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US's Afghan policies going up in smoke

Asia Times/Ann Jones | October 31 2006

On the fifth anniversary of the start of the Bush administration's war in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld wrote an upbeat op-ed in the Washington Post on that haple ss country's "hopeful and promising" trajectory. He cited only two items as less than "encouraging": "the legitimate worry that increased poppy production could be a destabilizing factor" and the "rising violence in southern Afghanistan".

That rising violence - a full-scale onslaught by the resurgent Taliban - put Afghanistan back in the headlines this summer and brought consternation to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) governments (from Canada to Australia) whose soldiers are now dying in a land they had been led to believe was a peaceful "success story".

Lieutenant-General David Richards, the British commander of NATO troops that took over security in embattled southern Afghanistan from the US in July, warned at the time, "We could actually fail here." In October, he argued that if NATO did not bring security and significant reconstruction to the alienated Pashtun south within six months - the mission the US failed to accomplish during the past five years - the majority of the populace might well switch sympathies to the Taliban.

But coming in the midst of NATO anxieties and Taliban assaults, what are we to make of Rumsfeld's "legitimate worry" about Afghan poppy production, which this year will provide 92% of the world's heroin supply? And what are we to make of President George W Bush's presidential determination, issued just before Afghan President Hamid Karzai's September visit to Washington, that the Afghan government must be "held accountable" for that poppy harvest; that it must not only "deter and eradicate poppy cultivation" in the country, but "investigate, prosecute and extradite all the narco-traffickers" in the land?

Undeniably, the poppy trade and the resurgence of the Taliban are intimately connected, for the Taliban, who briefly banned poppy cultivation in 2000 in an effort to gain US diplomatic recognition and aid, now both support and draw support from that profitable crop. Yet Western policies aimed at the Taliban and the poppy are quite separate and at odds with each other. While NATO troops scramble, between battles, to rebuild rural infrastructure, US advisers urge Afghan anti-narcotics police to eradicate the livelihood of 2 million poor farmers.

So far the poppy-eradication program, largely funded by the US, hasn't made a dent. Last year, it claimed to have destroyed 15,380 hectares of poppies, up from 4,850 the year before; but during the same period overall poppy cultivation soared from 104,000 hectares to 165,000.

When the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, poppies were grown on only 7,600 hectares. Under the US occupation that followed the defeat of the Taliban, poppy cultivation spread to every province, and overall production has increased exponentially ever since - this year by 60%.

Still, the counterproductive eradication program succeeds in one thing. It makes life miserable for hundreds of thousands of small farmers. What happens to them? The Senlis Council, an international drug-policy think-tank, reports that the drug-eradication program not only ruins small farmers but actually drives them into the arms of the Taliban, who offer them loans, protection and a chance to plant again. Big farmers, on the other hand, are undeterred by the poppy-eradication program; they simply pay off the police and associated officials, spreading corruption and dashing hopes of honest government.

In 2002, Bush announced, "We must reduce drug use for one great moral reason. When we fight against drugs, we fight for the souls of our fellow Americans." There's a profusion of ironies here. The US in the 1980s fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union on Afghan soil, encouraging Islamist extremists (then "our" soldiers) and helping to set the stage for the Taliban.

Now, another Republican administration sets Afghan against Afghan again in a kind of cockamamie proxy war supposedly for the souls of American heroin addicts. Since when have Republicans wanted to do anything for American drug addicts but lock them up?

This is the kind of weird "foreign policy" you get when your base is keen on the war on drugs and there's a lot of real stuff you can't talk about outside the Oval Office - or, sometimes, in it. Like, to take an example, the way the Taliban now control the Pakistani border city of Quetta, a subject that went politely unmentioned recently when Bush entertained Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf and Afghanistan's Karzai at the White House.

