“As usual, your guys are bombing the wrong country.”

This is what I said to fellow Asia Times Online contributor Spengler in a meeting a few weeks back, when the two of us were discussing Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban. For a while now, the two of us have had doubts about the United States/North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) strategy in Afghanistan and in particular their ability to handle the tactical aspects of the ongoing battle against the Taliban even as the larger goal of implementing democracy in the country looms as a long-term strategic goal.

All that was before the most recent spate of attacks on Pakistani military and police establishments apparently being orchestrated by the Taliban; the sheer scale and audacity of which bring into question the very existence of the Pakistani state. There must be a worried lot in the corridors of New Delhi, Washington and London these days as the sheer scale of the collapse in Pakistani military capabilities and morale relative to the resurgent Taliban finally takes center stage.

The most likely course of action eerily appears like the only one available now – a reinstatement of army rule in Pakistan in the guise of reestablishing security and a set of new arrangements between the Army and the Taliban to essentially relinquish Afghanistan and the Western parts of Pakistan to the control of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his cohorts.

In Triangulating an Asian conflict Asia Times Online, September 6, 2008), I wrote:

Bleeding on its western flanks and ever watchful of its eastern border with India, the Pakistani military has limited options. Cooperating with the US or NATO is unlikely in the current political climate which ensures that increasing resources are misspent on the lost war pursuing al-Qaeda. Quelling an internal rebellion – no military man actually wants to die in combat, contrary to their popular image – would take an assumption of political power once again in the country with all the baggage this brings.

Taken to a logical extreme, the slippage of the Pakistani establishment to a quasi-vassal relationship with al-Qaeda ideologues appears all the more likely. Politicians will strike deals with extremist Islamic groups and seek to appease their grievances; these range from the heavy handedness of Pakistani police against the militant groups to the regrouping of madrassas across the country.

Meanwhile, the army is also likely to secure its own peace with the terrorist groups by calling off intensive operations and allowing for a return of an expanded Taliban state within Pakistani borders that calls the shots in Afghanistan. I don’t believe it will take more than year for the current Afghan government to fall and make way for the Taliban when this happens.

The resulting theocratic state will be run essentially by today’s al-Qaeda reservists, with the added advantage of possessing nuclear weapons. As epitaphs go, George W. Bush could not wish for anything worse but sadly this does seem to his most likely legacy.

Things have gotten worse in Afghanistan. With the election-rigging essentially ruining whatever legitimacy that the government of President Hamid Karzai had in the country, popular resentment is all set to fuel the Taliban. Even the American media has finally acknowledged that Mullah Omar is back as the head of the Taliban, driving the insurgents and terrorists into the heart of the country as he appears ever more likely to take over Kabul yet again.

The New York Times reported on October 11:

In late 2001, Mullah Muhammad Omar’s prospects seemed utterly bleak. The ill-educated, one-eyed leader of the Taliban had fled on a motorbike after his fighters were swiftly routed by the Americans invading Afghanistan … Eight years later, Mullah Omar leads an insurgency that has gained steady ground in much of Afghanistan against much better equipped American and NATO forces. Far from a historical footnote, he represents a vexing security challenge for the Obama administration, one that has consumed the president’s advisers, divided Democrats and left many Americans frustrated.

In effect, Afghanistan is a lost cause. Stand by for a resumption of mass murders, ethnic cleansing, large-scale crimes against women and children and an uninterrupted rise in the value of illegal drugs sold by the country to the rest of the world.

About three years ago, in an article titled Economics and Bamiyan (Asia Times Online, December 9, 2006), I wrote the following incitement to more coordinated action on the part of the interventionists:

The multinational approach to Afghanistan is flawed on many counts, but mainly because different agencies assume they are dealing with separate problems when in fact they are dealing with one. NATO forces are dealing with a resurgent Taliban, while various agencies are dealing with the mushrooming problems of opium cultivation, women’s rights, health and education and the preservation of culture.

