As Afghanistan's narcotics trade explodes past $3 billion a year, there is concern that the Taliban is becoming another FARC, Colombia's notorious leftist insurgent group that draws much of its funding from the drug trade.
The Taliban and FARC – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – both got their start protecting peasants from corrupt governments. There's evidence both initially fought narcotics traffic but then levied taxes on the trade for much-needed cash.
Over time, the FARC began to use its soldiers to protect shipments, and took over coca factories. They forced farmers under their control to grow coca. Eventually, they became self-sufficient and set up a parallel government in their semiautonomous zone. They now earn an estimated $500 million a year from cocaine.
That all sounds eerily familiar to police and military officials in Afghanistan. "There is no question at all that the Taliban has been increasingly involved both directly and indirectly in narcotics," says Seth Jones, an analyst at the Rand Corp.
Evidence is growing that the Taliban and their allies are moving beyond taxing the trade to protecting opium shipments, running heroin labs, and even organizing farm output in areas they control. "It's reached the point where about half of the opium we seize in the provinces has some link to the Taliban," says Gen. Ali Shah Paktiawal, director of the anticriminal branch of the Kabul police.
Another senior Afghan security official says captured Taliban have confessed that most funding comes from drugs.
Afghan opium production, which mushroomed 59 percent in 2006, multiplied by 162 percent in southern Helmand Province, where Taliban ties to the trade are clearest. "People should be concerned about the FARCification of the Taliban," says a senior Western counternarcotics official, adding, "It does not take a lot of drug money to fund their terrorist operations."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited British troops in the province Monday and pledged to stay "as long as it takes" to prevent a return to power by the Taliban. British aid – $1.6 billion since 2001 – has included loans to farmers to start new businesses. But the country produced a bumper opium crop this past season, and is expected to do so again next year.
Many experts believe the Taliban has always been dependent on the poppy trade. Declassified US State Department records show that two major narcotraffickers now in US custody, Baz Mohammed and Bashir Noorzai, sat on the original five-member Taliban shura, or leadership council.
"The Taliban rose to power by co-opting Afghan heroin," says a US official.
Today there's raging debate among experts over how much the Taliban leadership depends on heroin for its financing. Some say that donations from wealthy Arabs and financial support from Pakistan make up a larger portion of the Taliban's financing than heroin. "I don't believe Mullah Omar and his top counsel are involved, but they have clearly allowed [trafficking] to happen," says the Western official.
Unraveling the truth is complicated by the fact that the Taliban is less of a unified movement today than it was at its start. Now, officials say, it's more a loose grouping of tribal leaders, businessmen, and regional warlords.
"There's a very small core of true believers still left in the Taliban," says a top US military official. "But our intel is that most of the guys are just in it to make a buck."
The evolution from holy warriors to heroin smugglers should come as little surprise, say experts. Terror groups from the IRA to the Tamil Tigers have raised funds through trafficking, along with other criminal activities. And the lure of the dollar often eventually warps original goals. That metamorphosis has already happened to one Afghan insurgent group, say experts. Hezb-Islami Gulbuddin, run by the fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, is now "a full-fledged smuggling organization," moving everything from heroin to people, says a US official.
There's fragmentary evidence that Osama bin Laden has instructed his people not to get wrapped up in narcotics, apparently fearing it would harm his movement. "Some say that Osama and his people have specifically stayed away from it," says the Western official.
The growth in smuggling complicates strategic response. "Strategic withdrawals," like the Pakistani retreat from troubled North Waziristan or the British pullback from Musa Qula in Helmand, for example, risk allowing criminal activity to flourish.
"This trade has strengthened the Taliban and greatly weakened the government's capacity," says Mr. Jones of Rand. "I'm not optimistic about where it's going."
Some US lawmakers say Washington must do more. Congressman Charles Schumer (D) of New York tagged a $700 million amendment to the defense appropriations bill to try and boost funding for Counter Narcotics in Afghanistan. It was later cut back to a total of $116 million.