U.S. Bombing of Afghan Drug Labs Won't Crush the Taliban
U.S. Bombing of Afghan Drug Labs Won't Crush the Taliban
The International Criminal Court’s Case Against the United States in Afghanistan
The International Criminal Court’s Case Against the United States in Afghanistan
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.

Op-Ed / Global

The International Criminal Court’s Case Against the United States in Afghanistan

In recent years, a confrontation between the U.S. government and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been looming over the alleged actions of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Crisis Group's U.S. Program Director Stephen Pomper unpicks the unique U.S.-ICC relationship and outlines the choices left open to Washington.

What happens when a global criminal court takes on the world’s dominant military power? That was the question earlier this month when the International Criminal Court’s Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda took a decisive step toward direct confrontation with the U.S government.

The Prosecutor’s brief announcement that she would seek permission to launch a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan followed a series of annual reports making clear that this investigation will cover not just the Taliban and Afghan security forces, but also U.S. military and intelligence officers.  This is a scenario that both ICC critics and supporters in the U.S. government have fretted about ever since the formation of the court.   Yet the official Department of Defense reaction was distinctly muted.  Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon’s statement to National Public Radio that an ICC investigation with respect to U.S. personnel would be “wholly unwarranted and unjustified” drew in tone and content from U.S. government talking points that have been used for years.  Will the government shift to a more aggressive response once senior leadership turns its attention away from the President’s trip to Asia and has a chance to weigh in?

Maybe, but there is a better option.

A rollercoaster relationship

It is already clear that the Prosecutor’s decision is not one that the U.S. government will accept.  Under federal statute, cooperation with the ICC in prosecuting U.S. personnel is prohibited.  On the policy level, the current and past administrations have strenuously objected to foreign courts or international tribunals exercising jurisdiction over U.S. personnel, citing concerns about unfair treatment.  No U.S. administration has supported becoming party to the ICC Rome Statute (the court’s constitutive document), and the Bush Administration was so concerned that the court would try to assert power over U.S. personnel that it went to extraordinary lengths to guard against that possibility.  It sought immunity agreements from member States using foreign assistance as leverage.  It blocked U.N. peacekeeping resolutions at the Security Council because they did not include ICC immunity clauses. It even worked with Congress to enact a law–still on the books–authorizing the United States to use military force to rescue U.S. persons from The Hague should one ever be detained by the court.

[I]t has been an open secret for years that a confrontation over Afghanistan might be coming that could upset the developing relationship.

While some countries signed immunity agreements, others balked, and this intimidation campaign is remembered chiefly for alienating U.S. partners.  It petered out, and over the course of the second Bush term and during the Obama Administration (where I advised White House leadership on ICC policy), the U.S. government moved toward a more pragmatic policy of working with the court where their objectives and interests coincided.  The era of warming relations between the court and the U.S. government began in earnest during the Bush Administration, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to the United Nations to cast a vote helping to ensure that the situation in Darfur would be referred to the ICC.  The Obama Administration voted for two further U.N. referrals.  In recent years, the United States helped deliver ICC fugitives Bosco Ntaganda and Dominic Ongwen to The Hague.  The U.S. Congress even got involved, with bipartisan legislation allowing the State Department to fund multi-million-dollar rewards for information helping to bring ICC fugitives to justice.  Though the court has struggled to be effective (with only nine convictions in the course of 15 years), the United States treated it almost as a partner in efforts to deter and mitigate mass atrocities in places where the U.S. government lacked the capacity to do so on its own.

Yet it has been an open secret for years that a confrontation over Afghanistan might be coming that could upset the developing relationship.  There were quiet hints even before 2013, when the Prosecutor’s office began using its annual report on the court’s pre-investigatory “preliminary examinations” to signal publicly its interest in actions by “international forces.”  In the coming years, the reports became more precise, focusing first on allegations of detainee abuse by U.S. military officers during a brief window in 2003 and 2004, then expanding to include allegations against the CIA, which became more specific after the Senate published part of a report including horrific details of alleged torture and other abuse in the agency’s detention and interrogation program.

Why the off ramps didn’t work

As the prospect of confrontation grew more concrete, the U.S. government was not especially optimistic that it would be averted, but it did believe there were off ramps that the Prosecutor could appropriately take.

