Criminal Organizations, Competitive Advantage and State Failure in Afghanistan

The last fifty years has seen an ever increasing number of both intrastate wars and failed states. Although many explanations for this have been proffered few have attempted an international political economic (IPE) analysis, which given the impact of the illicit international economy on intrastate conflicts and failed states is a sad commentary on the focus of the resurgent subject of international political economy.[1] This is especially true when one examines a situation such as Afghanistan; a state that has not experienced peace for nearly forty years, and suffers from a conflict spurred on by criminal organizations, and armed groups partaking in international drug trafficking.

But how can IPE assist in explaining these events? One way is through the application of Michael Porter’s theory of comparative advantage to various aspects of violence, including causes. Competitive advantage suggests that performance can only be created by creating a sustainable pricing advantage, as Michael Porter wrote in his book Competitive Advantage: “competitive advantage grows fundamentally from the value a firm is able to create…value is what buyers are willing to pay, and superior value stems from offering lower prices than competitors for equivalent benefits or providing unique benefits that more than offset higher prices.”[2]

When applied to various security problems the significance of the idea becomes apparent.  For example a country with natural resources has an obvious competitive advantage in that resource, a competitive advantage so great in fact that people are willing to fight over the disproportionately rich revenue streams derived from leveraging that advantage. This is in essence the resource curse often discussed in regards to oil producing countries engaged in intrastate warfare, such as in Angola.[3] But it can be applied in other cases as well, for example diamonds can be found in many places through out the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country poses a natural competitive advantage in diamond production. 

The result of this competitive advantage is a scramble by various armed groups for control over the resource, because, save the cost of labor, the country poses almost an infinite competitive advantage over countries that do not posses abundant diamond supplies. This in turn means that control of resource can earn armed groups a significant revenue source. In the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo this rush for control of the diamond supply has in part helped fuel intrastate violence for the last thirty years or so. 

In today’s developing world a significant and growing problem is failed states.  Failed states are states that can no longer provide their people with positive political goods.[4]  In many explanations of failed states transnational organized crime taking advantage of natural competitive advantages (such as diamonds and oil) are seen as a result of state failure, and not part of the cause of state failure, which is seen as primarily a political issue.[5]  This paper proposes instead that transnational organized crime is in fact one of the causes of state failure, not simply a result, and thus a primary cause of large scale interstate conflict. The reason for this is that the chaos and absence of rule of law within a failed or weak state is a competitive advantage in the illicit international economy for the operations of transnational organized crime. Thus organized crime can be seen as benefiting from not only operations within an already failed state, but also from propelling weak states into failure and preventing the re-organization of failed states into functioning states.

Afghanistan as a Failed State and International Political Economy

What causes states to fail? Often time’s state failure is argued to be the result of weak governance. In the case of Afghanistan weak governance is certainly an important factor in the states inability to successfully emerge from the chaos of forty years of intra-state war; but weak governance is an issue that plagues all new states, and not all new states become failed states rife with organized crime, drug trafficking, terrorism and insurgents. Thus to claim that failed states occur solely because of weak governance would seem a poor argument.  Robert Rotberg claims in his article The New Nature of Nation-State Failure that criminal violence is an indicator of an already failed state, but in the case of Afghanistan it would seem that criminal activity went part and parcel with the process of state failure, it did not simply follow it.[6]

More specifically it seems as if the growth of transnational organized crime, focused specifically on international drug trafficking, is directly related to Afghan state failure, especially following the collapse of the Najibullah regime in 1992. If transnational criminal organizations actively participate in the breakdown of state control and prevent the state from maintaining a monopoly on the use of violence within the state then transnational organized crime and the illicit international economy must be treated as proximate causes of state failure.

It is important to examine this question from the perspective of international political economy though because the drug business in Afghanistan is dependent not on domestic abuses, as, for example, organized crime during the 1920s in the United States was, but on the export of illicit goods out of Afghanistan to other countries.  As Peter Andreas highlights in his essay Illicit International Political Economy: The Clandestine Side of Globalization, “at base, most transnational organized crime, involves some form of profit-driven smuggling across borders.”[7]  It is thus essential to situate the criminal activity in Afghanistan, and its failure as a state, within the context of the illicit international economy, and particularly given the extent to which it undermines the stability of the entire central-Asian region. 

