Is Afghan Opium War a Path to Taliban Peace Talks?
Doubling down on a longtime policy of countering the opium trade in Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan forces began conducting airstrikes against opium production facilities and insurgent funding sources in November.
After years of back-to-back record-breaking poppy yields, the move represented a policy shift targeting terror groups and their revenue streams. Opium has long been the boogeyman of Afghanistan, with top officials in the military and government saying it funds insurgent groups such as the Taliban.
“We are hitting [the Taliban] where it hurts, in the wallet,” U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch said at a news conference in Kabul in June.
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For most of the nearly 17-year war, U.S. law enforcement officials have operated in Afghanistan based on claims that “[opium] is being sold by Afghani terrorist organizations with the intent of killing Americans,” Gary Hale, drug policy fellow at the James A. Baker III institute for Public Policy, told Homeland411.
After months of increased airstrikes, the United States is seeking direct talks with the Taliban. Both Gen. John Nicholson, the commanding officer of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan and President Ashraf Ghani’s office reiterated that the process will remain “Afghan led.” The New York Times and others reported the track remains open.
When it comes to peace talks with the Taliban, National Security Advisor John Bolton isn’t optimistic.
“Some peace talks are going on now … they have never led to anything,” he told Homeland411 earlier this month.
Researchers who study the Afghan opium trade doubt the Taliban is so deeply intertwined with the opium market. While the group earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year from opium, it is a small share of the multi-billion-dollar illicit industry that makes up 16 percent of Afghanistan’s total gross domestic product.
“There’s a lot of overstating,” said David Mansfield a senior fellow at the London School of Economics, who spoke to Homeland411. Mansfield is author of A State Built on Sand: How Opium Undermined Afghanistan and has conducted more than 20 years of on-the-ground research in Afghanistan’s opium market. “There are methodological issues around the claim that the Taliban makes so much money from drugs,” he said.
Bunch said that the military estimates the campaign has eliminated more than $45 million worth of opium since it began airstrikes in November, a number Mansfield said is “infeasible.”
In May 2001, when it still controlled most of Afghanistan, the Taliban banned opium cultivation, and the U.S. government granted them a $43 million aid package—$61 million in today’s dollars.
“It is hard to know what the exact effect is,” Bolton said. “Unless you sustain this … the drug cultivators and drug traffickers come back.”
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