America’s relationship with the Taliban has always been determined by how useful they are at advancing US interests in the region and the Trump administration’s recent efforts to make “peace” with the group are no exception.
President Trump, who is up for re-election this year, has added another “peace” deal to his credentials, a deal that the president, his re-election campaign and his supporters have promoted as proof that Trump is willing and able to resist the U.S. foreign policy establishment and its ceaseless push to keep the U.S. embroiled in “forever wars.”
Yet, not unlike the much-criticized Israel-Palestine “peace” deal that was recently released by the Trump administration, there is more to the U.S.-Taliban “peace” deal than meets the eye. Indeed, while the deal will reduce and perhaps eventually even end the U.S.’ official military presence in Afghanistan, there is little indication that it will end the bloodshed or the country’s “shadow” economy that is awash in profits from the illegal drug trade and illegal mining.
Particularly telling is the fact that the CIA’s ever-growing presence in Afghanistan, which expanded during the Obama years and has continued to expand under Trump, will remain even as U.S. troops are set to begin to leave. Furthermore, many of the specifics of the deal — such as what the Taliban must do in order to ensure that the U.S. continues to withdraw troops — are remarkably vague, meaning that U.S. troop withdrawal could easily be paused or outright canceled at the Trump administration’s whim at any point during the 14-month timetable for withdrawal that has been established.
Of course, that 14-month window expires well after the 2020 election, likely shielding Trump’s re-election efforts from any potential fall-out over a deal that contains few specifics in its current form as well as several “secret” annexes, which will ensure that a continued CIA presence and a sizable contingent of U.S. “counter-terrorism” forces may remain in Afghanistan indefinitely.
In addition, Afghanistan’s “war oligarch” class, who grew rich from the corruption that has marked post-invasion Afghanistan, have praised this accord. This is notable given that these oligarchs, many of whom currently live in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have opposed and railed against U.S. troop withdrawals in the past. Adding to the oddity is a push in Western mainstream media to describe a post-invasion Afghanistan as “open for business.”
Yet, it is the illicit economic activity of Afghanistan, namely its opium trade, that will likely define whether this new deal is ultimately successful, as Afghan opium is a major source of revenue, not only for the Taliban but also for the CIA — and thus of major interest to both parties. It is hardly surprising then that the deal contains an annex pertaining to future CIA operations in Taliban-controlled areas.
The myriad factors in play regarding this latest “peace” deal suggests that there are several motives behind its recent signing and promotion. While the deal certainly plays into the hand of Trump’s reelection aspirations, rekindling the Taliban’s old alliances with the UAE and Saudi Arabia at the expense of their ties with Iran is another possibility as are efforts to bring Afghanistan into the fold of several U.S.-backed Central Asian infrastructure projects that seek to stymie the success of similar projects promoted by U.S. rival states in the region.
Whatever the exact motivations behind the current deal are, its long-term success will be determined by long-standing U.S. business, government and intelligence interests in the country and whether or not the Taliban will pose obstacles to those interests, not by any real desire to bring home U.S. troops and wind down American “forever wars” abroad.
Landmark agreement or election year theater?
The “landmark agreement” signed by the U.S. and the Taliban on February 29 was not a final deal but a preliminary agreement on which U.S. officials are not authorized to publicly comment and the specifics of which have not been publicly released.
Yet, just a few days after it was signed, the U.S. bombed the Taliban in alleged retaliation for attacks for which no one claimed responsibility, which is quite possible given the factional nature of the fighting in Afghanistan and the Taliban itself. There is also the fact that some of the country’s deadliest armed groups are paramilitaries created and backed by the CIA and the CIA’s control over the actions of said groups is alleged to have “waned” in recent years, making them essentially rogue death squads. However, the U.S. has asserted these attacks were committed by the Taliban.
