After Russia’s defeat in 1989, the Islamic State of Afghanistan replaced the pro-Soviet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The Islamic State of Afghanistan was in turn overthrown by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban). The leaders of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (the former President and the Minister of Defense) brought together politicians leaders, military and militia commanders to form a cohesive area that was free from Taliban control.
The Northern Alliance is supported by Iran, Russia, Turkey, India, Tajikistan and the United States. The Taliban was supported by Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (BBC). This is mostly due to the schism between Sunni and Shia.
The Northern Alliance was mostly a defensive perimeter that accepted refugees from the Taliban and al-Qaeda held regions. After the U.S. invasion in response to the attack of 9/11 the Northern Alliance was able to expand its territorial holdings from a few provinces in the North-Eastern corner near the border with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to include territory bordering Turkmenistan and Iran. This greatly increased the amount of goods and materiel flowing to Northern Alliance held territories.
Afghanistan and the Opium Trade
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report titled Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007:
“Afghanistan has cultivated 193,000 hectares of opium poppies, an increase of 17% over last year. The amount of Afghan land used for opium is now larger than the corresponding total for coca cultivation in Latin America (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia combined). Favorable weather conditions produced opium yields (42.5 kg per hectare) higher than last year (37.0 kg/ha). As a result, in 2007 Afghanistan produced an extraordinary 8,200 tons of opium (34% more than in 2006), becoming practically the exclusive supplier of the world’s deadliest drug (93% of the global opiates market). Leaving aside 19th century China, that had a population at that time 15 times larger than today’s Afghanistan, no other country in the world has ever produced narcotics on such a deadly scale.”
This has allowed the Northern Alliance to maintain a decent standard of living in areas under its control. The Taliban and al-Qaeda have placed a fatwa against opium, however many commanders have rejected this as opium is their method of income. This competition over opium fields has put the United States in a precarious position as active support would give tacit approval of opium production, and not providing assistance weakens our alliance with the current government.
Afghanistan has never been under total control of a central government. There are many reasons for this such as terrain, tribalism, religious differences and political differences. The terrain in many areas is extremely rugged, in fact in certain areas helicopters cannot operate due to the thin air at high elevations. This means that local tribes that know the area have access to paths, trails, cuts and caves that no one outside the area would have access to. Tribal leaders keep these secret as it is way for them to protect their people during emergencies.
Afghanistan is colloquially referred to as the “Graveyard of Empires”. Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan, the British and Russians have failed to conquer Afghanistan. Milton Bearden, writing for Foreign Affairs, states:”In January 1842 the British were forced to withdraw from Kabul with a column of 16,500 soldiers and civilians, heading east to the garrison at Jalalabad, 110 miles away. Only a single survivor of that group ever made it to Jalalabad safely, though the British forces did recover some prisoners many months later.” None other than Rudyard Kipling, who lived in Pakistan and wrote in the poem “The Young British Soldier”:
“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!”
The porous border helps and hurts. It is easy to get in and out, but this works for all sides. In the South-East for example Pakistani ISI operatives flow into the country unhindered, but so does opium and weapons. In the west in the city of Herat, goods and services flow between Afghanistan and Iran. The Northern Alliance was also able to exploit the small porous border with China for a time before China grew fearful of al-Qaeda initiating a Uyghur uprising. Under Taliban control this was heavily restricted and regulated, but after the Northern Alliance, with American assistance , regained control Iran was able to expand its support of Northern Alliance forces directly. By eliminating the intermediaries, who would expect to paid or a percentage of the goods, more is able to get to its final destination.
The goals of the Northern Alliance are simple in practice, but near impossible to execute. The Northern Alliance, while strongly Islamic, believes in a more non-secular government that protects the rights of citizens. The Taliban in comparison enacted and strictly enforced Shariah Law. This led to many people leaving Taliban held areas, if captured these refugees were often executed or the women sold into sex slavery.
Since it impossible to control all of Afghanistan, there will always be tribal and regional diasporas that maintain their own sense of law and government. This aided and harmed all sides looking to hold power. During the period of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, it meant that the Taliban controlled regions in the South and East were not controlled by the central government. Subsequently, while the Taliban was in power they did not have control over the North and West. Even in areas supposedly controlled by whichever authority claims to be the central government there are myriad levels of support. Many Afghans just do what they can to survive and perform the bare minimum to appease their rulers, in this fashion they attempt to avoid coming to the attention of enforcement entities.
As evidenced by the map at the beginning of this document, opium production has been reduced or eliminated in areas under U.S. and coalition control. Even though the Taliban and al-Qaeda have a fatwa against production, it is obvious from the map that opium production in areas under their control has dramatically increased. As international sanctions and ongoing combat operations continue to take a toll on finance, opium is becoming a larger part of operational funding for these entities. The supply has not diminished, it has increased especially in Taliban held provinces. The United Nations and NGO’s are working with Afghan farmers to move towards more sustainable and legal crops. Poppies require large quantities of water to get better quality opium. This places an extra strain on the ecosystem already suffering from drought.
