Decoding the New Taliban, a book I blogged about once already, will probably find its way into more posts here because of its timeliness, depth, and variety of voices. The book's first chapter explores how drug money from Afghanistan's mammoth poppy harvest bankrolls the Taliban. What intrigued me, though, is that the Taliban don't seem to be kingpins. Not even close.
Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror, wrote the chapter. She writes that the Taliban "take an active military role in protecting drug shipments. ... There have even been cases where insurgents have launched diversionary strikes to draw Western troops away from an area where a major consignment was passing."
Peters concludes that "Taliban leaders work closely with traffickers, who appear to have tremendous influence over their military strategy."
To repeat, drug traffickers influence Taliban military decisions, according to Peters. This is striking. It suggests that the Taliban are both insurgents and rent-a-thugs, and that those dual obligations may not always mesh perfectly. U.S. commanders would be wise to try to find ways to throw those obligations into conflict as often as possible.
But I want to suggest also that U.S. and NATO forces should move with extraordinary care in striking against Afghanistan's drug harvest, drug smuggling, drug trade, drug money, drug everything. The path to failure, in fact, might be summarized like this: Strengthen existing crackdowns on poppy farming and drug smuggling.
How can this be?
Here's Peters again: "This chapter does not aim to suggest that the Taliban are the only actors in the drug trade, nor that they reap more profits than individuals allied with the Kabul government. ... Southern Afghan tribes allied with the Karzai administration tend to suffer less eradication; rival tribes are often pushed into the arms of insurgents."
In her final sentence, Peters writes that "Afghan villagers who cultivate poppy, either by coercion or by choice, or who in some way engage in the illicit drug trade will need to have legal alternatives made available to them."
Done wrong, a drug war in Afghanistan seems as if it could turn into a quagmire all its own.