Friday, May 8, 2009

Who is protecting Afghanistan's Heroin production?

Peter Dale Scott has a typically solid article at Global Research (reference links at the original).
In 2007, Afghanistan supplied 93% of the world's opium, according to the U.S. State Department. Illicit poppy production, meanwhile, brings $4 billion into Afghanistan,[12] or more than half the country’s total economy of $7.5 billion, according to the United Nations Office of Drug Control (UNODC).[13] It also represents about half of the economy of Pakistan, and of the ISI in particular.[14]

Destroying the labs has always been an obvious option, but for years America refused to do so for political reasons. In 2001 the Taliban and bin Laden were estimated by the CIA to be earning up to 10 per cent of Afghanistan’s drug revenues, then estimated at between 6.5 and 10 billion U.S. dollars a year.[15] This income of perhaps $1 billion was less than that earned by Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI, parts of which had become the key to the drug trade in Central Asia. The UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP) estimated in 1999 that the ISI made around $2.5 billion annually from the sale of illegal drugs.[16]

At the start of the U.S. offensive in 2001, according to Ahmed Rashid, "The Pentagon had a list of twenty-five or more drug labs and warehouses in Afghanistan but refused to bomb them because some belonged to the CIA's new NA [Northern Alliance] allies."[17] Rashid was "told by UNODC officials that the Americans knew far more about the drug labs than they claimed to know, and the failure to bomb them was a major setback to the counter-narcotics effort."[18] James Risen reports that the ongoing refusal to pursue the targeted drug labs came from neocons at the top of America’s national security bureaucracy, including Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad, and their patron Donald Rumsfeld.[19]
Prior to the invasion of Afghanistan, most of these labs were in Turkey, but production has mostly moved to Afghanistan - although they are still controlled by the same networks.

As Sibel frequently points out, the 'face' of the heroin industry is always the Afghan poppy farmers, and the policy dispute is always described as 'To eradicate or not eradicate,' and whether Afghani farmers have any better options for feeding their families, and whether poppy destruction will drive farmers into the protective arms of the Taliban etc. When the issue is framed like that, 'reasonable people' can disagree about the correct approach. The next level of the discussion, infrequently discussed, is whether or not to target the production facilities, the drug labs and the warehouses. Even here, Peter Dale Scott, quoting Ahmed Rashid, only refers to the 2001 situation when the Northern Alliance was still in business.

I can't remember a single story in the eight years since the invasion of an attack - air or ground - on one of these drug labs or warehouses - so whatever arguments Feith, Wolfowitz, Khalilzad and Rumsfeld were relying on back then are now presumably inoperative. (see my "Sibel Edmonds & the Neocons' Turkish Gravy-Train" for more.) And, of course, those guys have all been out of the US government for years, so there are presumably others who have taken their place in who are following the same policy. Who? And Why?

But there is another important element - beyond the options of going after the poppy farmers and the drug labs - that is almost never discussed (putting aside for current purposes Sibel's emphasis on the fact that there are a group of people who manage this $50 billion industry and the necessary money-laundering etc.) That is, now that these drug labs are located within Afghanistan, a country occupied by the US/NATO, these labs need so-called 'precursor chemicals' to produce heroin - and lots of them, tanker loads.

A July 2008 AP report, carried by Boston Globe, and not many others, quotes Christina Oguz, country representative for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, saying that only 1% of these precursor chemicals are ever seized - even though these chemicals are all imported by the tanker-load, and have no 'dual-use' justification. Reading between the lines in the article, Oguz's 'frustration' is palpable:
She urged the international community to share more information on known smugglers of the chemicals, many of whom were "long-established and based in neighboring countries."
These chemicals are not coming into Afghanistan on the backs of mules - as the media often presents Afghanistan's export of heroin -they are coming through major transit points.