At the current time Afghanistan is one of the largest growers of illegal poppy plants in the world, it is reported to supply roughly 90% of the worlds market.[8] Additionally, and perhaps most importantly transnational organizations operating out of Afghanistan have a significant competitive advantage in the drug trade, which is most easily demonstrated by the reported sevenfold price advantage growers in Afghanistan are said to have in producing illicit opium, but this price advantage is derived from the lack of production friction, which in this case takes the form of government attempts at stopping the drug trafficking.[9]

The European market for heroin is reported to be around $12 billion dollars a year, the Afghan farmers that grow the poppy and refine it into the heroin precursors are said to earn approximately $56 million, the difference is pocketed by Afghan middle men, politicians/officials that needed bribing and of course the transnational criminal organizations that sell the final product in Europe.[10]  The price advantage can be envisioned another way as well, the further away from the largely lawless Afghanistan drug traffickers take heroin the more valuable it becomes.  Inside Afghanistan 1kg of heroin is said to be worth between $2,000 and $2,500, as the heroin travels towards Europe its value increases, along with the penalties for possession and the difficulties involved in transportation. At the Afghan-Iran boarder 1kg is worth $5,000, at the Iran Turkey boarder 1kg is worth $8,000 and on the streets of the Europe 1kg of heroin is worth approximately $44,300.[11]

As the UN has highlighted this earnings differential comes from the fact that the “the opium trade in Afghanistan did [does] not have a risk premium,” and thus transnational drug trafficking organizations leverage a tremendous competitive advantage derived from the failed state chaos in Afghanistan.[12]  This competitive advantage was only possible because the government is so inept, incapable or busy with other problems as to be unconcerned with drug trafficking. Thus for transnational drug trafficking organizations supporting state failure and preventing state formation in the first place are a primary interest.

How Transnational Drug Trafficking in Afghanistan Works[13]

The drug of choice for traffickers in Afghanistan is either opium or the more refined heroin. Afghanistan transnational drug traffickers supply the world with roughly 85% of the global heroin and morphine supply.  The majority of that supply is transported from Afghanistan to either Europe or Eastern Asia, generally heroine and morphine are shipped to Europe and opium is shipped to Eastern Europe.  The two largest consumers of poppy derived drugs are the Russian Federation and China, although Iran and Pakistan have very high per-capita use as well, likely as a result of the low costs due to Afghan proximity.

The majority of the poppy grown in Afghanistan is refined in country; this is because of the ease which drug traffickers can operate free from government and law enforcement interference, which is the chief source the pricing advantage Afghan traffickers poses over drug traffickers in other countries. This is a significant point because unlike in traditional economics, in which chaos like that occurring in Afghanistan would be considered an impediment to firm success, in an illicit businesses traditional friction costs are competitive advantages, and typical advantages – the rule of law for example – are friction costs.  Approximately a third of the heroin produced is then shipped to Europe, a quarter to Russia and the remainder to Pakistan, Iran, Africa and China. Drug traffickers generally transport either through Central Asia into China and Russia or through Iran and Turkey into Europe.

The majority of the drug trafficking out of Afghanistan appears to be dominated by five major crime organizations.  These organizations appear to be comprised of a mixture of warlords and government officials, as well as smaller regional organized crime organizations and some form Mujahedin.  In addition there are many Russian, Pakistani and Iranian/Turkish drug trafficking organizations involved, some with support of European organized crime.  There appears to be little or no participation of transnational drug cartels from South America, who generally cultivate poppy for refinement and sale in the Americas. 

Violence in Afghanistan Spurred on by Transnational Criminal Organizations

In order to support their competitive advantage transnational drug trafficking organizations within Afghanistan must promote further domestic failure of the Afghan state. Economic models of conflict, such as those presented in Dietrich Jung’s book Shadow Globalization, Ethnic Conflicts and new Wars emphasize that illicit trade, such as drugs or diamonds, plays a major role in this process, both financing armed groups and sustaining conflict by exporting these goods around the world, especially exporting them from zones of conflict to zones to peace.[14]  If it is indeed true that transnational criminal organizations derive a significant competitive advantage from the chaos of a failed state, the evidence of this should be in the cash flows from international drug trafficking to anti-government organizations, and in the reorientation of transnational criminal organizations activities to include domestic political manipulation. 

