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

Blood from Stones

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Trying to Get it Right in Afghanistan, and Ignoring the Elephant in the Room
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has sounded the alarm on Afghanistan, correctly pointing out that the danger of losing there is real and the hour is late.

It is fitting, on this day, to remember that our collective inability to get Afghanistan right once before helped give our enemies the opportunity to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks that are being remembered today.

What is striking about the published reports of Mullen and Defense Secretary Gates is the absence of any discussion of one of the driving forces of the Taliban's mounting success: its access to tens of millions of dollars in opium and poppy money. The UN conservatively estimates the Taliban makes between $50 million and $70 million a year from the drug trade.

Talk about ignoring the elephant in the room! Here is the prototype of future terrorist and insurgent movements deriving its income from non-state sources, and combating that figures into the policy at best in a marginal way.

In the 1980s the mujahadeen relied on U.S., Saudi and Pakistani aid, and became, over time, a largely state-sponsored, though non-state, actor. Now there is far less state sponsorship (with the exception of Pakistan's ISI), and the revenue is derived from criminal activity, an MO we will see more and more frequently in coming years.

The other multiple issues listed by Mullen are correct. There is a severe shortage of manpower and airlift capability. There is a terribly disjointed chain of command among the NATO forces and between NATO and the U.S. forces. The intelligence sharing infrastructure hardly exists. All of these are crippling weaknesses, and weaknesses that simply adding more troops will not resolve.

Iraq is going better because there was an integrated approach by Gen. Petraeus to use the surge with the fusion cells and vastly improved intelligence integration. Patraeus also focused heavily on the money flow to al Qaeda in Iraq forces.

The money flow to the Taliban is clear and identifiable, but no one wants to discuss it, because discussing it would entail having to develop a strategy to confront it. As in Colombia and elsewhere, the military has been extremely reluctant to get into counter-drug activities.

There are a number of good reasons for this, and a more active policy does not necessarily entail giving the military a lead role. There are other agencies better equipped for that. And any policy must also be comprehensive, not built primarily on the suppression of the opium crop, because the civilian population is already caught in the middle, as it has been for decades of conflict, and erradication alone will certainly alienate them.

But it does entail recognizing where the Taliban gets its funding to expand, upgrade it weaponry, improve its communications and greatly increase its mobility. Without recognizing the drug issues are directly related to the success of the insurgency (as Colombia finally did with the FARC, after years of trying to keep counter-drug and counter-insurgency policies separate), the rest of the policy and strategy retooling will only affect the margins of the conflict there.

If the US and NATO is serious about improving the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, the Taliban's money stream must be cut off. That stream is heavily dependent on opium. Ignoring that reality is not a policy.

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