Commentary

How Washington Funded the Taliban

The United States has made common cause with an assortment of dubious regimes around the world to wage the war on drugs. Perhaps the most shocking example was Washington’s decision in May 2001 to financially reward Afghanistan’s infamous Taliban government for its edict ordering a halt to the cultivation of opium poppies.

When the Taliban implemented a ban on opium cultivation in early 2001, U.S. officials were most complimentary. James P. Callahan, director of Asian Affairs for the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, uncritically relayed the alleged accounts of Afghan farmers that “the Taliban used a system of consensus-building” to develop and carry out the edict. That characterization was more than a little suspect because the Taliban was not known for pursuing consensus in other aspects of its rule. Columnist Robert Scheer was justifiably scathing in his criticism of the U.S. response. “That a totalitarian country can effectively crack down on its farmers is not surprising,” Sheer noted, but he considered it “grotesque” for a U.S. official to describe the drug-crop crackdown in such benign terms.

Yet the Bush administration did more than praise the Taliban’s proclaimed ban of opium cultivation. In mid-May, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a $43 million grant to Afghanistan in addition to the humanitarian aid the United States had long been providing to agencies assisting Afghan refugees. Given Callahan’s comment, there was little doubt that the new stipend was a reward for Kabul’s anti-drug efforts. That $43 million grant needs to be placed in context. Afghanistan’s estimated gross domestic product was a mere $2 billion. The equivalent financial impact on the U.S. economy would have required an infusion of $215 billion. In other words, $43 million was very serious money to Afghanistan’s theocratic masters.

To make matters worse, U.S. officials were naive to take the Taliban edict at face value. The much-touted crackdown on opium poppy cultivation appears to have been little more than an illusion. Despite U.S. and UN reports that the Taliban had virtually wiped out the poppy crop in 2000-2001, authorities in neighboring Tajikistan reported that the amounts coming across the border were actually increasing. In reality, the Taliban gave its order to halt cultivation merely to drive up the price of opium the regime had already stockpiled.

Even if the Taliban had tried to stem cultivation for honest reasons, U.S. cooperation with that regime should have been morally repugnant. Among other outrages, the Taliban government prohibited the education of girls, tortured and executed political critics, and required non-Muslims to wear distinctive clothing—a practice eerily reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s requirement that Jews display the Star of David on their clothing. Yet U.S. officials deemed none of that to be a bar to cooperation with the Taliban on drug policy.

Even if the Bush administration had not been dissuaded by moral considerations, it should have been by purely pragmatic concerns. There was already ample evidence in the spring of 2001 that the Taliban was giving sanctuary to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network that had bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa. For the State Department to ignore that connection and agree to subsidize the Taliban was inexcusably obtuse. Scheer was on the mark when he concluded, “The war on drugs has become our own fanatics’ obsession and easily trumps all other concerns.”

Washington’s approach came to an especially calamitous end in September 2001 when the Taliban regime was linked to bin Laden’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed some 3,000 people. Moreover, evidence quickly emerged that the Taliban all along had been collecting millions of dollars in profits from the illicit drug trade, with much of that money going into the coffers of the terrorists. Rarely is there such graphic evidence of the bankruptcy of U.S. drug policy.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 14 books on international affairs including the forthcoming “Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America” (Palgrave/ St. Martin’s).