Not many know that Afghanistan, apart from being the hub of terrorism, has also been the epicenter of the opium trade. For starters, Afghanistan is a landlocked country with the sorry tag of being one of the poorest in the world. According to an Oxfam study, over 40% of Afghans live in extreme poverty conditions with no access to the basic amenities of life. Add to that predicament, astounding unemployment rates, feeble law and order situation, no navigable rivers to facilitate trade, and extreme weather conditions. Afghanistan couldn’t have been more badly placed on the globe. Such sordid state of affairs offers a perfect breeding ground for radicals and thugs. And, that’s precisely what has been happening in Afghanistan over the years. On the world map, it does look like one country, but the ground reality is that Afghanistan is a confusing medley of numerous, opaquely defined provinces, each ruled by a power-hungry tribal chieftain. Since there is a silver lining even in the darkest of the clouds, Afghanistan has its silver lining, too. Poppy farming. However, Afghanistan’s boon has become the world’s bane. Gretchen Peters’ ‘Seeds of Terror’ is an account of how this poison has now resuscitated two of the most bloodthirsty and violent organizations – Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Gretchen Peters has spent a major part of her journalism career extensively covering Afghanistan and Pakistan. ‘Seeds of Terror’ could be termed as a legitimate extension of her work in the two South Asian countries. Peters covers topics such as Pakistan’s role in the drug trade, USA’s apathy in the post Soviet resistance era, the rise of the Taliban, the kingpins of the drug trade, etc. The focal point of this book, however, is the thriving poppy or opium trade and how it is propping up the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is not a recent phenomenon. It has been a source of livelihood for Afgans for decades now. Its rise to prominence came during Soviet resistance era when the nexus between Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI and drug mafia caught CIA’s attention. US administration, however, chose to ignore the Opium issue as it was secondary to the all-important target of routing the Soviets out of Afganistan. Author’s access to many classified CIA documents establishes that the US has always been in the know about Pakistan’s central role in the growing drug trade. It was the pivotal role of Pakistan in the campaign against the Soviets, perhaps, that pushed the US admin into willfully ignoring the drug trade which was soon going to turn into a Frankenstein monster. Quite shockingly, in the author’s own words, many of the classified US documents from Soviet resistance era have been meticulously ‘excised’ wherever the issue of the links between ISI and Heroin comes up. In the hindsight, it was this apathetic approach of the US administration that helped set the circumstances for the birth of the Taliban.
Peters adopts a very direct and call-a-spade-a-spade approach. She brands the vicious network of the drug smugglers and terrorists as the new axis of evil. She doesn’t even spare the US-backed present administration of Afghanistan, which, according to her has a vested interest in the poppy cultivation. Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun by ethnicity and a large part of the poppy farming is concentrated in the Pashtun-dominated South. Furthermore, the author criticizes the US administration for turning a blind eye to Karzai’s generosity in handing out key positions in his Government to warlords and drug traffickers. Peters also ambiguously disapproves of the United States’ indifferent approach to Afghanistan in the post Soviet withdrawal situation. USA’s subsequent occupation with Iraq created a law enforcement vacuum in Afghanistan. With no superior powers to watch over, Opium production exploded in Afghanistan, touching new highs. Though US did arm-twist Pakistan into acting against opium production towards the fag end of the war, it proved to be too late an action. Once US was out of the picture, different factions of Mujahideen started slugging it out against each other for dominance over the drug trade. Author also cites a bunch of then active Pakistani politicians who were doubling up as drug lords. It is this alliance between politicians and drug traffickers that has made Pakistan a major route for transportation of opiates. According to the author, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan premier in the early 90s, after being ousted on corruption charges went on record to say that the Pakistani military had used the booming drug trade to raise money for its covert operations (including Kashmir).
Peters uncovers many interesting factoids about the Opium Economics. Opium trade today accounts for over 30% of Afganistan’s GDP. This astounding piece of data is further compounded by NATO forces’ reluctance in going for an all-out poppy eradication. Quite interestingly, opium and its by-products like Morphine and Heroin are highly sought-after commodities so much so that even an indication of drop in supply sends the price soaring in international markets. And, who gets to benefit from the rise in prices? Taliban does. It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation for the US and its allies in Afganistan. There is not an iota of doubt that the Afgan poppy trade, which, according to an estimate mentioned in the book, is a $4 billion annual business, has resurrected the terrorist infrastructure in Afganistan.
Peters mentions that the Taliban, as an organization, is only a shadow of its old fanatical self today. Seemingly, their interests have shifted from strictly implementing the Islamic ‘Sharia’ law to profiting from the drug trade and earning protection money from safely transporting the drug shipments out of the country. Like a lot of insurgent outfits across the world which started out with an anti-establishment, radical ideology and then, corrupted into something else, Taliban’s fate has also been more or less the same. Taliban has also fallen off its extreme, bigoted ideological base to further degenerate into a nefarious swarm of criminals whose only business is to kill innocent people and destroy the whole notion of human compassion, not to mention making some easy buck at the same time. Peters asserts that the line separating fanatics and cash-hungry criminals is fast blurring in Afghanistan and that the new Taliban is a heady mix of the good, the bad and the ugly.
Finally, ‘Seeds of Terror’ is an interesting and insightful peep into one of the most dangerous places on earth. Author most of the time is in the driver’s mode, but does sound a little indecisive on one count. She fails to provide concrete evidence of the extent to which both Taliban and Al Qaeda are profiting from the drug trade? Both parties are definitely the beneficiaries, but the larger question is whether they are the only one. What about Karzai and his clique and the deployed NATO forces? If there is so much slush floating around, is it possible to give the benefit of the doubt to the allied forces? All these shortfalls notwithstanding, Peters successfully brings the attention of the world to the bloodline of terrorism. It is now up to all the stakeholders in South Asian region to weed out this scourge and help bring an enduring peace in the war-ravaged Afghanistan.