Narco-Terrorism in Afghanistan

Narco-Terrorism in Afghanistan

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Terrorism Monitor
Volume 2, Issue 6
March 25, 2004

The illicit drug economy in Afghanistan is said to be fuelling terrorism. During a 8-9 February conference held in Kabul, Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), warned of “mounting evidence of drug money being used to finance criminal activities, including terrorism,” and declared that “fighting drug trafficking equals fighting terrorism.” Even before that, assumptions that “narco-terrorism” would be threatening Afghanistan seem to have been widely taken as fact. For instance, French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie declared in January 2003 that, “drugs are now the principal source of funding for Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.” However, the concept of narco-terrorism is itself vague, and it is unclear exactly how it applies to the current situation in Afghanistan.


Although use of the term “narco-terrorism” only recently occurred to characterize an alleged emerging Afghan scenario, it seems that it was first used by former Peruvian President Belaunde Terry in 1983 to describe terrorist-type attacks against his nation’s anti-narcotics police by the Shining Path Marxist rebels. Later, in 1986, former US President Ronald Reagan also spoke of “narco-terrorism” when referring to purported links between international drug trafficking and terrorism among allies of the Soviet Union (Cuba, Nicaragua).

More recently, a high-ranking Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official speaking about Afghanistan declared that “the war on terror and the war on drugs are linked.” In addition, according to the DEA, narco-terrorism refers to terrorist acts carried out by groups that are “directly or indirectly involved in cultivating, manufacturing, transporting, or distributing illicit drugs.” Narco-terrorist groups would thus be those who use the drug trade to finance their terrorist activities. The DEA also speaks of narco-terrorism when close links and shared goals can be observed between drug trafficking organizations and terrorist groups.

However, such definitions render the term narco-terrorism too vague and counterproductive in terms of addressing either drug trafficking or terrorism since it brings very different actors into too broad a category: as explained by the Council on Foreign Relations, some experts think that “while terrorists and drug traffickers often share some short-term goals, they have different long-term objectives (political goals for terrorists, greed for drug lords) and shouldn’t be conflated.”


Terrorism, the use by the weak against the strong of illegitimate violence to reach a political goal, can also be said, according to Peter Waldmann, to be an effort to occupy the mental space of a society; in contrast, guerrillas try to conquer territories and riches. Terrorist actions have regularly been perpetrated in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, notably against civilian targets such as foreign and national NGO personnel and most likely by Taliban remnants, al-Qaida groups, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, that is to say by opponents of the Afghan government and the American presence in the country.

However, an unbiased look at terrorism in Afghanistan reveals that some of these “terrorist” people or groups once were “freedom fighters” struggling against the Soviets during the 1980s. Not only were they fighting what Ronald Reagan had dubbed an Evil Empire, they were also, to some extent at least, resorting to the already growing Afghan opium economy. It is common knowledge nowadays that at the time both the CIA and the ISI (respectively, American and Pakistan intelligence services) played a direct role in funneling weapons and money to the “freedom fighters” – the Afghan mujahideen – as well as at least an indirect role in the local nascent trade in narcotics. Thus, the involvement particularly of the ISI in the drug trade further complicates the adequacy of a category such as “narco-terrorism” and would require comparing how different actors like resistance guerrillas, intelligence agencies, and terrorist organizations use the drug economy.

Former US allies in what was a war against communism included Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i-Islami fundamentalist party. During the Afghan-Soviet war, Hekmatyar received most of the funds supplied by the CIA (and matched by Saudi Arabia) through the ISI, whose National Logistics Cell trucks delivered weapons to Afghanistan and brought opium back to Pakistan. Actually, Hekmatyar’s involvement in the illegal drug economy only really started after 1989 when the US stopped funding him and others. The main difference between then and now is that he is no longer a US ally and no longer referred to as a “freedom fighter” but as a “terrorist.” Otherwise, he remains consistent in waging a war against governments he does not recognize, be they Soviet-backed or US-backed. He also may well have increased his participation in the drug economy.

Although some former US allies in the war against the “Evil Empire” were clearly engaged in the illegal drug economy and while some of these have since then become “terrorists,” more recent allies in the “war on terrorism” have also been said to be using opium and heroin for funding. In post-Taliban Afghanistan, opiates continue to be produced both in areas traditionally controlled by the United Front (Badakhshan) and in areas held by various local commanders, whose support has been deemed strategically necessary to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida. Even more official allies of the US “war on terrorism” also seem to be engaged in, or benefiting from, the drug economy. Indeed, as was testified under oath on 20 March 2003 by Wendy Chamberlin, former US ambassador to Pakistan, before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the Committee on International Relations, ISI involvement in opium trafficking across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has been “substantial” during the last six years.

Thus it now seems that the long-fought “war on drugs” comes back into force to strengthen a “war on terrorism” that is still to be won. The war on “narco-terrorism” would then be some kind of a new integrated approach to the security problem that Afghanistan is facing. Yet to favor a largely military approach to a problem, by waging wars, is to address the consequences of a phenomenon rather that its causes. De-linking the opium economy or terrorism from their broader and deeper contexts will only lead to ignoring causal factors and likely to tactical and potentially strategic failure.


In Afghanistan, but also in Burma (Myanmar), the world’s second greatest producer of illegal opium, drug production is closely linked to territorial control and political (il)legitimacy, as are guerrilla warfare and terrorism. In fact, opium has long been at stake in Afghanistan’s armed conflicts and its trade has allowed these conflicts to flourish. In such a context, the value of a territory increases a great deal because of the opium crops it can bear for the benefit of those who control it. Thus, such a war economy–illicit economy nexus would most likely benefit terrorist organizations. However, the commercial production of opium has also been the only means of subsistence available for many Afghan peasants, and such an economic pattern has recently expanded to a broader part of the country, revealing the limited writ and authority of the Afghan government.

As far as narco-terrorism is concerned, serious evidence is still needed that it does exist in Afghanistan. That some drug money plays a significant role in the ongoing Afghan conflict, even by “being used directly against the Afghan government and the international forces,” is obvious but no novelty in recent Afghan history. Although the head of Afghanistan’s Counter Narcotics Directorate estimates that the Taliban and its allies derived more than $150 million from drugs in 2003, hard evidence linking al-Qaida directly to the drug economy is still scarce, most investigators say.

The problems posed by the analysis of “intelligence” and its application to policy have been summed up best by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on 6 June 2002 in Brussels: “The message is that there are no knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say, well that’s basically what we see as the situation … There is another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” And so it could be that the analysis of the “situation” regarding so-called narco-terrorism – whatever its definition – in Afghanistan proceeds more from political needs than from the teachings of intelligence. In fact, if the line between Good and Evil appears to be rather thin and easily crossed, the line between resistance and terrorism seems to be even thinner and to be subjectively defined.

However, to overcome both opium production and terrorism in Afghanistan, the government and the international community should focus less on waging wars on drugs and terrorism and more on implementing a broad program of alternative and integrated development in the whole country. Within this, a multi-level strategy involving effective sanctions on illicit and criminal activities is critical. Such a program should be implemented in a progressive way so as to secure sustainable political and territorial stability. Long-lasting peace combined with political as well as economic development must be achieved if Afghanistan is to be successfully rid of its illicit drugs economy-war economy nexus.

About the author

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Dr. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the Sorbonne University (Paris) and an HDR (Habilitation à diriger des recherches or "accreditation to supervise research"). He is a CNRS Research Fellow attached to the PRODIG research team (UMR 8586).

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy est docteur en géographie, habilité à diriger des recherches (HDR), et chargé de recherche au CNRS. Il est membre de l'équipe PRODIG (UMR 8586).