The Taliban easily could have committed these attacks without technically having violated the deal, however, given that the “peace” deal does not “obligate the Taliban to abstain from any specific actions after an initial week of Reduction in Violence” that ended last weekend, according to CBS News. In other words, the “peace” deal does not include a ceasefire but instead holds that a ceasefire will be negotiated as part of “intra-Afghan talks” between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government based in Kabul. That government is currently led by former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, whose government has forged increasingly close ties with the CIA, and whose recent reelection was marred by fraud. Notably, Ghani’s main political rival who claims to have won the recent election was recently targeted during a mass shooting that took place last week and also followed the signing of the “peace” deal.
Though many are understandably relieved that the U.S. appears to be ending its 19-year long presence in Afghanistan, there is much about the deal that deserves scrutiny. For instance, the deal doesn’t call for complete troop withdrawal, but instead the reduction of U.S. troops from around 12,000 to around 8,600 over the next 135 days. Those 8,600 troops, about the same number of troops that remained following Obama’s limited Afghanistan troop withdrawal, “will continue to fight terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS,” according to The Hill. A report in The Los Angeles Times claims that the U.S. will move forward with a complete withdrawal in 14 months, but only “if Al-Qaeda and other terror groups do not reemerge there.”
This distinction deserves considerable scrutiny since the U.S. government is currently backing al-Qaeda forces in Syria’s Idlib province and in Yemen, while ISIS was not only intentionally allowed to emerge by the Obama administration, but has ties to the intelligence apparatus of both the United States and its main Middle East ally Israel.
It would be as simple for al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Idlib, who are currently fighting a Syrian and Russian military offensive, to be relocated to Afghanistan as it would for the U.S. to call off its troop withdrawal and justify its indefinite presence in the country, which boasts massive mineral wealth and an important geostrategic location critical to regional energy flows. President Trump’s statement following the inking of the deal that “If bad things happen, we’ll go back,” reveals that the door to axing the much-touted troop withdrawal remains open. Also boding poorly for this aspect of the deal is the fact that U.S. media are already speculating that Friday’s mass shooting in Kabul that targeted the Afghan president’s main political rival was the likely work of ISIS.
In addition, Time reported last month that those 8,600 troops are actually to remain indefinitely as part of a semi-permanent “counter-terrorism” force and that Taliban leaders would not agree to that demand in public, but would do so in private. Journalist Pepe Escobar, writing in the Asia Times the day before the deal was signed, asserted that the Taliban will only allow this “sort of face-saving contingent to remain for a few months, and then a very small contingent … to protect the US embassy in Kabul.” Escobar further claims that the U.S. will ultimately reject the removal of troops during the 14-month timetable for tentative withdrawal, thus reigniting the U.S.’ seemingly eternal quagmire in Afghanistan.
Notably, the day the deal was signed, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated that the U.S. would “not hesitate to nullify the agreement” if the Taliban didn’t honor its commitments, which thus far involve not allowing “al-Qaeda and other terror groups to re-establish a presence on Afghan territory” and to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul led by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist whose recent re-election win remains strongly contested.
The Los Angeles Times further noted that the U.S. government reserved the right to call off troop withdrawal if the Taliban “refuses to negotiate in good faith,” another vague tenet found in the recently signed peace deal. However, Trump, as Commander-in-chief, could theoretically choose to withdraw troops, even if future talks aimed at cementing the specifics of the deal collapse.
The most underreported aspects of this new “peace” deal are arguably the most important. Just days before the agreement was signed, both Time and Pepe Escobar reported on the fact, citing a total of five Afghan and U.S. officials between them, that the deal contained four “secret” provisions or annexes. While three of those provisions found their way into the press coverage that followed the deal’s official signing, one did not. That provision specifically discusses how the CIA will remain in Afghanistan and lays out how they will operate in Taliban-controlled areas.
Though underreported, that aspect of the deal should not come as a surprise, as last August, the Trump administration was considering an expansion of the CIA’s presence in the country once military troops begin to be withdrawn as part of a provisional agreement with the Taliban. Though the LA Times reported that the final deal called for the withdrawal of troops as well as “tens of thousands of contractors and ‘nondiplomatic’ personnel,” it asserted that this “would seem to include” CIA officials, but that report declined to mention the reporting of either Time or Escobar and the provision pertaining to the post-deal continuation of CIA activities in Afghanistan.