The use of drugs to finance armed conflict in Afghanistan dates all the way back to the Mujahideen struggle against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.[15]  According to Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Opium is not even a traditional crop of Afghanistan and its cultivation was started purely to help finance the fight against the Soviet Union, but during the civil war of the 1990s taxes on the producers and organizations engaged in drug trafficking became an important source of income for different political and religious groups fighting for power.[16] It could be argued that the opium economy in Afghanistan is thus only a symptom of state failure, wherein transnational criminal organizations took advantage of the chaos, which provided a competitive advantage in transnational narcotics trafficking. This is a simplistic perspective though, and ignores the dynamics created by the illicit international economic flows that served to sustain conflict and contributed to the continued failure of the Afghan state long after the Soviet withdrawal.[17]

Furthermore, the international support of multiple factions within the Afghan anti-Soviet fighters allowed warlords to develop drug trading contacts and businesses that are largely responsible for preventing any centralized control from taking over the country until the success of the Taliban in the late 90s.[18] In both the presence and absence of rich Western funding many of these warlords converted all or part of their activities to direct involvement in or support of the drug business. In some ways the departure of foreign economic assistance can also be credited with bringing about Afghan state failure. As greed based economic models of war suggest Afghan criminal organizations/warlords helped create chaos along trading routes and in cities that enabled them to continue to control over the drug economy. The Taliban’s initial success in 1996 appeared to signal the end of a criminalized/warlord controlled failed state, but this quickly proved incorrect.

The emergence of the Taliban signaled neither an end to the corruption of Afghan politics nor an end to the aspirations of transnational criminal organizations to use Afghanistan as a free economic zone. Despite the widely reported disdain for drugs, resulting from the strict Deobandi interpretation of Islam espoused by the Taliban, drug production and trafficking continued in many part of the country until international outrage forced the Taliban hand.[19] In fact, the UN claims that opium production under Taliban doubled between 1996 and 2000 largely as a result of agreements between the Taliban and criminal organizations.[20]  Additionally, the UN reports that the Taliban ban on poppy cultivation following 2000 only occurred because of international threats to aid and transit trade, which amounted to a larger source of revenue for the Taliban then their share of the opium/heroin trade.[21]

The events of the 1996 to 2000 period do raise some issues for the argument that transnational organized crime is not simply the result of a failed state but a cause as well. One might argue that given that poppy cultivation increased during Taliban rule, a period when fighting had not stopped but violence did decrease, that criminal organizations are not a variable in the continued failure of the states, because if they were the violence would have remained unchanged as transnational criminal organizations sought to unsettle the Taliban regime. This is a rather poor interpretation of events in Afghanistan though, suggesting the Taliban actually maintained a monopoly on the use of violence in country. In reality, the Taliban proved wholly incapable of exerting control over all the far flung locations transnational narcotics trafficking organizations operated. 

As a result the Taliban responded by coming to terms with these organizations, in essence turning a country enmeshed in civil war into a feudal state based on the corroboration of criminal fiefdoms paying tithes to the government.  The Taliban in essence formalized the illicit drug based economy in order to both finance and exert a limited political control over the country. Rather then fight state failure the Taliban embraced it as a form of radical decentralization, criminal federalism if you will, selling off political control of parts of the country in exchange for revenue and the right to impose religious rules.  The competitive advantage derived from chaos, the ability to grow poppy and transport it without interference from the government, a friction cost, was still a competitive advantage, but now derived from central government acceptance of illegal activity.  Transnational organizations still did not need to worry about the friction cost associated with illegal action (security, product seizure, maintaining operational secrecy etc) because illegal action had become legal action.

Transnational organized crime and the narcotics trafficking not only financed continued violence on the part of the Taliban though, they also financed violence on the part of the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s main enemy.  According to Drugs, Oil and War: The United States in Afghanistan, Colombia and Indochina by Peter Scott, the Northern Alliance initially financed its war against the Taliban by mining emeralds, when this cash stream slowed they took up the Taliban model of supporting criminal organizations cultivating poppy in exchange for drug taxes.  This move resulted in as much as an 83% growth in poppy cultivation in parts of Northern Afghanistan that fell under Northern Alliance control.[22] It is clear that the civil war in Afghanistan during the 1990s was fueled on both sides by money derived from transnational criminal organizations cultivating drugs, all of which had a vested interest in the conflicts continuation.

