Without a Sign of Stability, Afghanistan Remains a Staging Ground - III
by Ramtanu Maitra on 18 Jan 2016 0 Comment
The Opium/Heroin Factor: The third factor of insecurity is the vast network that has been built around Afghanistan’s multi-billion-dollar annual opium and heroin production. In 2001, when President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan to eliminate the murderous Taliban, the total area under opium poppy cultivation was an estimated 8,000 hectares, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC). During the US and NATO troops’ 13-year stay, the area under poppy cultivation increased 28-fold to an all-time high of 224,000 hectares recorded in 2014. One could say that Bush-Blair’s “war on terror” failed to tame the Taliban, but succeeded in making Afghanistan a cash-cow producing hundreds of billions of US dollars’ worth of heroin sold in the streets all over the world.


Afghanistan had never been a narco-state. The year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, opium production was recorded at 200 tons. Then came the US- and Pakistan-aided mujahiddeen, warlords and the Taliban. By the time the Soviet army went back home through the Salang Tunnel, opium production had grown six-fold, to 1,200 tons. The ground was set to make opium Afghanistan’s cash crop. Ten years after the Soviet Army left, in 1999, Afghanistan produced close to 4,200 tons of opium.


If the American and European troops, during their 13-years and ongoing stay, did not meet with a great deal of success in eliminating the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other varieties of insurgents terrorizing the Afghan population, they seemed to do very well in protecting the interests of the drug banks, such as the HSBC, Barclay and a host of Dubai-based offshore banks that laundered the drug money, and all others in the long heroin-trafficking chain.


In 2002, the first spring that opium was harvested after the US invasion, the Bonn Agreement that chose Hamid Karzai to serve a six-month term as chairman of the Interim Administration, Afghanistan produced 3,700 tons of opium. As soon the foreign troops’ boots were firmly settled on Afghan soil, poppies began to bloom like never before. In 2007, as the City of London-Wall Street financial bubble lost trillions of dollars of phony money, Afghanistan, to the relief of the bankers, delivered 8,200 tons of opium. Even if one considers that only 50 percent of that opium was converted into heroin, the heroin harvest would be close to 400 tons or a tad more. The street value of that amount of heroin in Europe and the United States would be close to $400 billion.


Much of that “loose” cash naturally showed up in the hollow banks that were too “big to fail.” President Ghani is well aware of this and would not do anything to draw attention to this 800-pound gorilla that is backed up by a formidable cavalry of banks in support of the “system.”


Opium/heroin also generates a nifty amount of profit for other outfits that have been contracted to eliminate it. For instance, according to the US Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the contracting company Academi (earlier registered as “Blackwater” and then as “Xe”) received $569 million for “training, equipment and logistical support” to Afghan forces conducting counter-narcotics, such as “the Afghan National Interdiction Unit, the Ministry of Interior and the Afghan Border Police.” That amounts to 32 percent of the $1.8 billion in US taxpayers’ funds the Pentagon has devoted to the counter-narcotics operations since 2002 (“Former Blackwater gets rich as Afghan drug production hits record high,” The Guardian, Spencer Ackerman, March 31). Going by the result that this “training, equipment and logistical support” produced over the years, it is fair to say that it was a well-organized rip-off, helped by the burgeoning fields of poppies.


But, as I have emphasized elsewhere, Afghan drug production is an insidious and very fundamental factor in the country’s instability and ongoing vulnerability. It has not only created a load of illegitimate money and a horde of criminals; it is killing many, most of whom are youth. Heroin does not discriminate. It kills black, brown, white and all other shades of skin in between. It kills the rich; it kills the poor and cuts across all ethnic and religious groups. It feeds cash to the bankers, politicians, military and security personnel and bureaucrats, as it feeds the Taliban, ISIS, al-Qaeda and Chechen separatists, to name a few (“President Ghani must face the truth: Stability and opium cannot co-exist,” Vijayvaani.com, Ramtanu Maitra, June 25).


Conclusion: Built-In Instability?


In analyzing the present state of Afghanistan, its last four decades of instability starting with the 1973 overthrow of King Zahir Shah by his cousin Mohammad Daoud Khan who, instead of naming himself king, proclaimed Afghanistan a republic, stand out. In 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), backed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), overthrew Daoud Khan in what came to be known as the Saur Revolution. As the members of the PDPA, an uneasy coalition between the minority-dominated Parcham and the Pushtun-dominated Khalq, began killing each other at the end of December 1979, the Soviet Union sent thousands of troops into Afghanistan and immediately assumed complete military and political control of Kabul and large portions of the country. This was at the height of the Cold War, and the Soviet action broke down the West’s much-heralded policy to contain Bolshevik Russia.


Not to be outdone, the West organized an Afghan resistance, forming different groups under different leaders to fight the Red Army. These guerrilla fighters were named Afghan “mujahideen” (Islamic fighters). The West also brought in foreign fighters, some of whom were outright criminals, from Arabia and northern Africa and plied them with money and arms. While the vast sum of unaccounted-for money came mostly from the United States and Saudi Arabia, arms were supplied by many Western countries, as well as China, to beat back the Red Army. Pakistan was appointed the unofficial manager of this operation, handling the cash and arms on behalf of the mujahideen groups, most of whom were ruthless, opportunistic and prone to criminal activities.


