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ALFRED McCOY - Into the Afghan Abyss (Again) How a Failed Drug War Will Defeat Trump’s Afghan Adventure
Americans have been hearing about the Taliban for so long that most fail to appreciate just how relentless that movement’s growth has been in recent years. In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, the Bush White House unleashed a lethal combination of U.S. airpower and CIA-funded Afghan warlords to crush the fundamentalist Taliban and capture the Afghan capital, Kabul, with stunning speed. Not only was that Islamist movement and its government defeated, but it lost so many dedicated militants to those devastating air attacks that it was seemingly smashed beyond repair or revival. Nonetheless, within five years, the Taliban was back in force, already fielding 25,000 fighters. By 2015, it was in control of more than half the countryside, had captured district capitals, and was even pounding at the gates of major provincial cities like Kunduz.
As with any movement, there are multiple reasons for the Taliban’s success, including the failure of the government in Kabul — a cesspit of corruption — to deliver anything like rural prosperity, the country’s martial tradition of fighting foreign occupiers, and Pakistan’s sub-rosa support, as well as the wide-open sanctuaries in its tribal backlands along the Afghan border. But there is one other factor, more fundamental than all the rest: the opium poppy.
The Taliban guerrillas are, like many insurgent armies, largely made up of teenagers who fight, at least in part, for cash to feed their families. Every spring for the past 15 years, as snow melts from mountain slopes across that country, new crops of such teenage recruits emerge from impoverished villages ready to take up arms for the rebel cause. Each of them reportedly makes at least $300 a month, far more than they could possibly hope to earn from the usual agricultural wages. In other words, it takes an estimated $90 million in salaries alone for the Taliban to field its 25,000 strong guerrilla army for a single fighting season. With an overall budget approaching a billion dollars annually, the cost of the insurgency’s 15-year war rings in at something close to $15 billion.
So where, in that impoverished, arid land, has the Taliban been getting nearly a billion dollars a year? According to the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, a single Afghan province, Helmand, “produces a significant amount of the opium globally that turns into heroin and… provides about 60 percent of the Taliban funding.” The country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, agrees. “Without drugs,” he’s said, “this war would have been long over. The heroin is a very important driver of this war.”