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How Deeply is the U.S. involved in the Afghan Drug Trade?

11/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Special for the Huffington Post
By Eric Margolis
October 15, 2008

Afghanistan is in a `downward spiral,' the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, admitted last week, giving the most negative view of that conflict heard in Washington.

Military men are programmed to always be optimistic, so Admiral Mullen's grim words were particularly noteworthy. They also flatly contradicted the rosy claims of `progress' in Afghanistan made by the Bush administration and its increasingly dispirited allies in Canada, France, Germany, Italy and other NATO nations that were dragooned into this deeply unpopular war.

Most Europeans see the Afghan conflict as a 19th-century style colonial war for regional domination and resources. By contrast, Americans are still being misled by their corporate media and posturing politicians of both parties into believing the seven-year U.S. occupation of Afghanistan is a noble `anti-terrorism' mission that is defending women's rights and rebuilding a ravage nation instead of another brutal grab for energy, this time from the Caspian Basin.

In a troubling example of Vietnam-style 'mission creep,' the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, is calling for 15,000 more American troops on top of the 8,000 now slated to arrive in January 2009. His predecessor told Congress that 400,000 U.S. troops would be needed to pacify Afghanistan.

But McKiernan also called for talks with Afghan nationalists resisting western occupation collectively known as Taliban. Days earlier, it was revealed that senior British officers and diplomats in Afghanistan had called the US-led war `un-winnable' and advocated peace talks with Taliban.

Admiral Mullen also ordered U.S. and NATO forces to begin targeting Afghanistan's opium and heroin dealers. Under American tutelage, Afghanistan has become the world's leading narco-state, surpassing even Colombia, and now producing 90% of the world's heroin. Well over half of the nation's GDP consists of drug money. Considering this, Admiral Mullen's 'shoot on sight' orders seem rather overdue.

The 64,000 rupee question that arises from Admiral Mullen's new anti-drug policy is: Why was it not done seven years ago when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan? Why did Washington turn a blind eye to the Afghan drug trade and is only now taking some action?

The answer is simple and dismaying. America's local allies in Afghanistan, the politicians and warlords who overthrew Taliban in 2001, are up to their turbans in the heroin trade. Drug money is the blood that courses through Afghanistan's veins and keeps the economy limping along. The U.S.-installed Karzai regime in Kabul propped up by US and NATO bayonets has only two sources of income: cash handouts from Washington, and the proceeds of drug dealing.

When Taliban ruled 90% of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, it almost totally stamped out poppy cultivation as un-Islamic. The UN's drug control agency has confirmed this fact. The only remaining source of drug dealing was in the remote northeast of Afghanistan controlled by the Russian and Iranian-backed Northern Alliance, made up of Tajik Panshiri tribesmen, brutal Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostam, and the remains of the old Afghan Communist Party.

In 2001, the U.S. overthrew Taliban and put the drug-dealing Northern Alliance and Communists in power. Since then, Afghanistan's drug production has spread across the nation and exports have soared by 60-70%, making Afghanistan the source of nearly all the world's supply of heroin.

Washington called off efforts by the Drug Enforcement Agency to combat the Afghan drug trade for fear of endangering the power base of its former CIA `asset,' President Hamid Karzai. Starting with Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali, the U.S.-installed regime's most important supporters are all involved in varying degrees with the heroin trade. As this writer has seen himself, almost every important warlord gets revenue from the drug trade. The Northern Alliance warlords are considered the biggest of the nation's narco-dealers. Ahmed Karzai denies involvement.

Moving against the drug warlords would have meant undermining Karzai's sole domestic support. So Washington held its nose and let the drug trade flourish in order to sustain the occupation. The faux `war on terror' and lust for Caspian energy trumped the old war on drugs.

Experience in Indochina and Central America suggests that CIA, the principal paymaster for U.S.-backed Afghan warlords, may be more deeply involved in the drug trade than we yet know.

Author Alfred McCoy's wrote a brilliant study in his ground-breaking `The Politics of Heroin' in which he documents how first French, then American intelligence was drawn into the heroin trade in Laos and Vietnam as a way of supporting anti-Communist guerilla fighters. The same thing happened in Central America where CIA collaborated with cocaine-dealing members of the anti-Communist Contras.

In both cases, drugs served as a currency and became more important than paper money. French and American spies even ended up transporting heroin for their local allies. The same may be happening in Afghanistan.

Equally disturbing, there is no way that simple Afghan farmers or Taliban fighters are running the drug trade, as Washington claims. Poppy sap is collected and converted into opium tar. Then it is smuggled to secret labs in Pakistan to be transformed into first morphine base, and then purified into heroin. None of these drugs would move south into Pakistan or be processed with imported chemicals without the full cooperation and assistance of the Afghan government, its supporting warlords, and local Pakistani officials. The drugs are then smuggled out of the port of Karachi, again under at protection by port and local officials. Pakistan is a key U.S. ally.

The Karzai regime has been totally corrupted by the drug trade, and so has parts of Pakistan's establishment. But the United States has also become corrupted in the sense that it has done nothing to combat this scourge and has collaborated with Afghanistan's drug barons by at minimum turning blind eye.

When the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is written, Washington's sordid involvement in the heroin trade and its alliance with drug lords and war criminals of the Afghan Communist Party will be one of the most shameful chapters.