Overall, despite the fact that many of the details of the deal are vague and/or not publicly available, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that this so-called “historic peace deal” will actually bring peace to Afghanistan. Yet, upon looking further into who negotiated the deal, who supports it and why, more reasons to be skeptical — if not outright cynical — quickly emerge.
The oily past of the U.S.’ top negotiator
Supporters of the President have since suggested that the deal’s rejection by prominent neoconservatives — including former National Security advisor John Bolton and Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-WY), among others — was proof that the deal would be effective in ending the U.S.’ longest war in its history as it had angered some of the U.S.’ most notorious and influential war hawks.
Yet, such claims fail to note that Trump’s top negotiator with the Taliban and the U.S. special envoy on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is himself a neoconservative and a founding signatory of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), the defunct yet still controversial neoconservative think tank whose former members first rose to prominence during the George W. Bush administration.
Not only that, Khalilzad was also a key figure in the CIA-backed Operation Cyclone under the Carter administration and later the Reagan administration, where he personally helped greatly expand the controversial program. That operation created, armed and financed Afghanistan’s Mujahideen forces, which included the very individuals who would go on to create both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It is one of the longest and most expensive covert programs in the history of the CIA and also involved Saudi and Pakistani intelligence.
In addition, Khalilzad, at the time Operation Cyclone was ongoing, was also the executive director of the Friends of Afghanistan, a “support group” for the Mujahideen, and is also a long-time member of the board of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), long labeled a CIA cut-out by critics.
The fact that the main negotiators on both sides have ties to this disastrous CIA-backed operation has gone largely unmentioned in media reports on the recent peace talks and the more recent peace deal. One obvious reason for leaving this out would be the fact that the existence of the Taliban itself resulted from neoconservative foreign policy and out-of-control intelligence agencies, with many of those tied to Operation Cyclone remaining powerful and influential in American politics, Khalilzad among them.
Adding to these oddities regarding the background of the deal’s negotiators is the fact that Khalilzad himself was also, for years, an open supporter of the Taliban. As the Institute for Policy Studies has noted:
[Khalilzad] had been an early supporter of the Taliban during the brutal internecine fighting that accompanied the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. And he remained in touch with the fundamentalist forces after they trounced opposing warlords and took power in Kabul in 1996.”
Just 10 days after the Taliban seized power in Kabul in 1996 and began its vicious crackdown, Khalilzad argued in a Washington Post opinion piece that the U.S. should try to work with the mullahs and form a broad-based government that included other factions….On the opinion page, Khalilzad argued: “The Taliban does not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran–it is closer to the Saudi model.”
We should use as a positive incentive, the benefits that will accrue to Afghanistan from the construction of oil and gas pipelines across its territory,” he added. “These projects will only go forward if Afghanistan has a single authoritative government. (emphasis added)”
This position was not exclusive to Khalilzad, as others in the U.S. government at the time hoped to use the Taliban to create a “second Saudi Arabia” in Afghanistan and the Clinton administration, from 1994-1996, offered covert support to the Taliban through Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Khalilzad’s ties to the Taliban continued well after they took power and he was a key fixture in efforts by the Clinton administration and a consortium led by the U.S. energy company UNOCAL (now a subsidiary of Chevron) in negotiating a $1.9 billion pipeline deal with the Taliban. The project was backed by both the Clinton administration and the U.S. intelligence community because the pipeline would “help free the new nations of Central Asia from dependence on Russia, avoid alternate routes across Iran and bring needed energy to Pakistan and India.”
In 1997, UNOCAL officials hosted Taliban officials on a luxury multi-day trip in Texas and facilitated their meeting with top U.S. government officials. At the time, Khalilzad was a special advisor to UNOCAL and was part of the effort to court the Taliban during their U.S. visit.
The UNOCAL-Taliban negotiations began to fall apart by 1998, and that year UNOCAL executive John Meresca told Congress that “… we have made it clear that construction of our proposed pipeline cannot begin until a recognized government is in place that has the confidence of governments, lenders and our company (emphasis added),” suggesting that the U.S. government’s decision to not officially recognize the Taliban was an insurmountable hurdle and that, to advance, the Taliban would need to alter their policies in order to receive U.S. recognition or instead be replaced by a more moderate faction that could be officially recognized by the U.S.
