Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Afghanistan and the Myths of Humanitarian Intervention.A Debate on the 'War on Drugs' and the TAPI Pipeline.

Bamiyan was a safe haven in Afghanistan – but what now? A response to Emma Harrison 

'....the insurgency has spread and violence lapped steadily closer to this virtual island of calm, isolated by mountain peaks rather than water. First one, then both roads to Kabul became a dangerous lottery. The head of the provincial council, a popular man who had done much to help development in a desperately poor area, was abducted and slaughtered in 2011. A US engineer is among the many others killed on the roads since'

The hard reality is that the US is trying to extricate itself from Afghanistan by putting out peace feelers precisely to more 'moderate' elements of the Taliban. The reason ,after the mission to drive out Al Qaida was achieved after 2001 in the early stages of the war, was old style realpolitik,

The West wants the construction of the TAPI pipeline and remaining NATO and US forces after 2014 will remain to secure this geopolitical strategy designed to offer an alternative to the rival Iranian-Pakistan pipeline. The fate of Afghans was always somewhat secondary.

Humanitarians in Afghanistan have attempted much noble work, But the war is unwinnable because of the dirty realpolitik of energy geopolitics and the 'war on drugs' which impoverished opium farmers when the US burnt their poppy fields in Helmland and drove them into the control of the Taliban.

Afghanistan was lauded by siren voices largely now silent as 'humanitarian intervention'. It was more 'enlightened self interest' and as the war failed it became more and more about what it had been a lot about from the outset-getting the flow of Turkmen gas to Pakistan and India.

The problem with that strategy is that the various tribal factions in Kabul are vying over the potential lucrative transit fees. And the Taliban have no interest in peace as their power base, though it exists in pockets outside Helmland, is about derailing Hillary Clinton's 'New Silk Route' concept.

The New Great Game is a revised version of the Old Great Game played between Russia and the British Empire in the mid nineteenth century. This time the main contestation is over energy supply routes from the 'stans' , rich in oil and gas, that re-appeared after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The future of Afghanistan may well not exactly be a reversion to total chaos. Yet reasons for pessimism are well founded. The various factions will fight over control of Afghanistan to be able to profit from selling this lands space as a pipeline transit space and supplier of resources such as lithium.

The West intended to try and combine self interest with humanitarian objectives but this can seldom be achieved via war and occupation, not least when the US aligned itself with the Northern Alliance who 'humanitarian credentials are scarcely better than the Taliban.

Some sort of less anarchic situation could be cobbled together after 2014 and the ""drawdown" ( note NOT "withdrawal') of US/NATO troops. Yet the futile 'war on drugs' only increases the profit to be made from opium production and the constant demand for heroin in the consumerist West.

Challlenges to the Taliban Drug Trade in Oium has comf from Mr GM Potts and Mr Gamecock. I quote their responses in The Guardian without alteration and as they stand.

GM Potts

More importantly you've also asserted without any supporting evidence that the Taliban finance themselves through heroin production. Got any?


Yes I have from the Washington Post by Misha Glenny in 2007
In the past two years, the drug war has become the Taliban's most effective recruiter in Afghanistan. Afghanistan's Muslim extremists have reinvigorated themselves by supporting and taxing the countless peasants who are dependent one way or another on the opium trade, their only reliable source of income. The Taliban is becoming richer and stronger by the day, especially in the east and south of the country. The "War on Drugs" is defeating the "war on terror."
 GM Potts

That's Misha Glenny's assertion without evidence. I've taken the time to search through your blog and while calling for the legalisation of heroin, a position I agree with fwiw, you include the quote "according to the UN drugs tsar, Antonio Maria Costa, the Taliban is earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year from opium".

That doesn't equate to proof of a Taliban policy or even a large amount of their funding, simply opportunistic taxation. I say that because if they were actually producing it and controlling the export as Brownly asserts then the profits would be in the billions each year. When the Russian Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics were allowed to participate in just one drugs raid then they were able to destroy $250 million worth of heroin and opium.


M Potts - Um, no,it's Misha Glenny's actual research. What reseach have you really done ?

