Afghanistan: The Narco State Survives


January 11, 2023: The United States and Pakistan openly agree that the new Afghan government cannot be trusted and is definitely providing sanctuary for many Islamic terrorist groups. In August 2021 the elected IRA (Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) collapsed and was replaced by the Pakistan-backed IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan). The new IEA declared a great victory but found that few people, not even most Afghans, saw this as a win. Foreign aid ceased. Nearly $10 billion of IRA cash held in foreign banks (to reduce corruption) was frozen and no one would recognize the IEA as the successor to the IRA. Countries in the region expect the IEA to collapse in a few years, which will leave the country a narco-state without any central government.

The Americans had an agreement with the Pakistan-backed Taliban that became the IEA. This new government continued to insist that its promise to not allow Islamic terrorists sanctuary would be enforced, but it wasn’t. This was even more disappointing for the Pakistan military that had provided sanctuary in Pakistan for the Afghan Taliban and played a key role ensuring their Taliban replaced the IRA. This was seen as essential to ensure that drug production in Afghanistan thrived.

The Afghan drug trade depends on the Pakistan military for support. The drug cartels could be in trouble here because they depend on the cooperation of the Pakistan military to get key chemicals into Afghanistan so that opium sap can be refined into heroin and protection for their exports to world markets via Pakistan. This time the situation is different. The Pakistan military is also at war with its own government. Pakistan’s elected officials are determined to curb the autonomy and outlaw mentality of their military. It is generally agreed by most Pakistanis and neighboring countries that the Pakistan military is the main cause of Pakistan’s financial and Islamic terrorism problems. If the Pakistani military does lose its autonomy and the Afghan drug cartels lose their arrangement with the military, it won’t mean the end of drug production in Afghanistan. The drug cartels will have to pay more to get essential chemicals in and heroin out. That will mean less drug cartel revenue for the IEA. Given the lack of foreign aid and any other sources of income, payments from the drug cartels are essential.

This is why drug cartels are winning, as they usually do wherever they get established. There are not too many “narco-states” because they all follow the same script. Eventually locals get fed up with the local violence and the growing number of addicts. That leads to more violence and the drug gangs are crushed although usually not completely eliminated. “Eventually” can take a long time and such is the case with Afghanistan. Compare that to how it worked in Colombia from 2000 on, and Burma after World War II and Iran in the 1950s. The only thing that nearly everyone in Afghanistan can agree on is that opium and heroin are bad. Nearly ten percent of the population is addicted to drugs (mostly opiates) and another ten percent (there is some overlap) make a better living or get rich from the drug trade. Most Afghans consider drug gangs the biggest threat and these are largely run and staffed (like the Taliban) by Pushtun tribesmen from four southern provinces. The Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban want to create a heroin-producing Islamic terrorist and gangster sanctuary in Afghanistan. If you want to know how that works, look at Chechnya in the late 1990s and Somalia or Yemen in the early 21st century. No one has come up with any cheap, fast or easy solution for that. Meanwhile, Afghanistan's core problem is that there is no Afghanistan, merely a collection of tribes more concerned with tribal issues than anything else.

Cash and China Complications

IEA policies towards the treatment of women and Chinese investments are costing the IEA more than they can afford. Growing restrictions placed on women were justified by the conservative IEA interpretation of Islamic law (sharia), holding that women cannot be educated or work outside the home. The ban was enforced starting in late December 2022. Foreign-based aid agencies cannot serve most of the population without being able to hire local women, so this IEA policy resulted in all aid being halted until local and international pressure caused the IEA to change the women working policy. That $1.8 billion in aid for Afghanistan was entering the country as cash, usually American dollars that was sent directly to aid groups. The aid groups paid their staff and purchased supplies with that cash. That is how a lot of this cash was eventually deposited in Afghan banks. This infusion of cash played a role in reviving the Afghan banking system, which was crippled by looting and economic disruption in general during the IEA takeover in late 2021. When the banking system collapsed, the UN began sending in the aid as cash that, under UN supervision, went directly to the aid groups.

