A Marine walks among Afghan students just released from classes in Helmand. (U.S. Marine Corps / flickr)

Ten years into the war in Afghanistan, the United States and its coalition partners face a range of adversaries -- insurgent groups, narcotics-trafficking organizations, and criminal networks -- that have thrived on the erosion of the rule of law. As Washington determines the details of its future security partnership with Afghanistan, it must recognize that these threats are convergent and mutually reinforcing. None can be addressed in isolation. To be successful, any long-term American military and civilian presence in Afghanistan must focus principally on enabling Afghan leaders to expand the rule of law, curb corruption, and integrate military and law enforcement efforts.

In the years since the Afghan insurgency returned in force in 2006 -- having been initially stemmed by American troops in the years following the 2001 invasion -- the distinction between militant networks and illicit trafficking organizations has become increasingly blurred. The Quetta Shura Taliban, which had long profited from protecting and taxing poppy farmers, became directly involved in the more lucrative business of refining and trafficking narcotics in the Afghan south. Now, the drug trade delivers an estimated $200 million to the Taliban each year, much of which underwrites its military campaigns.

In eastern Afghanistan, meanwhile, the Haqqani network pursues a range of illicit activities to enrich its leaders and finance its operations. A vast criminal syndicate, the network is involved in gem and timber smuggling, kidnapping for ransom, taxing local communities in Afghanistan's southeastern provinces, and extorting protection fees from Afghan and international contracting companies. The Taliban and the Haqqani network's partnerships with local gangs, traffickers, and crooked officials also enable them to move weapons, IED components, and militants onto the battlefield, further fueling the fight in Afghanistan.

The "criminalization" of the Taliban and the Haqqani network has created several opportunities for the United States, its coalition partners, and the Afghan government to separate the groups from their sources of strength and better exploit their vulnerabilities -- expanding security and the rule of law in the process.

First, the Taliban's political program has long been discredited and unpopular among Afghans. The insurgents' criminality -- as well as their brutality and venality in the pursuit of illicit profits -- has made Afghans doubt the group's ideological and political sincerity. Kabul could use this dynamic to its advantage if Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his administration publicly characterized the insurgency as a criminal outfit, reminded Afghans that the insurgents caused many of their grievances, and committed itself to restoring the rule of law. Unfortunately, senior Afghan leaders have so far forfeited their turn by equivocating about their enemy. The insurgents remain "angry brothers," not hypocritical thugs.

Second, criminal activity is rightly the purview of law enforcement organizations. And Afghanistan's elite police units, which are mentored by ISAF special operations forces and coalition law enforcement agencies, are among the country's most capable security forces. Between 2010 and 2011, narcotics interdictions across Afghanistan jumped by nearly a quarter. In no small part, that was thanks to these units' efforts. Further, between December 2011 and March 2012, three major drug traffickers -- at least one of whom had ties to the insurgency -- were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to twenty years in prison. That, too, was the result of elite Afghan counternarcotics units' efforts -- and those of their partners in the Counternarcotics Judicial Center, Afghanistan's most effective judicial institution.

Criminality in Afghanistan is hardly limited to the insurgents. In fact, the most pernicious form of organized crime is the systematic corruption among Afghan officials within national and provincial-level institutions, who often operate with the sponsorship and protection of senior patrons in Kabul. Among other illicit activities, these criminal patronage networks divert customs revenue at borders and airports, co-opt and subvert elements of Afghanistan's security forces, and protect and facilitate the narcotics trade. At times, they even work in collusion with the insurgents. These networks operate within what Karzai referred to at the December 2011 Bonn conference as a "culture of impunity," consistently avoiding meaningful investigation and prosecution thanks to their patrons' influence over Afghanistan's judicial officials.

Like the insurgent groups, Afghanistan's criminal patronage networks have their vulnerabilities. Senior figures in the networks rely on access to the international financial system and their ability to travel outside of Afghanistan, so as to invest their criminal proceeds abroad. This means that the United States and its partners can invoke the 2011 U.S. National Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) -- employing an "integrated approach that incorporates financial, weapons, and TOC-related corruption investigations into a comprehensive attack on [an] entire criminal network" -- to apply targeted sanctions, impose travel restrictions, and pursue asset seizure and recovery efforts. Such efforts would begin to stem Afghanistan's culture of impunity and would deter the further theft and abuse of U.S. assistance to the country.

The stakes are high. Without proper planning, even with concerted effort between now and 2014, when the United States is set to turn responsibility for security over to the Afghan government, it is easy to imagine Afghanistan devolving into what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to in 2009 as a "narco-state," a country in which the writ of the central government is so limited that convergent transnational criminal and terrorist groups can take root and operate with few constraints.

To prevent such dire developments, the United States and its partners should pursue a post-2014 military strategy and posture that integrates U.S., Afghan, and international programs for law enforcement, counternarcotics, and counterterrorism. There are a number of successful models Washington could follow. The first is the U.S. Military Group in Colombia, which has trained, advised, and assisted Bogota's special operations forces in quelling the drug-fueled insurgent violence that hobbled Colombia's politics, corroded its judiciary, and terrorized its population for decades. The second is Joint Interagency Task Force-South in Key West, Florida, which brings together representatives from across the U.S. military, nine U.S. civilian agencies, and eleven countries to disrupt the flow of narcotics throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Similar initiatives could help contain the transnational threats emanating from Afghanistan and elsewhere in South Asia.

Washington and Kabul are already making the right first steps. The U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), which was signed in early May, notes that "the production, trafficking, and consumption of illicit narcotics poses a major threat to ensuring security and the formation of a licit Afghan economy, as well as to regional security and a healthy world." In response, the SPA calls for the United States and Afghanistan to "enhance information and intelligence sharing to counter common threats, including terrorism, narcotics trafficking, organized crime, and money laundering." The document offers an implicit acknowledgment of these problems' fundamental interconnectedness.

Encouragingly, the agreement also commits Afghanistan and the United States to "fight decisively against all forms of corruption" in the years beyond 2014. Yet as similar efforts to date have made clear, success depends upon Afghan leaders' political will for action.

Indeed, the problems of corruption and organized crime are linked to the political settlement in Afghanistan -- that is, the balance of power among competing national elites -- and will thus demand sustained international diplomatic engagement in the years ahead. The 2014 Afghan presidential elections will thus be an important opportunity to galvanize Afghanistan's fractious ethnic constituencies around unifying principles -- security, territorial integrity, and the rule of law -- while encouraging current and emerging leaders to contend decisively with the many threats facing the country. It is worth recalling that the slow reversal of Colombia's long struggle with terrorism, insurgency, and the narcotics trade was the product, in part, of the leadership of President Alvaro Uribe. He recognized the importance of mobilizing and harnessing popular sentiment against terrorists and traffickers (and has advocated similar solutions for Afghanistan).

For the United States and its coalition partners, the first step must be an acknowledgement of the degree to which the erosion of the rule of law -- and the lack of political will necessary to enforce it -- fuels instability in Afghanistan. Only then will the United States and its partners be able to assemble the tools and develop the strategies necessary to prevail in the current conflict and set conditions for enduring peace and security throughout the region.

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  • TIM SULLIVAN served on ISAF’s countercorruption task force from January 2011 to May 2012. The views expressed here are his own.
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