The Strategic Ramifications of a US-Led Withdrawal from Afghanistan
The United States and the NATO allies are preparing to disengage and soon withdraw from Afghanistan and even the most vocal advocates of the "long-term commitment" do not anticipate more than five years of active US and NATO involvement. All the local key players -- in Kabul, Islamabad, and countless tribal and localized foci of power -- are cognizant and are already maneuvering and posturing to deal with the new reality.
Irrespective of the political solution and/or compromise which will emerge in Kabul, the US is leaving behind a huge powder keg of global and regional significance with a short fuse burning profusely: namely, the impact of Afghanistan's growing, expanding and thriving heroin economy.
The issue at hand is not just the significant impact which the easily available and relatively cheap heroin has on the addiction rates in Russia, Europe, Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and the consequent public health, social stability and mortality-rate issues.
In global terms, the key threat is the impact that the vast sums of drug money has on the long-term regional stability of vast tracks of Eurasia: namely, the funding of a myriad of "causes" ranging from jihadist terrorism and subversion to violent and destabilizing secessionism and separatism.
Russia is most concerned with these developments because most of them occur on Russia's own doorstep and soft underbelly. Moreover, Russia has always been cognizant of the potential dangers emanating from chaos at the Heart of Asia and the Greater Black Sea Basin. As a result, the Kremlin embarked on a major initiative to secure long-term international commitment to resolving Afghanistan's endemic narcotics problem, which means consolidating a stable form of governance and thus eliminating the consequences of the region-wide narco-funded terrorism and destabilization.
On June 9-10, 2010, the Kremlin convened in Moscow an international forum entitled Afghan Drug Production: A Challenge to the International Community as the launch of the international drive to resolve Afghanistan's long-term challenges where Russian Pres. Dmitry Medvedev delivered the opening speech.
"We consider drug addiction the most serious threat to the development of our country and the health of our people," he said. Medvedev urged the international community to curtail the global spread of drug crimes which fuel terrorism. This would be possible, Medvedev argued, if the international community did not politicize the fight against drugs, narco-criminality, and narco-terrorism.
"The fight against the drug threat should be removed from any kind of politicization," Medvedev stressed. He warned that any "political games" on such crucial issues are inadmissible for they "undermine our joint international efforts and weaken our anti-drugs coalition."
Viktor Ivanov, the Director of Russia's Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics, articulated the Kremlin's case why the Afghan drug production is an international rather than a local or regional threat. "The time has come to qualify the status of Afghan drug production as a threat to world peace and security," Ivanov said.
"This is a key postulate of the action plan that was proposed by Russia to the international community and voiced at NATO headquarters, the European Parliament and Beijing." The Kremlin considers global drug trafficking to be far more destructive than terrorism alone because drug money is the primary facilitator of numerous threats including terrorism.
The long-term resolution of the crisis in Afghanistan is a precondition, Ivanov explained, because "it was drug production that had given rise to rife political and economic instability in Afghanistan...It is Afghan drug traffic that fuels terrorists in the North Caucasus; we need to work together to fight it." Ivanov stressed the Kremlin's conviction that Afghan drug trafficking "is a global problem" because it "feeds transnational crime and terrorism all over the world" and thus merits international solution.
Heroin production in Afghanistan has vastly expanded since the US-led forces entered in the Autumn of 2001. Initially, poppy cultivation centered in the southern and, to a lesser extent, north-eastern provinces - all focus of US and NATO military activities. Presently, poppy cultivation and drug-related activities have spread throughout most of Afghanistan. For example, a large number of heroin-processing labs -- presently estimated at about 200 -- were built as well.
However, ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force, in Afghanistan] prefers to largely ignore the growing narcotics problems for fear of alienating the farmer population that might resent losing its livelihood. However, the US main concern has always been alienating the Kabul-centric political élite, the very same élite which is, at the very core of, and key to, the US-led effort to establish a centralized government in Kabul and a functioning state in Afghanistan. With drug money fueling the political machine which is crucial to the US nation-building efforts, the US has no interest in undermining Afghanistan's narco-economy.
