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Afghan villagers destroying a poppy crop in Por Chaman. The US has underestimated the significance of the link between drugs and terrorism

Reports in late 2010 that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was running drugs in the Sahel for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) went largely unnoticed. This Islamo-Marxist transcontinental drugs nexus should have been a major issue but it appears to have been marginalised by other security concerns.

The reason it has been marginalised lies in our differing perceptions of drugs and violence. Most believe that drugs are something you can take or leave. Contrast that with our perception of terrorism for example — random, deadly, violent, with no respect for lifestyle or income bracket its images are visceral and ubiquitous. 

In reality, terrorism and the drugs trade are often interrelated but whilst the former is fuelled by media attention the latter is most comfortable in the shadows. Emphasising this symbiosis, US Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield recently asserted that drug trafficking can no longer be considered separate from the political and ideological goals of terrorist and insurgent forces.

Funding is oxygen to an armed group: financial countermeasures must be at the forefront of any attempt to combat terrorism and insurgency especially when, in many narratives, they are enabled by globalisation. Globalisation when perceived as a negative phenomenon facilitates the flows of illicit goods and enables transnational criminal networks. It is argued that weak — or "failed" to use the popular term — states lacking strong centralised authority serve as bases for these networks.

Within this framework there is no alternative for the West but to engage in statebuilding. If you want stability, so the argument goes, prepare for intervention. This explains the strategic importance of Afghanistan on today's world stage: the poorest country outside sub-Saharan Africa, it is currently the world's largest producer of opiates and historically, the territory has lacked the strong centralised authority that would act to inhibit the effectiveness of illicit networks.

Tribalism and pastoralism developed in the region after Genghis Khan destroyed the cities and water works in Khurasan (today's Northern Afghanistan) in the 13th century. The later rise of seaborne trade reduced the need for the land routes of the Silk Road upon which Afghan merchants had depended. As pastoralism increased, the reliance upon the group for survival and the difficulty of movement over large distances continued: tribes rejected the concept of belonging to a country and failed to recognise any sovereignty of national governments that would attempt to exert authority.

Against this backdrop, foreign powers have nevertheless attempted to install central governments in the territory. In the latter half of the 20th century, in its border dispute with US-allied Pakistan, Afghanistan had no option but to ally with the Soviet Union and thus came into its sphere of influence. Soviet control became more pronounced with its installation of puppet regimes which attempted to implement unpopular reforms, precipitating armed resistance that coalesced beneath the banner of Islam.

Shoring up support for its beleaguered communist puppet, the Soviets invaded in 1979, precipitating American and Saudi funding to the mujahideen, channelled through Pakistan's military intelligence. Rosanne Klass argued that most of the US funding went to "the most extreme, radical and anti-Western groups, which had no broad political support among the Afghan people". Soviet involvement receded with the Geneva Accords of 1988 which saw the erosion of military assistance for the mujahideen and implicitly provided for Soviet withdrawal. After the fall of the last puppet regime in 1992, warlords filled the vacuum precipitating internecine conflict bordering on anarchy.

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