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Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition
Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
U.S. Bombing of Afghan Drug Labs Won't Crush the Taliban
U.S. Bombing of Afghan Drug Labs Won't Crush the Taliban
Report 236 / Asia

Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition

Afghanistan is hurtling toward a devastating political crisis as the government prepares to take full control of security in 2014.

Executive Summary

Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014. That makes the political challenge of organising a credible presidential election and transfer of power from President Karzai to a successor that year all the more daunting. A repeat of previous elections’ chaos and chicanery would trigger a constitutional crisis, lessening chances the present political dispensation can survive the transition. In the current environment, prospects for clean elections and a smooth transition are slim. The electoral process is mired in bureaucratic confusion, institutional duplication and political machinations. Electoral officials indicate that security and financial concerns will force the 2013 provincial council polls to 2014. There are alarming signs Karzai hopes to stack the deck for a favoured proxy. Demonstrating at least will to ensure clean elections could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence, but steps toward a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse. Time is running out.

Institutional rivalries, conflicts over local authority and clashes over the role of Islam in governance have caused the country to lurch from one constitutional crisis to the next for nearly a decade. As foreign aid and investment decline with the approach of the 2014 drawdown, so, too, will political cohesion in the capital. To ensure political continuity and a stable security transition, action to correct flaws in the electoral framework and restore credibility to electoral and judicial institutions is needed well before the presidential and provincial council polls. Tensions have already begun to mount between the president and the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the National Assembly), as debate over electoral and other key legal reforms heats up. Opposition demands for changes to the structures of the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) and an overhaul of the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) election mechanism have become more vigorous by the day.

There is also, as yet, no sign of an agreement on the timing of the 2014 elections or the following year’s parliamentary elections, though President Karzai insisted on 4 October that the former would be held on time and “without interruption”. The IEC has hedged on publicly announcing the planned postponement of the provincial council polls, for fear that such an announcement could deepen the political crisis. At a minimum, the IEC must announce a timetable and a plan for the 2014 elections that adhere closely to constitutional requirements by December 2012, and a new IEC chairman must be selected to replace the outgoing chairman, whose term expires in April 2013, as well as a new chief electoral officer.

It is a near certainty that under current conditions the 2014 elections will be plagued by massive fraud. Vote rigging in the south and east, where security continues to deteriorate, is all but guaranteed. High levels of violence across the country before and on the day of the polls are likely to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands more would-be voters. The IEC will likely be forced to throw out many ballots. This would risk another showdown between the executive, legislature and judiciary. Under the current constitution and electoral laws, the government is not equipped to cope with legal challenges to polling results. Nearly a decade after the first election, parliament and the president remain deeply divided over the responsibilities of constitutionally-mandated electoral institutions. The IEC, its credibility badly damaged after the fraudulent 2009 and 2010 elections, is struggling to redefine its role as it works to reform existing laws. There is also still considerable disagreement over whether the ECC should take the lead in arbitrating election-related complaints.

It will be equally important to decide which state institution has final authority to adjudicate constitutional disputes before the elections. The uncertainty surrounding the responsibilities of the Supreme Court versus those of the constitutionally-mandated Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution (ICSIC) proved to be a critical factor in the September 2010 parliamentary polls. The Supreme Court’s subsequent decision to establish a controversial special tribunal on elections raised serious questions about its own impartiality. Institutional rivalries between the high court and ICSIC have increased considerably since then, with the Wolesi Jirga aggressively championing the latter’s primacy in opposition to the president.

The tug of war between these two constitutionally-mandated institutions has extended to Supreme Court appointments; two of nine positions on the bench are held by judges whose terms have already expired, and the terms of three more expire in 2013. The ICSIC faces similar questions about its legitimacy, since only five of its required seven commissioners have been appointed by the president and approved by parliament. Ambiguities over the roles of the Supreme Court and the constitutional commission must be resolved well before the presidential campaign begins in earnest in early 2013. An important first step would be to appoint the required judges and commissioners.

Institutional rivalry between the high court and the constitutional commission, however, can no more be resolved by presidential decree than it can by a simple parliamentary vote. Constitutional change will ultimately be necessary to restore the Supreme Court’s independence and to establish clear lines of authority between it and the ICSIC. Even if wholesale constitutional change is not possible in the near term, legal measures must be adopted within the next year to minimise the impact of institutional rivalry over electoral disputes and to ensure continuity between the end of Karzai’s term and the start of the next president’s term.

