Narco-terrorism In Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 6

The illicit drug economy in Afghanistan is said to be fuelling terrorism. During a conference held in Kabul on February 8-9, 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.” He also declared that “fighting drug trafficking equals fighting terrorism.” But even prior to that February meeting, assumptions that “narco-terrorism” would pose a threat to Afghanistan seem to have been accepted widely as fact. For instance, French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie declared in January of 2003 that, “drugs are now the principal source of funding for Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda 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” has only recently been advanced to describe what is alleged to be an emerging Afghan scenario, it seems that the term itself was first used by former Peruvian President Belaunde Terry in 1983 to describe terrorist-type attacks against his own nation’s anti-narcotics police by the Shining Path Marxist rebels. Later, in 1986, then U.S. 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.” Moreover, 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 that 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 suggest that the term narco-terrorism is too vague–and may be counterproductive–in terms of addressing either drug trafficking or terrorism. This is because it includes very different actors in a category that is too broad. 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.” [1]


Terrorism–that is, the use by the weak against the strong of illegitimate violence to achieve a political goal–can also be said, according to Peter Waldmann, to be an effort to occupy the mental space of a society. Guerrillas, by contrast, try to conquer territories and riches. Terrorist actions have regularly been perpetrated in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, notably against such civilian targets as foreign and national NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) personnel. The perpetrators are most likely Taliban remnants, al-Qaeda groups, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, that is to say, the 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 were once “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 that time, both the CIA and the ISI (the American and Pakistani intelligence services, respectively) played a direct role in funneling weapons and money to the “freedom fighters”–the Afghan mujahideen. The two agencies were also at least indirectly involved in the nascent, local trade in narcotics. Thus, the involvement particularly of the ISI in the drug trade raises further questions about the adequacy of a category such as “narco-terrorism,” and would require a comparison of how such different actors as resistance guerrillas, intelligence agencies and terrorist organizations use the drug economy.

Former U.S. 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 really started only after 1989, when the United States stopped funding him and others. The main difference between then and now is that he is no longer a U.S. 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 U.S.-backed. He also may well have increased his participation in the drug economy.

Although some former U.S. 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” are also 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-Qaeda. Even more official allies of the U.S. “war on terrorism” also seem to be engaged in, or benefiting from, the drug economy. Indeed, as was testified under oath on March 20, 2003, by Wendy Chamberlin, the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, before the International Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, involvement by the ISI in opium trafficking across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has been “substantial” over the last six years.

Thus it now seems that the long fought “war on drugs” is coming 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 the phenomenon rather that its causes. De-linking the opium economy or terrorism from their broader and deeper contexts will only lead to the ignoring of causal factors and, most 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 trade in opium has allowed these conflicts to flourish. In such a context, the value of a territory increases greatly in proportion to the benefits that the size of its opium crop confers upon those who control it. A war economy-illicit economy nexus of this sort would therefore most likely benefit terrorist organizations. However, the commercial production of opium has also been the only means of subsistence available to many Afghan peasants; this economic pattern has recently expanded to a broader part of the country and thereby exposed the limited writ and authority of the Afghan government.

Insofar as narco-terrorism is concerned, convincing evidence is still needed before it can be asserted to 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 US$150 million from drugs in 2003, hard evidence linking al-Qaeda 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 U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on June 6, 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 effort, 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.


1. Council on Foreign Relations, Terrorism: Questions & Answers. Narcoterrorism, at

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, PhD, is a Geographer and Research Fellow at CNRS (France). He specializes in the geopolitics of illicit drugs with a particular focus on Asia. He produces