After these events, the Taliban turned to UNOCAL’s competitor in the pipeline effort, a consortium led by the Argentine company Bridas, whose main partner was a Saudi company closely tied to Prince Turki Faisal Saud, then-head of the Saudi intelligence service. In contrast to UNOCAL, Bridas “indicated readiness to finance the project and start construction without formal Western or U.N. recognition of the Taliban government,” according to a 1998 article in the Washington Post. The Bridas proposal would also service the local Afghan market while the UNOCAL proposal would not.
Once negotiations with UNOCAL had collapsed completely, U.S.-backed regime change in the country began to be openly discussed and, as M. Reza Pirbhai noted in an October 2009 article, “it was only when absolute control of that oil was challenged that the Taliban regime was openly discredited” by the U.S. government. The Bush administration attempted to renew talks with the Taliban over the pipeline, but this too collapsed by mid-2001, just months prior to the September 11 attacks. Canada’s Globe and Mail would later note that after the pipeline deal was scrapped:
Washington was furious, leading to speculation it might take out the Taliban. After 9/11, the Taliban, with good reason, were removed — and pipeline planning continued with the Karzai government. U.S. forces installed bases near Kandahar, where the pipeline was to run. A key motivation for the pipeline was to block a competing bid involving Iran, a charter member of the ‘axis of evil.’”
Some have asserted that UNOCAL was a factor in the U.S.-backed appointment of Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s “interim president” after the U.S. ousted the Taliban from Kabul following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after September 11. This was because Karzai was not only a former CIA-backed Mujahideen fundraiser but also a UNOCAL consultant and it was reported that Khalilzad had lobbied for Karzai to be given that position. Nine days after Karzai was appointed to lead post-invasion Afghanistan, Khalilzad — linked to both the Mujahideen, several U.S. administrations and UNOCAL — became Bush’s special envoy for Afghanistan, a position he recently regained under Trump.
Though the UNOCAL-Taliban deal fell through, its successor — the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) — has been under construction for the past several years, with construction on Afghanistan’s section beginning in 2019. At the time, the Taliban vowed to protect the TAPI project and had previously announced their support for TAPI as early as 2016. Though Chevron and Exxon-Mobil were originally poised to lead TAPI, much of its funding has come from the Saudi-dominated Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and the Asia Development Bank (ADB), whose ownership is dominated by Japan and the United States. Notably, TAPI’s regional competitor is the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline that is backed by Russia.
Khalilzad’s history with U.S. government and corporate negotiations with the Taliban, along with the Taliban’s pro-business shift with respect to TAPI, strongly suggests that the glue holding this “peace” deal together is largely based around economic incentives for the Taliban so that TAPI and other U.S.-backed Central Asian projects can move forward in a “peaceful,” or at least less violent, Afghanistan, while thwarting projects like IPI that are backed by U.S. rival states.
Indeed, given that the U.S. government backed the Taliban in the past when it aligned with its business and geopolitical interests and only sought to fight them when those interests were threatened, it would make sense that any deal — negotiated by Khalilzad nonetheless — would involve rekindling those past shared business interests, whether related to oil or pipelines or another lucrative resource, of which Afghanistan has many.
Though it’s unclear what the Taliban may have been promised in terms of potential incentives or streams of revenue, the fact that Afghan oligarchs that have long opposed the withdrawal of U.S. troops have now decided to back the recently inked “peace” deal may offer some hints.
Afghanistan is “open for business”
The day the U.S.-Taliban peace deal was signed in Doha, the Washington Post ran an article which noted that “peace in Afghanistan will take more than an accord. History shows that economic growth and better job opportunities are necessary to rebuild stability after war” and goes on to expound upon likely investment opportunities in a post-peace deal Afghanistan. That article was written by Elizabeth Hessami, a law professor and former World Bank researcher focused on Afghanistan, with a self-described “strong interest in Mining Law and Governance particularly in relation to the gemstone industry.” Other articles published soon after the deal was signed have similarly promoted Afghanistan’s “economic integration” into regional infrastructure projects following the deal.
