Britain is caught in a vicious circle in Helmand Province. Its ill-conceived war on drugs in Afghanistan may hand the Taliban a huge victory – the collapse of Nato. It was perhaps appropriate that Britain, as the biggest consumer of Afghan heroin, take on the role of “lead nation” in counter-narcotics in Afghanistan. But this has been prosecuted on the cheap while Nato has refused to back the poppy eradication schemes that the British government regards as critical to the success of the programme. Now the Taliban are making money hand over fist from drugs, ensuring that their forces remain well stocked with weapons.
The huge difficulties facing the British in Helmand are in timately bound up with the expansion of opium production in the province under the armed protection of the Taliban. In several centres of narcotics production, and above all in Afghanistan and Colombia, profits from the drug trade are sustaining large, highly motivated and increasingly effective guerrilla or insurgency armies.
Yet I understand that advisers warned the cabinet quite specifically that the money earmarked for the Helmand operation – £1.1bn in total – would not be sufficient to achieve its four aims of providing force protection, security for local people, economic reconstruction and poppy eradication. Either Britain would have to revise its mission aims or it would need a much-increased budget. Gordon Brown was adamant that the mission would not get a penny more, while Tony Blair and John Reid, then defence minister, insisted the aims would not be revised. The mission is now unravelling, just as predicted.
It all looked very different in October 2001, when Tony Blair impressed commentators and the public alike with his statesmanlike speech confirming Britain’s participation in the US attack on Afghanistan. In justifying his decision to join the western coalition, he included one reason that clearly had nothing to do with 9/11: “We act also because the al-Qaeda network and the Taliban regime are funded in large part [by] the drugs trade. Ninety per cent of all the heroin sold on British streets originates from Afghanistan. Stopping that trade is, again, directly in our interests.”
Two birds with one stone – prosecute the war on drugs and the war on terror simultaneously. Wipe out the drugs trade, and you drain the swamp that nurtures terror. A cracking idea – if it had any chance of working. Failure, by contrast, would be a disaster. Now, that very disaster is upon us in Afghanistan and also in Colombia, where Washington’s twin wars on drugs and terror continue to wreak havoc in the countryside and bolster left-wing and right-wing insurgency forces alike.
In Afghanistan, criminal syndicates based on a network of tribal leaders are making huge profits by trafficking narcotics. They are now also working hand-in-glove with the Taliban. Joel Hafvenstein, an American who worked on the poppy eradication programme in Helmand Province, described last month how five Afghan workers in his team had been murdered in a Taliban attack at the behest of local drug lords. To underscore the importance they confer on continued poppy cultivation, the Taliban then attacked and killed mourners at the funeral of one of the dead men. “The attacks were harbingers of the Taliban resurgence that Helmand has seen in the last year,” he wrote in the New York Times.
The figures for opium production in Afghanistan over the five-year period since Blair made public his resolve to destroy the crop are nothing short of jaw-dropping. On 18 September, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, one of the most resolute supporters of the war on drugs, seemed a broken man as he announced that, since last year, the land used for poppy cultivation had increased by 59 per cent to 165,000 hectares. “The political, military and economic investments by coalition countries are not having much visible impact on drug cultivation,” he observed. “As a result, Afghan opium is fuelling insurgency in western Asia, feeding international mafias and causing a hundred thousand deaths from overdoses every year.”
At the same time, the Senlis Council, an international think-tank specialising in drug policy, published a damning report linking the failure of the coalition’s poppy eradication programme with the resurgence of the Taliban throughout Afghanistan, most notably in Helmand. “The reconstruction effort in Afghanistan relies to a large extent on the twin pillars of rural development and security,” the report notes. “Since the opium crisis lies at the heart of this reconstruction nexus, eradication of the farmer’s sole livelihood raises the likelihood of further destabilising the country through social protest, political unrest, insurgency, warlordism and internal migration . . . Eradication programmes have had an extremely negative impact on security in many parts of the country and . . . are effectively undermining the Afghan central government.”
The Taliban’s unanticipated recovery in military capacity has compelled British troops to downgrade, in effect, the more ambitious aims of the Helmand deployment – to wit, beefing up the security of the local population, economic reconstruction and poppy eradication. In this way, the Taliban have been able to oversee a huge expansion of poppy cultivation. And the more poppies that are grown, the greater the Taliban’s income. “If this deployment and the Nato operation fail,” said a source close to the Cabinet Office, “then Nato collapses, which, given the proximity of Afghanistan to Europe, is more of a problem for us than it is for the Americans.”
Nearly forty years after Richard Nixon launched his uncompromising war on drugs, the evidence is unambiguous: it does not reduce consumption of hard drugs in the west, but it does guarantee huge profits for drug traffickers. Cabinet Office research is quite clear about this – we are making no inroads into these profits amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Britain’s modest funds for the development of alternative livelihoods cannot compete with that amount of cash – drug lords and the Taliban can corrupt anybody they like in Afghanistan. And, in many areas, that is exactly what they are doing. Afghanistan is heading towards an even greater meltdown than its South American equivalent.
Lessons from Colombia
On a recent visit to Colombia, I went to the small town of Jamundí, south of Cali. To get there, you drive by a soccer club owned by the once-notorious Cali cartel, and then pass a bullring belonging to the Ochoa brothers, Pablo Escobar’s former partners in the Medellín cartel. As the little town tails off, there is a welcoming sign at the beginning of a drive lined by tall green hedges. Underneath the words “My Little Home: psychiatric hostel” there is a phone number and an arrow pointing down the drive. Two hundred yards further on, around a couple of bends, the Little Home itself is set in delightful grounds, although the rusty green-and-red iron gates and the barbed-wire fencing are less welcoming.
