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Empire of poppies: Why countries think stopping Taliban’s narco-state is not worth the cost

Even as ordinary Afghans are reported to be selling their organs — and their daughters — for food, the Taliban-led opium industry is blossoming.

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“Like a goat between two lions,” the king who built modern Afghanistan wrote of his nation’s fate, “a grain of wheat between the two strong millstones of a grinding wheel”. Furious rebellions had raged across Emir Abdur Rehman Khan’s kingdom — 17 in his fifteen-year reign — led by clerics and tribal elites, enraged by his efforts to end their privileges. From their eyries, Britain and Russia watched these events, “like hungry vultures, anxious to swallow their weak victim.”

“I had to put in order all those hundreds of petty chiefs, plunderers, robbers and cut-throats, who were the cause of everlasting trouble in Afghanistan,” the king recorded. Thousands were massacred, and entire populations shifted to alter regional demographics.

Last summer, when the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, some had hoped that the Taliban, like Emir Abdur Rahman, would succeed in enforcing the order, however savagely. Instead, the State imploded, giving birth to a new system built on drugs, illegal mining, extortion and war-making.

For weeks now, there’s been mounting evidence of what this entropic Afghanistan could mean for the region and our world. Terrorists of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have staged multiple cross-border attacks, in a campaign aimed at carving out a mini-state in Pakistan’s northwest. Arms left behind by withdrawing Western forces are being supplied to jihadist groups across the region.

Even as ordinary Afghans are reported to be selling their organs — and their daughters — for food, the Afghan opium industry, estimated to already supply 80 per cent of the global demand for the drug, is blossoming.

Also Read: Afghanistan emerging as a deep security hole. Can Iran’s revolutionary generals see it?

Taliban’s resilient narco-state

The US government last week invoked emergency powers to seize some $7 billion held by Afghanistan’s central bank in New York. About half of that money will be used to meet compensation claims by one group of 9/11 victims against the Taliban. The 9/11 compensation judgement — controversial in international law, and rejected by courts in Europe — was delivered months before the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, and thus had no claim to the central bank’s assets.

Even though the remaining $3.5 billion will be used for emergency aid for millions who are starving, the message is clear. The US, and other donor countries like India — which, next week, will begin shipping wheat to Afghanistan through Pakistan — will provide humanitarian assistance.

Trade and infrastructure, though, are off the table, except in the improbable event the Taliban deliver turn on allies like al-Qaeda and the TTP. That’s bad news for ordinary Afghans trapped in the middle. But experience shows prolonged sanctions will do little to hurt the Taliban.

For two years after beginning its 9/11 war in Afghanistan, the United States had resisted funding nation-building. As the initial sparks of the Taliban insurgency became evident, though, troops were pumped in, along with civilian investments. The early results were stellar: the economy grew by around 10 per cent every year from 2003 to 2012.

Then, the dream soured. The tidal wave of cash by far exceeded what Afghanistan’s economy could absorb. Large-scale corruption gutted institutions and created feuds over who got the money. The political system became criminalised.

Afghan National Security Advisor Rangin Spanta famously said: “Corruption is not just a problem for the system of governance in Afghanistan; it is the system of governance”. In 2012, US President Barack Obama’s administration ended a brief surge in troop numbers, having concluded it wasn’t ending the insurgency. As the soldiers left, both military and civilian spending slowly dried up. And so did the Afghan government’s ability to buy loyalty from local warlords — eventually leading it to collapse.

Also Read: 3 choices for India in Afghanistan – walking away is the easiest one but not the best

Mullahs, warlords and empires of poppies

Like the United States after 9/11, Emir Abdur Rehman wanted to end warlordism and build a modern State. For generations, the Emir wrote, Afghan rulers had bought peace by paying subsidies to clerics, tribal chieftains and warlords. “It induced people to live a lazy life,” he testily noted, “and get government money for doing nothing.” The Emir’s efforts to change the system, though, provoked insurgencies. A 50,000-strong standing army had to be raised, along with chains of fortresses. The Emir ended up building a coercion machine, not a State.

The Taliban embraced the same ends. Ever since the 1980s, Islamist Mujahideen groups had begun to build a different kind of State — an empire of poppies. Gretchen Peters describes how jihad commander Mullah Mohammad Nasim Akhundzada “set production quotas, implemented a predatory loan service to small poppy farmers,” and “reportedly threatened farmers who failed to plant poppy with castration or death”.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) infrastructure was used to bring in weapons, medicine and food carried back opium. The drugs were shipped to Europe and the United States through Karachi’s crime cartels, and the profits were laundered through property and stock exchanges.

The Taliban’s mullahs, who took power in 1997, also cashed in. In 1996, Afghanistan had produced 2,250 metric tonnes of opium. That number soared in 1999 to 4,580 metric tonnes.  From 2006 onwards, as the Taliban reemerged from their sanctuaries in Pakistan, narcotics became an increasingly significant source of revenue. The Taliban taxed illegal semi-precious stone mines, truck traffic, and small businesses. In spite of international sanctions, it still thrived.

Also Read: What my 20 years in Afghanistan taught me about the Taliban

The uses of backwardness

To protect his empire, Emir Abdur Rahman invested in building a military — but not infrastructure, education, communication or transport. As a result, urbanisation, the driver of economic development, was retarded. Even in the fourteenth century,  anthropologist Thomas Barfield notes, Silk Route trading cities like Herat and Balkh had attained levels of prosperity which “late-nineteenth-century Kabul, with a population of only fifty thousand, never came close to achieving.”

For the Taliban, this was an example to be emulated. In 2002, the World Bank noted that the emirate’s “economy is in a state of collapse, its infrastructure destroyed, its formal state institutions severely undermined or nonexistent, and its social indicators the worst in the world.”

The Taliban’s opium trade, though, ensured the survival of the core element of its power — its coercive resources. In return for adherence to its ideology, the Taliban delegated local power to warlords and criminals. The lack of linkages with the outside world — something cutting-off Afghanistan from the world economy entrenches — gives the regime resilience against external ideological threats.

Economic historian Tirtankhar Roy’s work helps understand why nation-building has proved so hard in Afghanistan. Imperial powers baulked at the costs of expanding into the country, he noted, which meant the authority was never centralised, as it was in other resource-poor regions of Asia, like India. The country was thus never integrated into the maritime trading system that powered the industrial revolution. Lacking revenues, Roy observes, “governments running the country from Kabul never could impose their writ over the entire country.”

Few nation-states seem willing to give the failed 9/11 nation-building experiment another chance. Even China, scholar Yun Sun observes, shows no  “urge to play messiah in Afghanistan”.

Even though the world knows what the dystopia the Taliban is building will mean trafficking in drugs, refugee flows, safe-heavens for terrorists, even the next 9/11 — no one thinks the bill to stop it is worth paying.

The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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