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Heroin, cash & plastic bags: America’s mess in Afghanistan

Nile Bowie is a political analyst and photographer currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached on Twitter or at nilebowie@gmail.com

Published time: May 05, 2013 12:22
Reuters/Stringer

If the lawlessness, poverty, and endemic corruption of Afghanistan are indicative of anything, it is that the multi-billion dollar efforts to restore stability in the region have been an abject failure.

As the scheduled 2014 reduction of American-led NATO troops moves closer, the occupying forces leave behind a state where none of their initial goals have been realized.

The Afghan central government is weak and hopelessly corrupt, the national armed forces are disorganized and resentful of foreign presence, the Taliban still wield notable influence, women remain extremely marginalized, Afghans are trapped in abject poverty, and the occupiers themselves continue to shoulder the responsibility for heavy civilian causalities.

Tens of billions have been poured into Afghanistan over the past decade, but the fact is that official figures of aid and financial resources spent in the country on paper do not come close to what was actually doled out to US proxies.

Reports confirm that tens of millions of US dollars in cash were delivered by the CIA in suitcases, backpacks and plastic shopping bags to the office of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai since his installation in 2004.

The report states that the ‘ghost money’ paid to Karzai's office was not subject to oversight and restrictions placed on official American aid or the CIA's formal assistance programs, and much of it went to “warlords and politicians, many with ties to the drug trade and in some cases the Taliban.

The report also cites an anonymous US official who claimed, "The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States." These revelations should not only raise the eyebrows of US taxpayers – the disingenuous reality of American funds finding their way into the pockets of the Taliban should raise blood pressures.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (AFP Photo)

Karzai issued statements confirming the allegations, but insisted that the funds given were “small” and “used for good causes,” such as helping wounded civilians and paying house rents. If these assertions were true, there is no reason why such money would need to travel through covert channels, thus preventing any form of accountability toward appropriation of those funds. 

Karzai’s retort seems more like nervous obfuscation rather than a genuine explanation; he also fails to address allegations that the money was used to fuel rampant corruption.

Even with all the financial resources at Karzai’s disposal, the situation on the ground suggests that the enormous application of funds to social development projects have been poorly implemented.Americans were told that the occupation of Afghanistan was supposed to bring stability and democracy to the country, and despite the presence of international aid groups, the dolling out tens of millions of covert CIA funds (for ‘good purposes’ of course), over $3.5 billion in humanitarian funds and over $58 billion in development assistance, Afghanistan has the world’s third highest infant mortality rate and the country faces vast humanitarian challenges.

The misuse and embezzlement of development funds have left the rural majority with little option but to cultivate poppy, creating the world's first economy dependent on the production of a single illicit drug.

What good causes don’t see

Afghanistan’s status as a narco-state isn’t simply attributable to the poor application of development aid – US-NATO forces have themselves created conditions by propping up local proxies and warlords with drug money.

From the opium-fueled CIA covert warfare of the 1980s and ’90s and since the US intervention in 2001, Washington has tolerated, enabled, and profited from drug trafficking by its Afghan allies, empowering an increasing resurgence of the Taliban in large swathes of the Afghan countryside.

Washington spent some $22 billion on Afghanistan from 2003 to 2007, mostly on military operations and preparing for their withdrawal, with only a paltry $237 million designated for agriculture. Afghanistan provides the prime ingredient for over 90 per cent of the world's heroin supply and in recent years has emerged as one of the biggest producers of refined products as hundreds of heroin labs sprout up under the watch of NATO and the US.

The continued neglect of rural and agricultural development has made the task of dismantling the narco-state nothing sort of insurmountable.

Although the Taliban is often credited as the main benefactor of the opium trade, there is reason to believe that the Karzai government and its affiliates have been the more substantially advantaged by illicit funds. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2009 report, titled “Addiction, Crime and Insurgency: The Transnational Threat of Afghan Opium,”estimates that only 10-15 per cent of Taliban funding is drawn from drugs and 85 per cent comes from non-opium sources.