What business can you provide for a people who make their money on opium cultivation? The only alternative that carries sufficiently high margins is tourism, which is particularly suited to the rugged landscape of Afghanistan and its phenomenal history, even if many of the most interesting sites were destroyed by a succession of invaders. In a situation where the tourist industry assumes primacy, local populations have to protect their economic interests, which they achieve by maintaining a more open society. This has certainly been the experience in Turkey and Egypt, where radical Islamists are kept at bay not so much by the “war on terror” as good old-fashioned neighborhood policemen. Terrorists committing heinous acts at Luxor, were for example prevented from reenacting their methods due to the immediate negative economic impact. Terrorists cannot operate without support from local communities – and failing to recognize this factor makes the process of reconstruction arduous if not impossible.

The primary strategy for the various multilateral agencies is thus to provide suitable incentives for the locals to step in and protect their own heritage. Convince the Afghans that a million tourists will visit any new Bamiyan site, and new Buddha statues will not only spring up, but also be more majestic than the ones destroyed. It might seem like an awfully long-term project, but the idea presents the only proven method of aligning local interests with those of the global community.

Looking at the Taliban, the key question is frequently asked but never really addressed. What actually allows these ramshackle fighters to stay fighting the US and NATO for over eight years now? The normal answer is drug money but there is of course another source namely donations from the Middle East. Drug money could account for half or more of the Taliban’s revenues, so the answer isn’t completely wrong.

Selling opium to Europeans and Americans allows the Taliban to fund itself wonderfully, attracting a lot of the local unemployed with promises of money as long as they grow a beard. Things have gotten so bad that the Taliban can now hire people who would otherwise have considered joining the Pakistani army, with higher pay, better weapons and lower casualties.

We shouldn’t forget how it is that the Taliban took and held on to power the first time around. Having comprehensively destroyed the Afghan people through their attempts at introducing the Wahhabi version of Islam, the Taliban depended on sustenance provided by three countries: Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.

The role of Pakistan is easy to discern, namely to sustain a feed pipeline for irregular acts of terror (see One man’s terrorist … Asia Times Online, October 3, 2009) ) besides expanding the strategic depth against its Indian foes. Meanwhile, the UAE (really it was all money from oil-rich Abu Dhabi) and Saudi Arabia provided funding to the Taliban in the name of fraternal love with Muslim brethren.

Of course, the consideration that a fanatical Sunni country could be used against the Shi’ite peoples of Iran never entered their calculation. This is part of the “global oil equation”, which I will examine in more detail in a future article.

The high oil prices that helped to sustain the Taliban for much longer than local economic conditions would have warranted now exist once again. Continued sales of opium, meanwhile, provide the Taliban with the means to keep up their recruitment of armed combatants and controlling regional governors who are enriching themselves.

Anyone wishing to control the spread of the Taliban must therefore consider two aspects: the global trade in narcotics and secondly the per capita consumption of crude oil. Since both these indicators are more relevant in Western Europe and the United States, it suffices to focus attention on the two areas.

How the British Empire collapsed

Before delving into the most obvious strategy items left to control the Taliban, it is appropriate to examine the historical reasons for the collapse of the British Empire, if for nothing else but to tell ourselves that the status quo can indeed be changed with a bit of will.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal this week, Zachary Karabell notes the following:

Consider what happened in 1946, when a cash-strapped Great Britain turned to the US for a loan. For 30 years or more, the British had been consumed by the threat of a rising Germany. Two wars had been fought, millions of lives had been lost, and the British treasury was dramatically depleted in the process. Britain survived, but the costs were substantial.

In spite of its global empire, a powerful military, and an enviable position at the center of world-wide commerce, in early 1946 the British government faced a serious risk of defaulting on its financial obligations. So it did what it had done at various points over the previous decade and turned to its closest ally for assistance. It asked the US for a loan of $5 billion at zero-interest repayable over 50 years. As generous as those terms seem today, such financing had been almost routine in years prior. To the surprise and shock of the British, Washington refused.

Unable to take no for answer, Britain explained that unless it received funds the government would be insolvent. The Americans came back with a series of conditions. They would lend Britain $3.7 billion at 2% interest, and the British government would have to abide by the 1944 Bretton Woods plan, which made the dollar rather than the pound sterling the reference point for global exchange rates and required Britain to make the pound freely convertible. Even more significantly, Britain had to end its system of imperial preferences, which meant no more tariffs and duties on goods to and from colonies such as India. These were not mere financial penalties: taken together, they meant the end of the British Empire.