Though it should be obvious that economic growth would aid any post-deal political stability in Afghanistan, the fact the U.S.’ falling out with the Taliban and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan itself was motivated in no small way by economics rather than the Taliban’s ideology or politics, suggests that part of the motivation behind the peace deal was to allow for the growth of economic activity and natural resource exploitation that would favor the interests of companies based in the U.S. or in allied countries.
This is strongly supported by the deal’s inclusion of a U.S. presence during “intra-Afghan talks”, where the U.S. has openly admitted that its presence at those talks will be used to “seek economic cooperation for reconstruction” in a post-deal Afghanistan. The U.S. has had a long-standing interest in — not only pipelines — but Afghanistan’s estimated $1 trillion in mineral wealth and untapped natural gas and oil deposits have also been identified in the country by the U.S. military and State Department. There is also the issue of the illegal opium trade, but that will be discussed in the final section of this report.
In relation to the deal, it is also worth noting that Afghan oligarchs, many of whom have spent much of the last several years living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), also strongly support it. For instance, Haji Obaidullah Sadekhail, Chairman of Afghan Business Council in the UAE, praised the deal as “a golden opportunity for all the stakeholders to move forward and stop decades long war” while Abdul Wahid, of Momin Oil, said the “Afghan peace deal between Taliban and the US would open up new avenues for businesses and investors.” Another Dubai-based Afghan businessman, Mohammad Afghan, told Gulf News that a post-deal Afghanistan “would offer huge investments in the field of housing, electricity, solar power, agriculture and mineral mining.”
The jubilant tone of the Dubai-based Afghan business community is interesting given that the last time there was a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan their tone was starkly different. For instance, in 2012 Reuters ran an article entitled “Afghans seek shelter in Dubai ahead of pullout” which asserted that “a new class of Afghan war entrepreneurs” were fleeing the potential fall-out from a withdrawal of U.S. troops as well as concern that the Afghan government would crack down on their ill-gotten gains.
At the time, foreign governments with a military presence in Afghanistan, mainly the United States, had tried “to convince an uneasy Afghan population the transition will not be a prelude to international abandonment or an escalation in fighting with the Taliban.” Yet, this class of war oligarchs appears to have no such concerns about this most recent peace initiative from the Trump administration, despite its lack of a ceasefire.
One aspect of the deal that may have endeared this oligarch class to the most recent deal could be that the post-invasion corruption that enriched them in the first place is likely to remain entrenched as long as Ashraf Ghani remains in power, especially as those who oppose Ghani, the U.S. presence or are critical of the corruption of either have been frequently targeted by Afghan intelligence under Ghani’s time as Afghanistan’s president. This, of course, makes accountability for such corruption increasingly unlikely.
Another possibility is the rekindling of ties between the Taliban and its old ally the United Arab Emirates, where many of these Afghan oligarchs live. Prior to the September 11 attacks, the UAE was one of only three countries — the others being Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — that recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s official government. During that period, the UAE invested heavily in the Taliban and the Taliban, in turn, invested in the UAE. The UAE has long been used to launder money for both the Taliban and Afghanistan’s post-invasion “war oligarch” class.
Though those ties ostensibly waned after the UAE officially turned against the Taliban following September 11, the UAE’s ties to the Taliban continued in some very significant ways, explaining in part why the UAE fought so tenaciously to host the Taliban’s embassy which eventually was established in the UAE’s rival state of Qatar.
Much like other aspects of the new U.S.-Taliban deal aim to take U.S.-Taliban ties back to 1996, when the Taliban was seen as a potential “second Saudi Arabia” friendly to U.S. business interests, it appears likely that another motive behind the recent deal is to bring the Taliban back into alignment with its former regional allies — the UAE and Saudi Arabia — and cleave them away from their post-U.S. invasion ties to Iran. This is especially worth considering given the longstanding push by members of the Washington establishment and members of the Trump administration to pursue a war with Iran.
