Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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The Taliban and the Drug Trade
Well, for those who have argued there is no smoking gun linking the Taliban to opium production, the jig is now up. NATO forces discovered 11 tons of processed opium in a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan, meaning the opium was at the stage where it can be converted to heroin on about a one-to-one ratio. In other words, it was almost 11 tons of heroin.

The Taliban had an ambivalent relationship with the poppy trade during its reign of terror in Afghanistan, and now appears to have done away with any pretense of not engaging in the lucrative trade.

This explains in large part, as I have written about over the past year, why the Taliban and the Arab/foreign fighters allied with them, have greatly increased their firepower and tactical and communications capabilities.

This is only the latest sign of the merging pipelines and blurring of the distinctions with terrorists and transnational criminal organizations. The great equalizer in this is the drug trade, which offers relatively easy access to huge amounts of money. Few seem able to resist it, from the thugs running Burma to the Central American gangs and criminal groups that control the Central America-Mexico pipeline.

There has been a long-held predisposition in the intelligence community to believe that because Islam severely frowns on the use of drugs (particularly the kind of Islam espoused by the Taliban), the group did not really participate in the drug trade. If they execute people for drug possession, then how could they justify trafficking in the product?

Well, the answer lies in creative theology. There have been several fatwas issued by Taliban theologians since 2001 allowing a Muslim to engage in activities that are harmful to the enemy (that would be us), even if they are actions that a Muslim normally could not take.

It is not so different elsewhere, where ideology can be substituted for theology.

Over the years we have seen the FARC lose all trace of ideology as the drug trade and its wealth has supplanted Marxism as a reason to fight the state. The Self-Defense groups, formed to fight the FARC, also devolved into cocaine trafficking organizations that reaped tens of millions of dollars.

In both cases (and many others), the situation is complex. The Taliban, FARC and others allow people in the territories they control to benefit from one of the few economically viable activities that exist there. This, in turn, buys the Taliban or FARC a measure of goodwill from the population.

Eradication efforts, while somewhat harmful to drug trafficking organizations, is far more costly for the government or state actor in the equation. The state is depriving people of their livelihoods, on top of not protecting them from the rebels/terrorist/bandits. Not a great way to build political capital or credibility among people who have no alternatives.

But the cost of doing nothing is also high. Look at the Taliban's gains to see what opium money has gotten them.

The slide toward criminal activity is almost impossible to stop once it starts. Protecting poppy or coca plants soon becomes providing protection for drug trafficking organizations, which eventually becomes drug trafficking itself. Each step brings increasing profits, which are hard to forego.

Once a group can plug into a pipeline that moves one illicit product, it is very little effort to diversify to put other products in the same pipeline. After all, the gatekeepers in the pipeline are the same, whether the product is drugs, guns, humans or diamonds.

And once in the pipeline, it is very difficult to get out. The money is too good, the threats for leaving too great, the ideology or theology easily massaged to justify what is happening.

The Taliban is well down a slippery slope that we will all pay a price for, none more than the long-suffering people of Afghanistan.
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