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Christian Parenti is a correspondent for The Nation and author of "The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq" (New Press, 2004).

He received a PhD in sociology from the London School of Economics in 2000 and he has been a Soros Senior Justice Fellow and a Ford Foundation Fellow at...


Afghan Autopsy

(Page 5)

In the face of this gathering storm, the West is getting increasingly aggressive about opium poppy eradication— trying to douse the fires of insurrection.

For several years, the U.S. occupiers had the sanity to ignore opium, but in 2003, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde sent a letter to Donald Rumsfeld, expressing his “growing concerns about Afghanistan and the impact of illicit drugs on the fight against global terrorism.” The next year, Rumsfeld called the drug problem in Afghanistan “too serious to be ignored.” Opium is now seen as the linchpin to the counterinsurgency: kill the poppies and you kill the rebels.

Finally, in 2005, there was some success in poppy eradication - a reported 21 percent drop in production - but that coincided with (and possibly caused) an upsurge in guerrilla activity.

This year, production bounced back to a record high of 6,100 tons of opium and U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington are pushing for more robust eradication. Some officials even want to start aerial spraying.  Among them is the freelance drug warrior retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who told the AP: “We know exactly where these fields are. They’re absolutely vulnerable to eradication. And it is immeasurably more effective to do it with an airplane.” He calls the war on opium a matter of national security
“I’ve been telling the Pentagon, if you don’t take on drug production, you’re going to get run out of Afghanistan,” he said.

Leveler heads— including many in the NATO forces—readily admit that nothing could be more destabilizing. Even the NATO spokesman Mark Laity, a Brit, privately disparaged U.S. domestic pressure for robust anti-drug policy in Afghanistan as a “short-sighted, moralistic policy nostrum” that he wished U.S. voters would stop supporting.

Opium cultivation and trafficking makes up more than half the Afghan economy—amounting to $3 billion annually, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Poppy cultivation employs an estimated 2.9 million people and Afghanistan now supplies 92 percent of the world’s heroin.

What that means in practical terms is that many key players in the Afghan government are heavily involved in drug trafficking—including Karzai’s younger brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, an influential leader of the Popalzai clan of the Kandahari Pashtun.

One motive behind stepped-up eradication has been to consolidate power in Kabul. The private intelligence firm Stratfor correctly noted that “the poppy eradication plan’s main objective is to begin eliminating the smaller, more easily managed and often more reckless warlords in the area. Little-known provincial players will be the first warlords targeted by the government.”

More often than not, eradication does the opposite: It becomes another chance for local officials to demand bribes from poor farmers or for local warlords to stand up successfully against Kabul. According to some farmers I have interviewed, eradication when thwarted (as it usually is) strengthens local commanders—as threatened farmers turn to the gunmen for help.

“We are facing a lot of problems. Only security has improved,” say Ghulam Hazrat, a teacher and farmer in the Derazi village of the Kuma district. Farmers in Kuma are among the few who have been forced to seriously scale back their poppy cultivation. “We have no paper or books in the school. The road is bad. There is no clinic.” He says there are only four teachers for 350 students in this group of villages. And the teachers have not been paid for three months.

“With no poppy, lots of people have had to leave to find work. The government promised each farmer $350 not to plant poppy. But the money was stolen. Only some farmers got $150. Maybe we will plant this year. If we don’t plant, we will suffer and when people suffer, people fight.”

Eradicate the opium poppy - half the economy - and Afghanistan’s 28 million people could plunge back into all-out civil war, with the country eventually disintegrating into two or three pieces: the Pashtun south becoming a de facto extension of heavily Pashtun Pakistan, and the more ethnically diverse north and west around Herat being pulled into the orbits of the more developed economies of Central Asia and Iran.

One of the key elements in the poppy eradication strategy is judicial reform. To see how the courts work, I asked to see a trial. I was put off for a week. But then, after pressing hard, the provincial court in Kabul relented.

It was a murder trial. The accused stood impassively as the agreements were delivered rather haphazardly. It all seemed a bit odd. Then a death sentence was delivered and the defendant walked out of court.


It turned out the whole thing was staged for my benefit. The court faked a trial (rather sloppily) so as to keep me away from the real sham of justice as it is actually practiced in Afghanistan. “They can’t show us real trials because they are so bad,” says my interpreter. 

The hopelessness of an American victory in Afghanistan seems to be sinking in among some politicians. Senate leader Bill Frist recently called for negotiations with the Taliban, though he was forced to later back off his statement. So, too, has British Deputy Foreign Secretary Kim Howell suggested talks with the enemy. Meanwhile, the top NATO commander on the ground, Lt. Gen. David Richards of the UK, has warned that if the international forces and Kabul government cannot improve the economic and security environment within the next six months, most Afghans in the south will likely switch to active support of the Taliban. For a career military man, that sort of warning is quite an admission.

