While the Iraqi catastrophe and whether we are
about to be at a post-midterm election "tipping
point" in that country preoccupies Americans, an older Bush administration
Afghan "success" story has sprung enough holes to sink the Titanic and
looks to be taking on water fast. The president has long claimed that Iraq is
the "central front in the war against terrorism." Looking at Afghanistan, however,
it's increasingly clear that Bush's Iraqi adventure is the literal motor for
terrorism that the recently
leaked National Intelligence Estimate suggested it was. ("The Iraq conflict
has become the 'cause célèbre' for jihadists, breeding a deep
resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world, and cultivating supporters
for the global jihadist movement.")
Iraq is proving the central training ground and testing field for the renewed
Afghan rebellion. The Taliban, this summer and fall, returned to the battle
in Afghanistan in force (with plans to continue
their offensive well into that country's bitter winter) and with some
techniques clearly imported from Iraq. So, the use of sophisticated IED or roadside
explosive devices and of suicide
bombers, as well as targeted
assassinations of government officials, have been on the rise all techniques
pulled directly off the Iraqi battlegrounds; while foreign jihadists are now,
according to Sebastian Rotella of the
Los Angeles Times, choosing Afghanistan over Iraq as the prime place
to make a stand (as it was during the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s).
Meanwhile, NATO and U.S. forces in that country find themselves engaged in
the kind of warfare that results, as in Iraq, in high body counts but also generates
lots of enemies in the long run, fueling the Taliban's war. (As one
British officer put it, "For every Taliban you kill, you recruit three or
four more.") From simple
cultural ignorance to the slaughter of civilians from
the air and even the
desecration of the dead, not to mention the imprisonment of the living,
Western forces are acting in ways that can't help but bring events in Iraq to
mind. NATO (and American) casualties have been on the rise; troops have been
locked down and increasingly isolated in some Afghan cities for fear of suicide
bombers; while unease, not to say disgruntlement, is growing among commanders
who, as with Iraq, are starting to go public. Just this weekend, Prime Minister
Tony Blair's most trusted military commander and confidant, General
the Lord Guthrie "branded as 'cuckoo' the way Britain's overstretched army
was sent into Afghanistan."
And then there are the drugs. Afghanistan is now the globe's prime narco-state.
Ann Jones, whose vivid memoir, Kabul
in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan, is riveting reading, plunges
into the Alice-in-Wonderland world of drug-eradication efforts in that land
and shows why our Afghan programs are headed for the nearest cliff. Tom
What Are They Smoking?
The Bush war on Afghan drugs
by Ann Jones
On the fifth anniversary of the start of the Bush
administration's Afghan War, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld wrote an upbeat op-ed
in the Washington Post on that hapless 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 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." Lt. Gen. David
Richards, the British commander of NATO troops that took over security in embattled
southern Afghanistan from the U.S. 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
months the mission the U.S. 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 percent of the world's heroin supply? And what are
we to make of 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 narcotraffickers" 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 U.S. 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, U.S. 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 U.S., hasn't
made a dent. Last year, it claimed to have destroyed 38,000 acres of poppies,
up from 12,000 the year before; but during the same period overall poppy cultivation
soared from 104,000 hectares to 165,000 hectares (or 408,000 acres).
When the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, poppies were
grown on only 7,600 hectares. Under the American 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 percent.
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, President
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 U.S. 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 Pervez
Musharraf and Afghanistan's Karzai at the White House. Like the way that Pakistan
reluctantly hands over some al-Qaeda operatives to the U.S., 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 our axis-of-evil enemy Iran, while
our "staunch ally" Pakistan lends support to the trade and to the Taliban as
If we must worry about poppy production while all hell breaks loose in south
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's
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 fact certain.
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 street in Kabul points to poppy as the source
of jobs, wealth, hope, and such stability as President 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 American 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 U.S. government is itself implicated in the
Afghan drug trade. During the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, the CIA fostered
anti-Soviet Islamist extremists, and to finance their covert operations, it
fostered the drug trade as well. Before the American and Pakistani-sponsored
mujahedeen 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 mujahedeen 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 U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush administration made use
of our old Islamist allies, paying them millions of dollars to hunt Osama bin
Laden, a task to which they do not appear to have been entirely devoted. Asked
in 2004 why the U.S. wasn't going after drug kingpins in Afghanistan, an unnamed
U.S. official told a
New York Times reporter that the drug lords were "the guys who helped
us liberate this place in 2001," the guys we were still relying on to get bin
Laden. Interviewed by the British Independent, a U.S. soldier offered
another reason: "We start
taking out drug guys, and they will start taking out our guys." Reluctant to
interfere with our drug-lord allies in the Global War on Terror or risk the
lives of U.S. 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 $3 billion this year; but international
traffickers in the global marketplace will make 10 times as much, at the very
The small percentage 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 percent 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 U.S. designated in the last 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 American campaign of defoliant aerial spraying of poppy fields
that killed poppies and sickened children and livestock. The U.S. 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
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
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 pain killers. (Recently hospitalized
in the U.S., 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, George W. Bush, backed by the civilian leadership
of the Pentagon and powerful Republican Congressmen like Henry Hyde of Illinois,
suddenly increased U.S. funds committed to the conventional Afghan war on
drugs sixfold to $780 million, including $150 million designated for aerial
still on the case as chair 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 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
So you see what I mean about the weird policies a government such as ours
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 our NATO allies pray for a break in battling the Taliban so that with
time running out they can rebuild.
Ann Jones spent the better part of the last four years in Afghanistan, working
on education and women's rights and watching. She wrote about what she saw
in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan Books, 2006).
Copyright 2006 Ann Jones