Drugs, failed states, and terrorists. Oh my.

A brand new round of "El Qaeda" warnings from Antonio Maria Costa of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime still requires a pretty big intuitive leap:

Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says "there is more than just spotty evidence" indicating a link between drug traffickers and terror groups.

"And before this becomes a very serious problem, it has to be dealt with and nipped in the bud," Costa said in an interview with The Associated Press, on the sidelines of a seven-nation drug summit in the Senegalese capital of Dakar.

Cocaine from South America has been moving through the West African coast for several years, and experts believe drugs are then parceled out to smugglers who move the cocaine north by boats and by road. One suspected smuggling route crosses portions of the Sahara desert controlled by insurgents. The cocaine-for-arms trade is especially worrying given the recent expansion of an al-Quaida-linked terror group, which was once based exclusively in Algeria but now has tentacles in Mauritania, Mali and Niger.

"There is plenty of evidence of a double flow. (Of) drugs moving, arriving into West Africa from across the Atlantic ... and the trading — exchange — of cocaine for arms," Costa said.

Costa did not say how extensive the cocaine-for-arms exchange was thought to be, or which countries were involved.

There seems to be an awful lot of hand-waving happening here. What we know is that drug smugglers are moving cocaine through West Africa, including regions where Al Qaeda linked militants also operate. This, in itself, may be cause for concern. But many, including prominent politicans, seem to be assuming that an established link exists when the only reported case of a suspected al Qaeda affiliate making a coke deal --again trotted out as evidence in this article -- was with someone who turned out to be a DEA agent. Until there's some more evidence, a little more cautious reporting might be in order.

In any event, if al Qaeda is getting into the cocaine business, it would seem to suggest that the organization is moving outside its core competency in order to raise money, and perhaps setting up more opportunities for authorities to infiltrate their networks.



Big news: Taliban's No. 2 captured

The New York Times reports some huge news: U.S. and Pakistani forces have captured Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's legendary field commander and deputy of Mullah Omar. The Times says it learned of Baradar's capture last Thursday, but held the news at the White House's request.

Newsweek profiled Baradar last summer:

In more than two dozen interviews for this profile, past and present members of the Afghan insurgency portrayed Baradar as no mere stand-in for the reclusive Omar. They say Baradar appoints and fires the Taliban's commanders and governors; presides over its top military council and central ruling Shura in Quetta, the city in southwestern Pakistan where most of the group's senior leaders are based; and issues the group's most important policy statements in his own name. It is key that he controls the Taliban's treasury—hundreds of millions of dollars in -narcotics protection money, ransom payments, highway tolls, and "charitable donations," largely from the Gulf. "He commands all military, political, religious, and financial power," says Mullah Shah Wali Akhund, a guerrilla subcommander from Helmand province who met Baradar this March in Quetta for the fourth time. "Baradar has the makings of a brilliant commander," says Prof. Thomas Johnson, a longtime expert on Afghanistan and an adviser to Coalition forces. "He's able, charismatic, and knows the land and the people so much better than we can hope to do. He could prove a formidable foe."

It turns out Baradar, who was caught in Karachi, was lying about this:

The United States and Afghan president Hamid Karzai say you and your commanders are largely operating from Quetta in Pakistan. Is that true?
This is baseless propaganda. The Shura's area of operations is inside Afghanistan.

I think we're likely to learn that the Afghan Taliban's key mistake here was getting too close to the Pakistani Taliban -- which claimed responsibility for a major bombing in Karachi late last year and has become the Pakistani state's main enemy.

There had been reports last spring that the Pakistani Taliban was establishing  a presence in Karachi, and that now looks to be a mistake. I would wager that a bunch of rough-edged guys from Afghanistan and South Waziristan are rather easier to find in a cosmopolitan city like Karachi than they would be in, say, Quetta.