At 5.30pm on 22 May 2006, the commander of one of Colombia’s crack special forces units stopped his convoy of three cars at just this spot. Accompanied by nine men and an informant, he emerged from his car and strolled towards the gates. The informant had assured him that there was more to My Little Home than meets the eye, and that the hospital was being used to store a large consignment of cocaine.
Without warning, a group of uniformed men who had been lying in wait opened fire on the police unit, killing its commander instantly. Twenty-eight gunmen had been hiding in the unkempt undergrowth adjacent to the drive. “We were just preparing supper at the time,” said a member of staff at the hostel, “when there was this tremendous noise of gunfire from the gate.” A couple of the police officers threw themselves into the open drains for protection. “We heard these men screaming, saying: ‘Stop, please don’t shoot! We’re police!’ And then: ‘We have wives and children.'”
The shooting went on for a full 20 minutes until every last policeman was dead. The special forces were not executed by the Farc, Colombia’s 18,000-strong left-wing guerrilla movement, but by a 28-strong platoon of the regular army, the 23rd Mountain Brigade. This came as a shock to everyone – to Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, and to his government; and it came as a big and unpleasant shock to the US Congress and President George W Bush.
The platoon commander, Colonel Bayron Carvajal, at first issued a statement describing the incident as a tragic case of “friendly fire”. In fact, it bore the hallmarks of an execution. Furthermore, as Attorney General Mario Iguarán looked a little closer, it looked suspiciously as if the soldiers had been acting to protect whoever owned the drugs. “This was not a mistake, this was a crime,” he said after a preliminary investigation. “They were doing the bidding of a drug trafficker.”
There was good reason for long faces in Washington when the news hit DC. The US had recently handed over the last wedge of the $4.7bn it had promised to Bogotá under Plan Colombia. This five-year plan, introduced by the Clinton administration and expanded by President Bush, had been designed to save the world from the joint scourge of cocaine and the Farc. Eighty per cent of these funds was earmarked for upgrading the military. With the exceptions of Egypt and Israel, Washington lavishes more hardware and cash on Colombia’s armed forces than on any other in the world. The dual aim is to eradicate coca plantations (and thus the cocaine business) and the left-wing guerrillas. In Jamundí, however, those self-same recipients of military aid were working on behalf of narco-traffickers and murdering policemen.
Not only does money from narcotics corrupt key agencies engaged in the war on drugs in Colombia, but it sustains the Farc, which controls a chunk of territory the size of Switzerland. The Farc derives most of its income from taxes imposed on the cocaleros (coca-growing peasants). Rather quaintly, the Farc extracts 10 per cent of the peasants’ income in continuation of the Catholic Church’s tithe system. In exchange, they provide a secure environment for the peasants to grow crops and supply services that the state cannot.
But it isn’t only the Farc that deals in coke. The guerrillas’ sworn enemies, the paramilitaries who support the government of President Uribe, also fund themselves by the sale of cocaine to the United States. Although some have disarmed in a recent deal with Uribe, they continue to wield influence over politicians and the military. Perhaps most disturbing is that just 3 per cent of Colombia’s GDP, at most, derives from the cocaine trade, yet this is sufficient to sustain two freelance armies – the Farc and the paramilitaries – which have up to 50,000 men, women and children under arms. Cocaine production was up 6 per cent again this year and the price in Britain and the US continues to fall.
In Afghanistan, however, the UN reports that since the fall of the Taliban, opium is a staggering 51 per cent of GDP, rendering it impossible for the central government in Kabul to impose any effective control on the country outside the capital. That is despite the assistance of Nato’s 19,000-strong force there. Far from cleaning up the scourge of cheap heroin on Britain’s streets, as Blair promised in 2001, the intervention in Afghanistan has become an epicentre of organised crime, insurgency and terrorism that nourishes all manner of organisations, from the Turkish smack cartels, through the despotic leaders of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and on above all to al-Qaeda, whose prime source of income is the Afghan opium trade. Perhaps Bush is right in his presumptuous claim that the war on terror will be the defining struggle of the new century: it could hand history’s most powerful military coalition an epoch-defining defeat.
Misha Glenny is writing a book on global organised crime
When the empire relied on opium
by Sam Alexandroni
Britain has not always seen its mission as eliminating drug trafficking: it was once a major player, pushing narcotics on foreign markets through force of arms and raking in millions each year from drug smuggling.
British merchants made huge sums running opium into China in the 19th century by giving cash advances to farmers in rural India to cultivate poppies. For Britain, it was the only way to balance the books. Shipments of silk and tea bought from China had to be paid for in silver bullion, because China did not want Britain’s manufactured goods. Opium was the only product in demand and by the 1830s Britain was flooding the Chinese market with 1,400 tons of it each year.
The imperial capital in Peking was a long way from the main port of Canton in the south. Corrupt Chinese officials, many of whom were drug addicts, protected the smuggling operation in return for kickbacks. Outraged, the Chinese emperor ignored the advice of some mandarins to control opium through legalisation, and called for a crackdown. Opium dens were closed, known dealers arrested and those found guilty publicly executed. Foreign merchants were forced to surrender their stocks of opium and the drug was dissolved and run off into the ocean. In a few months during 1839, £3m worth of Crown property was destroyed.
The British response was swift. In 1840, heavy gunships bombarded coastal towns and captured Canton. Outgunned and humiliated, the Chinese sued for peace, reluctantly accepting the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong to the British.
The peace was short-lived, and in 1856 a minor incident triggered the second opium war. As one-sided as the first, it led to the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858. Opium was legalised and, in the years that followed, consumption soared, some estimates placing the rate of addiction among the Chinese as high as 10 per cent.