One such off ramp might have involved a determination that the scale of the U.S. government’s offenses did not meet the court’s “gravity” threshold for proceeding to investigation. This was a tricky issue for U.S. government officials.  Many found unconscionable the stories of torture and other abuse that had emerged from the years following the September 11 attacks, and had no desire to defend them as less than “grave”.  When it came to the assertion of ICC jurisdiction, however, some of the strongest champions for robust accountability argued that “the numbers of victims pale in comparison to those in the situations that have come before the international courts and tribunals.” In his excellent Just Security essay earlier this month, Alex Whiting suggests that this line of argument is off base. He writes that the Prosecutor couldn’t focus just on the number of U.S. victims because she needed to consider whether “all crimes alleged in the Afghanistan situation taken together meet the gravity threshold.” While this may now be the prevailing view, however, it was not clear—at least to the U.S. government lawyers working the issue at the time—that on its face the Rome Statute required this interpretation. (An illustration of the gulf between U.S. and academic perspectives on gravity, among other things, can be seen in this 2014 post by Ryan Vogel and this rebuttal by Kevin Jon Heller.)

Given that the government will see cooperation in these cases as a non-starter, the question is really how it will calibrate the tone and content of an adversarial response.

Government officials also saw a second potential off ramp. Beyond the issue of gravity, U.S. officials hoped that the Prosecutor might find the combination of U.S. military justice mechanisms and the Department of Justice’s investigation of certain CIA activities, led by career prosecutor John Durham, sufficiently credible to allow the Prosecutor to exercise her discretion to step back and focus on other crimes committed in Afghanistan by local actors. This deference to national jurisdictions is known as “complementarity” in ICC circles.

The U.S. government made its views known to Bensouda’s team, but over time it became increasingly clear that multiple factors pulled in the other direction. The Prosecutor’s office was under enormous pressure to broaden the scope of its efforts substantially beyond the cluster of sub-Saharan countries that have been the primary focus of the court’s investigatory work to date.  Human rights NGOs built a public case that the U.S. government had not adequately investigated allegations of torture and other abuse during the Bush Administration and lobbied for the ICC to step in as a vehicle for accountability if not also deterrence.  Especially given the trend in expert opinion, accepting the U.S. view of gravity would have been seen by many of the court’s most vocal supporters (as well as its detractors) as an illegitimate nod to pragmatism.  Moreover, ICC judges have in at least one prominent situation signaled that they prefer to see the Prosecutor err on the side of inclusion when seeking permission to proceed with an investigation.  In 2015, a pre-trial chamber second guessed the Prosecutor for deciding not to pursue alleged abuses by Israeli sailors in the context of the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in which 10 people were killed (although an appellate panel’s subsequent ruling blunted the impact of this decision).

Looking ahead—choices and consequences

So what will the United States do now?  Given that the government will see cooperation in these cases as a non-starter, the question is really how it will calibrate the tone and content of an adversarial response.

A return to the approach of using aid and other leverage to get States parties to acquiesce to U.S. demands seems unlikely.  Demanding immunity agreements from partners that did not provide them years ago would yield abundant friction and precious little else.   What’s more, while the court’s ability to bring charges and issue arrest warrants creates meaningful legal jeopardy, its lackluster pace and thin conviction record (it has not convicted a single defendant from a non-cooperating State) mean that this tribunal presents a less imposing profile than it did 15 years ago. Against this backdrop, and without a John Bolton-like figure to drive the process, it is hard to see the current thinly staffed State Department launching an anti-court diplomatic campaign spanning different parts of the globe as we witnessed in the early years of the Bush Administration.

Another aggressive (and similarly wrongheaded) alternative would be to come out swinging against the fundamental legitimacy of the court.  That is what Israeli leadership did when the Prosecutor initiated her preliminary examination with respect to the situation in Palestine almost three years ago.  They later backed off, one imagines at least partly on the advice of government lawyers, who must have seen the antagonistic rhetoric as unhelpful to dynamics with the Office of the Prosecutor.  There are other considerations as well. While the United States might be tempted to assemble a chorus of voices to join it in a broadside against the court, this could place the U.S. government shoulder-to-shoulder with governments whose human rights practices it normally deplores. A final problem with a de-legitimization strategy is that the United States still supports what the court is trying to do in many situations.  Would the United States really want to undermine the institution’s efforts to bring Omar Bashir and Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda to justice by suggesting that its efforts are fundamentally illegitimate?