Although Karzai has signalled his intent to exit gracefully, fears remain that he may, directly or indirectly, act to ensure his family’s continued majority ownership stake in the political status quo. This must be avoided. It is critical to keep discord over election results to a minimum; any move to declare a state of emergency in the event of a prolonged electoral dispute would be catastrophic. The political system is too fragile to withstand an extension of Karzai’s mandate or an electoral outcome that appears to expand his family’s dynastic ambitions. Either would risk harming negotiations for a political settlement with the armed and unarmed opposition. It is highly unlikely a Karzai-brokered deal would survive under the current constitutional scheme, in which conflicts persist over judicial review, distribution of local political power and the role of Islamic law in shaping state authority and citizenship. Karzai has considerable sway over the system, but his ability to leverage the process to his advantage beyond 2014 has limits. The elections must be viewed as an opportunity to break with the past and advance reconciliation.

Quiet planning should, nonetheless, begin now for the contingencies of postponed elections and/or imposition of a state of emergency in the run up to or during the presidential campaign season in 2014. The international community must work with the government to develop an action plan for the possibility that elections are significantly delayed or that polling results lead to prolonged disputes or a run-off. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) should likewise be prepared to organise additional support to Afghan forces as needed in the event of an election postponement or state of emergency; its leadership would also do well to assess its own force protection needs in such an event well in advance of the election.

All this will require more action by parliament, less interference from the president and greater clarity from the judiciary. Failure to move on these fronts could indirectly lead to a political impasse that would provide a pretext for the declaration of a state of emergency, a situation that would likely lead to full state collapse. Afghan leaders must recognise that the best guarantee of the state’s stability is its ability to guarantee the rule of law during the political and military transition in 2013-2014. If they fail at this, that crucial period will at best result in deep divisions and conflicts within the ruling elite that the Afghan insurgency will exploit. At worst, it could trigger extensive unrest, fragmentation of the security services and perhaps even a much wider civil war. Some possibilities for genuine progress remain, but the window for action is narrowing.

Kabul/Brussels, 8 October 2012

Afghan policemen destroy poppy fields in Badakhshan province, one of Afghanistan's top opium producers, on 9 August 2017. NURPHOTO/Mohammad Sharif Shayeq
Commentary / Asia

U.S. Bombing of Afghan Drug Labs Won't Crush the Taliban

U.S. aerial bombing of drug laboratories in Afghanistan will solve neither the country’s Taliban insurgency nor its drugs problem.

On 21 November, the U.S. military began major airstrikes against what it described as Taliban drug labs in the north of Helmand province of Afghanistan. Yet a coercive counter-narcotics campaign will solve neither the country’s poppy boom nor the Taliban’s profiting from it, which has long depended to an extraordinary extent on very local dynamics.

It is no secret that the Taliban bankrolls its operations in part by drug money, with estimates of its annual share of the multi-billion-dollar illicit drug economy ranging from tens to a few hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars. The staggering 87 per cent increase in Afghanistan’s opium production in 2017, as reported by the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) this month, also means more profits for the Taliban.

But it would be naïve to say the Taliban is fighting because conflict helps it gain control over the profits of the drug trade, or that Afghanistan’s drug production boom is because of the Taliban. The criminal economy thrives on weak state institutions, systemic corruption and poverty, while the insurgency represents, fundamentally, a political challenge. These are separate phenomena with distinct histories and different solutions.

The Taliban’s involvement in the opium economy today is in stark contrast to its complete proscription of narcotics as un-Islamic in the past. Ironically, its willingness now to earn from the opium trade is part of its broader evolution that includes increasing pragmatism and the relaxing of some of its religious puritanism and cultural conservatism.

The Taliban’s involvement in the opium economy today is in stark contrast to its complete proscription of narcotics as un-Islamic in the past.

In summer 2000, when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan, the movement’s late leader Mullah Omar issued a decree banning opium production and trade before the poppy cultivation season began. Even though this was not a formal fatwa, or religious ruling, stunned U.S. and UN officials reported from Afghanistan in the spring of 2001 that the Taliban had almost totally eliminated the cultivation of opium in the areas under its control. That year, Afghanistan’s opium production hit rock bottom, in stark contrast to the preceding two decades, when the country had been one of the world’s largest suppliers of illicit drugs. The UN described the ban as “one of the most remarkable successes ever” in the fight against narcotics.

The key to the ban’s successful implementation was its religious justification, I have heard repeatedly during field work among Afghan farmers and Taliban officials who followed the eradication campaign in the east and south of the country, where opium cultivation was most widespread. For years, clerics had debated the religious status of drug production and trading, and half-heartedly attempted a gradual prohibition. Sceptics within the Taliban deemed the absence of a conclusive ruling on the issue as insufficient to deprive impoverished people of their major source of livelihood. But in the end, the Taliban built consensus among local community leaders that since the use of any addictive drug was haram, or forbidden in Islamic law, so were activities that brought drugs into use, including the cultivation, production and trafficking of narcotics.