Another potential lifeline is the prospect of Chinese investment. The Chinese will not come to Afghanistan unless the IEA can provide protection for Chinese personnel and assets. Pakistan managed to do that, but just barely, in Pakistan. There are still attacks by very extreme, usually ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) related groups as well as Baluchi separatists. Pakistan manages because it can assign nearly 100,000 security personnel (soldiers, police and paid militias). The IEA cannot assemble that kind of security force and the Chinese remain reluctant to risk a lot of cash and Chinese lives to try.

Despite this reluctance, the IEA is particularly eager to have Chinese investors operating in Afghanistan. China said it would encourage that if the IEA did something about the heroin and other drugs produced in Afghanistan and exported to neighboring countries, including China as well as worldwide. The IEA agreed and issued a decree banning farmers from growing poppies, the plant that produced opium, which is further processed into heroin. The farmers, mainly in the south (Helmand province), ignored the decree, pointing out that poppies were the most profitable crop they could produce and the heroin cartels had more firepower than the IEA. Just another reminder to be wary of Taliban promises.

Money talks. Farmers can obtain 7-15 pounds of opium per acre (8-17 kg per hectare), to create the opium which is refined into heroin. The farmer is paid about a thousand dollars per acre for the opium. But the value of that opium increases fifty times once it is refined into heroin and sold in foreign markets. Most of that increase goes to middlemen (refiners, smugglers and distributors). Most of the increase in value occurs once the heroin gets out of the country, but that still makes the opium and heroin trade the biggest single segment of the Afghan economy.

China itself is a notoriously hostile place for Islamic terrorists and illegal drugs. Some drugs get in any way and some of those, like fentanyl, a synthetic replacement for opium and heroin, are produced in China and exported worldwide. Use in China is limited by the frequent, swift and brutal punishment of those caught distributing or even using these drugs. The producers realize that drug profits and self-preservation are more likely if you export the addictive drugs and make money, not trouble, for Chinese. That’s why foreign drugs still get into China, which is not a major market for illegal drugs. Most of the world is safer for drug importers, distributors and dealers than China.

For China, Afghanistan remains a large potential market for Chinese investments if only Afghanistan was more hospitable to foreign investment. The previous IRA government was able to create a more “foreign investor friendly” atmosphere that was under constant attack by the Pakistan-backed Taliban that became the IEA. Lack of security and stability has kept foreign investment out of Afghanistan until now. The brief prosperity of the IRA was unable to survive under all the forces arrayed against it. The Chinese are patient and willing to wait. There are plenty of other “troublesome” areas that are not as bad as Afghanistan and can, like Pakistan, meet minimum security standards for the Chinese.

Mass starvation because of drought or widespread violence are relatively common in Afghanistan. The two-decade rule of the IRA government reduced the hunger deaths considerably. The IEA has other priorities.

January 10, 2023: Bowing to local and international pressure, the IEA changed its policy on women working outside the home and allowed women to continue working with foreign aid groups that are providing healthcare or food aid. This includes female staff at foreign aid organization headquarters in Afghanistan.