In the Moscow forum, US senior officials acknowledged the US reluctance to commit to the eradication of Afghanistan's poppy cultivation and narco-economy. Patrick Ward, the Acting Deputy Director for Supply Reduction at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, warned that intense anti-narcotics operations "will further undermine the rule of law and reinforce the nexus between drugs and terrorism". He stated that US and ISAF forces must not find themselves in a position where they were perceived as the instrument of eradicating "the only source of income of people who live in the second poorest country of the world".
The US Ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle, reiterated that the US would not take Russia's advice about eradicating Afghanistan's opium harvests anytime soon for fear of engendering popular alienation. UNODC Director Antonio Maria Costa agreed that "there is no rôle for NATO forces in eradication at the farm level" because this will push the population into the arms of the Taliban. However, he urged the US and NATO to embark on a comprehensive program to solve Afghanistan's drugs menace at the national-political level; alluding to the centrality of narco-funds in Afghanistan's politics and power élite.
But the problem of Afghanistan's drugs cannot be ignored by the West because the primary strategic long-term impact of Afghanistan's drugs is the use of the drug money along the distribution routes from Afghanistan-Pakistan through the energy-rich Central Asia to the western Balkans, mainly Kosovo.
The intimate relationships and close cooperation between the drug trade, international terrorism and separatism are not new phenomena.
In the early-1990s, the Sunni jihadist leadership assumed leadership over a thriving joint action. Specific fatwas from Islamist luminaries authorize these highly irregular, seemingly un-Islamic activities because they also contribute to the destruction of Western society and civilization. The Sunni Islamist fatwas are based on and derived from earlier rulings of the higher Shiite courts issued in connection with operations of HizbAllah and Iranian intelligence. The logic of these activities was elucidated in the mid-1980s in the HizbAllah's original fatwa on the distribution of drugs: "We are making these drugs for Satan: America and the Jews. If we cannot kill them with guns so we will kill them with drugs."
The main reason, however, for the Sunni jihadist embracing of the drug-trade was practicality. In the early-1990s, the fledgling jihadist leadership concluded that an intricate system of funding activities in the West was needed. By then, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar was getting ready to ship drugs from Afghanistan to the West and was willing to divert profits from this drug trade to support the fledgling terrorist networks in return for the arrangement of a viable system of money laundering.
An up-and-coming young activist -- Osama bin Laden -- used his knowledge of the Western financial system and his family's connections with the European banking system in order to organize the new financial system for jihad. At that time, the net worth of the Islamist network was estimated at $600-million in the West alone.
Another founding father of the narco-jihadist alliance was Shamil Basayev. Between April and June 1994, Basayev led a high-level Chechen delegation on a visit to an ISI-sponsored terrorist training infrastructure in both Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to arrange for advanced training and expert help, funding for the Chechen Jihad, and acquisition of weapons.
In Afghanistan, the Chechens visited the ISI's training facilities in the Khowst area, then run under the banner of Gulbaddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami. In Pakistan, the Chechens had a series of high level meetings with the Pakistani leaders who for a period became the patrons of the Chechen Jihad, arranging for the establishment of a comprehensive training and arming program for the Chechens in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
As a primary source of funds for their jihad, the Chechens were offered a major rôle in the expanding push of heroin from Afghanistan-Pakistan into Europe. The Chechen jihad would be handsomely rewarded for facilitating forward distribution facilities at the gates of Europe. Toward this end, Basayev met with individuals identified as "former ISI senior officials", who provided contacts for the drugs and weapons smuggling operations.
Moreover, in early 1994, senior Pakistani officials were reported to have intervened with the Taliban leadership to ensure the uninterrupted flow of heroin from the Helmand valley via Qandahar and Jalalabad. Under the new arrangements, the heroin would now be shipped northwards to an airfield near Chitral, Pakistan, from where the drugs, as well as a growing number of Chechens and Arab-Afghan volunteers, were flown to Chechnya. As the volume of heroin increased, truck convoys were dispatched across Central Asia.
