A year after President Obama was elected, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime released a report that reaffirmed something people had been saying and fearing for quite some time. The study implied not only that the drug trade in Afghanistan is fueled by the Taliban, but that its existence has only strengthened the militant movement. While the study has frequently been cited during debates about the future of the region, it fails to ask a very important question: What is the operative connection between the narcotics problem in Afghanistan and the US-NATO occupation of the country?
Julien Mercille, lecturer in the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin, has written an entire book around this question. And his conclusions indicate that the answers are much more grim and problematic than we might like to admit. Facing the weight of their importance is a task that forces us to erase the mental boundary between the country’s drug trade and our long presence within its borders. I recently caught up with Mercille to chat with him about the consistent narrative, the contradictory facts, and the future of our dubious influence on the business.
MOTHERBOARD: Let’s start with public perception. People believe the Taliban is fueling the drug trade in Afghanistan. To what extent is this true, and why is it so widely believed?
The Taliban are players in the Afghan drug trade, but minor ones in relative terms. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is to look at the value of the annual drug trade within Afghanistan, which is about $3 billion. The Taliban capture only about 5 to 10 percent of those profits. The bulk of the profits is appropriated by other groups, such as traffickers, government and police officers, as well as warlords.
One reason why the Taliban are widely believed to be the main culprits behind the drug trade in Afghanistan is that that’s how they have been depicted in the mainstream media. This contributes to painting an evil picture of the Taliban and insurgents.
Were drugs related to the strategy from the inception of the war? Or has the connection increased as the occupation has continued?
Until about 2005, drugs weren’t an important issue for international forces in Afghanistan. At that time, NATO wanted to prevent alienating the Afghan population, so policies like poppy eradication were not a priority. Also, at that early stage—and still today—NATO allies like warlords were drawing important profits from drugs, so conducting serious drug control would have amounted, for NATO, to shooting itself in the foot. Talk of counternarcotics in US-NATO strategy increased in importance from 2006 onwards. There are several possible reasons for that. One is that the Taliban became involved in trafficking to some extent as the insurgency became stronger, so it became useful politically to talk about a “war on drugs” within the context of the counterinsurgency campaign, to paint a black image of the Taliban. Another reason is that by 2006, poppy cultivation was skyrocketing, and it had become increasingly difficult for Washington to look the other way, if only for public relations purposes.
You hear a lot in the media about the United States trying to crackdown on narcotics in the area. Are people actually apprehended or disciplined for drugs? Is there anything resembling a system in place to hold people accountable?
The Afghan justice system in notoriously corrupt, so although there are drug-related arrests, we obviously can’t talk of a transparent system here. Often, those arrested are released quickly, and arrests and their outcome are often dependent on political connections or lack thereof. Another big related problem is that treatment services for Afghan addicts are sorely lacking, and that has led to very significant addiction problems in the country.
How do you interpret the political capital of this “War on Drugs” narrative in Afghanistan? It’s frequently cited as a reason for American forces perpetually hanging around.
Yes, drugs are sometimes cited as a reason why US forces should stay in Afghanistan. Drugs are not the main reason cited though, which is the fear of chaos, Taliban takeover, etc. But drugs are one element in the pack of pretexts.
How do you envision this issue going forward? Even if the United States removes forces under the proposed 2014 timetable, can the severity of the problem be addressed in any meaningful way if so many people who have risen to power have deep connections to narcotics?
On one hand, it’s hard to see how the Afghan drug industry could increase that much in size, since global demand for the drugs is finite. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be surprising if drug trafficking remains at a high level once NATO troops leave, especially if the main power brokers remain in place. There aren’t any magic solutions to the drug problem, but research has shown that reducing demand in consumer countries through treatment and prevention programs is the most effective way to reduce harms caused by drugs. Afghanistan’s main markets are in Europe and Russia, so demand should be reduced there.