Taliban leaders openly look down on the consumption of opium among their followers, but the drug trade may be the single largest instrument by which they’ve been able to control parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though a reportorial stumbling block saps the force from her controlling argument, Gretchen Peters makes a clear case for the drug-induced instability of the region in Seeds Of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling The Taliban And Al Qaeda.
Opium used to be just another cash crop in Afghanistan until the Taliban, trying to rebuild its forces after the Soviet invasion, saw an untapped cash resource in the vast network of farmers who grew it. Harnessing corruptible local police to keep local growers in line, the Taliban implemented a network of ruthless organization in which protection fees are paid all the way up to the top leadership, keeping the rank and file fearful even as they’re rewarded for their loyalty. The influx of easy cash has altered the Taliban’s internal raison d’être from explicitly pushing a theocracy to joining forces with any group that stands to turn a profit for it. (Its power over the rest of the country is so extreme that other thugs have taken to calling themselves Taliban to extract their own fees.) While it’s far from the only organization to fund its work with drug money, the Taliban’s collusion with al-Qaeda, providing the cash-strapped organization with backing in exchange for military assistance, seals its part in what Peters calls the new axis of evil, which flourishes where coalition forces in Afghanistan were unable to provide long-term aid.
Peters spent more than two years in Afghanistan’s Helmand province reporting on the opium trade and its relation to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and her digging into money-laundering techniques fit to fuel an international criminal network reveals just how powerless outside investigators are against bank-free transfers and the largely unregulated Karachi Stock Exchange. At other times, a swell of biographical background overwhelms Peters’ wary tales of tracking drug kingpins and interviewing suspected al-Qaeda operatives.
Yet Peters’ critique of the incomplete, often haphazard American response to the opium trade contains a huge hole, though not one of her creation: Since there’s no direct link between bin Laden and opium smuggling, which for some higher-ups is reason enough to separate military insurgents from illegal growers, Seeds Of Terror balances on a supposition, though a likely one. Still, her suggestions for the Obama administration and coalition forces offer hope that the final piece of evidence has yet to be introduced in the case against the Taliban.