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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...
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
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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