South Asian Conflicts and the Drug Trade

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by Siddiq Wahid

Deepthroat was the colourful name assigned to one the key figures in the emblematic Watergate scandal that brought the United States’ Nixon administration crashing down in the 1970s. The identity of this mentoring guide for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post has only recently been claimed (and corroborated) but it was this self-effacing law officer who helped them unravel the corruption-ridden ways of that administration.

Arguably the most memorable lead given by this informant was the iconic instruction to “Just follow the money.” They did, and the rest became journalism history.

Gretchen Peters uses that same instruction in her book, Seeds of Terror (St. Martins, New York/Hachette India, New Delhi, 2009) and provides us with a riveting account of the nexus between the struggle for power, drug running and ideological movements in western South Asia. The result is not just an account of yet another dimension of the Afghanistan debacle since the 1980s, but a frightening set of implications for the region.

The nexus between government, insurgency and crime is not new. It has been the fund-raising engine for the IRA who pushed ecstasy in Northern Ireland, the Tamil Tigers’ deployment of heroin from Burma, the Nepal Maoists who peddled hashish and the Colombian and Mexican cartels who flog multiple drugs, just to name some of them. And it is fairly well-known that the CIA actively encouraged such criminal fundraising in several places as the legislative wings of successive U.S. governments became increasingly sceptical about funding the activities of their intelligence agencies in various corners of the world. Many of them, especially the South American ones, have been well documented. Peters’ book is the first to provide a rigorous narrative of the links between crime and politics in our region of South Asia – and credibly so.

There are many dimensions to Peters’ book. Mention of some of them will be enough to show how scary the prospect of such linkages is for South Asia. A central thesis of Seeds of Terror is the author’s explanation for the vigorous return of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the U.S.’s carpet-bombing retaliations after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington. Opium writes Peters, played a critical role in the resurgence of the Taliban, but more than that, “it has transformed the insurgency populating (sic) the Pakistan-Afghanistan border into a far more ominous incarnation [that]few longtime Taliban watchers even recognize.” Quoting a United Nations official, she tells us that the Taliban “are gone now. What we have now is people working together to make money.”

The author backs her statements with meticulous research. She has surveyed the opinions of people who work in or around the drug trade and discovered that eighty-one per cent of her respondents said money-making is the prime motivation of the “new Taliban”. This avatar of the Taliban, according to Peters, makes approximately $250 million annually for providing armed protection of drug shipments through territory it controls; and this is apart from growing and selling opium.

A puzzling question is, of course, how this squares with the puritanical and literalist form of Islam that the Taliban preaches. In the answer to this question lies the chilling part of the whole business: there are theological decrees (fatwas) out there, according to the author, which specify that it is permissible to grow, sell and transport drugs, but not to consume it! And the mix of logistical support and organizational skill in effecting this in South Asia is a well-oiled machine not unlike that of the Central and South American drug cartels. However, there is a distinction between the two according to Peters. While the drug smuggler is driven by pure greed, the toxic mix of ideology and money in our part of the world is used as a means to feed violent insurgency in the cause of religion.

The author is careful in arriving at her conclusions, making accusations only when the evidence is unequivocal. And when she does accuse, she is categorical in her reference to the culpability of the Pakistan and Afghanistan establishments. She squarely names key members of the administration of the assassinated President of Pakistan, Zia ul-Haq, as being involved in the trade, citing Zia’s personal banker as a key player in a heroin syndicate. A name that is familiar to South Asians today, Dawood Ibrahim, is yet another alleged “kingpin” in Peters’ book who lives unhindered and un-apprehended in Pakistan. The author goes further, quoting a former CIA official as saying: “If you want to understand what Osama bin Laden is up to you have to understand what Dawood Ibrahim is up to.” Similarly, the book cites the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as one more insurgency that is connected with the drug trade.

There is more. Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, is flatly accused of protecting his own Pushtun tribal compatriots’ poppy fields while eradicating, because of western governments’ pressure, those of rival tribes. He thereby achieves the double-barrelled objective of weakening rival tribal groups and driving up the price of opium by squeezing supply. Peters terms the latter a sophisticated calibration of classic business doctrine, not the stuff of the rough mountain-bred Afghan peasant. In this, one can be forgiven for believing her implication to be that the brains for these strategies may be in Pakistan.

For us in conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir, the implications of these findings have much relevance for an understanding of the full history of the violence that has visited us for two decades. The use of Zia ul-Haq’s foreign jihadist recruits in the insurgency in Kashmir has been mentioned by several authors. Indeed, Arif Jamal in a recent book even posits that the anti-Soviet assistance to the Americans in Afghanistan was proffered by Pakistan specifically with Kashmir in mind. But the more disheartening part of this story for us in South Asia is with regard to the future. In yet another nugget of information, Peters tells us that of the one hundred and twenty-eight critical political conflicts that afflict our world today, seventeen have lasted much longer – all of them because of a strong correlation between crime and politics.

Peters’ approach is not entirely descriptive or accusatory. A part of the solution lies, she tells us, in treating each village as an individual entity. “Start by helping the people make their communities safe, and support development that will bring some relief to their lives: health clinics, schools, and employment. Start small. Think big.” It is a prescription that is as unflashy for the publicity-seeking policy-maker as the problem is endemic for the population. But it is a prescription that will suit many a region layered by the debris of problems shaped by a history of acquisitive greed and unbridled use of power.

(The author is currently the Vice-Chancellor of Islamic University, Kashmir)

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