A suspected Afghan druglord went on trial this week in New York for attempting to smuggle tens of millions of dollars worth of heroin from Afghanistan into the US. Afghanistan is currently the world’s most prolific producer of heroin. Not coincidentally, Afghanistan’s drug trade has gone hand-in-hand with US policy in that country.
In the 1980s, the US backed and financed, along with its Saudi allies, a massive holy war on Afghan soil against the Soviet occupation. It was at that time that heroin production in Afghanistan peaked globally. Narcotics were the untraceable currency which paid for weapons on the black market. These weapons eventually ended the Soviet occupation and helped the US win the Cold War. Nearly two decades later, under a US/NATO occupation, Afghanistan has earned the distinction of world’s greatest heroin producer for the second time.
Ironically heroin production under the Taliban slowed drastically as that regime responded to UN sanctions. My partner-in-crime, James Ingalls, wrote all about it in December 2000 in an article called Smart Sanctions on Afghanistan: The Real Target is Peace, as Afghans Suffer. But those sanctions were hypocritical – they only sought to curb drug production by the Taliban, not our allies, the Northern Alliance (or, as they used to be called: The United Front). The Northern Alliance (NA) warlords have hideous pasts as war criminals and jihadi drug lords, and were the very same men who led the drug-financed operation against the Soviets in the 1980s followed by massacres of ordinary Afghans in the early 1990s. Fast forward to a year after the UN sanctions were in place: after the 9-11 attacks, the NA helped the US defeat the Taliban and, as a reward, were given high positions in government. As an added bonus, there was a tacit understanding that their poppy farms would be overlooked.
Seven years later, Haji Bashir Noorzai is in New York, facing life imprisonment for drug smuggling into the US. In fact he is a minor player in Afghanistan’s landscape of corruption, crime, and political intimidation and is distinguished by not being a member of the central government. Warlords far more powerful and even more clearly linked to crimes hold power in Afghanistan’s parliament, part of the central government supported by the US. Men like Yunus Qanooni, Barhanuddin Rabbani, Mohammad Mohaqiq, and Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, whose crimes are documented by Human Rights Watch, wear a mantle of democracy in today’s Afghanistan. Additionally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s own brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, is linked to serious drug smuggling. And, worse, Izzatullah Wasifi, the current head of the Afghan government’s anti-corruption authority, once spent more than three years in a Nevada prison for selling heroin in Las Vegas.
While Noorzai fought in the US-financed jihad against the Soviets, he eventually allied himself with the Taliban, hoping that they would stabilize Afghanistan during the bloody 90s. As is the case with most of the corrupt militia leaders in Afghanistan that the US has worked with, Noorzai went the way the wind seemed to be blowing and once more changed his allegiance back to the US in 2001 when he helped defeat and disarm the Taliban. Now, he is puzzled as to why the Americans would treat an ally with such disrespect and has offered to share information about the notorious Taliban leader Mullah Omar in exchange for leniency in his case.
According to the New York Times (9/8/08), the US government is accusing Noorzai of aiding the Taliban:
He also provided weapons and manpower to the Taliban, the indictment says. In exchange, the indictment says, the Taliban provided him with protection for his opium crops, heroin laboratories and drug-transportation routes.
At the time of his arrest, Karen Tandy, then chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the operation had â€œremoved one of the worldâ€™s top drug traffickers,â€ and someone, she added, who â€œfor too long, devastated the country of Afghanistan.â€
Not surprisingly, Tandy takes no responsibility for the US encouragement of Afghan heroin sales when it has been beneficial to Washington. An excellent history lesson on the US role in the Afghan drug trade can be found in Alfred McCoy’s 2003 book, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.
Further in the same New York Times article, Noorzai’s version of the story is found through the words of his defense lawyer, Ivan Fisher and his own affidavit:
Mr. Fisher wrote that Mr. Noorzai was an ardent supporter of the United States-supported government in Afghanistan, and cooperated with American military and intelligence agencies in the years before and after the 2001 terror attacks.
Mr. Noorzai, in his own affidavit, said that in 1982 he began to lead a small force that grew to 1,000 mujahedeen fighters in the war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.
In 1990, he said, he used his network of tribal contacts to help the C.I.A. recover Stinger missiles that the United States had provided to the Afghan rebels. He eventually turned over about 12 missiles, he said.
While Noorzai maintains that he was not paid by the US for his help in defeating and disarming the Taliban, he was likely the exception. The majority of Afghan drug lords and warlords were hired with financial and political incentives to help defeat the Taliban. In an October 2003 article I published in Foreign Policy in Focus, I detailed some of the financial ties:
The cooperation of warlords such as Fahim and Qanooni was central to U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom and in fact they were paid off by the United States and Britain in return for supporting Karzai and fighting against the Taliban. In July 2002, the UK Observer â€œlearnt that â€˜bin bagsâ€™ full of U.S. dollars have been flown into Afghanistan, sometimes on RAF planes, to be given to key regional power brokers who could cause trouble for Prime Minister Hamid Karzaiâ€™s administration. Paying the warlords for their services has triggered clashes among groups eager to win patronage from the United States. In some areas commanders have been told they will receive a top-of-the-range $40,000 pick-up truckâ€“a local status symbolâ€“if they can prove they have killed Taliban or al Qaeda elements.â€
So why would the US go out of its way to lure an Afghan drug lord to the US and put him on trial now? Is it possible that the war/druglords have abused their illegitimate power in Afghanistan so seriously over the past 7 years that they are jeopardizing the central government’s credibility and, by extension, the US government’s credibility? Is it possible that the US hopes to make an example of Noorzai, both to scare his colleagues in Kabul, and to appear as though it is doing something, anything, about a drug trade that has flourished under its troops’ noses?
Regardless of what happens to Bashir Noorzai, what will likely remain unchanged is the ages-old American policy in Afghanistan of this government selfishly pursuing its own interests at the expense of everything and everyone else.
There is a slim chance that the trial may have the unintended consequence of actually revealing the US’s moral compromises in Afghanistan. A Reuters article hints at the possibility:
Besides focusing on Afghanistan’s drug trade, the case may explore U.S. dealings with drug smugglers for political or security purposes.