Follow the money. (And the smack.)

I was watching author Gretchen Peters tonight on yesterday’s Daily Show, promoting her new book Seeds Of Terror, about the links between the poppy trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It looks like a fascinating book, and I’d like to pick it up and read it before I offer any comment specifically on her take on things. But I’ve been thinking about this a good deal over the past few years, and I thought I’d throw my two cents in.

I suspect that, when historians look back upon the early 21st century “war on terror”, their primary response will be surprise: surprise that the global society allowed ourselves to be fooled for so long into believing that terrorism is really, at the base of it, about such lofty ideals as “religion” and “freedom”…when, in fact, it was actually about what everything in the world is about and has been since the end of the hunter/gatherer period in human evolution: namely, money and resources.

I’ve been thinking about what I know about Islam (which is, I’ll grant you, not a massive amount…although having lived in a Muslim country and read at least a little bit about the history and tenets of the faith, I’m way ahead of most Americans), and what I know about economics (about the same amount) and what I know about people (quite a bit, actually), and it seems obvious to me — and has for a long time — that the people running things on the “terror” side of the equation are probably not actually religious zealots, but rabid market capitalists.

Bear with me here.

First off: let’s just drop this “terrorist” shit. That’s an extremely non-useful term that obscures more than it describes. I say “terrorist” and you think of a douchebag in black fatigues with a checkered head scarf and an AK slung over his back. But that doesn’t actually tell you who these people are, what they do, or why they do it.

Let’s start with what they do, and that’s simple: they destabilize. Regions, governmental system, economies — destabilization is the one thing that people like al-Qaeda are good at. They’re utterly, completely useless at stabilizing anything at all…which necessarily gives lie to their claim that what they’re trying to do is establish some sort of theocratic control over the Middle East / Africa / Asia / wherever. They’re not establishing shit. They’re not even trying. They’re like drunk frat boys — the only thing they can do is fuck shit up and then walk away. (The Taliban in pre-9/11 Afghanistan being an exception, but not much of one — those little elves ran their Keebler tree at the barrel of a gun, funding it with narco trafficking, and doing so mainly at the pleasure of the good old U.S. of A, who ludicrously saw them as a viable alternative to the PDPA and/or Soviet involvement. Which is an entire other discussion. Don’t get me started.) Destabilization has in fact traditionally been the number one goal of most terrorist groups around the world — Muslim or otherwise. Which brings us to our next question: why?

The answer, I think, is simple: misdirection.

Imagine you have a country — let’s call it, for the sake of this discussion, Ellistan. Ellistan is a country which is relatively rich in oil, but doesn’t have the technological prowess to really go in and extract it and sell it. So Ellistan’s doing deals with big American firms like Exxon Mobil, who take a large chunk of the oil profits in return for up-fronting the massive costs of building an oil-delivery infrastructure.

There’s also a lot of poppy fields, as there are everywhere in the Middle East. Fucking tons of them. There are a few narcotraficantes who grow poppies and ship them out to Southeast Asia to be refined and sold to scruffy American trust-fund assholes. But by and large, it’s a cottage industry, because opium is fairly difficult to refine and turn into smack, and unlike oil, the Agency for International Development isn’t brokering meetings between the Ellistan government and Big American Business to build roads for trucks full of black tar heroin.

Speaking of governments…Ellistan has a democratic government, sort of. There’s lots of corruption and tension. To make matters worse, there’s a nasty brewing conflict between the Muslim and Christian factions of the population, who are also divided along some fantastically obscure ethnic lines going back to which of two thirteen year old sisters got knocked up by the horny old king a gazillion years ago. There are occasional outbreaks of violence, but it’s nothing that doesn’t happen every day in most of the countries in the world where you can’t buy a Slurpee on every street corner.

