The Afghan 'Dark Alliance'

On Jan. 6, a soldier from Afghanistan's nascent national army was killed, along with two assailants, when troops were sent in to eradicate an opium field in Uruzgan province. The central government of President Hamid Karzai recognizes that these could prove the opening shots of a new opium war. A month earlier, on Dec. 11, Karzai's finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, published an op-ed piece in The New York Times, "Where Democracy's Greatest Enemy Is a Flower," pleading for international support for crop-substitution programs. Opium is the key to power for Afghanistan's warlords, who still control much of the country.

It would be impolitic for Karzai's government to remind his U.S. underwriters of Washington's own complicity in creating this reality. The apparent December suicide of Gary Webb, the journalist responsible for the "Dark Alliance" sensation in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, sparked at least a brief media recollection of the contra-cocaine claims of the Reagan era. That a CIA-backed rebel army was also turning to the drug trade at that same time in Afghanistan seems almost entirely forgotten.

Webb's controversial series documented the links between the CIA-spawned "contra" guerrilla army in Nicaragua and a top California cocaine ring. The series was met by a campaign to discredit it by major media, which relentlessly trumpeted its real flaws. But whatever Webb's failings, the Nicaraguan counter-revolution was a major player in the 1980s coke boom. In 1989, the congress of Nicaragua's neighbor Costa Rica permanently barred Lt. Col. Oliver North, ex-National Security Advisor John Poindexter, the U.S. ambassador and CIA station chief from the country's territory, finding that their contra re-supply operation had doubled as a cocaine ring. Such disturbing realities were forgotten as Webb's work was dismissed as "conspiracy theory."

Even more forgotten is that the contra-coke connection was mirrored in an Afghan mujahedeen-heroin connection. Just as the CIA groomed an army of right-wing exiles to destabilize revolutionary Nicaragua, the agency turned to Islamic insurgents to drive Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Once again, the CIA proxy army turned to the drug trade to boost its war chest. And while Nicaragua has seen some reconciliation since the 1980s, Afghanistan is still violently divided – and under U.S. occupation.

Moreover, the contra war was small potatoes compared to the Afghan campaign, which never received nearly as much media exposure. All told, the CIA sunk some $450 million into the contras, compared with over $2 billion for mujahedeen.

In a 1988 series for the Philadelphia Inquirer, "The CIA's Leaking Pipeline," Tim Weiner found that weapons for the Afghan resistance were being diverted to the armies of opium lords. The CIA admitted one of every five dollars in war material bound for the mujahedeen "disappeared." It was during the mujahedeen war that the Afghan-Pakistan "Golden Crescent" overtook Southeast Asia's "Golden Triangle" as the top source of global heroin.

This didn't slow down the Reagan administration. Following a 1986 bid by CIA director William Casey, Congress approved Pentagon advisors and hundreds of Stinger missiles for the mujahedeen.

Support for the mujahedeen led directly to the emergence of al Qaeda. In 1984, Osama bin Laden arrived in Peshawar, the Pakistan border city then serving as the mujahedeen's staging area, and trans-shipment point for their heroin. It was there he established his Maktab al-Khidmat ("services center"), or MAK, a clearinghouse for mujahedeen volunteers from the Arab world, where they were armed, indoctrinated and dispatched to the front. CIA money flowed into the MAK through Pakistan's secret service. Osama assumed command of the MAK in 1989, the same year the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan. He quickly transformed the MAK into his al Qaeda network of trained terrorists.

Given the extreme Islamic fundamentalist ideology of the mujahedeen, it was only logical that they would turn their guns on their erstwhile American underwriters after the Russians were driven out. When the Taliban took power in 1996, pledging to restore order after years of war, Afghanistan became a staging ground for global terrorist operations – culminating in 9/11, and the U.S.-led occupation that continues today.

Now "liberated" Afghanistan has become again the world's top heroin producer, supplying an estimated 90 percent of the global market, according to the United Nations, which monitors world production via satellite. Opium cultivation has in fact skyrocketed since the fall of the puritanical Taliban, which had effectively if briefly suppressed the trade. Growers have repeatedly opened fire on government workers sent to eradicate their fields. Any effort by President Karzai to challenge the opium economy could antagonize the warlords and plunge the country back into civil war, making Bush's victory in this ravaged land a Pyrrhic one.

America will be dealing with the legacy of Afghanistan's Dark Alliance for years to come. It is sad that Gary Webb's passing has prompted more dismissive condescension than serious grappling.

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