NATO wrestles with gangsterrorism

Article published on Oct. 12, 2006
From the magazine
Article published on Oct. 12, 2006
Faced with violence and an upsurge of drug trafficking, NATO’s troops fail to stabilize Afghanistan

The American-led military intervention in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks should have been a success story. Scarcely a month after the Americans and British attacked Al-Qaeda training camps and entrenched Taliban positions, the Northern Alliance, supported by the victorious soldiers of the Operation Enduring Freedom coalition entered Kabul.

In order to create the secure conditions needed for the country’s reconstruction, an international peace force was also deployed on the ground. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) numbered 9,000 soldiers – now 18,500 - from 37 different countries. In 2004, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was established and Hamid Karzaï became the first elected president in the country’s history.

Yet now, this military and strategic success threatens to turn into a quagmire. The NATO troops who took over from American forces last July are the target of increasing attacks. The fighting against the Taliban has become so intense that the ISAF commander, British general David Richards, compared the situation to “the darkest hours of the Korean War”.

Over the last six weeks, more than 600 civilians and numerous British, French and Canadian soldiers died. Faced with what is now termed the worst wave of violence since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, governments are reluctant to send reinforcement troops that officers on the ground so desperately need.

Drug trafficking booms

The resurgence of the Taliban undermines the ability of NATO’s armed forces to tackle all-out guerrilla warfare and raises questions about insurgents’ funding. The Afghan economy is still riddled with corruption and suffers from drug trafficking.

According to Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “the 2006 poppy harvest will yield nearly 6,100 tonnes of opium, 92% of total world supply”. According to a recent UNODC report, opium production rose by nearly 59%, reaching 165,000 hectares up from 104,000 in 2005. In certain southern provinces where Taliban insurgents have scaled up their attacks on Afghan government and international forces, cultivation soared by 162%.

The return of religious students is directly linked to this drug trafficking. In many areas the rebels guarantee poppy farmers’ safety in return for a percentage of the sale price. Financing terrorism with organised crime has become so widespread that anti-terrorist police have actually coined a new term for it: “gangsterrorism”

Inspiration from Bosnia

NATO’s Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, recently said that “it was not up to the ISAF to play a leading role in the fight against narcotics,” but that “the alliance would support the police and local forces to eradicate this scourge.” Though the international community funded the training of a police force and a team of specialised anti-drug Afghan judges, the system is paralysed by corruption. Most of the time, only small-time traffickers are convicted - the “big fish” include high-level government officials and ministers. These individuals benefit from services provided by the Taliban and encourage a united front between terrorism and organised crime.

This rise of “gangsterrorism” shows that military force alone cannot stabilize Afghanistan. Only a judicial approach may curb the trafficking and curb Taliban’s financial resources. This was the strategy adopted by the European Union in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The European Police Mission (EUPM) fought organised crime, a task which until then had been given to European Union Force (UEFOR) soldiers. Could this approach work in Central Asia?