From the U.S. perspective, the rekindling of the Taliban’s old alliances with the UAE and the Saudis would assist the U.S. policy of “Iran containment” and efforts to redirect some of the U.S. military expenditures and troops currently deployed in a pre-deal Afghanistan towards preparations for a potential war with Iran. Yet, some analysts and journalists have argued that any efforts to push Afghanistan to dampen its existing ties to Iran may prove difficult, if not impossible.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen if the Taliban will remain satisfied with whatever carrot is on the end of the stick, so to speak, or if they will push for a larger share of profits or even pursue economic agreements with China, which has invested significantly in the country’s mining sector.
Notably, the U.S.’ 19-year military involvement and lack of anything tangible to show for it has given the Taliban a much better position to negotiate from compared to the late 1990s. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Taliban will remain indefinitely satisfied with whatever terms are attached to the recent deal.
It goes without saying that any revenue sharing in relation to these legitimate economic activities are greatly overshadowed by the country’s illegal economic activities, namely its illicit opium trade, which has long been a major source of income for not only the Taliban, but also the CIA. This makes that illicit activity an equally, if not more so, important factor in determining the likelihood of success for this recently signed U.S.-Taliban peace deal.
The CIA-backed rise of the Afghan narco-state
During “Operation Cyclone,” the CIA not only oversaw the arming and financing of the Mujahideen but also their cultivation of opium. The fact that the CIA “turned a blind eye” towards the illicit opium trade in Afghanistan during the multi-year program has been characterized as an indirect form of support, even though the CIA had been intimately and directly involved in the global opium and heroin trade decades well before Operation Cyclone even began, going back at least to the late 1940s.
Furthermore, given that Operation Cyclone coincided with direct CIA efforts involving drug-running, such as Iran-Contra, and that then-Vice President George H.W. Bush had been involved in the CIA’s covert role in the global drug trade when he served as CIA director just a few years prior to becoming Reagan’s VP, it is highly likely that the CIA’s decision to let the opium trade flourish in Mujahideen-controlled lands was completely intentional.
Though the role of oil pipelines in motivating the George W. Bush administration’s interest in invading Afghanistan in 2001 has already been discussed, the opium trade was another key factor in motivating the war. Indeed, in 2001, Taliban leadership announced a ban on opium cultivation which saw opium fields in the country drop dramatically. Notably, shortly after September 11 and as the Bush administration put the Taliban in its crosshairs, the Taliban stated that they would reverse the opium cultivation ban were the U.S. to attack Afghanistan. They kept their word.
The ban on opium cultivation at a time when Afghanistan was the world’s largest producer had major impacts on the global opium and heroin trade, a trade in which the CIA has long-standing interests. This likely explains why the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was largely planned by the CIA, marking the first time in the agency’s history that they had planned such a large-scale military operation as opposed to the Pentagon. The CIA’s mark on the plan of invasion was seen right away, as the first U.S. troops to set foot in Afghanistan as the invasion began were from the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD). Today, the exact number of CIA officials in the country and the exact nature of their activities remain a “closely guarded secret.”
Following the invasion, opium production in Afghanistan has grown dramatically. During the ban on cultivation under the Taliban, there were an estimated 7,600 hectares of opium still being grown. By 2017, that number had risen to 326,000 hectares, a 4,000 percent increase from pre-invasion figures. Post-invasion Afghanistan is believed to supply between 85-90 percent of the world’s opium. Over that same time frame, the U.S. has experienced a massive opioid crisis, much of it due to opioid pharmaceuticals manufactured from opium latex and its derivatives.
Numerous reports and videos have since documented how U.S. troops have ended up protecting these opium fields, including mainstream media reports that include rather candid admissions by U.S. military officers. For instance, one Lieutenant General in the Marine Corp told Fox News in 2010 that opium production is just “part of the culture” and that Marines in Afghanistan provide “security” and “resources” to Afghan opium growers. Meanwhile, the U.S. spent over $8 billion on programs to “combat” the very Afghan-grown narcotics its soldiers were guarding, an “anti-drug” program it ended only last year.
