Afghangsters’ paradise

When I think of the Taliban, I think of Tony Soprano and his gang. They are more mafiosi than mujahe

In Helmand, they protect opium shipments, extort money from poppy growers and operate heroin labs. In Kunar, they smuggle timber and guns. In the Swat valley, they control emerald mines, selling gemstones on the black market. On both sides of the Afghan/Pakistani border, they run a brisk kidnapping racket, snaring wealthy local businessmen, diplomats and journalists from around the globe.

When people in the west imagine the Taliban, most think of bearded fanatics, battling from caves under the flag of radical Islam. Having studied their day-to-day activities for more than five years, when I think of the Taliban I think of Tony Soprano and his gang.

I am not suggesting that Mullah Mohammed Omar has developed a taste for Chianti, or opened a branch of the Bada Bing at his hideout in Pakistan. As a fighting force, the Taliban remain as determined as ever to drive western forces from Afghanistan, as proven by the rising Nato casualty figures. But examine how the Taliban fund themselves, and how they interact with the local community, and they start to look more like mafiosi than mujahedin.

It is hard to make sweeping generalisations about the post-2001 Taliban. There are three distinct factions of the movement on the Afghan side of the border, and a far more fractious set of local and regional extremist groups in Pakistan. However, there are broad similarities in the way these various organisations are structured and how criminal proceeds filter up the chains of command. The manner in which they interact parallels the often tumultuous relations between Mafia crime families, like the New Jersey and New York clans portrayed in The Sopranos. Sometimes they collaborate; sometimes they battle against each other.

Whether fighting or conspiring, it is virtually always about making money. Western military officials believe that as little as 5 per cent of
the insurgents are "true believers" in their cause. Most of the fighters are in it just to make a quick buck.

I traced the Taliban's criminal earnings from the poppy fields of Helmand to the moneychangers in Dubai. Far from the stereotype of a ragtag militia of Islamic zealots, I found Taliban forces operating within an elaborate criminal economy that was astonishing in its size and complexity. Al-Qaeda was part of the picture, too - protecting drug shipments as they left Afghanistan and playing a coordinating role between the various local and regional extremist groups operating along the border.

With the help of local researchers, I conducted interviews with poppy farmers, truck drivers and heroin lab workers who described how Taliban fighters protected and taxed poppy farms, opium convoys and drug refineries. I heard again and again from western troops in Afghanistan how they found huge stashes of heroin and opium every time they captured a Taliban hideout. In one recent operation in Helmand Province, British, US and Afghan forces seized 92 tonnes of heroin, opium, hashish, poppy seeds and precursor chemicals. It was the second-largest drug seizure in world history. "Narcotics trafficking and the insurgency overlap to a degree that it is almost impossible to separate them," an American special forces officer in Kandahar told me.

Since 2001, Taliban commanders have deepened their involvement in the opium trade, but powerful trafficking cartels still control the drug industry, now worth billions of pounds annually. In 2008, I tracked down Haji Juma Khan, the region's opium kingpin, to one of his homes in Quetta, Pakistan. I drank orange soda with his colleagues, who spoke openly about the multi-tonne heroin shipments he sent towards the southern coast. (Just three months later, western counter-narcotics agents lured Khan to Indonesia, where he was arrested and extradited to New York.)

On other research trips, I toured the Pashtun slums of the seaport Karachi, where colourfully painted trucks from Afghanistan rolled into gated compounds on the coast. I watched men in tiny wooden rowing boats load bundles on to larger dhows bobbing in the harbour.

I interviewed a former money launderer in a Dubai coffee shop, who explained how he made dirty cash clean with a few quick swaps on the unregulated hawala money exchange.

Over time, and hundreds of interviews later with people who worked in or investigated this criminal economy, it became clear to me that characterising the Taliban as Islamic crusaders had caused Nato commanders to underestimate their enemy. For years, many western officials - especially in Washington - ignored the economic miracle funding the Taliban's resurgence.

It is important to recognise that from one of the world's most remote and mountainous regions, where there is no major highway network, nor freight train service, nor even widespread literacy (much less BlackBerrys and wifi), Taliban insurgents and the drug traffickers with whom they collaborate have accomplished an astonishing feat: successfully integrating an agricultural product into the global economy.

From importing precursor chemicals to getting farm loans to thousands of small farmers to providing security for the shipments as they move across borders, co-ordinating and managing Afghanistan's mammoth opium trade is an organisational feat of the very highest order. In less than eight years, they have come to dominate the global market share, supplying more than 90 per cent of the world's opium.

In recent years, as the Pakistani Taliban have rolled across that country's north-west, I have watched the Taliban expand into various new moneymaking schemes, from extortion to good old-fashioned bank robbery.

Fighting this widening insurgency is going to be an immense challenge for the Nato alliance and the international community - not least because the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan are themselves so riddled with corruption. But a good start will be to define the insurgents as what they really are, and to protect local populations who are the victims of their criminal activity. These are not holy warriors fighting for Allah, but criminals after the almighty dollar.

www.gretchenpeters.org

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times