Although most analysis of failed states sticks to the standard economic models, which suggest only that criminal organizations help continue conflict by financing further violence, criminal organizations can also exacerbate real political grievances.  Although transnational criminal organizations have purely financial goals, they do need to venture into the political sphere, especially in the case of Afghanistan where the poppy growers they buy from need land to cultivate on.  Control or securing of land is perhaps the oldest of political goals.  Furthermore according to Robert Rotberg is his article The New Nature of Nation-State Failure:

In contrast to strong states, failed states…lose authority over chunks of territory. Often, the expression of official power is limited to a capital city and one or more ethically specific zones. Indeed, one measure of the extent of a states failure is how much of the state’s geographical expanse a government genuinely controls.[23]

During the 1996-2001 period in which Afghanistan was under Taliban control the “need to exchange peace for drug production and its unwillingness if not inability to bring warlords fully under its control suggests an ability of drug barons and traders to independently control pieces of territory.”[24] The inability to control territory outside the capital is also something that the Afghan government of Hamid Karzi has been accused of.

At this time the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, under the presidency of Hamid Karzi, has been largely unable, even with the support of NATO/ISAF forces, to exert much control over the countryside.  According to The Associate Press a recent Pentagon report claims that extending central government control outside of Kabul over the winter of 2010 (which is not fighting season in Afghanistan) was as successful as had been hoped.[25]  It appears that the presence of NATO/ISAF forces has not deterred transnational criminal organizations from using Afghanistan as a source of poppy cultivation. In fact 2008 to 2009 poppy production per hectare increased 15%, according to the UN this increased yield can only be attributed to more high tech farming methods, control of high quality more fertile land, and better irrigation.[26] In essence more established maturing operations, with more financial backing, something criminal organizations would only do if they felt secure. It is clear that “the economic incentives for individuals to continue the drug trade, combined with the need to exert control over territory has provided a severe obstacle to securing the state’s territorial integrity.”[27] Furthermore it appears as if the competitive advantage provided by chaos has created profit margins so rich as to draw insurgents away from their ideological causes and towards drug trafficking.[28]


An IPE examination of drug trafficking, failed states and Afghanistan suggests that transnational drug trafficking organizations, recognizing a competitive advantage from their illicit operations, derived from the chaos of a failed state, are not only a symptom of failed states but have an economic incentive to encourage state failure. These organizations utilize their financial resources, derived from the sale of illicit products internationally, to undermine the state by fueling violence and by directly partaking in the political sphere, taking control of land from the government.

As a result these organizations have helped spur on violence and have not only been a symptom of state failure but have also been a cause.  At this point transnational drug traffickers in Afghanistan supply the Taliban insurgency with as much as $125 million dollars a year, which the Taliban uses to further destabilize the government and fight ISAF/NATO forces.[29] These powerful criminal organizations leverage their competitive advantage, derived from failed state chaos, to further infiltrate and corrupt the Afghan government possibly creating an endless cycle of destabilization and economic drug dependency.


Andreas, Peter. "Review: Illicit International Political Economy: The Clandestine Side of Globalization." Review of International Political Economy 11, no. 3 (2004): pp. 641-652.

Ballentine, Karen, Jake Sherman, and Peace Academy International. The Political Economy of Armed Conflict : Beyond Greed and Grievance. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003.

Brzezinski, Matthew. "Re-Engineering the Drug Business." New York Times, 23 June, 2002.

Caulkins, Jonathan, Mark Kleiman, and Jonathan Kulick. Drug Production and Trafficking, Counterdrug Policies, and Security and Governance in Afghanistan Center on International Cooperation, New York University, 2010.

Costa, Antonio Maria. 2010 World Drug Report United Nations, 2010.

———. Afghanistan Opium Survey 2009: Summery Findings United Nations, 2009.

———. The Opium Economy in Afghanistan: An International Problem United Nations, 2003.

Jung, Dietrich, 1959-. Shadow Globalization, Ethnic Conflicts and New Wars : A Political Economy of Intra-State War. London: Routledge, 2003.

Oatley, Thomas H., 1962-. International Political Economy : Interests and Institutions in the Global Economy. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006.

