The Other Forgotten War

As the Obama administration reviews its Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, looking for creative means to challenge extremist funding, the drug trade is increasingly coming into focus.

Afghanistan’s booming narcotics industry generates much of the money that flows into terrorists’ coffers, and increased production in recent years has overlapped with a sharp rise in Taliban attacks on coalition forces. Captured Taliban have confessed that most of their funding comes from the drug trade. And it is an open secret that much of Afghanistan’s illicit money is through commodities and trade.

Indeed, Afghanistan’s production of narcotics is greater than that of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia combined. According to the United Nations Office of Drug Control (UNODC), Afghanistan accounts for more than 90 percent of the world’s opium production and is the largest supplier of cannabis.

Opium is one of the few commodities Afghanistan produces that outsiders value. It is estimated that over one-third of Afghanistan’s GDP is derived directly from narcotics activities. Some observers believe the narcotics industry makes up as much as half of Afghanistan’s economy. In a country of high unemployment, the industry employs upward of one million laborers, from farmers to warehouse workers to truck drivers.

Afghan opium is refined into morphine and heroin by production labs. The narcotics are broken into small shipments, and smuggled across porous borders via truck or mule caravan for resale abroad. The ancient smuggling routes follow mountainous trails out of Afghanistan into Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and neighboring countries.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, approximately 60 percent of Afghanistan’s opium is trafficked across the Afghan/Iranian border. In order to get to lucrative markets in Europe, traditional smuggling routes continue through Iran into Turkey and the Balkans. More and more Afghan narcotics are also moving into the increasingly lucrative market of Russia via the “northern route” that winds its way across many Central Asian states. The Taliban uses these same routes and networks to raise money to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan.

In the years since September 11, government bureaucracies and policy makers have attempted to fight the war on terrorism finance using tools, techniques, and countermeasures that were originally developed for previous conflicts such as the Cold War and the War on Drugs. As a result, our War on Terrorist Finance is stalled.

But what can the international community do to stop these types of transactions from taking place?

The governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan are reluctant to face the implications of money laundering and terrorist finance. However, they are receptive to countermeasures that lead to greater revenue. Since the drug trade and other trade-based money laundering schemes mean a massive loss of income, it is actually in the interest of regional governments to cooperate in order to recoup lost customs duties and tax revenues.

International law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world obviously have an important role to play. They will need to start following the money that leads from the production of Afghan narcotics. But doing so depends on understanding local and regional ways of doing business. U.S. and coalition military, intelligence, law enforcement, and development teams must be given training and insight into indigenous financial and value transfer systems that, to paraphrase one Pakistani involved in the business, “occur right under Western noses.”

A core principal in diplomacy is to find something in common with adversaries. Narcotics are a globally shared concern. Western countries might consider talking directly to the countries being used to smuggle drugs about methods to reduce narcotics trafficking and money laundering.

It is time to make clear that our adversaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan are nothing more than narcotics traffickers masquerading as jihadists. With years of fighting the War on Drugs under our belt, the international community has the tools and experience to fight the Taliban. By curbing the Taliban’s largest source of income, we can hit them where it will hurt the most – their pocketbook.

Avi Jorisch and John Cassara and are both former U.S. Treasury officials and co-authors of On the Trail of Terror Finance: What Law Enforcement and Intelligence Officials Need to Know (2010).