Given the cramped legal and political space within which the U.S.-ICC relationship operates, there is no ideal course of action that has a realistic hope of success, but there is a possible option that might both appeal to U.S. interests and minimize the damage this confrontation does to other accountability efforts at and beyond the court. This third option would be for the United States to maintain the low-key public approach that it has taken to date, while relying on strong lawyering (as any defendant would do) to see if it can forestall more serious action like charges or arrest warrants. This appears to be the path that the Israelis have chosen, at least for now, and it seems more likely to yield the results that the U.S. government is seeking than a blunderbuss approach.

[T]he Prosecutor’s decision to move forward against the world’s dominant military power [...] will be seen as a move that cemented the institution’s independence and struck a principled blow against impunity for detainee abuse.

It is not clear, however, that the United States will go in this direction.  ICC skeptics inside the U.S. government could seek to use the moment to drive a highly visible wedge between the United States and the court, although others will argue that this would  neither help the U.S. government to protect its interests, nor serve the broader cause of accountability that the United States generally supports.  At present there is no one in a senior role who has the background and expertise to navigate these issues effectively.  Earlier this year, State Department leadership declined to renew Todd Buchwald—a leading international lawyer who is respected by both ICC skeptics and supporters throughout the government—as the head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice.  At the time, the office was on the chopping block.  Now that there has been a decision to retain it, State leadership should make every effort to reinstall Buchwald (who is planning his retirement), or failing that to find someone of comparable stature and expertise to take the role.

Another risk is that State Department lawyers, having failed to identify a credible basis for refuting the court’s territorial jurisdiction, will be pressured to advance a yet-to-be-determined meritless legal theory for the proposition that the ICC lacks all jurisdiction over non-party nationals. While parties facing legal jeopardy can be expected to advance aggressive arguments, it benefits no one when the United States throws its considerable weight behind non-credible positions—an impulse that State lawyers have been wise to resist.

Whichever way the U.S. government goes in engaging with the ICC, recent years have brought to the surface some painful challenges in reconciling its traditional support for global accountability with domestic political realities.  It was no secret that the Obama Administration struggled to balance the drive for accountability with other considerations—including an effort to avoid the perception that Obama’s team would pursue politicized prosecutions of its opponents.  These considerations led  then-President-elect Obama to emphasize publicly in early 2009 his desire to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” In reality, the Administration did look back, including through a Justice Department investigation led by veteran prosecutor John Durham, but the advocacy community was sharply critical.  They took the U.S. government to task for the forward-not-back frame (which they saw as in tension with the U.S. government’s international obligations), the scope of its accountability efforts (which they regarded as too narrow), and the way in which these efforts were conducted.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prevailing view within the U.S. government was that it had judiciously threaded a difficult needle, and that the criticisms of its efforts were not wholly fair.  Whether or not the distance between the two camps can be closed, the U.S. government should look for ways to share more information about the investigatory work it performed. The more the government can now demonstrate the rigor of specific accountability efforts (starting, for example, with releasing closely held information about the Durham investigation), the better it will be for the United States’ broader credibility as an advocate for accountability.  It might help it with the ICC too.

Finally, it should be observed that this is a consequential moment for the court.  In the best case, the Prosecutor’s decision to move forward against the world’s dominant military power (and, in recent years, friend of the court) will be seen as a move that cemented the institution’s independence and struck a principled blow against impunity for detainee abuse.  It is also possible, however, that the positions that the court adopted on the way to taking this decision will pose lasting challenges that chip away at its standing and its effectiveness.  How wide can the court cast its net and still have the capacity to pursue mass scale incidents of genocide and crimes against humanity?  Will it have the political juice to persuade even its own States parties to enforce its decisions, particularly as it broadens the scope of its work? Are we headed for a world where the Court’s most stalwart supporters in Europe may be required to choose between the ICC and the United States in deciding whether to enforce an ICC arrest warrant?  If they break in favor of the United States, what will be left of the court’s power and standing to effectuate warrants and perform other difficult tasks in other cases? The court might have chosen to implement its mandate so as to avoid some of these difficulties, but that would have created another set of problems—and in any case, the Prosecutor is clearly heading down a different path.  Time will tell if it is the right one.

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