As you read today's piece by historian and TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author most recently of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, think of Afghanistan as the gateway drug for three Washington administrations. Within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush and his top officials had launched their invasion of that country and soon knocked off the Taliban (rather than simply going after Osama bin Laden and his followers). That "victory," however ephemeral, acted as the policy equivalent of a drug high for the president and his crew of geopolitical dreamers who promptly turned their attention to Saddam Hussein's Iraq and nailing down the rest of the oil heartlands of the planet. (And you know just how well that went in mission-accomplished terms.) In 2009-2010, Afghanistan ("the right war") would prove the gateway drug for Barack Obama as he surged in 30,000 troops, along with mini-surges of contractors, CIA agents, Special Forces soldiers, and others. Before he was done, from Libya to Iraq, the Afghan War would be the least of his problems. And finally, of course, there's Donald Trump, who, in the years leading up to his election victory, spoke or tweeted as if he might take a different approach to Afghanistan, but then surrounded himself with three generals from America's losing wars and once again decided to do the usual Afghan thing. Now, he, too, is hooked and, from Niger to Somalia and beyond, the results are already coming in.
Though seldom thought of that way (except perhaps by McCoy), Afghanistan is not just the longest war in American history but possibly the longest opium war in anyone's history. And sixteen years later, here's one thing we can take for granted about what's likely to happen: in the end, it never goes well. If we know less than we should about how badly it's going right now, part of that can be explained by the policies of those most deeply hooked on the war. When things go badly for them, they turn off the information spigot, as in 2015 when the American command in Afghanistan cut off all public release of material on "U.S.-taxpayer-funded efforts to build, train, equip, and sustain the Afghan National Security Forces." That was, of course, at the point when almost $65 billion had already been poured into training and equipping those forces and they were failing nationwide. Since then, we know that Afghan police and military casualties have soared, desertions have risen, "ghost soldiers" fill many units (with their commanders and others skimming off their salaries), and the Taliban has gained control of ever more of the country. In response, the U.S. command there has again "classified and restricted once-public information regarding the state of Afghan security forces, including 'casualties, personnel strength, attrition, capability assessments, and operational readiness of equipment.'"
And so it goes in America's drug war in South Asia. Someday, the high will truly wear off and then who knows where we'll be. In the meantime, read McCoy and think about what this repetitive version of war making means so many years later. Tom
Into the Afghan Abyss (Again)
How a Failed Drug War Will Defeat Trump's Afghan Adventure
By Alfred W. McCoy
After nine months of confusion, chaos, and cascading tweets, Donald Trump's White House has finally made one thing crystal clear: the U.S. is staying in Afghanistan to fight and -- so they insist -- win. "The killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might," said the president in August, trumpeting his virtual declaration of war on the Taliban. Overturning Barack Obama's planned (and stalled) drawdown in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced that the Pentagon would send 4,000 more soldiers to fight there, bringing American troop strength to nearly 15,000.
In October, as that new mini-escalation was ramping up, the CIA leaked to the New York Times news of a complementary covert surge with lethal drone strikes and "highly experienced" Agency paramilitary teams being dispatched to "hunt and kill" Taliban guerrillas, both ordinary fighters and top officials. "This is unforgiving, relentless," intoned CIA Director Mike Pompeo, promising a wave of extrajudicial killings reminiscent of the Agency's notorious Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War. CIA paramilitary officers, reported the Times, will lead Special Forces operatives, both Afghan and American, in expanded counterterrorism operations that, in the past, "have been accused of indiscriminately killing Afghan civilians." In short, it's game on in Afghanistan.- Advertisement -
After 16 years of continuous war in that country, the obvious question is: Does this new campaign have any realistic chance of success, no less victory? To answer that, another question must be asked: How has the Taliban managed to expand in recent years despite intensive U.S. operations and a massive air campaign, as well as the endless and endlessly expensive training of Afghan security forces? After all, the Afghan War is not only the longest in U.S. history, but also one of the largest, peaking at 101,000 American troops in country during President Obama's surge of 2010-2011.
Thinking About the Taliban
Americans have been hearing about the Taliban for so long that most fail to appreciate just how relentless that movement's growth has been in recent years. In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, the Bush White House unleashed a lethal combination of U.S. airpower and CIA-funded Afghan warlords to crush the fundamentalist Taliban and capture the Afghan capital, Kabul, with stunning speed. Not only was that Islamist movement and its government defeated, but it lost so many dedicated militants to those devastating air attacks that it was seemingly smashed beyond repair or revival. Nonetheless, within five years, the Taliban was back in force, already fielding 25,000 fighters. By 2015, it was in control of more than half the countryside, had captured district capitals, and was even pounding at the gates of major provincial cities like Kunduz.
As with any movement, there are multiple reasons for the Taliban's success, including the failure of the government in Kabul -- a cesspit of corruption -- to deliver anything like rural prosperity, the country's martial tradition of fighting foreign occupiers, and Pakistan's sub-rosa support, as well as the wide-open sanctuaries in its tribal backlands along the Afghan border. But there is one other factor, more fundamental than all the rest: the opium poppy.
The Taliban guerrillas are, like many insurgent armies, largely made up of teenagers who fight, at least in part, for cash to feed their families. Every spring for the past 15 years, as snow melts from mountain slopes across that country, new crops of such teenage recruits emerge from impoverished villages ready to take up arms for the rebel cause. Each of them reportedly makes at least $300 a month, far more than they could possibly hope to earn from the usual agricultural wages. In other words, it takes an estimated $90 million in salaries alone for the Taliban to field its 25,000 strong guerrilla army for a single fighting season. With an overall budget approaching a billion dollars annually, the cost of the insurgency's 15-year war rings in at something close to $15 billion.
So where, in that impoverished, arid land, has the Taliban been getting nearly a billion dollars a year? According to the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, a single Afghan province, Helmand, "produces a significant amount of the opium globally that turns into heroin and... provides about 60 percent of the Taliban funding." The country's president, Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, agrees. "Without drugs," he's said, "this war would have been long over. The heroin is a very important driver of this war."- Advertisement -
The Taliban's rise has paralleled the relentless growth of Afghanistan's opium production from a mere 185 tons when the U.S. invaded in October 2001 to a still-unequalled yield of 8,200 tons in 2008, a harvest that provided an unprecedented 53% of the country's gross domestic product and 93% of the world's illicit heroin supply. That same year, the U.N. stated that Taliban guerrillas were extracting "from the drug economy resources for arms, logistics, and militia pay." A study for the U.S. Institute of Peace also found that, in 2009, the Taliban already had 50 heroin labs in its territory and controlled 98% of the country's poppy fields, collecting $425 million in "taxes" levied on the opium traffic.
By the time Obama's 2010 surge segued into an exit strategy four years later, observers were unanimous in their assessment that opium had become central to the Taliban's survival. Despite a succession of "drug eradication" programs sponsored and funded by Washington, the Pentagon's Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko,concluded in 2014 that, "by every conceivable metric, we've failed. Production and cultivation are up, interdiction and eradication are down, financial support to the insurgency is up, and addiction and abuse are at unprecedented levels in Afghanistan."
The 2013 opium crop covered a record area of 209,000 hectares, bringing the harvest back up to a substantial 5,500 tons. This massive crop generated some $3 billion in illicit income, of which the Taliban's tax alone took an estimated $320 million -- almost half that movement's revenues. The U.S. Embassy corroborated this dismal assessment, calling the illicit income "a windfall for the insurgency, which profits from the drug trade at almost every level."