Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Forever Taliban

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 27, 2006 --  

The comeback of the Taliban has nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism, and everything to do with America's dysfunctional drug policies.

As a resurgent Taliban militia engages American troops and its European allies in southern Afghanistan, armchair generals the world over have seized upon the opportunity to declare that Islamic extremists are again on the rise. Both al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the former head of the Taliban government, Mullah Omar, remain at large, likely somewhere on the mountainous border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. From there, they are protected by thousands of Taliban followers -- the same militia members that are increasingly making life difficult for western forces in Afghanistan.

But American officials worried about the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan shouldn't waste their time looking in caves for Mullah Omar. A much more destructive and influential leader lurks in a cavernous structure next door to the White House. Here, in the grandiose Old Executive Office Building, a patriotic American named John Walters is paving the way for the Taliban's revival. As the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Walters follows in the footsteps of his former mentor, the first "Drug Czar" Bill Bennett. Today, Walters implements policies that make the Taliban's long-term resurgence all but guaranteed.

This is because drug money -- massive amounts of drug money made from Afghanistan's place as the world's largest grower of opium poppies -- has flooded the Taliban's coffers with not just enough cash to keep it going, but enough money to make it flourish. And it is only because of America's harsh prohibitionist policies regarding heroin and other opium-based drugs that a highly profitable market exists for Afghanistan's illicit crop. Were America to decriminalize heroin tomorrow, the market would never sustain the high price that keeps the Taliban in arms. As long as this drug money exists, the Taliban will continue its transformation from a rump Islamist political movement to a well-organized narco-militia.

This is precisely what happened to the old Marxist rebel groups in Colombia. With the Cold War over at the beginning of the 1990s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) sold out its beliefs and drifted away from its Communist founding. In 2000, FARC officially broke off its role as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party, and now exists as a protection racket siphoning money off of illicit producers of cocaine.

While every other government in Latin America has signed peace treaties with their Marxist opponents, Colombia continues to fight an endless and intractable war. Negotiations are futile, since the rebels have no ideology and no demands other than the status quo. Massive American military aid has proven incapable of defeating the rebels. For every rebel soldier who is killed, plenty more are willing to step in and take a share of the drug profits. So long as they receive massive infusions of drug money, the Colombian rebels will never go away.

So it will be with the Taliban. The militia's acceptance of drug money indicates its transformation is well underway. In the months before the U.S. assault in 2001, the Taliban's puritanical policies towards drugs were even stricter than those advocated by America's Drug Czar. The brutal militia use scorched-earth tactics and public executions to completely eliminate the country's opium harvest in 2001. Since then, the Poppy fields have returned. The Afghan government and their American allies have been reluctant to take harsh action so as not to risk what little stability exists in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the once-desperate Taliban has realized that siphoning Opium profits provide a way out from what once looked like an inevitable defeat. The Taliban has abandoned its Islamist principles for the sake of survival.

With this in mind, the importance of the Taliban's revival should be taken in context. Just as FARC provides no Communist threat to either Colombia or the world, tomorrow's Taliban narco-militia creates similarly little risk for people outside Afghanistan. The Taliban can never hope to retake Kabul, but they will certainly menace country's provinces for the foreseeable future -- at least as long as America's prohibitionist drug policies keep them well-funded.

The real losers in this situation are the people of both Afghanistan and Colombia. They will continue see their futures destroyed by violence, lack of opportunity, and the destructive drug policies managed by a man in a cavernous building half a world away.