Porter, Michael E., 1947-. Competitive Advantage : Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance : With a New Introduction. 1st Free Press ed. New York: Free Press, 1998.

Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban : Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Riecmann, Deb. "Afghan Taliban: Spring Offensive Starts Now." Associated Press, Forbes (04/30/11, 2011).

Rotberg, Robert I. "The New Nature of Nation-State Failure." Washington Quarterly 25, no. 3 (Summer2002, 2002): 85-96.

Scott, Peter Dale. Drugs, Oil, and War : The United States in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Indochina. War and Peace Library. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

West, Jessica. "The Political Economy of Organized Crime and State Failure: The Nexus of Greed, Need and Grievance." Innovations: A Journal of Politics 6, (2006).

[1] Peter Andreas, "Review: Illicit International Political Economy: The Clandestine Side of Globalization," Review of International Political Economy 11, no. 3 (2004), 641.

[2] Michael E. Porter 1947-, Competitive Advantage : Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance : With a New Introduction, 1st Free Press ed. (New York: Free Press, 1998), 3.

[3] Karen Ballentine, Jake Sherman and Peace Academy International, The Political Economy of Armed Conflict : Beyond Greed and Grievance (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003), 83.

[4] Robert I. Rotberg, "The New Nature of Nation-State Failure," Washington Quarterly 25, no. 3 (Summer2002, 2002), 85.

[5] Ibid., 87

[6] Ibid., 87

[7] Andreas, Review: Illicit International Political Economy: The Clandestine Side of Globalization, 643

[8] Jonathan Caulkins, Mark Kleiman and Jonathan Kulick, Drug Production and Trafficking, Counterdrug Policies, and Security and Governance in Afghanistan, Center on International Cooperation, New York University, 2010), 5.

[9] Ibid., 7

[10] Matthew Brzezinski, "Re-Engineering the Drug Business," New York Times23 June, 2002.

[11] Antonio Maria Costa, 2010 World Drug Report, United Nations, 2010), 39.

[12] Antonio Maria Costa, The Opium Economy in Afghanistan: An International Problem, United Nations, 2003), 129.

[13] Information in this section comes from Costa, 2010 World Drug Report, Global Heroin Market

[14] Dietrich Jung 1959-, Shadow Globalization, Ethnic Conflicts and New Wars : A Political Economy of Intra-State War (London: Routledge, 2003), 3-6, 184-190.

[15] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban : Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 119.

[16] Ibid., 120-125

[17] Jung, Shadow Globalization, Ethnic Conflicts and New Wars : A Political Economy of Intra-State War, 1-6, 103, 109

[18] Rashid, Taliban : Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, 120-125 

[19] Ibid., 88-90 &

[20] Costa, The Opium Economy in Afghanistan: An International Problem, 93

[21] Ibid., 93

[22] Peter Dale Scott, Drugs, Oil, and War : The United States in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Indochina (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 33.

[23] Rotberg, The New Nature of Nation-State Failure, 86

[24] Jessica West, "The Political Economy of Organized Crime and State Failure: The Nexus of Greed, Need and Grievance," Innovations: A Journal of Politics 6 (2006), 7.

[25] Deb Riecmann, "Afghan Taliban: Spring Offensive Starts Now," Associated Press, Forbes (04/30/11, 2011).

[26] Antonio Maria Costa, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2009: Summery FindingsUnited Nations, 2009), 6.

[27] West, The Political Economy of Organized Crime and State Failure: The Nexus of Greed, Need and Grievance, 7

[28] Costa, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2009: Summery Findings, 6

[29] Costa, 2010 World Drug Report, 48


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While the argument provided by the author intuitively makes sense, I concur with Robert C. Jones' comments that the conclusions do not follow from the facts provided. There is little discussion of Afghanistan's historical form of governance which leaves an implication of the author's argument instead of showing valid cause.

Afghanistan has never had a monolopy on lands outside of its capital. Under the King, Afghanistan was set-up in fiefdoms in which patronage flowed from Kabul out to the provinces. This patronage allowed the king to 'somewhat' control the patrons of that province. The source of this patronage was originally plunder from conquest (18th century) and then international aid (19 & 20th Century). The removal of a central patronage source when the king was deposed created the conditions which we see today where patronage (fueled by narco profits) actually flows from the provinces to Kabul. Therefore, is it international syndicates that are perpetuating the circumstances in Afghanistan or those in Afghanistan that are profiting from doing business with the international syndicates? I submit it is the latter and not the former.