The report claims that of the $3.4 billion annually garnered from the drug trade, the Taliban only gets its hands on a mere 4 per cent of that total, while farmers reap 21 per cent. The majority of the drug profits end up in the hands of militias, warlords, and political kingpins supported by the US and NATO to offset the influence of the Taliban – not to mention the fact that most of the funds end up in the formal international banking system.

 Afghan farmers collect raw opium as they work in their poppy field in Khogyani District of Nangarhar province on April 29, 2013. (AFP Photo)

The empowerment of local proxies has enabled them to tax and protect opium traffickers and expand refineries, which led to the speedy resumption of opium production after the ban imposed by the Taliban in 2000 – and today, heroin production in Afghanistan increased 40 times since the US invasion in 2001.

Although totally outrageous, the institutional corruption and explosion in the drug trade that has occurred under the watch of US-NATO forces is hardly surprising from an occupation force that is criminal from the top down.

Where the CIA is appeasing the Afghan leadership with sacks of US dollars, testosterone-filled American soldiers make a of mockery their country by urinating on Afghan corpses, burning Korans, and massacring unarmed civilians, as seen in the famous case of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. Don’t expect any high-ranking US or NATO official to be made answerable for these continued acts of wrongdoing. Washington is preparing to walk away, and Afghanistan looks much the same as it did after the Soviet-Mujahideen episode in the early ’90s – a ravaged country with mass instability, no infrastructure to speak of, an economy in disarray, and colorful cast of armed-characters who may seek to control Kabul after the withdrawal.

Cleaning up

Even after the formal conclusion of international stabilization efforts, a sizable amount of US troops will remain in the country after 2014, something Russia has opposed out of concern that Afghanistan could be used as a military springboard targeting other countries in the region.

The emphasis has now shifted to equipping and training the Afghan National Army and the notoriously corrupt Afghan National Police forces, so as to enable them independently to counter terrorism and drug-related crime.

Considering the track record of the occupying forces and the distrust of Americans held by Afghan forces, there is a low probability that these efforts will succeed. The assaults on US troops by US-trained Afghan security forces reflect the discord on the ground, and the difficulty of the task at hand. Karzai has vowed to step down as Afghanistan's sole post-Taliban head of state, with no clear successor in place, who will occupy the Presidential Palace after the April 2014presidential ballot?

Whoever takes the helm has a tremendous task ahead of them; failure to exert control over lawless provinces could see the country fall into civil war and balkanize into warlord-led territories. Afghanistan's rural economy once flourished with orchards and food crops, and had the occupation not been an exercise in plunder and embezzlement, international aid could have developed rural infrastructure and given rise to alternative non-illicit crops. Even the cost of Obama’s 30,000-soldier surge at $30 billion per year could have developed rural areas and stifled the influence of the Taliban if meaningfully implemented, but of course, that was never the plan.

The post-2014 administration faces grave instability if it fails to boldly clean up the system, and continued US drone warfare will ensure sustained militancy as family members of victims killed in drone attacks join the Taliban and extremist groups seeking retribution.

Mirroring the situation in Iraq, US-led forces will leave behind a regime that will likely be privy to Iranian influence. China will also play a more significant role in Afghan stabilization efforts after 2014. Beijing and Kabul cut a deal in September 2012 that would see China replace NATO in the training, funding and arming the 149,000-strong Afghan police as part of increased Sino-Afghan cooperation in combating regional terrorism.

China would be greatly disadvantaged if Afghanistan fragmented into a hub for international terrorism, which would increase security concerns in its western Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, an area already vulnerable to destabilization. The dragon is set to replace the eagle as Beijing is increasing its involvement in the Afghan economy through multi-billion dollar Chinese projects. Stabilization efforts are a lot to shoulder – the Chinese approach would be incremental and bare little similarity to the model employed by the Americans.

There may be grounds for restrained optimism in thinking about Afghanistan’s future if Beijing succeeds where Washington has failed by proving to be a less-parasitic partner in development and stabilization.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.