By the late-1990s, as the sums of money available from the drug trade increased, bin Laden and the "Russian Mafiya" (in both Russia and several former-Soviet states) established a complex sophisticated money-laundering operation described by an insider as "an extended and octopus-like network that uses political names in Asia and Africa in return for commissions." The funds were used to finance the Taliban movement and a host of jihadist terrorist operations worldwide. Bin Laden made a commission on these transactions and used this resource to fund his favorite jihadist networks and spectacular terrorism.
By now, the annual income of the Taliban from the drug trade was estimated at $8-billion. Bin Laden was administering and managing these funds -- laundering them through his Mafiya connection -- in return for a commission of between 10 and 15 percent, which provided an annual income of about a billion dollars for the jihad.
All of this was rattled around the turn of the century. First, the Taliban leadership offered to stop the poppy growing as part of its desperate effort to gain legitimacy and support from the West. Although the Taliban eradicated virtually all poppy cultivation in southern Afghanistan, they permitted the jihadists to continue selling heroin from cached stockpiles.
By the time US forces entered Afghanistan in the Autumn of 2001, there was virtually no poppy cultivation. However, the US and NATO demonstrated benign neglect of the country-wide poverty and chaos. Meanwhile, Islamist leaders realized that the best way to ensure grassroots presence and even support would be through the provision of easy cash to the impoverished population.
The jihadist leadership used its supporter networks in the Persian Gulf States in order to clandestinely purchase virtually all the arable land in southern Afghanistan. Islamist emissaries now offered the population economic security in the form of loans and seeds for poppy cultivation on behalf of the mysterious landlords, and secure payment from buyers who would pick-up the harvest directly from the farmers, thus alleviating the dangers of traveling to the market. As well, tribal and local leaders were handsomely rewarded for their cooperation and endorsement of these arrangements.
By the time Washington committed to the establishment of a centralized government in Kabul, the entire power-political system was dependent on narco-funding for its existence and system of patronage. The US realized that it would be impossible to sustain the semblance of pro-Western system of governance in Kabul and the countryside without looking the other way on the rapidly growing and increasingly addictive narco-funding of Afghanistan's upper-most leadership.
Indeed, the poppy cultivation area in Afghanistan rose from 8,000 hectares in 2001 to 74,000 in 2002, peaking at 193,000 in 2007 but going down to 123,000 hectares in 2009. Although the loss is mainly the result of blight attacking the crops rather than eradication by police, the Taliban are effectively capitalizing on the plight of the affected farmers by claiming the farmers were victims of ISAF poisonous spraying and offering financial help in return for the farmers' support of the Taliban.
Presently, some 80 percent of the total amount of Afghanistan's opium is grown in Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan provinces, where the presence and activities of US and ISAF forces is most intense. There are strong indications that farmers throughout Afghanistan are already preparing for a record-breaking opium poppy planting season beginning in mid-September 2010 in hopes of a bumper crop next year.
Slightly more than half the Afghan heroin is smuggled via the northern route: Central Asia, Russia and the GBSB (Greater Black Sea Basin). Secondary is the southern route which carries slightly over a third of the heroin via Iran, Turkey and the Middle East to the GBSB.
Presently, the overall annual income from the Afghan heroin traveling along the northern route alone is more than $17-billion, out of which, the jihadist movement and its localized (separatist/secessionist) allies are making about $15-billion. There is no reliable estimate of the total income of the southern route, but the best guesstimates put it at more than $10-billion, most of which also goes to funding jihadist and secessionist causes (including the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban).
The annual cost of doing business in Afghanistan is below $100-million. The organized-crime networks running the labs and patronage system have a gross income of a couple of billion dollars, a small portion of which is spent on the Kabul power structure. This disparity raises the question of the cost-effectiveness of tolerating the narco-funded leadership in Kabul.
