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The Collective
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

When I saw this week’s Time cover, my response was, no joke-I knew that years ago.

Beyond that, however, I found a remarkable story in the magazine’s pages that is the kind of stuff that drives me crazy for its sheer stupidity-basically the US government decided it was better to damage our reputation in Afghanistan and to throw away assets that would aid our success in the region so that we could arrest someone we think was cultivating heroin poppies (and I suspect that he was):

For a week and a half in April 2005, one of the favorite warlords of fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was sitting in a room at the Embassy Suites Hotel in lower Manhattan, not far from where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood. But Haji Bashar Noorzai, the burly, bearded leader of one of Afghanistan’s largest and most troublesome tribes, was not on a mission to case New York City for a terrorist attack. On the contrary, Noorzai, a confidant of the fugitive Taliban overlord, who is a well-known ally of Osama bin Laden’s, says he had been invited to Manhattan to prove that he could be of value in America’s war on terrorism. “I did not want to be considered an enemy of the United States,” Noorzai told TIME. “I wanted to help the Americans and to help the new government in Afghanistan.”

For several days he hunkered down in that hotel room and was bombarded with questions by U.S. government agents. What was going on in the war in Afghanistan? Where was Mullah Omar? Where was bin Laden? What was the state of opium and heroin production in the tribal lands Noorzai commanded-the very region of Afghanistan where support for the Taliban remains strongest? Noorzai believed he had answered everything to the agents’ satisfaction, that he had convinced them that he could help counter the Taliban’s resurgent influence in his home province and that he could be an asset to the U.S.

He was wrong.

As he got up to leave, ready to be escorted to the airport to catch a flight back to Pakistan, one of the agents in the room told him he wasn’t going anywhere. That agent, who worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told him that a grand jury had issued a sealed indictment against Noorzai 3 1/2 months earlier and that he was now under arrest for conspiring to smuggle narcotics into the U.S. from Afghanistan. An awkward silence ensued as the words were translated into his native Pashtu. “I did not believe it,” Noorzai later told TIME from his prison cell. “I thought they were joking.” The previous August, an American agent he had met with said the trip to the U.S. would be “like a vacation.”

[...]

Noorzai was also a powerful leader of a million-member tribe who had offered to help bring stability to a region that is spinning out of control. Because he is in a jail cell, he is not feeding the U.S. and the Afghan governments information; he is not cajoling his tribe to abandon the Taliban and pursue political reconciliation; he is not reaching out to his remaining contacts in the Taliban to push them to cease their struggle. And he is hardly in a position to help persuade his followers to abandon opium production, when the amount of land devoted to growing poppies has risen 60%.

Does this make any sense?

Here’s the bottom line and why it should be obvious why this move was monumentally stupid: no matter what we do, opium cultivation will continue on a massive scale in Afghanistan (if you doubt the certainty of my statement, or its validity, just look at our success rate at stopping massive coca cultivation in Andean region of South America-in other words, case closed). As such, the prosecution of Noorzai is nothing more than a drop in a vast ocean. Even if he is, as he is described by an official in the piece, the “Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan”* then he is still nothing more than the previously described drop (killing Pablo certainly curtailing the cocaine trade, didn’t it?). However, as an asset and ally who had intimate knowledge of the workings of the Taliban, and as a person of prominence in Afghansitan who was willing to work with the United States as we sought to bring stability to the country, and to rid it of Taliban and al Qaeda influences, his value was potentially limitless. Further, by arresting him, what signal does that send to other warlords in the region? How can we build a coalition to stabilize that country without the trust of the existing elites-especially given the very traditional nature of power in the countryside?

This is sheer folly-a trade-off that makes no sense. Prosecuting Noorzai will have a minuscule (if that) effect on the opium trade, but yet we place a higher value on that than we do on successful completion of the war in Afghanistan?

The administration makes claims that the war on terror is an existential struggle that requires extraordinary actions, including a number of highly questionable domestic surveillance programs and “coercive” interrogation of possible terrorists as well as potentially their life-time incarceration; however, we can’t recognize the imperfect nature of potential allies such as Noorzai? We prefer a drug arrest to progress in a central front on the war against radical Islam?

Amazing.


*Plus, the Escobar ref really doesn’t work. I assume by this it is meant that Noorzai was large-scale cultivator/trafficker. However, Escobar’s main threat (and what made him so notorious) was not the scope of his cocaine business as it was the fact that he decided his prominence and wealth meant that he had the right to challenge the Colombian state. He sought influence and power beyond just drugs. In Noorzai’s case, it would seem that he was quite the opposite in that regard, a figure who might have been of use in state-building-as such, he was no Pablo Escobar.

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9 Comments

  1. [...] Steven Taylor tells us what happens when The Stupids Go to War. One passage from the Time article stands out: That agent, who worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told [Afghan tribal leader Haji Bashar Noorzai] that a grand jury had issued a sealed indictment against Noorzai 3 1/2 months earlier and that he was now under arrest for conspiring to smuggle narcotics into the U.S. from Afghanistan. [...]

    Pingback by Dead Flowers § Unqualified Offerings — Tuesday, February 13, 2007 @ 9:37 pm

  2. War on Drugs Hurts War on Terrorism

    Steven Taylor reflects on a TIME cover story about Haji Bashar Noorzai, the Afghan warlord and pal of fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar who willingly flew to the United States to provide valuable intelligence on international terrorism only …

    Trackback by Outside The Beltway | OTB — Wednesday, February 14, 2007 @ 8:49 am

  3. [...] can anyone justify this? Read the whole article. Via Steven Taylor. Posted at 10:45 am in Category: Uncategorized | postCount(’2262′); | postCountTB(’2262′); Powered byWordPress | RSS Feeds: RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0, Atom | Design by John Norris Brown [...]

    Pingback by Appalachian Scribe » When Wars Collide — Wednesday, February 14, 2007 @ 9:48 am

  4. This is truly insane. If we spent half as much effort on keeping truckloads of drugs from crossing the border as we do on digging through old ladies’ purses, we wouldn’t care what they were growing in Afghanistan. But of course, that wouldn’t require a huge staff of glorified security guards sitting around the airport holding up traffic, it would require people to do hard police work out in the hot sun.

    Comment by Nick Kasoff — Wednesday, February 14, 2007 @ 9:56 am

  5. The War On Drugs Helps Terrorists

    Trackback by The Liberty Papers — Wednesday, February 14, 2007 @ 9:56 am

  6. [...] Steven Taylor links to a Time magazine story about misplaced priorities in the Islamist War. In 2005 Afghan tribal leader Haji Bashar Noorzai was in a New York City hotel talking to the U.S. government giving them information on terrorist subjects and the current state of Afghanistan. He told Time, “I did not want to be considered an enemy of the United States. I wanted to help the Americans and to help the new government in Afghanistan.” [...]

    Pingback by The American Mind » Blog Archive : Drug War Gets in the Way of Real War in Afghanistan » Drug War Gets in the Way of Real War in Afghanistan — Wednesday, February 14, 2007 @ 10:05 am

  7. Typical and to be expected. The War on drugs has grown concurrent with the growth of stateless terrorism. They feed each other. and our government absolutely knows this.

    You asked, ‘Does this make sense?’ In terms of “creating chaos and instability” in the world yes, it makes perfect sense.

    The 2004 Congressional Research Service report to congress, “Illicit Drugs and the Terrorist Threat: Causal Links and Implications for Domestic Drug Control Policy” summarized the threat posed by the black market creating ‘illicit’ status of drugs. “The international traffic in illicit drugs contributes to terrorist risk through at least five mechanisms: supplying cash, creating chaos and instability, supporting corruption, providing “cover” and sustaining common infrastructures for illicit activity, and competing for law enforcement and intelligence attention. Of these, cash and chaos are likely to be the two most important.”

    Irrationally, that same report then concluded, “American drug policy is not, and should not be, driven entirely, or even
    primarily, by the need to reduce the contribution of drug abuse to our vulnerability to terrorist action. There are too many other goals to be served by the drug abuse control effort.”

    Well funded stateless terrorism is simply accepted collateral damage of the durg war.

    My essay, Plan Colombia: Informed Myopia has more information on these issues.

    Comment by Pat — Thursday, February 15, 2007 @ 7:35 am

  8. [...] I have no doubt that we will pursue identical policies in Afghanistan as we have in Colombia (with potentially disastrous consequences, as I noted last week). [...]

    Pingback by PoliBlog ™: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Colombia: the Sequel (a.k.a., Afghanistan) — Thursday, February 22, 2007 @ 10:32 am

  9. [...] I have no doubt that we will pursue identical policies in Afghanistan as we have in Colombia (with potentially disastrous consequences, as I noted last week). [...]

    Pingback by Colombia: A PoliBlog Sideblog » Colombia: the Sequel (a.k.a., Afghanistan) — Thursday, February 22, 2007 @ 10:33 am

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