In the meantime, NATO’s growing desperation has driven it to use ever more aerial bombardment and strafing. This serves merely to lose the battle for Afghan “hearts and minds.”

NATO’s aggressive military operations are creating an intensified solidarity among Pashtuns, which means greater support for the Taliban. Now the fight has entered Kabul, the rising violence even lapping at the gates of the U.S. embassy compound.

Overall, the situation remains stalemated. But here is a prediction: The West will eventually tire of the expense, casualties and futility of it all. Then, after face-saving negotiations, the West will once again quit Afghanistan.

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Dig last updated on Nov. 28, 2006

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By Rick, November 29, 2006 at 8:15 am Link to this comment
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Here we go again,
  More negative, one-sided reporting,  propaganda.  I have been living in kabul for six months,  and I have seen many unusual things, however,  if you lived here,  you would see the progress being made, which has less to do with the west and more to do with the Afghan’s desire to build their own lives,  they are warm, generous people,  they accept the sporadic violence as a part of life,  and forge on,  and I have not met one, not one,  whom would welcome,  much less allow the Taliban to exude influence here.  This country will succeed,  it will take many years,  however,  one can see amazingly positive developments everyday, if one is at ground level for more than a few days, you should try that,  if you really want to be objectve.

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By John Cunningham, November 29, 2006 at 4:36 am Link to this comment
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As an old Vietnam veteran I can say I’m a bit qualified to comment on the opium/heroin aspect.  People that use and sell drugs are financing terrorism.  The users are totally absorbed in their own personal brand of pity and we’re all expected to be understanding and get all touchy-feely.  The dealers are in it for the money, they should be executed.  All we have to do is look at our inner cities here in the States and we can see in a smaller way how much ‘allowing’ a drug trade benefits those local communities.  Here in Philadelphia they shoot each other everyday, everyday.  You have to drag users kicking and screaming into rehabs or jail.  You have to do to dealers/growers what they deserve, you shoot them.  Spray the heroin fields with whatever chemical is necessary to kill the crop. The heroin farmers will go through their withdrawal, they’ll thank you for it a few years from now.  Cut off the drugs you cut off the funding and they will eventually run out of bullets.  It won’t be pretty.  How many more years are you going to make excuses for it?

City slickers/country bumpkins/bullies/builders

I got out of the army in ‘72, never thinking I would ever have anything more to do with the military.  I’m now back in my comfort zone, American cities.  Philadelphia and then in ‘81 moved up to Buffalo.  In ‘84 I joined the National Guard.  I had always heard jokes city people would say about country people and vice versa.  But, it wasn’t until I got to Buffalo when I now was living with people that did have a resentment toward their big city, New York City.  It wasn’t a hatred and was mostly expressed in a joking manner, but it was something that always seemed to be in the back of their minds.  Not unlike how a lot of people have this hatred of President Bush in the back of their minds, seeming to me to be continually clouding their thought processes.  I again found this back of the mind displeasure of things city when I went to Louisiana in ‘89 for a military school.  Now, it was only for a month but I noticed that these Louisianians living 100 miles north of New Orleans read from the same script that many in Western New York were reading.  Kind of makes me wonder if any of us living in huge population centers could really depend on help from National Guard units that might be tasked to help a city in case of disaster.  Can you say Katrina?  I’m not being accusatory, I’m just going by feelings and impressions that have built up over the last 59 years. Some totally amazing things go on in cities, as evidenced by the fact that terrorists don’t blow up farms, they blow up cities.  An Israeli diplomat made this analogy to explain the middle east.  It was the bully on the beach story.  Most middle easterners really don’t do much but get themselves whipped into a froth and shoot weapons into the air, the bully on the beach.  Israel builds a sandcastle on the beach and the bullies response is to go over and knock it down.  Some other bully’s response is to fly jets into the World Trade Center.  Transfer what I’m alluding to to what’s going on in Afghanistan and it seems to me we’re dealing with easily threatened bullies.  We all went through growing up years, how do you deal with a bully?  Do the NATO countries have to wait until they walk into a major European city a nuclear bomb and we all wake up in the morning to find that Paris disappeared over night?  ‘They’ don’t like us because we do interesting things, they don’t.  They’re oh so into allah but have no qualms about growing heroin.  One way or another they’re going to kill you.  To paraphrase WW2 General Patton, we shouldn’t die for our beliefs, they should die for theirs.

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