The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Op-Ed / Asia

Colombia in Kabul

Colombia produces nearly 80 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States. This year, Afghanistan will produce 80 percent of the heroin consumed within Europe. Without something of a miracle, the drug trade could undermine the nascent international effort to help Afghanistan build a democracy after 23 years of devastating war.

In early November, traveling in Afghanistan, the smell, feel and magnitude of the drug threat evokes Colombia. We are increasingly seeing both government-affiliated militias and armed insurgent groups in Afghanistan become reliant on poppy; just as every guerrilla and paramilitary group in Colombia descended into financial dependence upon the cocaine trade. A security vacuum in the countryside gave illegal military forces free reign at a time when the central government had abandoned rural Colombia and offered little opportunity for economic development.

Similarly, insecurity in rural Afghanistan today is rising as resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda forces carry out hit-and-run terror attacks from bases in Pakistan as well as redoubts in Afghanistan. Poppy production is believed to finance some of the opposition forces operating from within Afghanistan. Some Afghan officials and commanders are also enmeshed in the drug trade. Effective law enforcement is virtually nonexistent. At present, the coalition military forces of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) don't have policing the drug trade in their mandate, and there are only a few token programs aimed at alternative economic development.

The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime estimates that the Afghan annual harvest of opium poppies brings $1.2 billion to the farmers and a near equal amount to everyone else who processes, protects and transports the drug. Opium cultivation and trafficking equals half the country's under-$5 billion GNP. When farm workers earn $12 per day harvesting poppy and $3 to $4 per day harvesting wheat, guess which option they choose? Militia commanders and narcotics entrepreneurs are also not beyond threatening farmers who don't plant poppy.

Without legitimate security forces available in the poppy-growing areas, it is almost impossible for an alternative rural strategy to succeed. It also is hard to imagine the political transition succeeding with drug money available to corrupt the process. Regional factions all have to feel a threat if they continue to invest in drugs. And while the building of an Afghan national army and a professional police force are worthy and essential objectives, effective back-up force for the next several years, at least, will depend on international troops. That international security presence also is essential to the country's political future. It is crucial to the Constitutional Loya Jirga planned for December, and for free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections down the road.

Yet, nearly two years after Bonn, Afghanistan faces more rather than fewer attacks from al Qaeda and Taliban forces operating from across a forbidding mountain border. Pakistan appears to be taking out "insurance" against the west abandoning the country again and against perceived anti-Islamabad factions in Kabul by permitting Taliban recruiting, arming and attack planning without much interference. The Pakistan government cannot receive $3 billion in U.S. aid and allow Taliban forces and Taliban leaders to operate almost freely.

The good news for Afghanistan is that the Bush administration finally accepted pleas — some 18 months after Bonn — from Karzai, the United Nations and NGOs, including the International Crisis Group, to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) outside Kabul. ISAF has had some 5,700 troops in Kabul under multinational command and NATO took up the ISAF mantle in August. Last month, the U.N. Security Council approved a resolution authorizing NATO to extend its forces beyond the capital city.

The NATO-led ISAF will provide a bridge to the time the Afghanistan police and military can offer security on their own and will be major support in building those Afghan forces. In the short term, the NATO commanders recognize the need to construct a nationwide security umbrella that can help accelerate reconstruction, political transition and counternarcotics activities. They believe it will take at least double and probably triple the current ISAF force, including three quick reaction battalions and at least one civil/military unit in each province. Only an international military force in the short term could back up a threat to arrest warlords managing the poppy business.

The combined NATO and OEF forces could offer an overwhelming backup to Afghan counter drug law enforcement forces. It might actually make a supply-side solution possible for poppy growers—allowing NGOs and civilian agencies to help Afghans build a new rural infrastructure and support alternative income generation.

Now, the bad news. No one is volunteering to provide the needed soldiers. Norway had promised 200 soldiers and it was reported that Canada, Holland and Sweden might be willing to provide some additional troops as well. But no one wants to be first in line. The political leaders of the NATO member countries have to be told that NATO, in its first real out-of-area peacekeeping enterprise, is being tested.

Given that most of Afghanistan's heroin is headed for European streets, pursuing greater military contingents from European countries within NATO seems highly justifiable. And unless adequate numbers and the right categories of troops, arms and rules of engagement are made available, NATO will fail. So will Afghanistan. And a corrupt narco-state, once again a base for terrorism, could be the end result.

Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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