The narco-profits are thus the financial engine of key elements of the current government in Kabul and its regional cronies, as aptly demonstrated in the most recent Aftghan presidential elections. They will not permit their financial life-line to simply go away in the name of democracy or good governance. And having committed to Pres. Hamid Karzai and his patronage system as the key to the future of a modern state in Afghanistan, the US Barack Obama Administration cannot afford to see the administration in Kabul collapsing, no matter who they are or what they do.
Furthermore, the Afghan narcotics system is the key to the funding and sustenance of numerous regional and global dynamics which will not give up easily. The drug smuggling networks across Central Asia and into Russia and Europe are an integral part of a comprehensive narco-terrorist dynamics/system. Drug-trade funds jihadist terrorism and subversion from Tajikistan to Chechnya to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Moreover, the various separatist and secessionist movements -- that is, minorities feeling pressure of regional dynamics while having sense of alienation and victimization/victimhood -- are easy prey to the lure of easily available large sums of money from the drugs and smuggling trade.
Most dangerous are the minuscule states and state-like entities. Since these states and entities are too small and under-developed to be able to sustain themselves economically and socially in a proper and legal way, their local leaderships tend to look the other way as narco-funded organized crime establishes footholds in their midst. The drug-trade and/or money laundering bring money in and thus financially sustain the mini-enclaves and the chimera of self-determination attained.
Consequently, the various separatist and secessionist "causes" from Central Asia to the Caucasus (not just Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus) and to the Balkans have become safe-havens for the drug-trade. These include, for example, the financial and money-laundering centers in Stepanakert and Tiraspol, as well as Kosovo being the primary forward distribution point of Afghan-origin drugs into Western Europe.
And once they gained control over lucrative choke-points, these localized leaders, their cronies and their "causes", will not give up without fierce fight irrespective of their declared ideologies. The on-going fierce struggle for the control over the Fergana Valley by an alliance of jihadists and drug smugglers is indicative of this trend.
The latest round of fighting which started in early June 2010 already resulted in the death of more than 2,000 civilians and the dislocation of a few hundreds of thousands, mainly Uzbeks. The struggle for the Fergana Valley started in March 2005 when Kurmanbek Bakiyev, at the head of a coalition sponsored by organized crime, exploited the US-sponsored "Tulip Revolution" in order to seize power in Bishkek so that the southern coalition could ensure state patronage to their undertaking.
The combination of subversion of Kyrgyzstan's internal power dynamics and horrendous corruption could not be sustained for long. Indeed, it took five years for a coalition of traditional and radical power holders to overthrow Bakiyev. However, soon after Bakiyev was forced out of Bishkek in mid-April 2010, he and his allies started exacerbating the south in order to ensure their control over the Fergana Valley and the lucrative local drug-trade routes.
Hence, the ensuing riots and Kyrgyz-Uzbek fighting were neither spontaneous nor unanticipated.
The toppling of the Bakiyev administration -- which was based on the support of the southern clans and their allies and partners among the organized crime and jihadist circles -- heralded a struggle for power and control over the lucrative drug-smuggling routes via the Fergana Valley.
Indeed, local jihadists rallied to the cause starting late April as a coalition of jihadists and pro-Bakiyev groups began distributing pamphlets and CDs throughout southern Kyrgyzstan urging the establishment of a separate South Kyrgyzstan Democratic Republic under the ousted Bakiyev.
The incitement stressed the discrimination and disenfranchisement of the Kyrgyz southern clans by an alleged coalition of the Kyrgyz northern clans and the local Uzbek population. It did not take long for hatred and violence to erupt, destroying Bishkek's control over the area. The jihadists and drug runners already benefit from the de facto dismemberment of Kyrgyzstan for the separate entity in the south encompassing the Fergana Valley already significantly expedite their operations.
