February 10, 2009:
In a major policy shift, NATO has decided to go after the drug gangs in Afghanistan, as this will cut off the major source of financing for the Taliban. The revenue from protecting drug operations (the growing of poppies and refining them into heroin) provides the Taliban with $100 million or more a year. That makes it possible to put 20,000 armed men into action each year (most of them operate from March through November). It costs several thousand dollars a year per man. That includes salary (often only $200 a month), plus weapons, some equipment and a larger payment to his family if he is killed (which about 4,000 were last year). Leaders (of 10, 20, a hundred or more men) are paid higher sums, and get more gear (GPS, binoculars, sat phones).
The UN estimates that drug production is now a $4-5 billion a year business in Afghanistan. Since the Afghan GDP is $14 billion, that makes the illegal drug trade the source of about a third of the national income. This money is not taxed, and is generally controlled by men who have little interest in supporting a national government. The drug lords tend to remain loyal to their south Afghanistan Pushtun tribes, thus increasing the power of the tribes against the central government. Only about a third of the population is involved in the drug trade. About 90 percent of those people (mainly the farmers) receive 25 percent of that drug income. That's several times what they would make with traditional endeavors (growing wheat). Another 25 percent goes to the government and tribal officials (for bribes) and the rest to drug lords (who have to pay for security and the chemical processing that turns poppies into opium and heroin). As a result, thousands of Afghans are getting very rich, but illegally. These guys consider themselves above the law, and have the guns, cash and loyal followers to make that happen.
A ton of heroin is sold to smugglers for about $2-3 million to the Afghan producer. It's worth more, the farther you have to move it, and can end up being worth $30 million or more in parts of West Europe. The consumer pays 5-10 times as much, because the drug is diluted ("cut"). In 2006, for example, Afghanistan's poppy production used some 400,000 acres (160,000 hectares). That yielded some 6,100 tons of poppies. This was refined into 610 tons of heroin (90 percent of the world supply, mainly because of low price). Farmers earn about $1,000-2,000 per acre of poppies, which is the highest price for any crop grown in Afghanistan. Actually, the middlemen, often tribal leaders, make far more per acre, and the farmers often end up in debt if the poppy crop fails (for any number of reasons, including government anti-drug efforts).
When sold in a Western town or city, the heroin from that acre of Afghan poppies brings in about $80,000. There's lots of money for the middlemen, including the Taliban. Most of the poppies are grown in Taliban country. The Taliban tax the farmers, and other middlemen, 10-20 percent. Big money. Buys lots of guns, government officials and other stuff.
The Taliban and the drug lords have common cause in keeping the government weak. The Taliban have let it be known that, if they regain control of the government, it will be like the old days (the 1990s) when the Taliban let the drug lords run free, as long as they paid taxes and played by Taliban rules (keep all "vice" indoors or otherwise out of sight). But many drug gangs oppose the Taliban, because they see a return to Taliban rule as once more using Afghanistan as a base for al Qaeda. These drug lords are not stupid, and they realize that al Qaeda is nothing but trouble. Ideally, the drug gangs would just like to get some kind of pliable tyrant running the national government, so the drug business can proceed unhindered.
The drug lords look for an arrangements similar to what the Chinese warlords had in north Burma until the 1980s (when the Burmese and Chinese governments finally moved in and shut down most of the world's heroin production), or Colombia during the 1990s (when the cocaine gangs controlled large portions of the country). The druggies have a shot at that, because Afghanistan's normal condition is divided into tribal territories, with a "national government" whose main job is to deal with foreigners, and keep them out. For centuries, the world was willing to live with that. But now that Afghanistan is shipping heroin and Islamic terrorism to the outside, the world has an incentive to interfere in Afghan affairs. That is not easy, as the usually very poor Afghans are quite happy with all the cash they get for the heroin. The Taliban are another matter, and are there to represent for a few Pushtun tribes that are too religious and too intent on running the country. The Taliban are a big deal mainly for foreign journalists. For most Afghans, it's the heroin, and the large amount of cash in brings in, that makes the big difference.
The big problem NATO and the U.S. are going to have with the drug gangs is not destroying the poppy crops and drug refining labs, but dealing with the Afghan leadership and media. Many politicians and journalists are on the drug gang payroll. If the foreign troops manage to shut down the heroin business, a lot of Afghans are going to lose a lot. A whole lot. That heroin money has brought more cash into Afghanistan than anything, ever. It's a big deal, and it won't be given up easily. Not by the farmer who is getting 4-5 times the money he would get for growing wheat. Not for the drug gang leadership, who are, well, fabulously rich by traditional Afghan standards. Not for the top gang leadership, and the politicians they pay off. These guys are now rich by international standards. Holding on to that is worth dying for. And in the past, Afghans have died for a lot less.