Former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, made the same point in his 2007 article "Britain is protecting the biggest heroin crop of all time." Murray writes:
(Afghanistan) now exports not opium, but heroin. Opium is converted into heroin on an industrial scale, not in kitchens but in factories. Millions of gallons of the chemicals needed for this process are shipped into Afghanistan by tanker. The tankers and bulk opium lorries on the way to the factories share the roads, improved by American aid, with Nato troops.
My knowledge of all this comes from my time as British Ambassador in neighbouring Uzbekistan from 2002 until 2004. I stood at the Friendship Bridge at Termez in 2003 and watched ... the tankers of chemicals roaring into Afghanistan.
Let me emphasize - the US government/NATO might have arguably legitimate reasons to 'protect' the poppy farmers, they might even have reason not to attack the drug labs. But what possible excuse is there for allowing tanker after tanker of requisite heroin precursor chemicals for entering Afghanistan? Who does that help?

For comparison, I mentioned Bashir Noorzai recently. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for heroin-related charges last week. One of the charges against him in his indictment was:
In or about 1997, Taliban authorities in Afghanistan seized a truckload of morphine base that was owned by BASHIR NOORZAI, a/k/a "Haji Bashir Noorzai," the defendant. Shortly thereafter, Taliban authorities returned the seized morphine base to NOORZAI with personal apologies from Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban.
Is it categorically better or worse to seize and release a 'truckload' of morphine base, or to knowingly allow many truckloads of heroin precursor chemicals to enter a country that you occupy and to effectively create a 'green zone' for heroin labs? Shouldn't Feith, Wolfowitz, and the others be subject to the same punishment of life imprisonment?

I'll finish with some more from Peter Dale Scott's important article:
It follows that there are many players with a much larger financial stake in the Afghan drug traffic than local Afghan drug lords, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Sibel Edmonds has charged that Pakistani and Turkish intelligence, working together, utilize the resources of the international networks transmitting Afghan heroin.[30] Others have also written about the ties between U.S. intelligence and the Turkish narco-intelligence connection.[31]

Loretta Napoleoni has argued that there is an ISI-backed Islamist drug route of al Qaeda allies across North Central Asia, reaching from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan through Azerbaijan and Turkey to Kosovo.[32] Dennis Dayle, a former top-level DEA agent in the Middle East, has corroborated the CIA interest in that region’s drug connection. I was present when he told an anti-drug conference that "In my 30-year history in the Drug Enforcement Administration and related agencies, the major targets of my investigations almost invariably turned out to be working for the CIA."[33]
The UNODC Executive Director, Antonio Maria Costa, has reported that "money made in illicit drug trade has been used to keep banks afloat in the global financial crisis."[34]
The global drug traffic itself will continue to benefit from the protracted conflict generated by "full-spectrum dominance" in Afghanistan, and some of the beneficiaries may have been secretly lobbying for it.


Kingfisher said...


There never have been adequate force levels deployed in country to secure and enforce the borders of Afghanistan. I am by no means a fan of Feith and Wolfowitz; but this far from tacit involvement in the drug trade.

I respectfully disagree with your endorsement of Professor Scott’s article. He usually writes some interesting stuff, but this is one is just not very good. Prof. Scott’s expertise lay in his ability to chronicle and theorize on Deep State matters. He bit off more than he can chew with this article; he attempts to dive into international relations theory visa vie his failed state-ravaged state discussion, rail against interventionist and imperial policies, project the progressive guilt complex, while trying to explain the history of the Afghan narcotics industry.

The fact is that growing opium undermines the Afghan government and the coalition forces efforts to support it, that’s why the Taliban encourages it. From a business perspective there’s an oversupply of opium being grown, there is such a glut that the Taliban and traffickers have to horde it stabilize market price.

From a counterinsurgency perspective we, or better yet the Afghan government, should be buying the farmers entire opium crop at their gates. We could use it for legal products or just burn it; either way it would no longer make outlaws of the farmers, and it would reduce the sea that the Taliban can swim in.

You had mentioned you had more written on Noorzai but not published, I look forward to reading more.

The impression I got was that some dipshit at the White House complained that nobody related to Afghanistan (they probably said no “terrorists” or Muslim) was on the Kingpin list. In a scramble to find a poster case, Noorzai came up.