I believe what we are seeing in Afghanistan is more of a confirmation of market economics where labor and resources flow to opportunity, albeit the opportunity that Afghan labor and resources are profiting from today are illicit by international standards. Unfortunately, this international standard is not necessarily the view of the Afghan populace...but I digress. Changing this is key to adding 'friction costs' which will negatively alter the competitive advantage of producing opium in Afghanistan.

Why would narco profits flow from Eastern Afghanistan and Helmand to Kabul? The heroin refining is based in Pakistan - I would have thought the last place Pathan brown sugar would be sent would be 'Tajiki' Kabul.

The nearby international border prevents action by ISAF and the Cosa Nostra has been established in the NWFP for more than 30 years. Considering the industry in the NWFP was founded by world's largest syndicated criminal organisation, they enjoy 95% of the profits and they have a long history of horrendous violence protecting their business interests I don't think it is unreasonable to suggest it is indeed international criminality that is perpetuating the opium industry and not the Afghan peasant farmer as you suggest.

I believe it is important to note that growing opium is not merely a commodity that you cheerfully grow and harvest as you would your onions and carrots. The residual effects of rendering the raw paste prior to shipment to the refinery makes addiction by the workers inevitable. Unlike the somewhat gruff gas bill man or the sullen newspaper boy the arrival of AK toting junkies who collect the paste are not something you would find remotely pleasant.

There are many AAR wherein ISAF personnel have testified that the poppy growing is carried out at the point of a gun.

I seriously doubt there is much in the way of haggling.


The conclusions of this article do not reflect the facts stated to support the same, and seem to merely state the personal bias of the author.

There is no question that so long as Western demand and Western laws create this lucrative, illegal market, there are those in places like Afghanistan who will profit from that opportunity. The illicit nature of the market, not the nature of the product, is what empowers so much that is disruptive to countries like Afghanistan. The $125M of drug profits employed by the Taliban to fund their insurgency are such a tiny fraction of the total profits going into the pockets of powerbrokers of every sort across the region that it is hardly worth mentioning. Of course the Taliban use easy money from this source to fund their movement; but that does not somehow convert the nature of their movement from being a political challenge to the government empowered, created and protected by the same Western governments who write the laws that create this illicit market.

The problems stated in this article are very real, but I believe the conclusions regarding connections to why the Taliban exist and why the government of Afghanistan is so ineffective lack merit. Certainly it is convenient to our self esteem to have such convenient problems to blame when our domestic laws and foreign policies don't produce the results we intend. We see what we want to see, particularly when we focus on the wrong things.

We need to take a hard look at the global strategy related to the counter drug effort. The impact of most illegal drugs on affected societies is quite severe, and simply legalizing the drugs will not address that. Legalizing drugs may or may not impact the criminal networks that the trade supports, but weakening these networks needs to be high priority, since they're powerful enough to hollow out states. We rarely discuss the impact on SWJ on the public health, which is also strategic in nature.

There seems to be a persistent myth that all the opium roads point to the West, but that is misleading. It is a global problem, and opium abuse starts in the countries where it is grown, the two major ones being Afghanistan and Burma. In Afghanistan's case the trail of abuse follows the trading the routes from Pakistan, through Iran, through Turkey to the West and through India to the east. Interestingly one security concern that the U.S. and Iran share is the DTOs. Iranian drug trafficking organizations have been increasing their presence throughout East Asia to meet the demand signal there. Recently a few Iranian in Malaysia were arrested with a huge quantity of illegal drugs.

The top 10 consumers of heroin in 2008 in order were:

1. Europe
2. Russia
3. China
4. Africa
5. U.S. and Canada
6. Pakistan
7. Iran
8. India
9. Rest of Asia

This only addresses one drug, when you add the synthetic drugs, cocaine and grass the picture changes based on producers and markets, but the effect is the same, powerful DTOs hollowing out the states they're operating in, and degrading the health of the nations impacted.

Russia loses 30,000 people annually due to opium abuse, more than they lost in their 10 year conflict with Afghanistan. There are no simple answers, and while the strategy to combat DTOs does have flaws, I don't think abandoning this effort is the right answer either.