And then comes Jihadi Pride. Jihadi Pride is a radical Islamist group founded by a prick who used to be a mujahideen in Afghanistan back in the 80s. He was trained in insurgent warfare, intelligence and counter-intelligence by his kindly Uncle Sam, who also bankrolled his holy war against the evil Soviet Empire…right up to the moment when the Wall came down in Berlin, at which point America informed him that they would see him, but they wouldn’t wanna be him.

Since then. the prick has been building up this army of former holy warriors like himself, along with a random assortment of creepy mercenaries who pass the bare minimum of behavior to pass for “soldiers of God”, plus a huge infantry of complete retards whom he has convinced to become martyrs for Allah.

(He’s also on a dialysis machine. And he’s really fucking tall. You get it? You get it now? Okay.)

So this prick — let’s call him Rosama — sets up tents in Ellistan. He immediately begins pimping his contacts amongst the Muslim community. He starts going around identifying the most dissatisfied or volatile community leaders. He tells them that a glorious day is coming, a day when the People of God — who rightfully deserve Ellistan as their Holy Paradise — will rise up against the infidels and drive them out, even if it means wading in their blood. He makes some under-the-table contributions to local religious leaders, who may or may not be the same people. And he tells both groups that, when the time comes, he will do everything in his power to back their play to take power.

Now, if Rosama is really smart, he’s doing the exact same thing with the Christians. He’s playing both sides down the middle, without the other side knowing it.

And sooner or later, somebody’s going to mouth off at the wrong time in the wrong tea house, or kill the wrong person in a brawl, and shit is going to jump off: Christians and Muslims in a free-for-all.

When this happens, Rosama shows up with crates full of AK-47s. Here you are! he cries to the Muslims (and, again, if he’s smart, the Christians). Use these to drive the evildoers out of your land!

Blood starts spraying all over everything. The government sends in troops to try to quell the ethnic violence, but their efforts are (as such efforts always are) as useful as tits on a bull. Soon the troops get involved on both sides of the conflict and now you’ve got trained dudes firing.

Jihadi Pride is sending all its best kamikaze assholes, strapped with C4, to suicide bomb Christian pre-schools, on the promise that they’ll get 37 virgins and a free Amana refrigerator upon entrance to paradise. These guys are fucking morons and totally useless for anything else, but they’re also sort of like Doritos: crunch all you want and you can make more. To paraphrase Mencken, nobody ever went broke overestimating the intelligence of the religion-crazed masses.

Finally, one — or both — factions accuse the government of siding with and favoring the other side, and there’s a big to-do, and maybe somebody runs in and sprays the Ellistan Parliament with 7.62mm rounds. And boom! No working government. There’s general strikes, everybody’s either fighting or afraid to come out because they’re afraid of being killed. Things fall apart. The center does not hold. Jihadi Pride has loosed mere anarchy on Ellistan.

And what is Rosama doing while all this is happening? He’s sneaking around killing the low-level narcotraficantes, or buying them off, or convincing them to work for him. He’s seizing control of the poppy manufacturing. Think of it like a big corporation with massive distribution channels but a need for product, seizing a small corporation with product but no distribution. Rosama, unlike the local boys, can ship poppies en masse. More to the point, he now is in a great position to set up poppy refining centers right there in Ellistan…because nobody’s paying any fucking attention anymore.

Then Jihadi Pride seizes the oil pipelines…and all hell breaks loose. Up to this point, it’s just been a bunch of camel-fuckers killing each other, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. But holy God and sonny Jesus, now these ragheads are fucking with our profit margins!

Exxon Mobil formally protests to the US government, who talks to the UN, who sends in “peacekeeping” troops, who basically do jack shit other than make sure all the Yankee engineers and contractors and their families can get out safely. Which they do — not because Jihadi Pride is afraid of the UN, but because it doesn’t really matter to them.

Exxon’s frothing over their pipelines, but hell, they’ve got insurance against this sort of thing. Jihadi Pride is also doing them a favor, kind of, sort of, because now that they’ve seized this particular oil supply, the global price of oil can go up a bit. And it’s not like it’s going to go back to the same price when all of this is settled.