There was more to this policy change than most people outside Afghanistan realize. During the negotiations with the United States over withdrawal of American forces, the Taliban agreed that they would not revive the pre-IRA government rules that banned women from working outside the home or getting an education. This seemed reasonable as two decades of IRA rule had resulted in more Afghans openly backing education for women and working outside the home. The reason for the unexpected change had to do with the hostile relationship between many Afghan Taliban members and the efforts by Pakistan to exercise control over Afghanistan. Pakistan believed that once the IEA took over the pro-Pakistan members of the IEA government would give Pakistan their long-desired control over the Afghan government. That might have happened except for the fact the official leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Hebatullah Akhundzada, is unpopular with many Taliban faction leaders, in part because Akhundzada was seen as a figurehead and his chief deputy, the head of the Haqqani Network, is actually in charge. That was true but the secret was that Akhundzada acted as a figurehead because he had to operate from the Pakistan sanctuary in Quetta, a city just across the border from the Afghan province of Kandahar, where many of the original Taliban came from. Kandahar was where Akhundzada went after the IEA replaced the IRA in mid-2021. Once in Afghanistan Akhundzada could exercise his power as the official head of the Taliban and do so without any pressure from Pakistan. The Pakistanis underestimated how widespread the hatred of Pakistan was in Afghanistan, even among the many Afghan Taliban who seemed to maintain a pro-Pakistan attitude, Pakistan believed this would neutralize the many Afghan Taliban factions who had openly expressed their opposition to Pakistan interference in Afghanistan. Mullah Akhundzada was a highly respected Islamic scholar who rarely commented on his political beliefs. The Pakistani ISI (military intelligence service) that created the Taliban in the mid-1990s and “managed” them ever since misjudged Akhundzada’s silence on his attitude towards Pakistan as was seen as agreement with or neutrality towards the ISI and Pakistan in general. Akhundzada had widespread support in Afghanistan while the pro-Pakistan IEA officials who were appointed while the Taliban were still in Quetta had little such support. When Akhundzada overruled the Pakistan backed IEA officials it was clear Akhundzada was no longer a figurehead. Akhundzada was not a rigid religious fanatic either. When he imposed the ban in December 2022, he paid attention to the reaction of most Afghans and agreed to lift most of the restrictions. Akhundzada understands he is responsible to what Afghans, not the ISI, want. This revelation means a lot of problems for the ISI and the Pakistan military, who are in trouble with Pakistan voters and elected officials who are closing in on curbing the independence of the Pakistan military. The military’s policy towards Afghanistan played a minor role in this but the revelation that the Afghans hate the Pakistani military as much as most Pakistanis do will have implications for the future of the Pakistan military.

January 8, 2023: Islamic scholars from other Moslem majority nations that use sharia law have visited Afghanistan to describe how and why they find it necessary to allow women to be educated and work outside the home. Without this the non-Moslem countries would not have such an economic and military advantage over the Moslem world. Sending respected Islamic scholars to explain this makes it easier for the IEA to change its current policy and restore foreign aid that is being withheld because of current IEA policies on education for women and work outside the home.

January 5, 2023: The IEA signed its first international economic development deal with a Chinese oil field development company. The Chinese will spend $150 million initially to find and over half a billion dollars to begin extracting oil in an area near the Uzbek border. Uzbekistan has discovered and extracted oil on their side of the border and the oil deposits are believed to extend into Afghanistan. The Chinese firm will receive a 15 percent royalty on oil extracted and will also build Afghanistan’s first refinery. If the Chinese firm does not demonstrate progress the contract will be voided and the Chinese investment will be lost. The Chinese do not believe there is much risk of failure and the IEA assures the Chinese that the oil operations will be protected from attack.

January 4, 2023: In Kabul, security forces raided an ISK safehouse and killed seven ISK men and arrested another seven,

In the west (Nimroz province) IEA arrested two ISK members.

January 2, 2023: The IEA government was not prepared to take over running Afghanistan. IEA’s economic mistakes and mismanagement contributed to the GDP falling by about a third since 2021. Afghans are starving, unemployed and generally unhappy with how the new government has performed. Going into 2023 the IEA says it will improve economic performance and maybe even get more foreign countries to recognize the IEA as the real government of Afghanistan.

January 1, 2023: Outside Kabul, at the military airport, there was a large explosion at the main gate that left eight dead and six wounded. No one immediately took credit for the attack.,

December 29, 2022: In the east (Paktika province) TTP (Pakistan Taliban) gunmen attacked a Pakistan border post, killing and wounding border guards. In another portion of the border a clash between TTP gunmen and Pakistan soldiers left two TTP men dead. The TTP supports the IEA claims that Pakistan is illegally claiming that the border extends into Afghan territory and is building a border fence to mark that claim.