Bill et al,

I dragged this link that Bill posted on another article as it describes in considerable detail the extent to which drug money has become the chief objective of the fighters who fill the ranks of the Taliband. The author quotes numerous individuals who are fighters, drug dealers, opium farmers, administrators and security personel in Helmand.

The article is best summed up by the observation “No one fights for jihad any more,” said Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, a journalist based in Lashkar Gah. “There is no one to fight for Allah. Everyone is just defending his own interests.” For the fighters those interests have nothing to do with religion or ideology - they are more to do with getting enough money to buy new wheels for a scooter or a phone card.

As for the landowners and the political leadership - the governor himself admits that insurgency and drugs go hand in hand. “There is a shared interest between two groups,” he said. “Drugs and warlords are actually behind this conflict. The drug smugglers support the Taliban, and insecurity is the result. This is normal business.”

If you read intelligence reports published before WW2 by the Staff College in Quetta which reflect on the 19th and early 20th century fighting with the Pathans they describe this exact same self-interest that is currently found amongst the present-day Taliban. Furthermore during the war against the Soviets the muj refused to carry a single round of ammo - let alone fight - if they were not paid. Appealing to ideology or religion in the absence of pay was treated with complete contempt. Even the sense of revenge against the Soviets which one would expect from 4 million displaced refugees and millions of farms and dwellings destroyed played second fiddle to cash.

So what you say?

The problem is if you grant the Taliban or the Northern Alliance or whoever their self-declared political and idealogical demands it will change nothing - as they amount to nothing of any importance to the belligerents. The region will continue on sliding into anarchy as the real problem will not only remain but in the absence of western troops will get worse.

Bill described it as a "hollowing out of states." This is an apt description as heroin eats individuals from within. Their skin remains intact but their features are drawn in until they look like walking cadavers. This happens to families, neighbourhoods, towns until the entire community implodes. This all occurs whilst the victims are gripped by a opiate induced sense of utopia.

What has that got to do with the national security of the United States you might ask?

Pakistan is much further down the this path than Af. The Pak military has established a modern industrial approach to refined heroin which has been going on for thirty years. It is a extremely successful operation.For every junkie or drug dealer in there are ten in Pakistan. The 'hollowing out' of the Pakistani state is much more advanced. Whole regions of rural Pakistan and large areas of all the major cities are blighted by drug addiction. If Afghanistan becomes a failed state Pakistan will soon follow.

Does anyone seriously suggest that having drug dealers and junkies in charge of nuclear weapons is not a problem for the United States?

“There is no one to fight for Allah. Everyone is just defending his own interests.”

This pretty much describes the entire movement over the past 20 years or so that the US has labeled in various ways as a "Global War on Terror", "War against AQ", "War on Violent Extremist Organizations," etc. Ideology does not create such conflicts; it is merely the lubricant to keep things moving. Such has always been the case.

Yes, others, just like us, fight for their interests. Others, just like us, will attack those who they believe to be obstacles to attaining those interests.

Some sell drugs to fund operations in support of their interests. Others borrow Billions from a country they list as their top state enemy. The question may well be, which "dealer and junkies in charge of nuclear weapons" should you be most worried about? Moral positions that condemn one party for doing little more than what we ourselves do in our own way are both illogical and hypocritical. Borrowing Billions from China did not create the war in Iraq, or extend operations in Afghanistan; it is just how we opted to pay for them. Same same for the Taliban decision to leverage illegal durgs. At least they have the sense to pay as they go.

Yes, absolutely the vastly lucrative illicit markets created by Western Laws and Western Markets are a big problem to the West. To foist the full onus for that problem onto those who exploit the opportunity we create for them simply because we write laws that shift the blame for our own problems onto others, laws that we are unable to enforce, is disingenuous. The fact that others use the revenues from those same illicit markets to challenge other political and security interests as we have defined them is ironic.

Sounds like we need a new plan. The old plan of just diverting more of our own shrinking licit tax dollars and borrowing more money from China to counter a problem largely of our own creation does not appear to be working that well. Working harder to blame and fix others is a failed COA. Time to start working smarter. Part of working smarter is to take more responsibility for the effects of our own actions, and to refocus our priority efforts on aspects of ourselves that we can fix as our first priority, and make the mitigation of the effects of others as a supporting line of operation. Time to remove the plank from our own eye.

