corruption, which now appears to have overwhelmed not just Afghan society but the Karzai government as well.

For some time, the United Nations, national counter-drug agencies (including UNODC), and other international organizations have argued for an aggressive approach to eliminating drug-based crime and corruption in Afghanistan–alternative development, eradication, extradition of drug lords for trial in NATO countries with strong judicial systems–but so far, the primary players in this debacle have pinned their hopes on piecemeal solutions linked to limited national interests.

So the problem of poppy/heroin cultivation, which has perpetrated and supported the conflict/insurgency in Afghanistan (ipso facto 911), has been compartmentalized as well, shoved into a niche so small and so far removed from the immediate security and political obsessions of the US and its allies, that it has, for all intents and purposes, been ignored.

The Big Picture

We’ve missed the big picture, the “knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone” kind of logic that should tell us heroin finances jihad, and that no effort to root out terrorism or to create a legitimate government with strong judicial institutions can happen when the Afghan economy is pegged to a growing,  violent, and immensely profitable drug industry.

The result?

In Afghanistan, poppy is king.

The Taliban remains in control of  every aspect of the nation’s drug economy, routinely extracting exorbitant ‘taxes,’ ‘protection,’ and ‘bribe money’ from the population (including poppy growers, transporters, and traffickers)–and right now it’s waiting for its return to actual and acknowledged power.

Indeed, arguments for the ‘inclusion’ of Taliban leaders, not all terrorists, in US-Afghan negotiations are already making the rounds, and while policy pragmatists may be ready to abandon the idea of anything like actual  democracy ever taking root in Afghanistan, kowtowing to another collection of drug-thugs (let’s not forget that the absence of a terrorist agenda doesn’t ameliorate Taliban criminality and its sponsorship of regional corruption) may only postpone an even greater investment of US and allied resources in the future.

But that’s the long-term–something short-term planners and elected officials tend to let unfold as it will, especially in a  political pinch.  The US exit plan outlined in Woodward’s book is about ending a badly managed, exorbitantly costly operation, now.

Whether, down the road, we can counter the power of a multi-billion dollar narco-state–a proven incubator for the growth and sustenance of global jihad–via drones, secret armies, and enough money paid to enough people in enough time is the last, and perhaps, the most important question–the bet the US seems to be taking in the hope that time may provide better options.



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.