Though the U.S. military were acting as de facto opium guardians in Afghanistan, the CIA had been arming and training its own paramilitary forces who would also be the CIA’s ground forces protecting its opium interests. Those paramilitaries began to be cultivated shortly after September 11, when the CIA began “assembling a patchwork alliance of warlord-led fighting groups to topple the Taliban and pursue Qaeda fighters,” according to the New York Times.
The Times also noted that:
After the fall of the Taliban and the establishment of a new Afghan government, the CIA’s shadowy paramilitary arm, known as Ground Branch, began transforming the fighting groups. Some developed into large, well-trained and equipped militias that initially worked outside the auspices of the Afghan government.”
This policy has resulted in the creation of several such paramilitary groups that remain funded and overseen by the CIA and are active throughout Afghanistan including in the provinces of Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Nangarhar and Maidan Wardak. Some of these groups are now said to be overseen by Afghan intelligence, but given the close coordination between U.S. and Afghan intelligence, this seems to be more of a cosmetic change than one of substance.
Of these groups, arguably the most notorious is the Khost Protection Force (KPF), which has been widely accused of a litany of human rights abuses, including abductions, torture and mass extrajudicial killings. The KPF has terrorized and alienated local populations where they operate by regularly massacring civilians. The KPF’s brutality is so extensive and well-documented that Western human rights groups that often support U.S.-backed paramilitaries elsewhere openly refer to them as a “death squad.”
Many of these CIA-backed groups are active in areas where the opium trade is booming and serve as a way to prevent the emergence of those who would compete with U.S. intelligence for dominance of this lucrative yet illicit trade. One intelligence source, speaking to Pepe Escobar in 2017, noted that the CIA finances much of its external operations using profits from Afghanistan’s opium trade.
One key figure in the growth of some of these paramilitary groups was Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was not only on the CIA payroll to help recruit members for the CIA-led paramilitaries, but also involved in the country’s growing opium trade from the earliest days of the U.S. invasion. He was assassinated in Afghanistan in 2011. As previously mentioned, Hamid Karzai was appointed by the U.S. to govern Afghanistan largely at the urging of Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S.’ main negotiator in the recent peace deal.
The CIA also has close ties to Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), and the current administration of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. For instance, the numerous “hunt-and-kill” night raids that have taken place in recent years almost always involved both the NDS and CIA. Indeed, as Foreign Policy noted last month, “nearly every reported incident [of these raids] was said to have involved the NDS and the CIA, which simultaneously maintains its own force while also supporting its Afghan counterparts in the NDS.” That article further alleged that the NDS is seeking “to turn Afghanistan into a new police state with the help of U.S. intelligence, which is supporting the regime.”
In Ghani’s case, his current Vice President is Amrullah Saleh, a former NDS director with close ties to the CIA, and his administration has enthusiastically supported increased CIA operations in Afghanistan. In addition, Ghani’s defense minister is Asadullah Khalid, another former NDS director with CIA ties who is also known for having his own private dungeon and for overseeing and ordering a litany of human rights abuses.
This model, where the CIA is tied to a country’s massive illicit drug trade, its corrupt yet official government and a network of paramilitaries/death squads it dominates, is remarkably similar to the model that has long been cultivated by the U.S. in South America. In Colombia, for instance, the CIA had direct ties to the Medellín drug cartel and to one of its most notorious members, Pablo Escobar. The CIA has also been involved in the training of numerous paramilitary groups in Colombia that are also involved in the drug trade.
In addition, the Colombian military — which has long been one of the U.S.’ closest military allies in Latin America and a recipient of massive amounts of U.S. military aid — is known to be actively involved in the drug trade, with the UN calling it one of “the biggest heroin and cocaine trading institutions” in the world. In addition, former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe is alleged to have been the former head of several narco-trafficking paramilitary groups and his political protege, Iván Duque, is the current president of Colombia. Uribe used U.S. government funds to prevent investigations into his ties to the drug trade.
The influence of the U.S. government and U.S. intelligence among these different powerbrokers in Colombia is crucial to note given that cocaine production in the country continues to reach record highs year-after-year, despite the large amount of money the U.S. spends on ostensibly “combating” the illicit drug trade in Colombia.
