The Columbus Dispatch, May 3, 2007
Afghanistan's opium production booms as allies stumble along
Opium production soared last year to 6,400 tons, and Afghanistan now accounts for 92 percent of the world's heroin
By Gwynne Dyer
"Respected people of Helmand," the radio message began, "The soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan National Army do not destroy poppy fields. They know that many people of Afghanistan have no choice but to grow poppy. ISAF and the ANA do not want to stop people from earning their livelihoods." It was such a sensible message that it almost had to be a mistake and, of course, it was.
The message, written by an ISAF officer and broadcast in Helmand province last week on two local radio stations, was immediately condemned by Afghan and American officials from President Hamid Karzai on down. Does that mean that ISAF really is going to destroy the farmers' poppy fields?
Not exactly. The latest plan is that civilians will spray the farmers' fields with herbicides, while the Western soldiers stop the farmers from retaliating. That should win lots of hearts and minds in Helmand and other opium-producing provinces of Afghanistan, where the former Taliban regime is attempting a comeback.
The soldiers of ISAF do not want to be seen as destroyers of the poppy crop, because that would get lots of them killed; farmers can turn into Taliban fighters overnight.
An officer newly arrived from Britain apparently got carried away and sent the offending message to local radio stations in Helmand, but most other army officers in Afghanistan, whatever their nationality, privately agree with him. You cannot fight wars against the Taliban and on drugs successfully at the same time.
"Some cabinet ministers in Afghanistan are deeply implicated in the drugs trade"
The Telegraph, Feb. 5, 2006
That was clearly understood at the time of the invasion in 2001. The Taliban, austere Islamist fanatics, had eradicated poppy-growing by 2000, by the simple expedient of hanging anybody they caught growing poppies.
The Taliban begged for Western aid for the distressed farmers, who were earning a quarter as much from growing grain and vegetables, but Mullah Amir Mohammed Haqqani was adamant: "Whether we get assistance or not, poppy growing will never be allowed again in our country."
Then the Taliban's guests, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida friends, carried out the 9/11 attacks against the United States. Bin Laden probably didn't mention this to the Taliban in advance, because Afghanistan was bound to be invaded as a result. In fact, he almost certainly wanted the United States to invade Afghanistan, imagining that it would result in a long guerrilla war and ultimate humiliation for the United States, just as it had been for the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
The United States dodged that bullet by not really invading Afghanistan. It simply contacted the various warlords who already were at war with the Taliban regime, gave them better weapons and lots of money, and left the fighting to them. It worked very well, and there was no guerrilla war.
However, the United States depended on those warlords to keep Afghanistan quiet without flooding it with troops, who were all headed for Iraq. The warlords needed cash flow, which meant poppies: Opium and refined heroin account for more than 33 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product and almost all of its exports. So Washington turned a blind eye in 2002 while its warlord allies encouraged farmers to replant the poppies, and didn't object when they were "elected" to parliament and joined Karzai's cabinet.
Opium production soared last year to 6,400 tons, and Afghanistan now accounts for 92 percent of the world's heroin. The war-on-drugs lobby in the United States insists that something be done, so U.S. and allied troops end up trying to destroy the farmers' crops. The Taliban swallow their drug principles and promise to protect the farmers. Guess who wins the war.
"We cannot fail in this mission," said John Waters, head of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, last December, as if wishing would make it so. But if he would like to succeed in Afghanistan, he might just try buying up the crop.
Afghan farmers are paid considerably less than $100 a kilo for raw opium. Multiply 6,400 tons by $200 a kilo, to outbid the drug smugglers, and ISAF could have bought up last year's Afghan crop for $2.5 billion. What's more, the money would be going straight into the pockets of the people whose "hearts and minds" are at stake: the 13 percent of Afghans who are involved in the opium trade.
Next year, Afghan farmers would plant twice as many poppies, so the costs of the operation would rise. And nothing will stop the flow of heroin to the West. Even if poppy production were entirely suppressed in Afghanistan, it would move somewhere else, such as the Golden Triangle in southeast Asia. But buying up the opium crop is about the only thing that would give ISAF a chance of winning its increasingly nasty little war.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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