Jon Swain - writer and foreign correspondent

Book review

Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda by Gretchen Peters

Jon Swain

The Sunday Times, 27 September 2009

Amid grim reports of more dead British soldiers, a spreading ­Taliban insurgency and a presidential election marred by vote-rigging, one piece of good news has come out of Afghanistan recently. Poppy ­cultivation and opium production declined sharply this year, especially in ­Helmand, where the main British effort is concentrated.
Eradicating the narcotics trade was one of the main reasons the British were originally deployed to Helmand, so the British have been quick to flag up the success of their strategy. But there are complex economic reasons why less opium was grown this year, and experts warn that production may well increase again. It is also true that the amount of opium is still more than double that cultivated in 2005, the year before British forces entered the province. The battle is far from won.
What makes arguments about opium levels so significant is the fact that the Taliban are thought to generate more than $100m from the trade. It is at the heart of Afghanistan’s problems. In Seeds of Terror, journalist Gretchen Peters, who has covered the region for 10 years, sets out to prove how heroin is bankrolling the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Her meticulously researched book involved hundreds of interviews with Taliban fighters, smugglers and law-enforcement officials in the region.
As fighting has worsened, Afghanistan has inevitably been compared with Iraq. But the country it most closely resembles, argues Peters, is fellow narco-state Colombia. Just as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia were sucked into the coca trade (graduating from protecting drug shipments to control of drug factories and the creation of a parallel government), so the Taliban have gone through a similar metamorphosis with opium. “It’s like watching a bad movie all over again,” said a US official who moved from Colombia to south Asia. Taliban commanders drawn into the trade rapidly lose their ideological roots; captured fighters have confessed that the bulk of their cash for fuel, food and weapons comes from drugs.
This reality, Peters believes, was long overlooked by America. In particular, the Bush administration drastically underplayed Taliban and Al-Qaeda links to drug money as they pushed for war in Iraq. One former FBI agent was so concerned about the link between narcotics and terrorism that he wrote letters to all relevant officials in the Bush administration. He never received a reply, despite the strong circumstantial evidence linking Al-Qaeda to drug money.
When the problem was finally realised, the Americans resorted to spraying to destroy the poppy fields (“I’m a spray man myself,” said Bush). But spraying was never the answer. It drove up opium prices, making more money for the Taliban and life harder for the farmer whose loyalty was essential to the struggle to bring stability to the region.
With the war worsening, America has now revamped its strategy. But Peters says that the fight against the opium trade remains one of the most divisive issues within Nato. Ultimately, she argues, the answer is to go after the few dozen top smugglers and provide alternative sources of finance for the farmers to grow other cash crops. The farmers are not wedded to growing the poppy. They do so because of the prepayments they get from drug traffickers and the pressures put on them.
Meanwhile, one of the ­reasons for the current success ­in combating the opium trade — the leadership of Helmand governor Gulab Mangal — may soon disappear. There are strong grounds for fearing that President Karzai, assuming he is the victor of the election, will replace Mangal with a crony, one more ­amenable to opium production.
American officials insist that their priority is to target the drug kings. But, as Peters emphasises, the Taliban are not alone in benefiting from the business. Many in the top levels of the Karzai administration are involved, too. They have to be pursued. The command-and-control centres of Afghanistan’s narcotics industry are over the border in Pakistan, in Baluchistan and Karachi. They have to be shut down, too.