Peters, Gretchen | Seeds of Terror Review

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Seeds of Terror
How Heroin is bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda
Gretchen Peters
Recommended : Yes
Mushrooms : 4

Review by: REMFQuestions

Our Battlegroup was a ragtag crew of scruffy Afghan cops and stony faced American mercernaries. Our target was the opium fields profiting the Taliban.
The first thing that is evident upon beginning Seeds of Terror is just how knowledgable Gretchen Peters is regarding the subject of the Afghanistan opium industry.

Having now finished all 320 gripping pages I have to say that this is an excellent primer on the narcotics problem which plagues Central Asia. However, the book is certainly not without some faults which I shall cover further down.

Firstly, Ms Peters clearly has a great deal of access to the Intelligence Community, Law Enforcement and the US State Department and this comes across in the sheer wealth of material, both classified and unclassified, that the author draws upon. No doubt her contacts were forged during her years as an ABC reporter and the list of sources is long and extensive including politicians, DEA, Interpol, MI5 and other international agencies. The centre pages are filled with photographs of the protectively marked documents and this lends a great deal of credibility to Peters book which is extremely and overtly critical of the current US Policy regarding the War in Afghanistan.

However, like most things, limited access to classified sources only serves to strengthen the authors position and never challenge it. Peters never admits that the documents could have been cherry picked to suit her argument and/or were taken out of context. For instance she uses the same example to highlight the lack of International cooperation three times. Namely that UK Special Forces were conducting a raid against an opium chemistry compound and requested US air support which was denied.

But Peters never stops to consider any of the myriad of others reasons that such support could have been denied. Priority of assets, fuel, timings, ongoing missions elsewhere. As far as the author is concerned this one example is glaring proof of her opinion that the United States actively hampered anti-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan due to fear of becoming embroiled in a new 'Columbia'.

Furthermore, Peters often uses the phrase "intelligence documents that the author has seen" or "secret reports that the author had access to" which serve to undermine her arguments rather than strengthen them.

It would be remiss of me to focus purely on these small items though because Seeds of Terror genuinely is an excellent volume. Peters access to the criminal traffickers and smugglers around the chaotic tri-border region of Pakistan is unprecedented. Especially for a female. she managed to gather over 350 candid interviews including some extremely high value targets. Criminal elements are not all though - both Afghan and Pakistan Taliban provide evidence and interesting insights into the role of Al Qaeda in the region. The level of access continues through peasants, foreign workers, farmers, chemists and Afghan statesmen.

The reader comes across some heavyweight individuals such as Rashid Dostum, Baitullah Mehsud, Tahir Yuldashev and Mullah Duduallah. Although some of the individuals are reputed enemies Peters successfully demonstrates that the relationships between groups and individuals remains misunderstood at best.

Peters main argument is that
“Across Afghanistan, traditional enemies are working together wherever there’s a chance to make money.”
Drugs are also, in a sense, a form of currency used by militants to barter for vehicles and weapons. The author also posits that the Afghan farmer cannot be blamed for harvesting opium. It is the trafficking network and rare chemists which should be targeted to relieve the pressure on the farmer who is enslaved to the opium crop under threat of violence or worse.

Peters work is also sprinkled liberally with anecdotes regarding the sheer size and profitability of the opium smuggling industry. Readers can and will be shocked at the amount of narcotics which makes it's way out of Afghanistan. Stories abound of 100 vehicle convoys driving through the desert under cover of heavy vehicle mounted machine guns and stinger missiles. Such a convoy can transport up to 40 tons of heroin in a single shipment.

Peters reports on the devastating impact that the smugglers have had on Iran and Pakistan who face fierce and sustained resistance. Both countries have suffered thousands of deaths within their Border Police trying to combat the trafficking industry.

Corruption is another key theme which appears regularly throughout the book, particularly from the Pakistan side of the Durand Line. What ties all of this together is money - the global heroin industry is valued at 4 billion dollars which (up until two years ago) equals more than the entire US defence budget.

I thoroughly recommend Seeds of Terror - it is a sterling example of where the United States and subsequently ISAF have been going wrong in Afghanistan. Saying that, Peters does not need my endorsement - the list of influential readers proclaiming the merits of this book are growing constantly although it is not unknown for Peters to respond personally to negative reviews!

Lastly, it becomes up to the reader to either believe or reject Peters argument that all elements of the transnational insurgency are working together in a mafia-like crime syndicate. The author draws huge unchallenged links through everyone including the Afghan Taliban, Baloch Warlords, the IMU, IJU, Al Qeada, Chechens, Hamid Karzai, Haqqani Network and Pakistan Taliban. There is an undertone to Seeds of Terror which suggests that bin Laden is in fact an Al Capone type figure but Peters never actually comes out and says this directly. It is only ever implied and at some points the book does descend slightly into a La Cosa Nostra type global conspiracy with AQ at the head.

I will caveat my review with one point though, 90% of the writing is geared towards an in depth (albeit excellent) review of the Hawala System, Central Asian criminality and traditional smuggling routes. It is an excellent introduction to this subject. However, Seeds of Terror would have benefited massively from an expanded final Chapter. The recommendations that Peters suggest in order to counter the opium grip in Afghanistan are extremely brief. The authors nine-pronged program to combat the regional drug trade is very short and sorely lacking in detail. She makes some very broad brush recommendations without considering the sheer amount of security and military presence that some of her ideas would require.

Several pearls of wisdom do present themselves though including the stockpiles of opium currently being held in reserve by insurgent forces. One trafficker tellingly admitted that he hopes dearly the poppy eradication is a success because his 200 tons of stored opium would skyrocket in value. Other aspects of the campaign that are discussed include how 93% of the heroin in the UK is derived from Afghanistan. This leads to conflict between the UK and the US who see the anti-narcotics mission from fundamentally different angles.

In summary, if you are looking for an overview of the criminality undermining the counter insurgency campaign in Afghanistan then this book is for you - just don't expect any in depth answers in return.

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