So now Rosama is de Kingfish in Ellistan. He’s got control of the oil and the poppies, and he’s surrounded himself with enough chaos that nobody can come in and touch him. Maybe, possibly, by this point, the local ethnic factions are beginning to realize that they’ve been played off each other. But it’s too late. There’s nobody to appeal to. Nobody has any sympathy. And at this point, the hatred and vengeance has all gotten so deep that nobody’s going to shake hands and make friends and go against their common enemy, this mercenary pigfucker who’s come in and turned their Holy Paradise into a shit and smoke filled nightmare.

That is, assuming they even get that far in their thinking, and most of the time they don’t. They just keeping slaughtering each other, murder for murder, atrocity for atrocity, because somebody ten thousand years ago decided to wear a different hat than his brother wore, or something equally pathetic.

And Rosama? He’s got a few options. He can leave some of his crew here to run things and float on to the next target. (My, Iran’s looking interesting!) Or he can just keeping letting the money roll in here. Even when order is established, all he has to do is cut the new government in on the deal. Not that they have a choice, of course — any new government in Ellistan will form almost solely at his whim.

And Lord, how the money rolls in. By the time America gets involved — because only America will get involved, because the Europeans are too smart and too poor and don’t have enough vested financial interest — Rosama will be nowhere to be found, and all that will be left will be a nation in utter shambles and a bunch of abandoned gold-plated Humvees, rusting in the sand and the dirt.

This is, of course, just a fairy tale I’m spinning you, but I’d be grateful if you could figure out what part of it doesn’t sound like it’s probably pretty accurate across the board. The real kicker is that, as Bruce Sterling pointed out in his excellent book Tomorrow Now: Envisioning The Next Fifty Years, they did this already: in Serbia, in Chechnya, in Mogadishu. In Kabul. In Iraq. Over and over again, after Reagan and Bush Uno let them loose on the planet like rabid dogs off a leash. It’s not even the same sort of people; it’s the same five dudes going from place to place. (There’s more than five. But you get my point.)

And they’re not the only ones. Because I can think of at least one other evil motherfucker who went in and destablized an entire region, turning it into a morass of ethnic/religious violence, whilst simultaneously making money off of guns and war machinery on both sides, whilst simultaneously lining the pockets of everybody he’d ever known since grade school…and right now, that sonofabitch is sitting with his feet up on his ottoman at the new place in North Dallas, watching Hee-Haw reruns on Blu-Ray and sporting a weak little boner every time Barbi Benton pops up in the cornfield to trade cornpone witticisms with Buck and Ray. And I’d bet the ottoman’s still got that new leather smell, too.

Hey, why not? His daddy and his daddy’s friends were the ones who taught the trick to the “evildoers” in the first fucking place. And if we learned anything from the IRA and the Contras and Al-Qaeda, it’s that you can pretty much get away with anything you like, if you claim you’re doing it in the name of God or country. Patriotism has become the very first refuge of scoundrels; the second is the nearest church or mosque.

And all of this begs the question: are we really trying to shut down the drug trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan now? The way we tried to stop the drug trade in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War? The way we tried to stop it in Central America in the 80s? Because as far as I can tell, the way we tried to do that in those places was to come in and bum rush the whole show, New Jack City-style. I mean, does anybody really believe the CIA wasn’t using heroin from the Golden Triangle to fund black ops in the 1960s and 1970s (and maybe even as far back as the 1950s)? Really?

I’m not much of a fan or believer in conspiracies, and even I’m convinced that behind all the mad rhetoric, Huey Newton was right about one thing: they were shipping scag back from Laos and Cambodia into the Naval receiving shipyards in Oakland. I’ve also talked to too many old timers who’ve told me I’m right, at least in the broad strokes, to assume that they were all separately utterly full of shit.

And it’s not like they didn’t try to do it again, 20 years later with the Contras…only that time, they got caught.