Like the way Pakistan reluctantly hands over some al-Qaeda operatives to the US, but winks at routine Taliban cross-border traffic into Afghanistan. It also makes deals with Talibanized elders in its own tribal area of Waziristan, long thought to be a haven for al-Qaeda and perhaps Osama bin Laden himself. Like the fact that no nation fights harder against the Afghan drug trade than axis-of-evil enemy Iran, while the United States' "staunch ally" Pakistan lends support to the trade and to the Taliban as well.

If we must worry about poppy production while all hell breaks loose in southern Afghanistan and suicide bombers strike Kabul, the capital, is there a more "legitimate" or effective way to worry?

A blooming business
First, we can forget entirely any concern for American heroin addicts. It has been exactly 100 years since public officials first met in London to ban the international trade in opium. A century of cracking down on poppy production from Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle to Central Asia's Golden Crescent to Mexico has verified one basic fact of agricultural economics. When supply is cut somewhere, another poppy-growing area quickly arises to meet the demand.

Wipe out poppies in Afghanistan tomorrow and - faster than you can say "mission accomplished" - American addicts will be shooting up heroin from Pakistan or Thailand or the moon. This is a certain fact.

But none of that phony compassion for America's drug addicts factors into Rumsfeld's "legitimate worry". He's concerned about the "destabilizing" effect of the drug trade itself - on the Karzai government, Afghanistan and the Central Asian region.

Paradoxically, many a man on the streets of Kabul points to poppy as the source of jobs, wealth, hope and such stability as Karzai currently enjoys. Karzai himself often promises to rid government and country of drug lords, but as a Pashtun and a realist, he keeps his enemies close. His strategy is to avoid confrontation, befriend potential adversaries and give them offices, often in his cabinet.

Like Musharraf in Pakistan, Karzai walks a tightrope between domestic politics and US demands for dramatic actions - such as ending the drug trade - clearly well beyond his powers. The trade penetrates even the elected parliament, which is full of the usual suspects. Among the 249 members of the wolesi jirga (lower house) are at least 17 known drug traffickers in addition to 40 commanders of armed militias, 24 members of criminal gangs, and 19 men facing serious allegations of war crimes and human-rights violations, any or all of whom may be affiliated with the poppy business. For years the Kabul rumor mill has traced the drug trade to the family of the president himself.

Through many administrations, the US government is itself implicated in the Afghan drug trade. During the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) fostered anti-Soviet Islamist extremists, and to finance their covert operations it fostered the drug trade as well.

Before the US-and-Pakistani-sponsored mujahideen took on the Soviets in 1979, Afghanistan produced only a very small amount of opium for regional markets, and no heroin at all. By the end of the jihad against the Soviet army of occupation, it was the world's top producer of both drugs. As Alfred W McCoy reports in The Politics of Heroin, Afghan mujahideen - the guys president Ronald Reagan famously likened to "our founding fathers" - ordered Afghan farmers to grow poppy; Afghan commanders and Pakistani intelligence agents refined heroin; the Pakistani army transported it to Karachi for shipment overseas; while the CIA made it all possible by providing legal cover for these operations.

After the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush administration made use of the United States' old Islamist allies, paying them millions of dollars to hunt bin Laden, a task to which they do not appear to have been entirely devoted. Asked in 2004 why the US wasn't going after drug kingpins in Afghanistan, an unnamed US official told a New York Times reporter that the drug lords were "the guys who helped us liberate this place in 2001", the guys the US is still relying on to get bin Laden.

Interviewed by the British newspaper The Independent, a US soldier offered another reason: "We start taking out drug guys, and they will start taking out our guys." Reluctant to interfere with the United States' drug-lord allies in the "war on terror" or risk the lives of US soldiers in such a dustup, the Bush administration went after small farmers instead.

Early on, the British, who were responsible for international anti-narcotics operations in Afghanistan, tried to persuade Afghan farmers to take up "alternative livelihoods" - that is, to grow other crops - even though no other crop requires less work or produces a fraction of the profits of poppy. Not that the farmers themselves get rich. Within Afghanistan, where perhaps 3 million people draw direct income from poppy, profits may reach US$3 billion this year; but international traffickers in the global marketplace will make 10 times as much, at the very least.

