In the last few months, the Afghan drug trade has entered a new phase of power struggles that could lead to the sort of violence that plagues Mexicans on a daily basis. The trigger has been four key assassinations of government officials who were alleged drug barons. Their deaths have already opened the door to significant consequences for Afghanistan’s narco-economy.
More than anything, the assassinations have resulted in a power grab among the stakeholders in the multi-billion dollar Afghan drug trade – Afghanistan produces 95 percent of the world’s opium and heroin. There is now a real threat of death squads, more violence and a breakdown of the community and tribal links that have thus far prevented Afghanistan from becoming another Mexico.
The four men who were killed are the former governor of Uruzgan Province (and close friend of Afghan President Hamid Karzai) Jan Mohammad Khan, who was killed on July 18 in Kabul; the President's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was killed on July 12 at the hands of a close ally in Kandahar; the head of police for the northern region, General Mohammad Daud Daud, who was killed on May 28 in Takhar; and the Provincial Police Chief of Kandahar, Khan Muhammad Mujahid, who died in a Taliban-facilitated suicide bombing on April 15.
All of these men maintained potent patron-client relationships that went back for decades. Their loss has produced a dangerous power vacuum in the hierarchy of drug trafficking.
Karzai’s brother was the most powerful of the four men. He was accused of drug trafficking at the same time that he was reported to be on the CIA payroll for aiding foreign troops with their fight against the insurgency. The allegations included providing protection for narcotics convoys to pass through Kandahar, killing those who crossed him, and direct trafficking of opium and heroin.
But Karzai was never arrested -- if the United States had removed the influential southern leader, the risk that smaller bandits of drug traffickers would seize power was high. For the United States and NATO, Karzai’s ability to keep Kandahar somewhat secure was more important than his forays in trafficking.
Jan Mohammad Khan, one of the most powerful tribal leaders of central Afghanistan, was also accused of links to the drug trade. Unlike Karzai, in 2006, Khan was fired from his position as governor following strong protests from NATO and U.S. officials who accused him of corruption, links to the drug trade, and human rights violations.
Under his tenure, nearly 80 percent of the province’s villages engaged in the drug trade.
And then there is Daud, a drug-dealer who served as Afghanistan’s anti-drug czar from 2004 until President Karzai transferred him from his post in 2010. Daud, who was once a bodyguard of slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, was a key figure in supporting the drug trade, receiving thousands of dollars in exchange for protecting other smugglers who transported narcotics.
Afghanistan, the New Mexico?
Afghanistan is the world’s number one producer of opium and heroin but it does not have the ominous cartels and paramilitary militias who terrorize Latin America. Mexico lost 34,000 people in its drug war between December 2006 until the end of 2010, according to official estimates by the Mexican government. Although violence soared since President Felipe Calderon declared war against the cartels in December 2006, the carnage worsened after the United States helped assassinate Beltran Leyva, the godfather of the Sinalao cartel, in late 2009.
In Afghanistan, the United States has arrested and extradited four other Afghan kingpins in the last five years: Haji Bashir Noorzai, Haji Juma Khan, Haji Bachgo, and Haji Baaz Mohammad. They are in American prisons, either convicted of drug smuggling or awaiting trial. But none of them had the charisma and ability to crush opposition like the men who were recently assassinated.
Deaths related to drugs in Afghanistan haven’t reached the tens of thousands as they have in Mexico. One reason could be the tribal links that powerbrokers like Karzai’s brother invoked to preserve a level of stability. With all four gone, that stability is threatened and it’s likely that insurgents, more malicious militia commanders and neighboring drug mafias from Pakistan and Uzbekistan will gain ground.
America’s Role in Afghanistan’s Drug Trade
Fighting drug dealers is a relatively new priority for the United States. Though the U.S. has appropriated more than $4.5 billion for counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan since 2002, measurable success in the war on drugs is elusive as security has been a top priority since the beginning of the war.
In 2009, the Obama administration began a new plan of attacking the narcotics-corruption-insurgency nexus. The policy shift came after the United States could no longer ignore exuberant profits that Taliban and al Qaeda-linked militants reaped from the Afghan opium trade – moderate estimates put this in the tens of millions of U.S. dollars.
So the United States began selectively busting drug dealers both directly, by targeting high profile traffickers and traders, and indirectly with the help of foreign troops who fight drug dealing insurgents and also provide alternatives to poppy farming.
The Future of the Narco-Economy
Now that these four men are gone, the Taliban and rival criminal syndicates have a chance to consolidate the drug rings that operate in their turfs. But there’s also the problem of the government itself.
Hampered by corruption, Karzai’s government is a significant obstacle to long-term counter-narcotics policies. His protection of drug dealers in the government -- he pardoned five of them in April 2009 because one of the men was related to his campaign manager – has prolonged his tenure, but with the new power vacuum, he is losing ground in the drug war.
It remains unlikely that the Afghan government’s counter-narcotics efforts will be robust enough to create the conditions needed to wane rural farming communities off of the narco-economy. And inconsistencies in United States and Afghan resolve to seriously address the ongoing narcotics conundrum has also led to regional tensions with both the Russian Federation and Iran, both of whom suffer tremendously from Afghan-origin narcotics.
As a result, international and domestic efforts to stabilize the country will continue to be plagued, and strains in relations with bordering states could set the stage for what can become another Mexico.
Fariba Nawa is an Afghan-American freelance journalist and author of the upcoming book Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman’s Journey Home to Afghanistan.
Matthew DuPée is a counter-narcotics and security specialist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
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