The criminals running the Af-Pak border

Want to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban? Stop thinking of them as terrorists. By Gretchen Peters The Obama administration has promised “a new way of thinking about the challenges” facing the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it’s also high time it starts thinking in a new way about America’s enemies themselves. The ...

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586464_090423_poppies2.jpg

Want to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban? Stop thinking of them as terrorists.

By Gretchen Peters

Want to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban? Stop thinking of them as terrorists.

By Gretchen Peters

The Obama administration has promised “a new way of thinking about the challenges” facing the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it’s also high time it starts thinking in a new way about America’s enemies themselves. The Taliban and al Qaeda have long portrayed themselves as holy warriors, battling under the flag of Islam. Most people in the West have accepted this characterization, imagining them as long-bearded fanatics, while Washington constantly refers to them as “terrorists” and “extremists.” No doubt they are. But, having studied their operations at the village level in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than three years, another descriptor also seems useful to me: criminal. When you examine the day-to-day activities keeping their networks financially afloat and probe how they interact with local communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda start to look a lot more mafiosi than mujahideen.

In the last eight years, the Afghan Taliban have greatly expanded their illicit activities, morphing into a force more violent and ruthless than when they were in power from 1996 to 2001 and building up an economic empire worth almost half a billion dollars. Their activities are diverse: In some parts of the south, they collaborate with drug traffickers to dictate poppy output. They provide armed protection for opium convoys leaving Afghanistan’s farm areas and protect heroin labs along the Pakistan border. In addition, they work with kidnapping rings that have snared diplomats, journalists, U.S. contractors, and wealthy local businessmen. They cooperate with gunrunners, human traffickers, and the smuggling gangs that illegally export millions of dollars worth of Afghan antiquities.

They also extort monthly payments from legal Afghan businesses, terrorizing village shopkeepers and even nationwide cellphone providers, attacking their homes and premises if they don’t comply. District-level Taliban commanders collect fees as high as $250 per truck passing through their control zones from import-export firms and trucking companies, even “taxing” the tankers carrying jet fuel to NATO air bases in Kandahar and Bagram.

The Afghan Taliban aren’t the only ones using criminal proceeds to finance their operations. Thieves recently looted a money market in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi, later delivering the cash to Baitullah Mehsud, who leads the Pakistani Taliban. There are also indications that al Qaeda operatives help move shipments of refined heroin as they leave the Afghan border area and head toward Central Asia and Europe, precisely where one stands to profit most.

Viewing the Taliban and al Qaeda as criminals doesn’t mean ignoring the threat they pose to the West. In fact, criminal activity makes them even more dangerous overseas. Opium profits help pay for weapons and explosives used to kill U.S. soldiers on the Afghan battlefield. Criminal proceeds could help fund future 9/11-style attacks, making it imperative to degrade these sources of funding.

But the new paradigm could offer some extraordinary opportunities for fighting this thriving underground economy. When President Barack Obama speaks of confronting “a common enemy” that threatens the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, his condemnation of extremism doesn’t always resonate in the border areas where the insurgents and terrorists rule.

With the help of local researchers, I have interviewed hundreds of Afghans and Pakistanis who live along the frontier. In these deeply conservative Muslim communities, where religious leaders hold tremendous authority, few dared speak out against people who define themselves as “holy warriors.” But when we framed the insurgents as criminals, they opened up, describing in clear detail how the militants’ illicit activities directly and adversely affect their lives. Speaking in terms the people there can understand will improve America’s ability to win local support for the critical task of cutting off terrorist leaders from their illicit profits. In Islam, there is no one more reviled than a thief.

Gretchen Peters is the author of the forthcoming Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Gretchen Peters is a former ABC News reporter for Pakistan and Afghanistan. She authored the forthcoming book, Seeds of Terror (New York: St. Martin's Press), which probes links between the opium trade and insurgency.

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