What evidence do you have that in such an impoverished land as Afghanistan that opium revenue has not actually contributed to its ability both a) To gain the support of opium farmers and b ) That this does not constutute a large source of income ?

The answer is you don't. Glenny's article explains in detail why the Taliban does derive revenue from opium. Something that flatly contradicts the stupid idea the Taliban "at least" kept drugs under control.

Switching the subject to 'whattaboutery' as regards Russia doesn't invalidate the case nor the evidence and you full well know it. The Taliban doesn't keep record for the central Kabul government on its exact opium revenue.

There may well be reasons for that. But if it's earning hundreds of millions of dollars from opium that means they are able to continue the insurrection in a land awash with weapons within Afghanistan and across porous borders.

The phrase 'opportunistic taxation' is simply bizarre in the context of Afghanistan. As is the phrase 'Taliban policy'. They don't work according to the taxation system of functioning states. That should not be so hard to grasp.

GM Potts

I read the article and it doesn't. ( give evidence ) No where in your blog does either. You shouldn't be abusive simply because you are asked for evidence. I'm perfectly happy to accept that the Taliban gain hundreds of millions of dollars from taxation of the drugs lords and farmers under their control, but that actually "does not constutute a large source of [their] income", nor does it indicate they control or tax much of the $4 billion yearly Afghan drug trade.

Instead at least half of their funding comes from taxing the local contractors who work for the ISAF and US forces.

Reuters: Who is funding the Afghan Taliban? You don’t want to know
'Up until quite recently, most experts thought that drug money accounted for the bulk of Taliban funding. But even here opinion was divided on actual amounts. Some reports gauged the total annual income at about $100 million, while others placed the figure as high as $300 million — still a small fraction of the $4 billion poppy industry.
Now administration officials have launched a search for Taliban sponsors. Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told a press conference in Islamabad last month that drugs accounted for less of a share of Taliban coffers than was previously thought.
“In the past there was a kind of feeling that the money all came from drugs in Afghanistan,” said Holbrooke, according to media reports. “That is simply not true.”
The new feeling is that less than half of the Taliban’s war chest comes from poppy, with a variety of sources, including private contributions from Persian Gulf states, accounting for much of the rest. Holbrooke told reporters that he would add a member of the Treasury Department to his staff to pursue the question of Taliban funding.
But perhaps U.S. officials need look no further than their own backyard.
Anecdotal evidence is mounting that the Taliban are taking a hefty portion of assistance money coming into Afghanistan from the outside.
This goes beyond mere protection money or extortion of “taxes” at the local level — very high-level negotiations take place between the Taliban and major contractors, according to sources close to the process'

Half of their revenue according to the Reuters source. But remember the status of the source. Richard Holbrooke had every reason to downplay the role of heroin in financing the Taliban because his brief was justify US policy in Afghanistan.

If heroin had not been considered a major source of income for the Taliban, Holbrooke wouldn't have been considering winning over farmers by plans to substitute opium growing with pomegranates.The plans to revive the wine trade seem curiously bizarre in such a land.
..that actually "does not constutute a large source of [their] income", nor does it indicate they control or tax much of the $4 billion yearly Afghan drug trade.
If opium consists of "just" under half their income, that could still amount to a hefty amount of income ( even if a US State official is to be trusted to be wholly candid given his attempts to defend Obama's 'surge'.

It could be well true that a hefty amount of finance came from Gulf States and that backs up my original case that the Afganistan War eas based on cofused and contradictory efforts, a bungled mixture of shoddy realpolitik and "humanintarian intervention rhetoric".

GM Potts

My problem is with the false, but sadly widely believed, idea that the Taliban are evil drug dealers and the US and ISAF troops are doing their best to stem this trade. My contention is that the war itself is the major source of funding for the Taliban, and that taxing opium is secondary, therefore extending the war is simply making the problem worse. 