This chart from the UN-DOCshows that as of 2005, Afghanistan was producing two-thirds of the world’s opium. The data from the map also found in the UN-DOC and found on page 4 shows many provincial zones to be opium free, so the program is having success.
The Northern Alliance rules on opium production were basically that it was a for profit business, with militias providing security for fields and convoys for transport. This was the primary source of income for the Alliance. In 2001, during the U.S. led invasion poppies across the country were razed as evidenced by the above chart. The U.S. for the most part turned a blind eye towards poppy growth and opium production as it enabled the Northern Alliance to fund its own operations, This was a benefit to the U.S. because since we did not finance or supply the Northern Alliance forces the U.S. could not be implicitly blamed for any human rights abuses. Poppy production has since been a factor in treaty and aid negotiations. These negotiations with the assistance of NGO’s and the UN-DOC have been mostly successful in curtailing poppy grow operations.
In the mid to late 1990’s, the Taliban would raze fields in provinces they gained control over. This led many farmers to actively undermine Taliban authority, at the risk of their lives and the lives of their families. The Taliban would later reverse these policies as international funding from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan came under close scrutiny after the mass terror events of 2001. The mere possibility of sanctions on oil, finance or commerce was too much of a threat to consider. Therefore the Taliban, out of necessity revered its policies. Opium and poppies now provide an excess of 75% of Taliban funding.
The UN-DOC, in its annual reports is quite concerned that with the withdrawal of the United States and other forces and a resurgent Taliban, that Afghanistan could become the world’s first narcostate (UN-DOC 2012).
The Northern Alliance mostly faded into the background after Karzai assumed the presidency. The Taliban was mostly underground and the U.S. led coalition was providing security. The Taliban took over the opium production in the Southwest provinces. The UN with the assistance of the U.S. and NGO’s were able to transition opium farmers to other crops that better suited to the local conditions.
Due to the withdrawal of most coalition forces and a reduction of U.S. troops and the political resurgence of the Taliban affiliated parties, the Northern Alliance has returned to the political arena.. The parties are for the most part stabilized across tribal and religious lines. There are few parties that represent both Shia and Sunni and there no parties that both Pashtun and non-Pashtun tribes. This has placed the two enemies diametrically opposed to each other across the political field.
The efforts of all parties to transform the Northern Alliance Provinces into poppy free zones is a testament to the dedication of all sides to come together for common purpose. Removing the hold of the Taliban in the South will be difficult, but can be done. Pakistan may have to face sanctions for the operations of their ISI forces, but that is not undeserved, especially in the wake of the Kunduz airlift. The Kunduz Airlift was an operation carried by Pakistan to remove high profile Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISI personnel before U.S. and Northern Alliance forces could capture them (Moran). There are rumors that the United States allowed this to occur as Pakistan was providing overland supply routes for materiel delivered by Military Sealift Command. As Afghanistan has no ports the only way to deliver the means of war is by overland routes with trucks, where caravans have used horses and camels in past centuries.
The Northern Alliance has diminished its reliance on opium and is instead using multinational assistance to build a stronger more robust economy. This allows them to more acutely focus on the political arena instead of the battlefield. This gains support from non-aligned parties and tribes because after 30 years of fighting, most Afghans are done with the violence and want to live normal lives. Since the Northern Alliance has done as much as possible to carry out these goals they find ever increasing support.
Afghanistan may never be completely ruled from Kabul, but the Northern Alliance has done its fair share to transition the country to a more prosperous state of peace. The Taliban, seizing the withdrawal of coalition forces is becoming more active and wants more power but with opposition from the Northern Alliance and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) to keep them in check there is hope. As the Taliban lash out and try to regain lost support and territory their actions become increasingly violent. This only reduces popular support for Taliban candidates. Hopefully Afghanistan can avoid the plunge into darkness that is currently enfolding Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
Bearden, M. (2001, November 1). Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires. Foreign Affairs.
Drug use in Afghanistan 2007 survey : Executive summary. (2008). Vienna, Austria: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Drug use in Afghanistan 2009 survey : Executive summary. (2010). Vienna, Austria: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Drug use in Afghanistan 2012 survey : Executive summary. (2013). Vienna, Austria: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Kipling, R. (1907). The Young British Soldier. In Collected verse of Rudyard Kipling. New York: Doubleday, Page &.
Moran, M. (2003, December 10). The ‘airlift of evil’. Retrieved December 7, 2015, from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3340165/ns/world_news-brave_new_world/t/airlift-evil/#.Vmkt-uK1n7w
Who are the Taliban? – BBC News. (2015, September 29). Retrieved December 1, 2015, from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11451718