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BOOK REVIEW: Seeds of Terror: The Taliban, The ISI and The New Opium Wars. Reviewed By Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times / June 5, 2010

With money at the root, opium at the core, smugglers at the back and the Taliban in the lead, an ancient form of commerce feeds a burgeoning terror industry. Gretchen Peters is convinced that hunting down the elusive top tier leadership must be in conjunction with targeting the source of their (fire)power.

The ‘House of Terror’ has branched out. But are the pious, holier than thou Taliban ‘doing drugs’? Seeds of Terror seems to think so. But it does not cast them as drug barons or junkies but as profiteers — patrons of a trade they have perfected to an art. Peters sees this as an economic miracle (of sorts) given that it originates from “one of the world’s most remote and backward regions, where the transport network and infrastructure is almost completely shattered”, but where the Taliban have nevertheless “managed to integrate an agricultural product — albeit illegally — into the global economy”. This crude yet effective form of commerce keeps the clunky, soulless machine going.

The Taliban movement failed the drug test. The book argues that for them drugs are simply a means to an end — the end being money and power — suggesting that it is not religion or the Almighty, it is business and the almighty dollar. With a clear conscious and solid alibi, these quick-change artists have proceeded to give opium a legitimate stake in the jihad business. How this little piece of the puzzle changes the big picture and how crucial was its integration in the first place is the central premise of the book. Adapting to the changed reality and fixing the oversight is the larger message. Bringing counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics strategies in alignment is the ultimate goal.

Sorting through the seemingly random bits of data to tie in the smuggling side with terrorism drives Peter’s narrative. The discovery of opium as the source of funding would make people wonder why cutting off the lifeline was not the primary objective of this war. How well these anti-terror policies stake up against an expertly managed narcotics system concerns the writer.

The book deals with the specifics of targeting the network, outlining a nine-pillar strategy that takes into account both the internal complexities and external factors at play. Peters argues against the obvious tactics (spraying) and favours a more holistic approach to disrupt the network.

Her research turns up some interesting facts about this frightening new world where “narco-traffickers, terrorist groups and international criminal underworld” form the new axis of evil and an ideology that retains its outward trappings of a holy war while profiting from decidedly unholy practices. She studies the regional transformation wrought by the drug trade to gauge the impact it has on the new age phenomena — terrorism without borders. She also shows that this is not the first appearance of opium on the scene. And the fact that a trade thrives with impunity in today’s environment is largely because it was tolerated by the world in yesterday’s Afghanistan. That it accounts for 30 percent of the GDP of an occupied land is hard to fathom.

To understand this world one requires context and Peters gives that context by going back to the 1980s to chart the course of Afghanistan after the fall of communism and the rise of the dreaded Taliban with a flourishing drug trade to the accompaniment of alarm bells that went unheeded by the West. She believes that the “lack of US oversight into drug smuggling by the mujahideen had set up preconditions for the complete integration of narcotics — and reliance on drug money — into the politics of the region.”

The merchants of death seized upon an old idea because opium had staved off the collapse of a post-communism state and kept their aging structure intact, even under the weight of sanctions. According to Peters, in the first Afghan resistance, drug trafficking had the stamp of approval of the Pakistani establishment. She digs deeper to find unsavoury connections made by Nawaz Sharif, Zia and PPP’s regime, uses Sharif’s own words to implicate the military and continues to suspect these factors of collusion even after anti-narcotic efforts had been launched in earnest in the 1990s. But that was yesterday.

Today, the tentacles go beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, some of her findings cast the recent heroin bust at Karachi, said to be the biggest in Pakistan’s history, in a more sinister light.

She also identifies the key players in the drug business — from the Quetta-based kingpins, “the centre of gravity for Taliban drug trade” to the small fry — an “evil mix of government officials, district commissioners and police chiefs”. The book tries to convict the entire terrorist family in this dysfunctional unit, but cannot find conclusive evidence against al Qaeda. Yet they are found guilty by association.

Seeds of Terror gives a fair idea of life under the shadow of the Taliban and the cloud of opium dust and the plight of its captive audience. Where it puts isolated events like the Karachi drug bust in perspective and gives an alternate plan of attack, it also finds another reason to aspire to a drug-free world, given the consequences of ignoring Afghanistan’s “drug problem”.

Author: Gretchen Peters
Thomas Dunne Books; Pp 316; Rs 995

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