I have read other articles that inform that, such as How U.S. Taxpayers Are Funding the Taliban
Some experts have estimated that close to $1 billion a year of foreign assistance has fallen into the hands of the enemy as a result of poorly-run counterinsurgency programs, ill-devised USAID projects and countless logistics and security extortion rings. In addition, a free-market ideologue outsourcing craze has led to a wholesale lack of oversight while the prioritization of private greed over the public good has fostered unprecedented levels of corruption. Afghanistan is a case study in paradox, of how development aid can actually destabilize a war-torn country. But development does not reduce violence in a war zone when a large portion of it goes to the enemy -- which makes sense. It also makes for an absurd cycle which has served to prolong the conflict to the sole benefit of war profiteers, warlords and corrupt Afghan officials.
I think this occupation of Afghanistan is making Afghanistan more dangerous to 'the west', much like the interlinked 'war on drugs' and 'war on terror' are self-defeating.

Mr Gamecock replied against the idea that the TAPI Pipeline is a central war objective with this,

The TAPI pipeline is nowhere nearer getting built now than it was when it was first thought of.

The Iran-Pakistan pipeline on the other hand has been started (Iranian section completed, construction of the Pakistani section commenced 11th March 2013) and will be (according to schedule) completed and fully operational by January 2015.

This means that the Pakistanis will get sufficient gas to meet their immediate needs before India does (Unless of course India rejoins the Iranian-Pakistani Pipeline Project) which means that Pakistan can drive a harder bargain related to transportation royalties for gas crossing their territory on its way to India

"Afghanistan was lauded by siren voices largely now silent as 'humanitarian intervention'
Of course the intervention in Afghanistan was driven by humanitarian concerns - Between April 1978 and October 2001 the population of Afghanistan had dropped by one third killed or displaced. According to the UNHCR two refugees out of every three in the world was an Afghan. Most of the population were suffering from serious malnutrition and on the point of starvation.

The "Northern Alliance" that the US aligned itself with constituted the remnants of the last internationally recognised Government of the Republic of Afghanistan, while the Taliban Government that "ruled" it's part of Afghanistan so disastrously between 1996 and 2001 was only ever recognised by Pakistan (Their backers) and by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - Not by the United Nations


Mr Gamebird -
The TAPI pipeline is nowhere nearer getting built now than it was when it was first thought of.
Aha ! So it exists as a plan then ? Weeks before Gamecock et al were mechanically writing it off as a 'conspiracy theory'. Now, having realised the erroneous nature of that position, they seek to backtrack by stating but 'it won't be a reality anyway'.

That does not still mean it is not a central war objective, given all the more urgency by the fact that the Iranians have already built significant parts of their pipeline towards Pakistan and why State Department officials such as Olsen have warned Zardawi in Pakistan about violating sanctions on Iran.

So the IP or potential IPI pipeline is itself far from assured by being finished by 2015. It is hampered by US intimidation of Pakistan precisely because the strategy is to isolate and hem in Iran and destabilise the political elite in Tehran.

Futhermore, India has rejected the IPI project now that the US has stepped in to aid it's energy sector development with the provision of nuclear technology. Also the very factors that hamper the TAPI pipeline are as true of the IP with Balochistanis ready to attack it.

The war was advocated by 'humanitarian interventionists' back in 2001. The points about their silence now is they have no strategy for rebuilding Afghanistan. These were 'public intellectuals'. Humanitarians are not 'humanitarian interventionists'.

( I should have made that distinction clearer than I did. Humanitarian intervention is a public policy doctrine whereas humanitarians are those such as the Red cross, UNICEF and other great organisations dedicated to saving lives-I'm not cynical about their efforts and intentions )
The "Northern Alliance" that the US aligned itself with constituted the remnants of the last internationally recognised Government of the Republic of Afghanistan, while the Taliban Government that "ruled" it's part of Afghanistan so disastrously between 1996 and 2001
This is the Northern Alliance that consisted of warlords such as General Dostum who had the charming habit during the civil war or executing enemy soldiers by crushing them under tanks. The factions in Parliament are often benefitting from opium too.

It seems that certain individuals simply have a penchant for what Freud knew was 'wish thining' and 'rationalisation' The facts contrary to the prescriptions of the creed, that Afghanistan was a 'humanitarian intervention' are screened from perception.