So you have motive (money), opportunity (the war on terror), and a pattern and known history of similar behavior going back almost fifty years. Is it hard to believe that we’re not stopping the drug trade because we have some vested interest in it? I’m not talking about the whole government, mind you; but I think there are people in the intelligence community who are capable of maintaining covert drug trade in Afghanistan. Our forces on the ground are having enough trouble keeping themselves alive and some vague semblance of daily peace and calm to be paying much attention to some weird shit going on out in the eastern mountain regions. To quote Bob Dylan: yes, I think it could be easily done.

Even if you leave the US government out of it — and even the most neo-conservative of you will acknowledge that it’s nearly impossible to leave the US government out of any international situation these days — doesn’t this whole thing suggest that the primary, if not the solitary motivation of these “terrorists” is not religion but profit?

To put it another way, which seems more likely to you: that a bunch of genuinely angry religious fanatics would stoop to selling and making smack (which would be considered a horrible transgression by any legitimate Muslim) to fund their campaigns…or that a bunch of scumbag mercs and drug dealers would wrap themselves in a cloak of pious zealotry as a way to distract the world from what they’re actually up to, the way that any cheap con-man in America knows he can put out a donation box in the name of blue-eyed Jesus and rake in a hundred times as much profit.

My experience of human nature suggests the latter. The notion of Muslim holy men selling smack to decadent Westerners as a way of corrupting them seems unlikely to me. It’s like suggesting that Focus On The Family invests heavily in bondage gear, in the hopes that all the leather queens in San Francisco will kill themselves off of auto-erotic asphyxiation and rid the world of homosexuality. It sounds like bullshit to me.

Of course, any policy wonk you talk to will probably acknowledge most of what I’ve pointed out here. It’s not a secret. So why are we still cloaking all of this as a thinly-veiled holy war, rather than an operation to rid the world of scumbag heroin profiteers?

I wish I didn’t know the answer to that question.

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  1. The Taliban’s great PR move was burning all the poppy fields when they took over Afganistan, then kicking production up again as soon as the US came over for a fight.

    Your Rosama story sounds remarkably like the plot of War, Inc.. which I swear Bruce Sterling ghost-wrote.

    You also left out Mexico, and the narco-terror of South America in general. There was some serious talk of de-criminalizing drugs down there recently, precisely to cut off their cash flow. And back to Mexico, if I put my conspirarcy-theory hat on, is it a coincidence that swine-flu came out of there?! Could it be covert bio-war gone bad?! Surely not..

  2. I think that the drug trade is no doubt a big piece of the puzzle, I’m not sure it works as a grand unification theory.

    Questions and thoughts:

    1. How involved was bin Laden in the drug trade in Afghanistan and elsewhere? It’s never seemed that he was motivated by profit.

    2. Does it even matter? The fact that he can be held up as an example of a Jihadi leader that doesn’t need (by virtue of already being rich) money, might be the reason he’s been made into the boogey-man he has, even though his role may be far less central than we’ve been lead to believe (see Power of Nightmares, et al)

    3. Not even in the case of suicide bombers does religion explain everything:

    4. Why do they hate us?

  3. “1. How involved was bin Laden in the drug trade in Afghanistan and elsewhere? It’s never seemed that he was motivated by profit.”

    There’s pretty solid evidence he was heavily involved, at least before 9/11. I’m in the middle of work so I can’t go hunt it down, but see what you can find there — from what I’ve read, his involvement’s not really in question.

    “3. Not even in the case of suicide bombers does religion explain everything: “

    That’s a totally valid point, but I think Marxism can and often has served as a surrogate for religion, or at least the fervent tendencies of the religious.

  4. Quick search confirms that he at least gave money to drug traffickers- don’t know for sure if the money flowed both ways (whether he profited from it or just funded them because they are disruptive).

    I agree that political idealogy can be a surrogate for religion. So can nationalism, and the case Robert Pape makes for this is strong.

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