The Red Army left the scene with bowed head and heavy heart in 1989, opening up the country for a full-fledged civil war fought by these hardened mujahideen groups to seize control of Kabul. During the 1990s, Washington - no longer an interested party since the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was mere history - looked aside while the Saudis, Qataris and Pakistanis launched a new project to create a batch of Afghan Islamic warriors and called them the Taliban (Pashto for students). Thousands of madrassahs were set up in Pakistan and along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. According to a 2002 International Crisis Group report, between 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and 1995, when the Taliban took power in Kabul, 3,906 new madrassahs were established. Young Afghan Pushtuns and some Pakistani Pushtuns were indoctrinated with the most orthodox Sunni Islamic tenets (the official form of Islam in Saudi Arabia) called Wahaabism and were given military training. By 1995, with the help of the Pakistani military disguised as Afghans, the Taliban warriors - who were all Sunni Pushtuns - got control of most Afghanistan, barring the Tajik-Uzbek-dominated northern part of the country, and unleashed a reign of terror.


In 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Washington identified Afghanistan as the base of al-Qaeda and home of the al-Qaeda chief, the person allegedly responsible for the 9/11 attacks, Sheikh Osama bin Laden. On Oct 7, 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan and routed the much-hated Taliban government in a matter of weeks. Following the invasion, thousands of US and NATO troops guarded the sentinel of the newly-formed republic while Washington and Brussels got busy setting up institutions of their choice.


The upheavals that took place in Afghanistan between 1973 and 2002 were huge and occurred at a rapid pace without any respite. These upheavals were always associated with extreme violence. Such events could surely tear up the fabric of any nation, and Afghanistan was no exception. No doubt, the present-day instability, and the violence that goes with it, has everything to do with those events.


But there is a deeper issue. Although seldom appreciated as a fundamental characteristic of Afghanistan with critical implications for policymaking, it is no secret that the fabric that bound Afghanistan together prior to these events was already full of holes.


Afghanistan Is Not Just Pushtun-land


As the largest single ethnic group, the Pushtuns in Afghanistan are “a majority”; but they are not “the majority” of the population. Pushtuns constitute about 40 percent of the population and reside mostly in the southern, central and eastern part of Afghanistan. Sixty percent of the population is made up of many other ethnic groups, including the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmens, Aimaqs, Nuristanis and some others. These so-called minorities, who together constitute the majority of the country’s population, are seldom mentioned and almost never considered in policymaking by the succession of external power-brokers. This is the built-in problem of instability in Afghanistan, the holes in Afghanistan’s fabric.


The problem began in 1747. Prior to that time, most of the geographical territory that came to be known as Afghanistan was under Iranian rule and was called Khurasan.  Of Turkish origin, Nadir Shah, who invaded Delhi when it was governed by the hapless and utterly incompetent Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah, took over Delhi, looted it and took back caravans of booty including the famous Peacock Throne, controlled most of what was then known as “the Afghan tribe’s land.” The Afghan tribe was none other than the group, mostly farmers and herdsmen, that Westerners later labeled as “Pathans,” whose language was Pashto.


Following Nadir Shah’s assassination, his bodyguard, Ahmed Shah Abdali, fled to Kandahar and became the first King of Afghanistan, assuming the name Dur-i-Durran (Pearl of Pearls). With the rise of Ahmed Shah Abdali, Khurasan shrank; Persian Khurasan existed in the western part of todays’ Afghanistan. The Abdali clan, along with the Ghilzais, had served the Persian Empire and were thoroughly Persianized. The Abdali clan later came to be known as the Durrani clan. Ahmed Shah Abdali’s sons, Sulaiman Mirza and Timur Shah, and even his grandson, Shah Shuja, bore non-Afghan Persian names. (Afghanistan: A study of Political development in Central and Southern Asia, W.K. Fraser-Tytler, Oxford University Press, 1953).


Ahmed Shah Abdali did not name the land he ruled Afghanistan, and it did not encompass what we know as Afghanistan today. Until the 19th century, Afghanistan was only “the land of the Afghans,” while the overall country was identified as the Kingdom of Kabul. It was the British who, arriving in the 18th century and subsequently establishing the British Raj in India, identified the present geographical entity as Afghanistan. This was because the British Raj in India dealt only with the Pushtuns, or “Afghans.” They had little or no contact with the other ethnic groups, such as the Uzbeks, the Tajiks and the Hazaras. Moreover, the British were anti-Persian; they considered a Persian base in Central Asia a threat to their empire.


The Russians were also taken in by the British way of looking at the country. In fact, later, the Soviet Union had funded Ghilzai cadre-schools in Kabul to train the core of the Khalq party. Most of these Khalqis were from provinces bordering Pakistan. The Soviet intent was perhaps to influence the Pushtuns residing in Pakistan; but, like the British, Moscow did not want the Persian influence to become stronger because it threatened its own territory in Central Asia.


Pakistan, of course, had always been keen to keep the Pushtuns in power in Kabul. Islamabad has followed British policy right up to today, afraid that if the Pushtuns (Afghans) were denied the seat in Kabul, the much larger number of Pushtuns residing within Pakistan on the eastern part of the non-demarcated Durand Line would join hands to form a Greater Pakhtoonistan, breaking up Pakistan in the process. Accordingly, it was no surprise that in 1992, during the ongoing civil war, when the Tajik-Afghan leader Burhanuddin Rabbani was made president of Afghanistan with the most prominent and perhaps the most nationalist leader Afghanistan had in recent years, Ahmed Shah Massoud, as his defense minister, the Pakistani military unleashed its pet Pushtun mujahideen leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to rain rockets on Kabul, turning it into ruins and unleashing the most violent part of the 1990s civil war. Hekmatyar committed this despicable act under Pakistani guidance, despite the fact that he was Rabbani’s prime minister.


To sum it all up, the exclusion of non-Pushtuns, the majority, in Afghanistan’s affairs by external power-brokers over several centuries has created a permanent division within Afghanistan that cannot be wished away and will continue to play a significant role in the country’s unending instability.



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