The small proportion of profit that stays in Afghanistan enriches mainly the kingpins: warlords, government officials, politically connected smugglers. But as drug lords build mansions in Kabul - ornate "Pakistani Palaces" of garish tile and colored glass - they create jobs and a booming trade in all sorts of legal goods from cement to pots and pans. What's more, that small in-country profit adds up to an estimated 60% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, or more than half the country's annual income. It's also more than twice as much as the US designated in the past five years for Afghan reconstruction, most of which never reached the country anyway.

You have to ask: What if the drug trade could be stopped? What about the destabilizing effect of that?

Fear of flowers
As things stand, the poppy farmer makes a decent living. Poppies enable him to hold on to his scrap of land. He can feed his family and send his children to school. Nevertheless, two years ago some poppy farmers in Nangahar province were actually persuaded to give up poppy for tomatoes. They were pressured by an aggressive US campaign of defoliant aerial spraying of poppy fields that killed poppies and sickened children and livestock. The US still denies responsibility for that episode and similar aerial attacks that devastated livestock in Helmand province in February 2005.

When word came that the Holy Koran had been dumped in a Guantanamo toilet, Nangahar farmers were among the furious Afghans who rioted in Jalalabad. For them the desecration of the Koran was the last straw. They were already furious about the tomatoes. They'd harvested good crops, then watched them rot because a promised bridge they needed to get their tomatoes to market hadn't been built. Remarkably, the Nangahar farmers still gave "alternative livelihoods" one more try, but they made too little money to feed their children. This year they announced they're planting poppies again.

A field of poppies in bloom is a beautiful sight - especially in Afghanistan, where the plant's brilliant greenery and its white and purplish flowers stand against a drab landscape of rock and sand, visual testimony to the promise of human endeavor even in the worst of circumstances. It may be that Afghan farmers contemplate their fields as metaphor, Afghans being great lovers of poetry. But they're practical and desperate as well, so they came up with a plan.

Afghan farmers officially proposed to British anti-narcotics officials that they be licensed to grow poppy and produce opium for state-owned refineries to be built with foreign aid donations. The refineries, in turn, would produce medicinal morphine and codeine for worldwide legal sale, thereby filling a global need for inexpensive, natural painkillers. (Recently hospitalized in the US, I can testify that morphine works exceedingly well, though it's expensive because, unlike heroin, it's in short supply.)

The farmers got nowhere with this proposal, although it's hard to think of any plan that could more effectively have bound the rural peasantry to Karzai's feeble central government, stabilizing and strengthening it. Now, the Senlis Council has proposed the same plan, but again it's unlikely to fly. It's not just that Big Pharma would resent the competition. Think about the Republican base for which "legal drug" is an oxymoron.

In November 2004, in fact, Bush, backed by the civilian leadership of the Pentagon and powerful Republican congressmen like Henry Hyde of Illinois, suddenly increased US funds committed to the conventional Afghan war on drugs sixfold to $780 million, including $150 million designated for aerial spraying. Hyde, still on the case as chairman of the House Committee on International Relations, recently suggested shifting the focus from farmers to "kingpins", but no one in the administration is ready to call off the war.

Two years ago in Kabul I interviewed an American consultant sent by the Bush administration to assess the "drug problem" in Afghanistan. His off-the-record verdict: "The only sensible way out is to legalize drugs. But nobody in the White House wants to hear that." He admitted that the sensible conclusion would not appear in his report.

So you see what I mean about the weird policies a government such as the United States' can develop when it can't talk about real facts. When it cozies up to people it professes to be against. When it attacks people whose hearts and minds it hopes to win. When it pays experts to report false conclusions it wants to hear. When it spends billions to tear down the lives of poor Afghans even as NATO allies pray for a break in battling the Taliban so that - with time running out - they can rebuild.

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