Similarly, opium production has grown precipitously in Afghanistan in both U.S.-backed government-controlled areas and in Taliban-controlled areas since the U.S. invasion took place. To think that this trend will change upon the implementation of the recently signed U.S.-Taliban peace deal is to ignore mountains of evidence to the contrary, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Indeed, the Taliban themselves have no interest in tampering down or ending the opium trade, which has become a large portion of their income following the U.S. invasion and the Taliban’s subsequent reversal of the opium ban. In the years since, the Taliban have pressured farmers to grow opium, either exclusively or in large quantities, and demand a tax on that opium, which was estimated by the UN to net them between $22 and $44 million per year back in 2009.
In recent years, the Taliban’s role in the opium trade has become more entrenched and goes far beyond demanding a tax from opium growers, with Taliban members increasingly involved in the transport of opium and even its refinement into heroin and other marketable opium derivatives. As a result, the Taliban has come to lean more heavily on the opium trade than ever before for the financing of their insurgency and other operations.
This is where it becomes important to consider the “secret” annex of the recent deal, whereby terms are defined for the operations of the CIA within Taliban-controlled areas. The Taliban are direct competitors to the CIA-backed opium trafficking in areas not controlled by the Taliban. Whatever the rules that pertain to the CIA in Taliban-controlled areas in this new deal may be, it will inevitably involve a sharing in opium profits for both parties. Yet, not unlike the troop withdrawal aspect of the deal, whether either side intends to abide by these new rules or instead seeks to manipulate them to their advantage to weaken their competitor is anybody’s guess.
What lies ahead
In examining the history of the U.S.-Taliban relationship, it becomes apparent that the U.S. was eager to support the Taliban until they presented hurdles to U.S. corporate interests, particularly oil and pipeline projects, and the interests of the U.S. intelligence community, especially with respect to the opium trade. As the war in Afghanistan has dragged on, the Taliban has sent signal after signal that they are willing to be “pro-business”, as seen in their support of the TAPI pipeline, and even willing to share revenue from both legitimate and illegitimate economic activities with the U.S.-backed government of Ashraf Ghani and the CIA and its Afghan paramilitaries.
From the U.S. perspective, returning U.S.-Taliban ties to where they were in 1996 would serve the Trump administration’s interests in Iran containment and its economic interests in Afghanistan. The U.S.-Taliban relationship has always been determined by the group’s convenience to U.S. interests. Thus, efforts to make “peace” with the group will be guided by these very same factors, particularly given that a key player in this long-standing relationship — Zalmay Khalilzad — was the main U.S. negotiator of the deal. After the September 11 attacks, the effort was made to eradicate the Taliban, but since that effort has clearly failed, the U.S. now seeks to make them a business partner.
The ultimate question then becomes, will the deal last? The U.S. has already left several routes open through which they can call off U.S. troop withdrawal on a whim. In addition, the Taliban’s decentralized, factional nature makes their ability to uniformly agree with, and abide by, the terms of the agreement questionable, though not impossible. Yet, if the deal’s “secret annex” regarding the indefinite presence of 8,000 plus “counter-terrorism” forces is not amended, it is hard to imagine many Taliban fighters accepting the presence of such a large foreign military contingent as part of a long-term peace deal, especially given that the expulsion of such troops has long been the group’s core demand.
Regardless of whether the deal sticks or falls apart, it is unlikely that it will lead to a more peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan. Instead, if successful, it will lead to revenue-sharing and power-sharing among different “mafias” including the Taliban, the “fantastically corrupt” Ghani government, CIA paramilitary groups and all the warlords in between. It appears what this deal would achieve in practice, is the consolidation of a dysfunctional narco-state in alliance with U.S. interests, not unlike the model the U.S. has pursued and supported in other countries.
Feature photo | Afghanistan’s Taliban delegation arrive for the agreement signing between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29, 2020. Hussein Sayed | AP
Whitney Webb is a MintPress News journalist based in Chile. She has contributed to several independent media outlets including Global Research, EcoWatch, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has made several radio and television appearances and is the 2019 winner of the Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism.