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Opinion

Rushed US exit from Afghanistan will reward Taliban drug barons

Extracts from locally occurring plant now being used to produce crystal meth

| South Asia
Black smoke billows after an explosion outside the provincial police headquarters in Kandahar in July 2019: Taliban fighters are advancing ever closer to Kabul.   © AP

Andrew North has reported widely from across the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia. He is a regular commentator on Asian affairs.

A large mural showing doves bursting from a Kalashnikov has appeared in Kabul and other Afghan cities in recent weeks, painted on the blast protection walls that envelope most major buildings. Artlords, the Afghan charity responsible, has been using these ubiquitous concrete canvases for years to campaign for an end to the country's cycle of war.

"Most of us do not know what peace means after 42 years of war and violence," says the group's co-founder Omaid Sharifi. "We hope these murals will encourage people to imagine peace, and to put pressure on the Taliban and the Afghan government to embrace peace and start negotiations."

But this latest call for peace feels especially plaintive right now.

The U.S. is pulling its troops out, under the peace deal it signed with the Taliban in February. But it is President Donald Trump's preelection desire to say he's ending America's longest war that is driving the timetable, not the intricacies of a lasting Afghan peace. And with their foreign enemy going home, Taliban fighters have intensified their attacks in areas held by the U.S.-backed Afghan government, and they are encroaching on Kabul.

U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army base in Logar province in August 2018: the U.S. is pulling its troops out, under the peace deal it signed with the Taliban in February.   © Reuters

Nearly 19 years since the Pakistani-backed Taliban were toppled by U.S.-led forces, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the threat of it regaining power and reimposing its harsh religious code looks grimly possible.

Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, has been sounding a warning to the outside world -- saying in a recent interview that the Taliban are on course for "tactical victory." The global price, he said would be a surge of cheap crystal meth from drug labs under Taliban control.

"If drugs go through the roof in the United Kingdom and Europe, all your leaders have been part of this," President Ghani told The Times newspaper. "If amphetamines reach the shores of the United States we should know that these are the consequences, and if these people [the Taliban prisoners] commit crimes, there is shared international responsibility."

The threat is real. Not content with their near-monopoly over the world's heroin supply, Afghan narcotics barons have branched out in recent years, exploiting a locally-occurring plant to produce growing quantities of the drug made famous by the U.S. TV series Breaking Bad. If the Afghan drug trade was a legal business, it would win awards for innovation and resilience, having defied so many international efforts to curb it.

Seizures of Afghan-manufactured crystal meth have soared from just a few kilos in 2015 to several tons a year, with shipments turning up in a growing number of countries. Asia may have more to worry about than the West. This March, the Sri Lankan navy intercepted a 100 kg haul of suspected Afghan-origin crystal meth hidden in fishing vessels.

Most of the covert labs refining the drug are in areas under Taliban control, further boosting their multimillion-dollar narcotics revenues. The effects are being felt locally too -- with the highly-addictive crystal meth increasingly supplanting heroin among Afghan users.

Critics say President Ghani is simply trying to stall the U.S.-led peace process, because he fears it will lead to a new interim government without him. A surge in smaller-scale Taliban attacks and targeted assassinations around Kabul is also eroding his support. "The Afghan government is losing," says Sharifi, "in terms of [providing] basic security necessities for people, even in the capital." Ghani sounded his drugs alarm as he back-pedalled on an agreement to free a last batch of Taliban fighters, its condition for holding direct talks with his government.

With the prisoner release now back on track, those talks may now happen. But the flaws in this peace process remain. Exhausted by nearly two decades of stalemate in Afghanistan, many fear the Americans are going home too fast, leaving their Afghan government allies badly exposed. Comparisons have been made with their hasty exit from Vietnam, after they agreed to Taliban demands to exclude the Afghan government from the initial talks. And President Ghani did not even have a say in the deal to release Taliban prisoners.

Newly freed Taliban prisoners in Kabul on Aug. 13: President Ghani did not even have a say in the deal to release Taliban prisoners.   © Afghanistan's National Security Council/AP

What is more, to borrow the words of Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. now living in exile there, Pakistan is still acting "as arsonist and firefighter in Afghanistan," backing the Taliban while also providing logistical support to the U.S. and receiving its aid. But as Western support for the Afghan government declines, that increases the odds of Pakistan's proxy regaining power in Kabul.

There is an old and often overused Afghan proverb for the way they have outlasted the various superpowers who have invaded the country over the years, from the British in the 19th century to the Russians in the 20th. And the Taliban have applied it to the Americans too: "You have the watches, we have the time."

Ghani appears to be borrowing from that playbook -- trying to run out the clock before the U.S. election, in the hope that Trump will be defeated and the peace process can be reset. Ironically, that leaves the Taliban as the ones now keeping an eye on their watches. But the result could yet be Afghanistan turning into a narco superpower.

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