DAWN.COM | Books & Authors | Sowing discord

The assertion that drug money is bankrolling the resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has found an echo chamber among European and American writers, retired generals and now more and more journalists. Gretchen Peters’ recently published Seeds of Terror has caught the eye of policymakers in America and is reinforcing the argument that war in Afghanistan is all about drugs, not Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Interestingly, Maria Ressa, a Filipina journalist, has written a bestseller with the same title but with a different theme: what role has fundraising played in Southeast Asia in the rise of Al Qaeda?

Peters, a Harvard graduate, is a journalist who has drawn on her 10-year-long experience of reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The intrepid author has documented in bewildering detail intelligence reports and hundreds of interviews involving boots on the ground, drug interdiction officers, both former and serving, and Afghans of all stripes. Indeed, she provides the reader a sweeping understanding of the nexus between drug lords and the Taliban. She sees a direct linkage between the growing insurgency and the $500 million-plus garnered from narcotics annually in Afghanistan.

She observes: ‘Eight years after 9/11, the single greatest failure in the war against 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.’

The same argument has been made by General James Jones, Nato’s American Supreme Commander in his book Afghanistan: On the brink (2004). The general was particularly enamoured of saying that Afghanistan’s main problem is drugs. The implication was that if you take care of this problem, the Taliban’s lifeline would snap. To the obvious question about whether Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are involved in the drug trade themselves, Peters at best provides circumstantial evidence. On cold analysis, however, some might think her line of reasoning to be less than convincing.

The author appears to be on the same page as American writer David B. Edwards who argued in his book Heroes of Age that Afghanistan’s problems come from the ‘moral incoherence’ of the country itself. For her the dichotomy between what the Taliban profess (a puritan version of religion) and do (reaping rich drug-related dividends) springs from the same moral incoherence. There are of course an increasing number of people in America who view Afghanistan through the same prism.

That said, the attractively written narrative walks the reader through the economics of poppy trading and the well-oiled network of drugs that has defied the most powerful military and intelligence machine on the planet. As Peters says, ‘it is what pays the bills and cements the loyalties, individually and for ethnic groups.’

This is how she frames her main thesis: the confluence of narco-traffickers, terrorist groups and the international criminal world is the new axis of evil. It does not stop at Afghanistan’s porous borders; it is a problem with global dimensions and so, too, must be the response. Pakistan’s ISI gets hammered throughout her book for its shadowy role in the drugs episode for much of the 1980s and ’90s.

As America ponders a face-saving exit strategy from Afghanistan, what does Peters offer to salvage the situation? She is proposing a multi-tier strategy to apply a chokehold on the insurgents’ supply of cash. How might this be done? She is pitching for punishing military strikes against drug lords, not against the poppy fields themselves as she believes that wiping out poppy fields would drive up poppy prices and put more money into the pockets of drug dealers and terrorists. It could also lead to a humanitarian disaster.

Therefore her strategy is this: go after the top and mid-level drug lords — kill them or arrest them. Second, she wants alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers. As for the Taliban, she suggests the United States make them irrelevant, not defeat them militarily. She is convinced that Taliban and the United States are involved in a zero-sum game in Afghanistan.

Alongside the process of neutering drug lords and smugglers, the author recommends that America throw its massive weight behind restoring regional peace. This means bringing India and Pakistan back to the table, as well as getting Iran to weigh in on the side of peace in Afghanistan. Both these recommendations are up against the hard rock of realpolitik. Peters is a fine hybrid of investigative journalist and scholar and she has pursued her research with a passion. Her book is not a page-turner, but it offers a lot to reflect upon.

This review was published in Dawn (Books and Authors) and is written by Syed Javed Nazir.

Seeds of Terror: How heroin is bankrolling the
Taliban and Al Qaeda

By Gretchen Peters
302pp. Rs995

Available with Liberty Books.