The Scott article makes him out to be just some drug dealer, just one guy, just an intelligence asset. The important thing is his name Haji Bashir NOORZAI; as in NOORZAI - one of the most important and powerful Pashtun tribes, and this guy is a powerful figure in it. You recruit/rent one member of the tribe; you recruit/rent the entire tribe. Similarly if you screw with one member of the tribe; you screw with them all.

I may happen to share some of Prof Scott’s non-interventionist sentiment. But the fact is we have intervened and will continue to intervene in AfPak; so it is stupid not to recruit/rent this guy and his tribe, not matter how big a criminal he is. This is especially so as now it has gotten to the point that we are about to essentially go to war with Pashtunistan, if we aren’t already.

Kingfisher said...

From the great David Rose:

lukery said...

Kingfisher - thanks for your thoughtful comment. You are obviously well-versed on the issues here (feel free to contact me via email).

Let me just focus on the main (intended) point of my article: For some reason, the US/NATO is effectively supporting the heroin industry in Afghanistan by allowing the requisite precursor chemicals to flow into Afghanistan. As I indicated, this is not a matter of insufficient troops securing the border - this is tanker after tanker crossing at major points (such as the Friendship Bridge)

Similarly, I don't think that it is the 'growing' of opium that undermines the Afghan government (as I tried to make clear in my article). Poppy production is the least of the problems. The main problem is the corruption of the Afghani political/economic system - reported to include Karzai's family (and just about everyone else.) And if we believe that heroin profits can corrupt the Afghani system, then surely we can believe that those profits are sufficiently large to enable the corruption of other governments, including Turkey and the US.

I disagree with your thesis that the Taliban encourages heroin production because it undermines the govt. They encourage it, I believe, because it is very profitable.

I am very interested in the fact that someone is stockpiling heroin - I have a few unpublished pieces about this too. In actual fact, we don't know who is doing this, or why. By my last count, someone/s have stockpiled something like 3 years worth of global demand, and the last time this happened led to (or at least was contemporaneous with) some most unfortunate circumstances.

Regarding buying the opium crop, there are lots of reasons why that probably won't be effective (depending on your goal, which you limit to COIN)

Regarding my 'endorsement' of PDS's article - fair enough. Allow me to limit my endorsement to the extracts that I have included in my article.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I sincerely beg to differ. Dale Scott quotes unreliable sources. It is not easy to show any link between ISI and heroin. Nor is it at all well documented, that Afghanistan is now in the business of exporting heroin. Last I checked, Turkey remains a major laboratory. I prefer your own work Lukery - it tends to be more careful, and empirical.

Kingfisher said...


I have no doubt that heroin profits corrupt the Afghan, Turkish, and US governments, in addition to the international financial system. The Afghan government is absolutely undermined by its own corruption; the Taliban also undermine it by encouraging farmers to grow opium. I’ll quote an email from David Kilcullen, an Australian COIN expert on loan to the US who has managed to bring some voice of reason; as published in George Packers great article (

One good example of Taliban information strategy is their use of “night letters.” They have been pushing local farmers in several provinces (Helmand, Uruzgan, Kandahar) to grow poppy instead of regular crops, and using night-time threats and intimidation to punish those who don’t and convince others to convert to poppy. This is not because they need more opium—God knows they already have enough—but because they’re trying to detach the local people from the legal economy and the legally approved governance system of the provinces and districts, to weaken the hold of central and provincial government. Get the people doing something illegal, and they’re less likely to feel able to support the government, and more willing to do other illegal things (e.g. join the insurgency)—this is a classic old Bolshevik tactic from the early cold war, by the way. They are specifically trying to send the message: “The government can neither help you nor hurt us. We can hurt you, or protect you—the choice is yours.” They also use object lessons, making an example of people who don’t cooperate—for example, dozens of provincial-level officials have been assassinated this year, again as an “armed propaganda” tool—not because they want one official less but because they want to send the message “We can reach out and touch you if you cross us.” Classic armed information operation.I would surmise that there is a cartel (in the economic sense, likely loosely based) that controls heroin output and price. The cartel likely consists of people linked to the Afghan government and people linked to the Taliban. That would be South Asia for you, as Kipling write:

“ Now it is not good for the Christian's health
To hustle the Aryan brown,
For the Christian riles and the Aryan smiles,
And it weareth the Christian down.
And the end of the fight
Is a tombstone white
With the name of the late deceased
And the epitaph drear: 'A fool lies here
who tried to hustle the East.' "
There are problems with buying the crop; the most obvious being that at the end of the day we’re dealing feudal order. But buying the crop, or attempting to, is a lot better than what we have been doing – nothing. The second problem being the number of countries whose economies would be destabilized.

Gretchen Peter's Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda comes out this week, may be of interest to you.


lukery said...

Anon - thanks for your support.

On the other hand, PDS's work always seems to be well documented.

lukery said...

Kingfisher - I guess we probably mostly agree with each other - except that you seem to be arguing that there are good guys ('us') and bad guys (taliban/'them')

You say that 'The cartel likely consists of people linked to the Afghan government and people linked to the Taliban' - why would it not just as likely be people in the US govt? Are they somehow more impervious to high-level bribery?

Kingfisher said...

We have good guys and bad guys, we do both good and bad things. The Taliban are bad guys, though they are "bad guys" who the US/Afghan govt will need to work with and co-opt if Afghanistan is to improve. But my personal conceptions of good and bad do not matter. To a Pashtun fleecing non-Pashtun’s is good; turning on the tribe is bad.

I said I have no doubt members of the US government are susceptible to high-level bribery. You, Sibel, and others have done excellent work to document this. However, I doubt that any individual in the US govt has the requisite tribal influence that would be necessary to be a member of a said hypothetical production cartel.

lukery said...

Kingfisher, of course, it depends on the definition of 'member.'

From my perspective, the issue is whether these people are a) profiting from the industry, and b) making decisions based on those profits which are contrary to stated goals.

We know that heroin profits flow to many of the Turkey-boosters in the US. What do they do in return?

Kingfisher said...

It would make them an Asset or an Agent of this hypothetical cartel; not a member of the cartel.

Use a parallel of a high to mid level US Border Patrol member who takes a payoff from the Gulf Cartel to perform a number of services.

Does that make him a member of the Gulf Cartel then? No, it would make him an agent/asset of the Gulf Cartel.

They would be an accessory to the crime; not a principal to the crime.

lukery said...

Well, yes, I agree (mostly) with your analogy with the border guard - except in this case the 'asset' has the ability to make 'policy' decisions - such as ignoring the tankers of pre-cursors flooding into the country, or stomping on investigations which would demonstrate that the Turkish embassies and consulates are being used to traffic heroin, and so on.

Further, if you consider the criminal enterprise at a higher level than 'production cartel,' then the distinction between 'asset' and 'member' blurs significantly.

Kingfisher said...

Heh, corrupt Customs and Border Patrol mid to high level officers have made rogue policies and squashed investigations in the past!

You are right that the distinction will blur at a higher level. The Assets/Agents are diplomatic norms, government policies and the officials who execute them.

We can be more concrete in our conceptions of a production cartel, than we can with a higher level criminal organization. We have some good info from Sibel and others; but the picture is very cloudy, imho.

The Napoleoni route/concept is 10/15 years old; and the public is just now getting a clearer picture of it. However, the world is not static; and my guess is there have been significant changes.

lukery said...

Heh, corrupt Customs and Border Patrol mid to high level officers have made rogue policies and squashed investigations in the past!Right, it's just a matter of degree. In this case, we are talking about the highest level of the US govt making decisions which are contrary to national security goals. That's the point.

We can be more concrete in our conceptions of a production cartel, than we can with a higher level criminal organization.Right, but for my purposes, the production cartel isn't particularly interesting or illuminating. That's the issue here. It isn't the production that does the damage, it is the entire delivery channel.