I was not passing moral judgement on anyone. I was simply attempting to point out the real reason many so-called 'religious fanatics and terrorists' are actually choosing to shoot, bomb, intimidate or threaten their opponents. The very mundane nature of many of the causes suggests to me that a amiable solution is not as remote as many people believe.

However if in fact the beligerents on both sides continue to fight past each other the possible strategic end game may help to focus the manner in which we approach a peaceful outcome.

Many senior Pak military and political leaders have enriched themselves on the opium grown in Af and Pak. As you rightly pointed out many leading Western political and commerical figures (I think it is a stretch to say many US military personel have enriched themselves as a consquence of legal or illegal enterprise) have done likewise. However a Made in Pakistan nuclear detonation in the US would probably result in less than a quarter of a million US deaths and several million casualities. A counter-strike by the nuclear armed US 'junkies and dealers' - which you alluded to above - would probably kill tens of millions of Pakistanis and Afghans and cause over a hundred million casualities.

The here and now is not the time to make the world less illogical, less hypocrtical or more just. It is too late for that.

The danger to the lives of tens of millions of Pakistanis and Afghans is very real. If the west can convince farmers to stop growing opium without impoverishing themselves does it really matter how they go about it?

Addiction to power and control is far more dangerous than additiction to drugs. (Certainly when both combine, as in Hitler, it is an evil mix.) But for the US I was referring to our addiction to power being more dangerous to the region than the fact that so many in the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan grow rich on profits from illegal drugs.

Today the US is very dedictated to the idea of being the world leader. I'll withhold comment on that. I would, however, offer that there are many leadership styles to choose from, and that the best leaders apply a wise mix that is as controlling as it needs to be in the rare circumstances where such control is necessary, and as empowering as possible otherwise. Finding and applying the right mix is a challenege all of us who have served in leadership positions, or under some leader, can well appreciate. Being the leader can cause one to lose perspective.
When one has a captive audiance ones ideas are smarter, their jokes are funnier, and they have more friends than when the audiance can pick and choose who they follow.

The US has grown a bit too used to the former, and having a hard time adjusting to the latter. One sure sign one is losing control as the leader is when one has to keep telling everyone who the leader is. "I am the leader" is becoming a central theme of every US strategy document I pick up these days. To parphrase the Bard, "I think we doth profess too much." 60 + years of nurturing a particular leadership style creates some habits that are hard to break, and many of those bad habits manifest in our approach to the AFPAK region over the past 10 years. We'll work through it, but that does not help those impacted during this period of transition.


I enjoyed your article immensely. A very complex problem in so few words gave your argument great clarity and strength.

Though the title refers to Afghanistan I think it's important to note (hopefully your next piece) the role Pakistan criminality has played in spawning the problem.

The Cosa Nostra began establishing the heroin industry from Peshawar, Pakistan in the mid 1970's probably as a result of the fallout from First Mafia War in Sicily. The more ferocious Second Mafia War and the subsequent Italian governments crack down essentially doomed the NWFP to be the epicentre for Mafia heroin.

There was virtually zero poppy growing in Afghanistan.

During the war against the Soviets the Mafia were happy with the crop in the NWFP and the involvement of the Pak military in much of Pakistan's industrial economy fitted in well with their desire to refine heroin on a large-scale manufacturing basis.

After the Soviet withdrawal they began to push into Afghanistan farmland led by the ISI.

You mentioned the role of overland routes to Europe. The Sicilians being islanders much prefer ships. It facilitates tonnage, opens every port on the globe and eliminates the middleman.

No doubt as the masters of international criminality the Cosa Nostra have made many alliances - especially after the Russian Mafia stopped calling itself the KGB.

The UN says there are four million people involved in the heroin industry in Afghanistan, farming a quarter of a million hectares. The number in Pakistan with six times the population is probably the same - many of whom having varying degrees of opium dependency. Throw into the mix a million automatic weapons, RPGs, 107mm light artillery etc and hundreds of millions of rounds of ammunition you could be forgiven for asking why politics and religion get any mention at all when people debate why COIN in Afghanistan isn't working.

Anyway I look forward to your next piece.

Best Wishes,