Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda

Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda
By Gretchen Peters, Thomas Dunne Books, May 2009 ISBN: 978-0312379278 Hardcover, 320 pages, $25.95

(A shorter version of this review by Lewis Perdue appeared in Barron's Weekly.)

Exit, Allah. Enter, the almighty dollar.

According to Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda, by Gretchen Peters, most of the Taliban's religious fanatics have been replaced by organized gangs of big-time drug thugs whose primary goal is to protect their cut of the multi-billion-dollar Afghan heroin trade. Peters estimates that the Taliban get at least 70 percent of its funding from the heroin trade and that both Hezbollah and Al Qaeda also benefit from global dope.

While Western media pundits wring their hands about the Afghanistan troop surge turning into another Iraq, Peters, who covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for Associated Press and ABC writes that:

"The parallels are actually closer to Colombia. The Taliban and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish acronym FARC, both got their start like modern-day Robin Hoods, protecting rural peasants from the excesses of a corrupt government. Strapped for cash and needing the support of local farmers, both groups began levying a tax on drug crops."

Then, Peters explains, both FARC and the Taliban started providing protection for the drug lords, gradually taking control of the drug refineries and strong-arming farmers to meet drug production quotas. Severe punishment or death awaited those who failed or refused. Finally, FARC and the Taliban established themselves as alternate systems of a dictatorial government ruling by fear and violence.

And like the FARC, which tried to maintain a virtuous, “people’s army” facade, the narcoterror leadership of today's Taliban uses jihad as a convenient public relations stunt to gloss over its greed and lust for power. Peters tell us that Helmand province – one of the key battle areas for the current U.S. military surge – produces more than half a billion dollars a year in opium. “If it were a separate country, it would be the world’s leading opium producer ….It’s also where links between the Taliban and opium trade are the strongest.” Small wonder then that fighting is fiercest there today. But all across Afghanistan, where there are drugs, the Taliban is there with protection: attacking NATO checkpoints so opium shipments can get through, planting mines around opium fields and rigging IEDs to take out soldiers who dare trespass on the poppies.

But, Seeds of Terror makes it ironically clear that the Taliban could not have achieved its preeminent position in the illegal global drug trade without the blundering of every U.S. President beginning with President Jimmy Carter.

Peters tells us that Jimmy Carter, in 1979, signed off on secret aid to Afghan guerillas fighting against the Soviets despite warnings that the groups were moving dope. President Reagan continued the policy of looking the other way.

After the Russians left Afghanistan, President George H. W. Bush terminated most aid – hundreds of millions of dollars worth – to the guerillas and government. “Overnight, that left 135,000 armed Afghans and their families no way to support themselves,” Peters quotes a former CIA officer.

When President Clinton took office in 1993, his administration eliminated what little financial support was still trickling toward Kabul.

And while money began to flow with the second Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan, not only had the damage done turned the Taliban into a potent, well-financed adversary, but military errors to come also complicated military strategy that continue even as you turn on the evening news tonight.

The military, Peters tells us “doesn’t do drugs.” That is, despite the fact that the Taliban insurgency runs on the lifeblood of opium, the military refused to support anti-drug operations. “One Green Beret complained that he had been ordered to disregard opium and heroin stashes when he came across them on patrol.”

The consequences of all these bone-headed decisions become more significant in the light of a Stanford University study cited by Peters that found, “Out of 128 conflicts studied, the 17 which relied on ‘contraband finances’ lasted five times longer than the rest.”

Seeds of Terror offers layer after layer of fascinating information about the deadly consequences of decades of disastrous public policy decisions. This is a well-written, well-documented and exemplary work of journalism.

Lewis Perdue is a former Washington correspondent, journalism professor and the author of 20 published books. He is currently editor of WineIndustryInsight.Com.

Ascent of a Tech Powerhouse How Israel became a world leader in innovation.

IF YOUR COMPUTER HAS "INTEL INSIDE," then the Intel inside has "Israel inside." So does eBay. And thousands upon thousands of other highly innovative companies and technologies.

This book, subtitled The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle, shows how venomously anti-Israel neighbors, terrorism and almost constant war drove a tiny, poor, fledgling country to create a first-world economy with "the greatest concentration of innovation and entrepreneurship in the world."

The numbers are staggering. "In addition to boasting the highest density of start-ups in the world (a total of 3,850, one for every 1,844 Israelis), more Israeli companies are listed on the Nasdaq exchange than all companies from the entire European continent," write Dan Senor and Saul Singer.

At times, they point out, Israeli entrepreneurs have come to the rescue of the world's best-known companies.

Take the episode that could have been titled, "How Israel saved Intel." Around the year 2000, computers -- especially laptops -- were hitting a performance wall limited by power consumption and the heat generated within the machines. Intel's team in Jerusalem suggested a way to operate a microprocessor at lower clock speeds, thus consuming less power and generating less heat, allowing laptops to run longer on a battery charge. Along the way, they built in a method that would let software run even faster.

Intel headquarters in Silicon Valley tried to kill the project because executives were operating in an obsolete mindset where only faster (and hotter) processor speeds created better performance. But the Israelis persisted, leading in 2003 to the famed Centrino chip. The Israelis followed that with the Core Duo processor -- two microprocessors on one chip.

Start-Up Nation vividly illustrates how Israel has developed a culture where authority not only can be challenged, but must be. Bluntly. No waffling. Instead of showing corporate deference or blind obedience to a superior, the average Israeli challenges questionable decisions and pushes alternative suggestions with real tenacity.


Start-Up Nation
By Dan Senor and Saul Singer
Twelve (Hatchette Book Group)
320 pages

That cultural trait comes, in large part, from the near-universal military service that throws the wealthy in with the poor, corporate executives in with assembly-line workers. In the IDF -- the Israel Defense Forces -- a CEO might very well report to one of his or her corporate underlings. Regardless of rank in the military or civilian world, it is the best idea that matters, not the status of the proponent.

Another force behind Israeli success is Jewish immigrants. The authors quote Israeli venture capitalist Erel Margalit on their importance: "If you're an immigrant in a new place, and you're poor, or you were once rich and your family was stripped of its wealth -- then you have drive. You don't see what you've got to lose; you see what you could win."

With immigrants from 70 countries speaking no common language, sharing little common culture other than the Torah and a tradition of persecution, military service, the authors argue, is at the forefront of both immigrant assimilation and overall technological success. Service in the Israel Defense Forces begins at age 18 and lasts for a minimum of two years. Business people often serve in the reserves well into their 40s, 50s and 60s.

"So for combat soldiers, connections made in the army are constantly renewed through decades of reserve duty," says Start-up Nation. "...Not surprisingly, many business connections are made during the long hours of operations, guard duty and training."

Although the authors do not draw the analogy, this is very much like Switzerland, where the business elite are connected by years of reserve military service. But Switzerland isn't known for innovation. It also is not a nation of immigrants, tolerates failure poorly, behaves with a reserve that is the antithesis of chutzpah, and lacks the "advantage" of being surrounded by rapacious enemies ready to incinerate them at a moment's notice.

In all, Start-Up Nation is a compelling and satisfying work, filled with eye-opening revelations and shot through with rich examples, explanations and analysis.