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The Perfect Evil, Part I of III

Road sign in Tarin Kot, Urozgan Province, Afghanistan.

September 25, 2006

[Note:Edited versions of this 3-part series written by Michael Yon appeared two weeks ago in the National Review online with excerpts also featured on the CBS News website. They are published here in fuller scope.]


“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Verbal Kint, in The Usual Suspects paraphrasing Baudelaire.

In Afghanistan, heroin has become the Devil’s cocktail. “Smack” is already one of the most addictive and destructive drugs on Earth, and now numerous academic studies show addiction levels on the rise particularly among younger children. In a place where 90% of the world’s heroin supply originates, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and others harvest profits from opium poppy cultivation to buy weapons and equipment used to attack soldiers and civilians engaged in a mostly stalled reconstruction mission.

A reverse symbiosis is at work: those who benefit most from the opium/heroin trades also benefit most from a destabilized Afghanistan, because a stable country with functioning government systems, reliable security forces and a framework of laws is a bad climate for the drug trade. Conversely, farmers growing crops such as cotton and beans benefit from a stable government climate, which affords the opportunity to think beyond the next crop cycle. In order to make agriculture a more successful business venture, farmers need a stable government as a partner. But since the interests of poppy farmers and narco-kings are in aggressive opposition to any plan to stabilize Afghanistan, this partnership is not even in the talking stages.

According to a GAO Congressional Report on Afghanistan Reconstruction, approximately half of Afghanistan’s economy is based on opium, meaning roughly half the economy thrives in a chaos that also funds world-class terrorists. Experts who study the calculus of the narcotics trade know that the problem is growing out of control in Afghanistan because every additional poppy lanced for its opium unleashes an oozing flow of black market dollars. Those dollars are not taxed by the Kabul government, but by the virtual government of the Taliban. Perversely, poppy farmers grow poorer with each successively larger crop, because their bounty boosts supplies while driving prices lower and they need to grow more each year just to stay even.

2006 was a bumper year for the poppy crop. The largest harvest on record. In the 2006 World Drug Report, the U.N. estimated that only 2% eradication occurred in the previous year. According to locals I interviewed about this “eradication,” workers went out, slapped down a few fields with sticks, paid farmers for the poppy and made photo ops. But many workers left reconstruction jobs en masse at the same time to complete the poppy harvest, and 98% of the crop survived and has begun to make its way to millions of addicts in Asia, Europe and North America.

This seasonal work boon causes setbacks for work related to road and infrastructure projects. Given that nationwide dissatisfaction with the pace and progress of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan has now grown to such a level that concern about it is factored into reports and plans from the UN, NATO, and GAO (among others), this is just another example of the expanding zone of erosion that threatens to undermine all progress on all fronts in this battered country.

Heroin addictions are increasing around the globe. Here at home, there will be more addicts crawling through dark windows robbing houses just as they will in Brisbane, Berlin, London and San Francisco, stealing jewelry to score drugs. According to health studies, the heroin now landing on the streets in Europe and America is increasingly pure. Many users continue to inject the drug, but because of the increased purity, some children are sniffing or smoking heroin, relying on a dangerous rationalization that only “real addicts” inject. Kids also are mixing heroin with other drugs such as cocaine, spiking emergency room visits and explaining the rise in drug-related injuries and deaths for middle school students. With burgeoning heroin supplies, lower street prices lower the addiction threshold, but when addicts use heroin over time, they need more and more to feel the high. Afghan farmers will likely oblige by planting more, yet despite the increasing human toll, there is still no coherent plan for stopping the violence by shutting off the flow of money to the enemy through eradicating and replacing poppy in Afghanistan.

Thousands of tons of opium from this year’s harvest are being processed at this moment, and much will be used to make the heroin that is about to flood our streets, all while the equivalent tons of money will be stuffing enemy pockets in the next few months. It’s as if the Devil himself delivers the heroin that destroys the lives of young people with his left hand, while using his right to take our money, which funds the terrorists who kill us, soldiers and civilians.

Getting Stronger

We are seeing the results on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Instead of the planned shift toward stability that was expected to be far enough along to enable us to draw down U.S. troops and turn over the security operations to NATO forces, the Taliban has resurged, re-armed, regrouped and re-emerged as a serious military threat.

In early July 2006, an Afghan truck driver for the Central Asian Development Group (CADG) was kidnapped between Camp Bastion and Lashkar Gah on a road that I had recently traveled. The surrounding area is a full-on battlefield every bit as dangerous as Iraq. When the driver was kidnapped, the owner of CADG, Steve Shaulis, immediately called his Lashkar Gah branch office to ask which village his man was from. Steve then dispatched an employee to the village to inform the man’s family. As Steve told me, “I also informed–of course–the government and the Coalition, but–of course–they could do nothing more than take the information with a vague sort of promise to look into it.”

While the Coalition and Afghan government apparently fell inert on the matter, the victim’s family went immediately to the Taliban–-who have a functioning structure in these parts–-and secured the release of the man without ransom. Steve wasn’t so lucky in getting his truck back, however. But since he’s had other incidents with less fortunate outcomes, a truck is an easy loss to absorb. While I was in the province, an ambush of CADG trucks occurred during which one of the drivers was murdered and another wounded in the attack. This area has become so dangerous since my departure that Steve has been forced to lease an airplane to visit his projects.

There is a widespread notion that Afghanistan is safer for our troops than Iraq, yet Coalition and NATO combat deaths in Afghanistan are per capita nearly identical to those in Iraq. In 2007, per capita combat deaths will–-in my opinion–-likely be significantly higher in Afghanistan than Iraq. Why? There are many reasons, but one of the most important is that after years of neglect and dawdling, our European allies are awakening to the reality that a monster really is under the bed. But this awareness is not keeping pace with the threat. Our European friends are still not providing their people with proper equipment, all while the Taliban is getting stronger from the billion-dollar narcotics backwash that floods enemy coffers. As in Iraq, troop numbers are also dangerously low in Afghanistan, where the handfuls of friendly forces additionally lack sufficient air power to stretch their security resources.

NATO is tentatively confronting the proximate and growing threat by sending more troops into battle, but they are sending troops with insufficient force protection. During my trip, I visited several bases. Steve needed to meet some Danish engineers who were to fly into Tarin Kot the next day by helicopter. When Steve asked an Australian Special Forces officer how to identify which helicopter the Danish engineers would arrive in, the Australian officer grimly answered, “It will be the only helicopter flying alone.”

According to a report from retired four-star General Barry McCaffrey, who recently returned from a trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan:

In my view, there is little question that the level of fighting has intensified rapidly in the past year. Three years ago, the Taliban operated in squad sized units. Last year they operated in company sized units (100+ men). This year the Taliban are operating in battalion sized units (400+ men).

Afghanistan is the new hot-war. It’s getting hotter.

Read “The Perfect Evil Part II of III” here.


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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