We’ve been asking recently for more reporting that contextualizes the turbulent political situation in Afghanistan, and explores what that situation means for U.S. military efforts there. In today’s New York Times, James Risen and Mark Landler deliver.

Their subject is Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, a military commander in the Northern Alliance that helped oust the Taliban, a defense minister in the early years of Hamid Karzai’s government, and Karzai’s running mate in the most recent election, results of which won’t be declared anytime soon. The problem with Fahim is the other line on his resume: years spent in the lucrative drug trafficking business, including during his time in government, when he “had a Soviet-made cargo plane at his disposal that was making flights north to transport heroin through Russia, returning laden with cash,” according to C.I.A. reports described for the first time in today’s Times story.

Bush administration officials were, appropriately, troubled by this behavior, especially since U.S. law prohibits providing military aid to a known drug trafficker. But, in the end, they decided they couldn’t afford to make too big a fuss about it, and devised a work-around. How did that work out? According to Risen and Landler:

In hindsight, several current and former administration officials say they have come to believe the decision to turn a blind eye to the warlords and drug traffickers who took advantage of the power vacuum in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks was one of the fundamental strategic mistakes of the Afghan war. It sent a signal to the Afghan people that the most corrupt warlords had the backing of the United States, that the Karzai government had no real power or credibility and that the drug economy was the path to power in the country.

Here’s one demonstration of the staying power of the warlords: as Carlotta Gall wrote for the Times in 2004, Karzai had actually planned to name Fahim his running mate in his first presidential campaign—Fahim’s influence among Tajiks in the country’s north offsets one of Karzai’s political weaknesses—but international pressure convinced him to go another route. The Times editorialized at the time that the U.S. “should repay [Karzai’s] courage with military support if necessary.” But as more recent events show, Karzai’s repudiation of Fahim was not lasting.

So what does this mean for current U.S. policy? The Taliban are still a nasty bunch, after all. But if “defeating” the Taliban is the American goal, we’re going to need to be able to partner with an Afghan government that is, at a minimum, seen as stable and legitimate. Having a known drug trafficker in the vice president’s office—to say nothing of the widespread fraud allegations now circulating in the country—doesn’t seem like a step in that direction. Alternately, as Bernard Finel of Foreign Policy puts it:

And if the goal is simply to dampen the insurgency to create space for a political process to occur, why is there any reason to assume that the Afghan government would be able to utilize this space more effectively than from early 2002 to early 2005 when there was only limited Taliban activity in the country?

Any strategy—and any public debate about that strategy—must confront these questions.

Of course, Karzai may ultimately lose to his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. What might that mean for the U.S.? That’s another story for the press to explore.

Greg Marx is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.