Karzai, the Taliban and the Drug Trade

In an article published today (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/28/world/asia/28intel.html?ref=global-home), the New York Times revealed that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has been receiving money from the CIA for nearly eight years. Ahmed Wali Karzai is widely suspected of being involved in drug trafficking and other illicit activities that the Taliban also engage in for financial gain. Many senior officials believe that the CIA’s association with him undermines America’s counterinsurgency efforts, which have recently become intertwined with counternarcotics missions, and they want the US to stop dealing with Mr. Karzai.

But the CIA’s involvement with Mr. Karzai appears to have yielded benefits for the US. Mr. Karzai has recruited personnel and set up bases for the Kandahar Strike Force, a paramilitary group that works closely with American special operations forces to combat terrorists and insurgents in the city of Kandahar. He has also served as an intermediary between US intelligence officials and Taliban leaders who have considered quitting the insurgency, and he might play a valuable role in this regard if the coalition puts greater emphasis on persuading elements of the Taliban to switch sides, as some analysts have recommended.

Mr. Karzai may not be a model citizen, but the US will sometimes have to deal with unsavory characters to advance its foreign policy goals. Mr. Karzai is a major powerbroker in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strongest, and his desire to prevent the Taliban from regaining power could make him a valuable asset to the US.

On a somewhat related note, the drug trade in Afghanistan is not the sole source of funds for the Taliban, nor is it the largest. The Taliban gets most of its money from foreign donors in the Middle East, and extortion also provides a major revenue stream. American counternarcotics efforts will not likely put a major dent in the Taliban’s ability to bankroll the insurgency, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, has acknowledged. The program might actually be counterproductive if it alienates Afghan farmers who rely on poppy farming for their livelihoods, because it could motivate them to support the Taliban. It would be more useful for American military forces to focus directly on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions and not be distracted by narcotics issues.

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