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State-Building and Human Rights in Afghanistan & Pakistan


Af-Pak Forum, December 3, 2009

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The purpose of the Af-Pak Forum is to promote substantive discussion on Afghanistan & Pakistan through analysis of the ongoing public discourse within the foreign policy community. This Forum will feature publications selected and reviewed by our Af-Pak Fellows. Such reviews reflect the viewpoints of their authors only. The inclusion of any article in this Forum is not an endorsement of the article's content, but rather aims to highlight issues in need of greater conversation and debate. We encourage all those affiliated with the program to participate in this dialogue using the comment facility below.
Go to The Nation

How the US Funds the Taliban
By Aram Roston
On October 29, 2001, while the Taliban's rule over Afghanistan was under assault, the regime's ambassador in Islamabad gave a chaotic press conference in front of several dozen reporters sitting on the grass. On the Taliban diplomat's right sat his interpreter, Ahmad Rateb Popal, a man with an imposing presence. Like the ambassador, Popal wore a black turban, and he had a huge bushy beard. He had a black patch over his right eye socket, a prosthetic left arm and a deformed right hand, the result of injuries from an explosives mishap during an old operation against the Soviets in Kabul.

But Popal was more than just a former mujahedeen. In 1988, a year before the Soviets fled Afghanistan, Popal had been charged in the United States with conspiring to import more than a kilo of heroin. Court records show he was released from prison in 1997.

Flash forward to 2009, and Afghanistan is ruled by Popal's cousin President Hamid Karzai. Popal has cut his huge beard down to a neatly trimmed one and has become an immensely wealthy businessman, along with his brother Rashid Popal, who in a separate case pleaded guilty to a heroin charge in 1996 in Brooklyn. The Popal brothers control...

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Response by:
Nigel Pont, Carr Center Fellow:

These days there is much talk of corruption in Afghanistan, and how the international community needs to “get tough” with the Afghan government to stamp it out. There is not enough discussion, however, about a) the role of the international community in fueling the Afghan war economy and b) how powerful individuals on all sides stand to lose major income streams should the security situation improve. There are those who might question some of the facts and conclusions raised in this article by Aram Roston, but it does raise the unavoidable and unpleasant fact that international military forces are paying (directly and indirectly - but with complete awareness) stakeholders on all sides of the conflict vast sums of money to move international military supplies around the country. Given the upcoming decision by President Obama on whether to send more troops - and the likely $65 billion dollars that this surge will cost - how much consideration is being paid by western planners to the influence that an extra few billion dollars will have, when channeled through the system described in this article? There are now very powerful individuals and groups on all sides of the conflict who are profiting greatly from the deluge of (primarily) US cash into Afghanistan.

While accurate data on the cost of insurgent operations are impossible to come by, Thomas Ruttig, in his excellent paper The Other Side (2009), estimates some USD 70 million annually. Other sources make higher estimates. Sources of income include local taxation, the opium trade, and protection schemes such as described in Roston's article. Of all these, most attention has been paid to the opium trade - which benefits Government officials and insurgents alike. Estimates of insurgent income from the opium industry are in the region of $200 million per annum. One of the primary drivers of recent counter narcotics efforts has been the desire to starve insurgents of this source of income. Insurgent income from logistics contracts appears to be of a similar scale to that from opium, however there has been less focus on this contracting system. Quoting from Roston's article itself: “In fact, US military officials in Kabul estimate that a minimum of 10 percent of the Pentagon's logistics contracts--hundreds of millions of dollars--consists of payments to insurgents.” Given the emphasis placed on counternarcotics in international policy, shouldn't there be greater focus on insurgent resources coming from US contracts?

The international community knows that conventional military victory is not possible in Afghanistan and is rightfully questioning whether a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy can be successful. There is a growing realization that the only way to turn things around is going to be through regional and Afghan domestic political outreach - while using security forces to ensure that the Taliban cannot achieve military victory. It is likely that western governments will soon try to push Afghans to seek political solutions. As this unfolds, it will be important for policy makers to remember that the current situation (status quo or ongoing deterioration) is highly profitable for some of the most powerful actors on all sides. That dynamic needs to change if a political track is to be successful.

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