Opium, al-Qaeda and the Helmand ‘Sideshow’
So, according to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the strategic goal of the Helmand river valley campaign is to disrupt and deny opium revenue to the insurgency. There’s a first principle problem here, though, and one that raises a separate question about whether Helmand is, indeed, a “sideshow,” as an anonymous senior military official told The Wall Street Journal.
Jim Risen has a story in The New York Times today about a Senate report about a military hit list of insurgents with ties to the drug trade. Buried within it is this bit about whose operations opium actually fund:
In a surprise, the Senate report reveals that the United States intelligence community believes that the Taliban has been getting less money from the drug trade than previous public studies have suggested. The Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency both estimate that the Taliban obtains about $70 million a year from drugs.
The Senate report found that American officials did not believe that Afghan drug money was fueling Al Qaeda, which instead relies on contributions from wealthy individuals and charities in Persian Gulf countries, as well as aid organizations working inside Afghanistan.
So the Taliban doesn’t get as much money from opium as previously believed — last year a U.N. official estimated the Taliban could clear half a billion dollars annually from drugs — and in any case, the opium revenue isn’t going to al-Qaeda, which is the whole reason we care about the Taliban in the first place. How much sense does it make to focus so many resources on an indirect target?