A similar trend is emerging in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan. For as long as the economic situation was tenuous and there was near complete dependence on the largess of the West delivered via Yerevan (the capital of Armenia), Stepanakert (the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh region) was ready for a political compromise which was going even beyond the hard-line position of Yerevan in the Minsk Group's negotiations with Baku.
However, as the economic situation in Nagorno-Karabakh began improving mainly due to the trickle-down effect of transmitted and laundered narco-funds, the position of the Stepanakert authorities regarding the future of the enclave has hardened.
In mid-June 2010, Stepanakert objected to a renewed mediation effort by the Kremlin. Stepanakert is apprehensive that a negotiated solution could be reached as Pres. Medvedev convinced Azerbaijan Pres. Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Pres. Serzh Sarkisian to meet in Saint Petersburg for the first time in more than four months and without the pressure of the Minsk Group's mediators. Consequently, the Kremlin reported that the two presidents narrowed their differences on some of the lingering thorny issues.
In response, the Stepanakert Armenian leadership announced that the meeting between Aliyev and Sarkisian "will not help find a resolution" for the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. Moreover, Stepanakert renewed its demand for a full state status in a new tripartite format -- of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan -- along with the Minsk Group mediators (Russia, France and the United States).
Concurrently, Stepanakert's renewed political push is given a sense of urgency by exacerbating the security situation along the ceasefire line of contact. Starting mid-June 2010, there has been a growing tension and escalation of fighting along the line of contact. Karabakhi-Armenian troops intensified provocations and exchanges of fire with the Azerbaijani military facing them.
The first major incident took place on June 16, 2010 when Karabakhi-Armenian troops ambushed an Azerbaijani patrol and an Azerbaijani soldier was killed in the fighting. This and a few smaller incidents led to growing tension and intensified military activities along the entire cease-fire line.
The number of clashes, ambushes, cross-border raids and brief exchanges of fire grew. On the night of June 18/19, 2010, Azerbaijani military noted preparations by Karabakhi-Armenian forces in north-eastern Nagorno-Karabakh where an Azerbaijani raiding party attacked the Karabakhi-Armenian positions, killing four soldiers and wounding four others before returning into Azerbaijani-controlled territory. Baku confirmed that one Azerbaijani soldier was killed and his body remained in the Karabakhi-Armenian position. Sporadic clashes and exchanges of fire continued.
Southern Kyrgyzstan and Nagorno-Karabakh are but the two most recent examples of the security manifestations of fringe and extremist policies made possible by narco-funding.
There are countless cases of unwarranted separatist and secessionist causes where the legitimate quest of minorities for self-determination could have long been resolved in a form of distinct region or autonomy within the borders of recognized states. However, the mere existence of virtually unlimited narco-funds -- a byproduct of the Afghanistan-origin drug trade -- enables the separatist and secessionist leaderships to sustain their respective struggles and extreme and unrealistic demands no matter how impractical they might be.
And when the international community refuses to go along with these quests, there emerges the penchant for armed struggle and terrorism if only because weapons and narco-funds are aplenty.
Thus, just starving the poppy cultivation and heroin processing labs in Afghanistan will create a security backlash throughout the Heart of Asia and the Greater Black Sea Basin. Hence, it is imperative to have a systemic approach to resolving not only the Afghan narco-challenges but also the entire regional security challenges aggravated and exacerbated by the mere availability of narco-funds and narco-terrorist groups.
Lastly, there is the issue of state-sponsorship of both terrorism and narco-criminality. These cannot be ignored if tangible long-term eradication of drug problem is sought. At the same time, there is no substitute to the eradication of poppy cultivation and heroin processing labs in Afghanistan. However, the mere physical destruction of crops or labs is only the beginning of a comprehensive process.
Presently the Afghan narco-system has enough built-in redundancy and has enough money to replace interim losses without a tangible systemic loss. One-time or even periodic destruction of assets is therefore an exercise in futility. Therefore, for any attempt to destroy Afghanistan's narco-system to have prospects of success, the foreign forces involved must stay for a protracted period in order to ensure the long-term impact on the affected society.