A lot of this border violence is caused by Afghan-Pakistani border disputes. The official birder was originally based on the “Durand Line.” This was an impromptu, 1893 era invention of British colonial authorities and was always considered temporary, or at least negotiable, by locals. The need for renegotiation was mainly about how the line often went right through Pushtun tribal territories. However, the Afghans are more inclined to demand adjustments to the Durand Line, and fight to obtain what they want. Recent Pakistani efforts to build more fences and other structures on their side of the border was an attempt to make the Durand line permanent and no longer negotiable. Pakistan has built a fence along most of the Durand line. Afghan forces fire on the fence construction operation in some areas

December 28, 2022: In the north (Takhar province) four people were wounded when a bomb went off in a government office. Some placed the bomb under a desk and detonated it using a timer.

December 24, 2022: The IEA announced the ban on women working for foreign aid organizations. Some of the women now jobless knew that there were many IEA members and officials who disagreed with such extreme measures. In common Afghan fashion policy disagreements in the IEA are the reason for this self-destructive and counter productive decision. There are many factions in the IEA and the current competition for power often uses the “who is more Islamic: angle to gain an edge. That makes the anti-women and economically costly decision to halt all outside work an obvious tool in the battle for power in the IEA. As the after-effects of this decision escalate and become a major problem for IEA, the game changes as coming up with a solution becomes an admirable goal. Religion has often been used, even among Islamic conservatives, to settle disputes or inflict damage on a rival. It’s one of many counter-productive traits that keep Afghanistan so poor and chaotic.

December 15, 2022: In southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan), Afghan mortar fire into Pakistan killed one civilian and wounded twenty others. This took place near Chaman border crossing and the Afghan town of Spin Boldak in Kandahar province. North of Spin Boldak is Kandahar City, the original "hometown" of the Taliban and capital Kandahar province. The Chaman border crossing, the second busiest road crossing in Afghanistan. Chaman is on the main road between Quetta (capital of Baluchistan) and the capital of Kandahar province in Afghanistan. This road carries vital supplies for the Afghan drug gangs, including chemicals necessary for converting opium into heroin. These are smuggled in by truck, often with the cooperation of bribes for border guards.

December 11, 2022: In Kabul, three ISK men attacked the Chinese owned Longan Hotel in an effort to kill Chinese. The well-guarded hotel is popular with diplomats and businessmen, particularly from China. The security proved adequate, The three attackers were killed while guests and staff were safely evacuated. One of the ISK men was a suicide bomber who attacked the compound entrance. Most of the 18 wounded were civilians near the entrance when the bomb went off. Two hotel guests were injured (one by a stray bullet) when they jumped out of a window to escape a possible hostage situation. The other two ISK men were soon killed and a fire, caused by the bomb, was put out. The hotel is closed for repairs. The ISK achieved its goal because most of the 35 Chinese guests left for China with no intention of returning anytime soon.

In the south (Kandahar province) mortar fire from Afghanistan (near the Chaman border crossing) into Pakistan (Baluchistan) killed seven Pakistani civilians. An Afghan gunman was also killed. The mortar shells were fired from a rural area near Spin Boldak. Pakistan closed the Chaman crossing for two days to ensure that more such attacks were not planned. Chaman is the second busiest crossing for truck traffic between the two countries. The busiest crossing is Torkham in northeast Pakistan that uses the ancient Khyber Pass caravan route (which is now a modern highway). The Pakistan military and ISI have been responsible for government financial problems and the poor state of the economy. In the last few years, the military sought to take more complete control of parliament and the government. This backfired and pressure on the military will increase in 2023.

December 2, 2022: In the Afghan capital Kabul someone fired on the Pakistani embassy. A Pakistani security guard was wounded. The attackers were apparently a two-man sniper team attempting to kill a senior Pakistani diplomat. Later ISK (Islamic State Khorasan) took credit for the failed attack. ISK was formed in Afghanistan during 2015, with the help of ISIL leadership in Syria, to handle ISIL activity throughout the region (Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan and India). ISK found they were most effective if they confined their operations to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which they have been doing since 2019. The new IEA government (since mid-2021) is still trying, and still failing, to get official recognition that it is the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Most nations consider the IEA a Pakistan-backed Islamic terror group that took control of the government with the additional help of Afghan drug cartels. ISK has become more active in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the IEA took over.




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