Mullah Omar’s effective prohibition in 2000 came amid growing pressure on the Taliban regime from the international community. Yet, those who worked closely with him are adamant that he was not driven by external pressure or the desire to earn international recognition, like some other Taliban leaders. His intense personal conviction tilted the balance on the drugs issue, as it did on other controversial decisions that followed, including the destruction of the Buddha statues of Bamiyan and the Taliban’s refusal to deport Osama Bin Laden. In any event, the Taliban felt its successful ban on drugs was unappreciated by the international community.

Opium cultivation resumed as soon as the Taliban regime fell. When the movement returned in the form of insurgency in 2003 in the opium heartland, it was limited in scale and could raise funds to sustain itself by capitalising on the anxiety about a long-term U.S. presence among Afghanistan’s neighbours and anti-Americanism in the Persian Gulf countries. As the insurgency grew larger, it needed more funds. The Taliban had to mobilize revenues domestically, including from poppy production, especially after the drawdown of international troops and the strengthening of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 diverted the attention of its Gulf-based backers. Local commanders who took control of territories where opium production and trade were booming could not resist the lucrative business.

The decision to use poppy money to advance jihad is endorsed by some prominent Taliban clerics.

The decision to use poppy money to advance jihad is endorsed by some prominent Taliban clerics. Some argue that circumstances, specifically the “American occupation”, make it permissible, since defeating the greater evil requires embracing the lesser evil of drug money. Another rationalisation is that since the Taliban does not officially rule the country, it has neither the responsibility nor the ability to stop drug production or trading, which cuts across government and insurgency-controlled areas. If it cannot be stopped totally, the argument goes, why should the Taliban deny people under its control a profitable livelihood and risk losing support for its jihad. Also at work is a tacit logic that these drugs mainly harm infidels, and as long as infidels occupy Afghanistan or support the occupation, the Taliban need not care about their lives.

Despite these justifications, the Taliban’s embrace of the drug trade is limited both horizontally, with a small minority secretly involved in it, and vertically, since the involvement is mainly taxing, rather than running or controlling the trade. A small number of commanders in major opium hubs are involved in all stages of the drug trade. But there is no systemic involvement. The group is not the only player in this business, narcotics are not the Taliban’s institutionalized business, and without drug money, the movement would not fall apart.

The bulk of the Taliban – fighters, and commanders in non-poppy growing areas as well as leaders who do not deal with finances – are in the dark about the movement’s relationship to drugs. No one asks how the fighting is funded, and the finance chiefs and those who collect drug-related incomes try to keep the opium returns secret, since involvement with drugs is still ideologically unacceptable for many members. The rank and file dismiss as lies reports about Taliban participation in the drug trade that appear in Afghan and international media and in propaganda by the Islamic State group.

Nevertheless, the Taliban profits from the drug trade and in doing so opens itself to the charge of being profit-driven, rather than motivated by a political vision. Some Taliban leaders understand the negative impression this creates in the international arena. In November last year, the Taliban’s political emissaries in Qatar sent a message to the international community through independent Afghan political activists: if the government imposes a ban on drugs in its own areas, they said, the Taliban would return to a complete prohibition.

Soaring opium production is largely a symptom of rampant corruption on the state side, and the failure of the Afghan government and its international backers to give farmers viable new ways of earning a living.

Aerial bombing is a deadly new turn in coercive counter-narcotics operations. U.S. officials have hailed it as an effective element of the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia, part of a multi-pronged approach in fighting the insurgency. They claim the airstrikes have already had an impact on the Taliban, something that is difficult to measure on ground independently. It is also unlikely to weaken the Taliban financially, not least because its sources of funding are so diverse. The bombing campaign is much more likely to benefit the movement in other ways. This is because most drug labs being targeted are the primary livelihood of ordinary people, and are usually located in populated areas. Destroying them with no provision for alternative sources of income, and the probable killing of civilians in the process, will increase popular support for the Taliban. Accounts from areas affected by the bombing already indicate the airstrikes have mainly hurt civilians and their livelihoods rather than the Taliban.

The aerial bombing is also not going to help neutralise Afghanistan’s opium boom. Soaring opium production is largely a symptom of rampant corruption on the state side, and the failure of the Afghan government and its international backers to give farmers viable new ways of earning a living. Corrupt government officials and pro-state elite have long participated in the opium economy on a greater scale than any non-state actor.

The transformative reforms needed to tackle these challenges can only come through resolving the insurgency, which in turn can only be resolved through a political settlement. Dismissing the Taliban as a drug-running, criminal enterprise is not the answer. The group stands for a cause that has a popular resonance in non-marginal segments of society, and it is these genuine constituencies and popular roots that account for its continued survival, not the opium boom.