Moreover, a long-term military presence is first and foremost a question of ensuring the legitimacy of the central and local authorities, so that the people cooperate with them. As well, there is no point in attempting long-term presence by force if the quality and legitimacy of the civilian governance cannot be ascertained.
Simply put: reversing the criminalization of segments of society is an integral part of resolving the core-problems of that society. In the case of Afghanistan this means the legitimacy of the Kabul Government, establishing viable regionally-based governance, and resolving the endemic tribes-vs-local authorities' disputes.
Furthermore, the mere eradication of crops and destruction of labs will only create vacuum and domino effect which breed instability, additional terrorism, etc. Therefore, it is imperative to approach the Afghan drugs challenge in the context of a comprehensive political and security solution on a regional level. The Afghan narco-system is an integral part of a larger problem; and so is the solution. Similarly, no political and security solution is possible throughout the Heart of Asia and the Greater Black Sea Basin for as long as the narco-economy keeps funding the opposition and encouraging violence.
The entire narco-terrorist system constitutes a viable threat to the vital interests of Russia. It is a huge time-bomb at Russia's soft underbelly, therefore, the Kremlin considers the flow of drugs from Afghanistan to be an issue of vital importance - from the undermining of Russian society to destabilizing regional security.
Although Afghanistan is the primary source of illegal drugs in Europe, the Europeans are reluctant to confront the issue of recreational drug use effectively and this attitude diminishes Europe's willingness to address the real challenges.
The narco-terrorism of Eurasia has a minuscule impact on the US and is thus not a priority for Washington, particularly at a time the Obama Administration is yearning to disengage from Afghanistan virtually at all cost. Hence, it is up to Russia -- whose vital interests are at stake -- to lead the struggle against the rising tide of narco-terrorism at the Heart of Asia and the Greater Black Sea Basin.
Virtually all experts in the Moscow forum agreed that the current situation in Afghanistan-Pakistan-Central Asia was not only untenable, but was rapidly deteriorating. The US/ISAF efforts are considered better than nothing, but the near-unanimous expert opinion is that the security effort barely scratches the surface while the most endemic problems are deep-rooted.
The Kremlin wants NATO to stay in Afghanistan but the US is leading NATO into abandoning Afghanistan. Therefore, the Kremlin plans on convincing the Europeans -- specific capitals and the EU -- that the collapse of Afghanistan and the rise of drugs and narco-terrorism are detrimental to Europe's vital interests. The Kremlin hopes to get the EU/Europe to pressure the US to sustain NATO's efforts in Afghanistan because Russia is eager for ISAF to remain as a viable force for the duration.
Overall, the highest authorities in the Kremlin -- led by Medvedev who delivered a very strong opening statement at the international Afghan Drug Production: a Challenge to the International Community forum -- are committed to the Afghan drug-eradication policy in its comprehensive scope/connotation. The Kremlin is petrified by the spread of drugs and narco-funded terrorism, insurgency, violence and instability from Afghanistan via Central Asia into the heart of Russia.
The Kremlin is embarking on an international campaign -- first focusing on the EU and NATO -- to formulate a joint long-term program to eradicate the Afghan narco-system and byproducts. This is a comprehensive plan which recognizes the imperative to first resolve Afghanistan's security and governance problems, but also address the issue of drug-funded separatism, secessionism, and narco-terrorism at the Heart of Asia and the Greater Black Sea Basin as a major policy issue.
What remains to be seen, though, is the extent of cooperation Russia was likely to get from Europe and particularly the United States.
By Yossef Bodansky for OilPrice.com who offer detailed analysis on Oil, alternative Energy, Commodities, Finance and Geopolitics. They also provide free Geopolitical intelligence to help investors gain a greater understanding of world events and the impact they have on certain regions and sectors. Visit: http://www.oilprice.com