While interesting from a historical perspective, Karabell perhaps understated the role of another bit of change over the same period – the decline of the opium trade. For it wasn’t the textiles of India or the rubies from Myanmar that kept the great British Empire alive but rather the humble opium den.

Destroying the landscape of India with forced farming of opium and selling the finished product in China with handsome profits along the way, the British Empire essentially derived a quarter of its revenues or more from the opium trade; income that was readily useful in dealing with the pesky Prussians and Germans in World Wars I and II.

I would recommend readers examine the subject at length in tomes such as Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh and Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy by Carl Trocki which immediately come to mind.

When the Chinese stopped smoking opium in the early part of the 20th century, the ramifications were felt on the existence of the British Empire.

This is exactly the historical parallel to use. The idea of destroying the demand for heroin and other opium derivatives has apparently never entered into the calculation of the United States and NATO countries. To do that, they obviously will have to work on controlling their domestic populations, in effect taking the “war on terror” homebound, hitting at drug addicts internally.

That course of action isn’t popular of course, but in the long run more likely to succeed in controlling the Taliban.

The same goes for the price of oil. If global oil prices can be pushed down, there is clear evidence that funding for fundamentalist Islamic groups also declines. Why then doesn’t the American government impose a tax – say $2 per gallon – on the sale of gasoline in the US; following the lead of the Europeans? This would inevitably – and especially if the current rate of low economic growth continues for the interim – lead to a decline in the price of oil globally to adjust for the tax effect.

Jim Kunstler wrote the following about the generic supply of oil from the Middle East in his blog entry dated October 12, 2009:

The combination of extreme resource dependency and religious fanaticism is a fatal equation for the Middle East. They are angry, crazy and often savage people who own something we can’t live without, and we are overfed buffoons, often savage ourselves, who think we can make them like us – whether they like it or not. Again, personally, I don’t believe the status quo will persist a whole lot longer. The US economy is radically de-complexifying (ie crashing). Part of this will be expressed in the bankruptcy of US military capacity – at least where supporting troops-on-the-ground in foreign lands is concerned, and probably overseas bases, too. The US could get in trouble with other sources of foreign oil (think: Mexico) before anything chokes off the Middle East. But in one way or another, the US will soon become both capital-and-energy-resource-challenged to an extreme, perhaps to the extreme where we can’t feed ourselves. Our problems in running the nation as it has been set up to run – as a colossal demolition derby with sideshows of bargain shopping and infotainment – are insurmountable if one accepts the majority view that it is “non-negotiable”.

It is important to consider here that a tax on oil will have multiple follow on effects:

  • Reduction in the price of oil as pump prices cannot move up too much in the current economic climate. In effect, this counts as a transfer of revenues from the Middle East to the US government, channeled through the US consumer.
  • The initial shock of higher oil prices will push down US consumption, hurting the export-oriented economies of Asia. That in turn could prompt greater focus on domestic consumption in these countries and perhaps even realignment on the currency side (free floats).
  • An improved likelihood of carbon tariffs globally, which are designed to reduce per capita consumption of oil in the US and Europe, as well as more gradually, in Asia. This will also push down the use of fossil fuels in Asia, with China likely to fare the worst given its high emissions.
  • Increased focus on research and expenditure on new technologies to supplant the oil economy. Since the US, Japan and Europe have the lead on technological innovation, the initial benefits will perhaps be felt there more considerably. Gradually, other countries like China and India will also benefit from the new technologies.There you have it – to defeat the Taliban, Americans and Europeans will need to curb demand for opium derivatives at home as well as destroy the stable revenues of the oil producing Middle Eastern countries. The wrong strategy would be to deal with the symptom without dealing with the cause appropriately; precisely why the current strategy is a colossal failure. In effect, the US and NATO need to start “bombing” at home rather than in far-off countries: reduce the use of drugs and oil domestically if they ever want a real chance to control the menace that the Taliban have become, and will morph further into over the near term.