The reality is often too hard to bear: the TAPI pipeline ( euphemised by State Department officials as mere "infrastructure projects" are an essential part of what Lutz Klevemann termed The New Great Game. The pipeline race between Iran and the West is a geopolitical fact.

Mr Gamecock acheives little by trying to confuse actual with the intended consequences of Western war objectives as states by State Department officials ( I recommend that Gamecock read the transcripts-they lay down what is at stake clearly )


  1. Apologies for getting off on the wrong foot, I was a bit distracted last night.

    Too many pro-occupation Brits want to pretend that Afghan heroin production is all due to the Taliban, or that the occupation forces only tolerate it's production out of pragmatism.

    The two countries that are most destabilised by Afghan opium are Iran and Russia, and I feel that indicates why it's production is allowed by the world's greatest military.

    I've followed this war since before it started and I've heard and read that most Taliban funding comes not from heroin but from indirect taxation of the occupation convoys. One indicator of this is that the Afghan Taliban pressured the Pakistan Taliban not to support the Pakistan government blockade of the two supply roads - they were losing vital revenue.

    The Afghan Taliban have the same financial interest in extending this war as US 'defense contractor' corporations. The best thing for the Afghan people is a total and quick withdrawal of foreign forces.

  2. Thanks for responding.

    It's an irony worthy of a Joseph Conrad novel that the Taliban ( those 'Islamofascists' remember in 2001 ) are actually dependent upon the US occupation in order to thrive. The disaster in Afghanistan is created by a multiplicity of factors-including the 'war on drugs'.

    The TAPI pipeline remains an important geopolitical ambition to diversify gas supplies away from Russia and to act as an alternative to Iran's already started IP pipeline. I have written numerous articles on this business of energy geopolitics here and repeatedly requested to be allowed to write a piece on it in The Guardian.

    I think it was Bella McKie who said she'd refer the request for an article on the TAPI pipeline to the 'Middle Eastern' editor. I wasn't aware that Afghanistan was in the Middle East but it's not surprising nothing was commissioned if that the level of knowledge these privileged and often untalented journalists have.

    Most Western newspapers only mention Afghanistan in passing as 3 more soldiers get blown to bits by roadside IEDs. Note how the funeral corteges through the rebranded Royal Wootton Basset were dropped when the cynical PR government of Cameron did not want any more attention drawn to the war.

    There is a lot we could learn from each other. The reason I get a bit grouchy and forthright is that it's wearying to continually be written off as a conspiracy theorist by people who make glib comments and ignore the weight of evidence I produce, often from State Department documents themselves.

    Then I get it from mindless 'anti-imperialist' types who do not like someone who disagrees with those such as John Pilger who say things, bandied around by his uncritical groupies, that "at least" the Taliban prevented heroin production as if this mitigated their evil regime and paints 'the West" as simplistic stage villains.

    That's why I got so heated.If you have an independent mind, people don't like to hear views that do not accord with their wish thinking. Please feel free to read other articles on here on Afghanistan. I've collected a lot of material on the TAPI pipeline and dissected how "public diplomacy" has misled the British public over this war.

    Most in Britain still haven't a clue what it has been all about.

  3. I've a parochial yet witty French intellectual pal who said the only two decent English writers were Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson.
    Some of your writing upon first reading does seem unnecessarily acerbic at times. For instance I quite like John Pilger for his early work on Cambodia, and the SWP influenced StWC to be too inconsequential to criticise unless you've had to deal with them, but there is an integrity and decency that informs your work that is crucial to analysis, and certainly far more important than diplomacy.
    To be undiplomatic myself, I find the mass of young Polish émigrés I've met to be far too forgiving of USuk policy, or simply apolitical to the point of apathetic, doubtless due to their antipathy to the Soviet rule. I chanced into East Germany and it was awful and yet I can't help comparing the modern GB state with the GDR state.
    Anyway, I look forward to reading everything you've written to get a better perspective on both our nations and peoples. My gmail is gmpedin if you want to discuss anything away from webpages. I know a fair bit about some of the things you write about although to be honest have little to inform you of, rather I expect my experiences will just reinforce your existing opinions.