After the war
Americans feel pretty good about the ending of the Afghan war. Obama says he will withdraw 34,000 troops (more than half the total U.S. troops in Afghanistan) by the end of 2013 and turn all responsibility for military operations over to the Afghan government. In his State of the Union Address, he said, “[W]e can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan, and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda.”
Was that what it was all about?
Getting al Qaeda?
Was that the whole story?
In the 19th century, Afghanistan was a pawn in the Great Game that Russia and Great Britain played in Central Asia. Britain insisted it was essential for them to maintain influence in Afghanistan to protect their colony in India. But there was an even darker and more immediately profitable motivation. Afghanistan produced the opium that Britain forced on the Chinese. When Chinese authorities stopped the opium trade in 1838, the British invaded in 1839, defeated the Chinese troops by 1842 and reasserted their right to sell opium in China. They also forced the Chinese to concede Hong Kong and other ports. By 1858 they were importing about 4,480 tons of opium a year to their Chinese markets. The Chinese again resisted and were again defeated in 1860 and forced to concede unrestricted foreign trade and a continuation of the importation of Afghan opium.
After World War II, the U.S. and Britain agreed to let Russia have dominant influence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in exchange for Western influence in Iran. The U.S. promptly overthrew the democratically elected Mossadegh government and installed the Shah on a Peacock Throne. Opium cultivation continued predominantly in Helmand Province in Afghanistan and with British help and tactical support was transported to labs in Pakistan and refined into heroin, then transported over the mountain ranges in Iran (The Golden Route) to Beirut and then to markets in Europe and the U.S.
The Iranian Revolution in 1979 disrupted the Golden Route. The Islamists refused to collaborate with opium smuggling, and after fierce gun battles, smugglers had to settle for new and longer routes. Also, once the U.S.-backed Mujahideen beat the Soviets in Afghanistan, like their cousins in Iran, they systematically eliminated their secular fellow freedom fighters and established an Islamic republic. And one of the first things the Taliban government did was to outlaw the cultivation and exporting of opium. In recognition of their efforts and as a reward for successfully supporting the War on Drugs, in 2002 Secretary of State Colin Powell awarded the Taliban government $43 million for eliminating opium production in Afghanistan. That was the public face of the Bush Administration. Privately, the CIA was working with Opium Warlords to overthrow the Taliban, and a few months later, with Hamid Karzai as their fig leaf of legitimacy, the U.S. invaded.
Today, as Obama has said, we have completed our mission and achieved our objectives. We have re-established a narco-terrorist state ruled by Opium Warlords. Afghanistan is once again the leading producer of opium, contributing 90% of the world’s supply. According to Ghanizada in his April 29, 2012 piece for Khamma Press, the Ministry of Counter Narcotics in Afghanistan has said that the opium trade is worth $70 billion a year.
The CIA has a long history of working with the drug warlords. When the U.S. needed to invade Italy in World War II, the OSS (Wild Bill Donovan’s precursor to the CIA) made a deal with the Mafia: They would get Lucky Luciano released from prison in exchange for Mafia support for an Allied invasion of Sicily. No doubt it was to the Mafia that Ollie North turned when he needed cash for the cocaine he was smuggling into the U.S. as part of his arms for the Contras caper hatched in the basement of the Reagan White House.
So, what will happen when the U.S. leaves?
Well, of course, the U.S. isn’t leaving. The uniformed troops may stop military operations, but the CIA, and the muscle they provide for the Opium Warlords, will stay. Peter Apps for Reuters reported, “At its peak, the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting, a bipartisan legislative commission established to study wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, estimated there might have been as many as 260,000 contractors in the two countries.” Time magazine said in October of 2012, according to the most recent quarterly contractor census report issued by the U.S. Central Command there were 113,376 private contractors in Afghanistan working for the CIA and the U.S. government. That figure does not include private contractors working for the Afghan government or local warlords. And it does not include the number of contractors protecting private mining exploration that is underway.
Private security firms have had a generally horrific history in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007, Blackwater was banned from Iraq because some of their gunmen opened fire and killed several civilians. Similar incidents in Afghanistan led Hamid Karzai to try to ban them as well, but he became convinced by his U.S. advisors that they were essential to business as usual. When his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was assassinated in his own home by one of his personal bodyguards in 2011, Hamid began to appreciate the value of professional security teams. Most analysts agree that Ahmed was probably the leader of the opium trade in Afghanistan and, at the same time, on the payroll of the CIA.
But Hamid Karzai is concerned that these private security firms are becoming little more than armed gangs. Student Pulse, citing a New York Times article by Dexter Filkins in June 6, 2010, reported in 2012: “After a pair of bloody confrontations with Afghan civilians, two of the biggest private security companies, Watan Risk Management and Compass Security, were banned from escorting NATO convoys on the highway between Kabul and Kandahar. The ban took effect on May 14. At 10:30 a.m. that day, a NATO supply convoy rolling through the area came under attack. An Afghan driver and a soldier were killed, and a truck was overturned and burned. Within two weeks, with more than 1,000 trucks sitting stalled on the highway, the Afghan government granted Watan and Compass permission to resume. Watan’s president, Rashid Popal, strongly denied any suggestion that his men either colluded with insurgents or orchestrated attacks to emphasize the need for their services. Executives with Compass Security did not respond to questions. But the episode, and others like it, has raised the suspicions of investigators here and in Washington, who are trying to track the tens of millions in taxpayer dollars paid to private security companies to move supplies to American and other NATO bases. Although the investigation is not complete, the officials suspect that at least some of these security companies—many of which have ties to top Afghan officials—are using American money to bribe the Taliban. The officials suspect that the security companies may also engage in fake fighting to increase the sense of risk on the roads, and that they may sometimes stage attacks against competitors.”
So, it seems, Afghanistan has come full circle. It is now back to the era of Opium Warlords defending their little kingdoms with terror and murder, and there are Taliban in the hills who want to end the opium trade and drive out the CIA and foreign mercenaries. Most Americans don’t want to be involved. They don’t want to know about tribal loyalties in Kandahar or opium production in Helmand. But, as long as the CIA is directing this tragedy, they are involved.
We are involved.
And we are responsible.