Hooked on a Failing

First they said it was a war against al-Qaeda. Then, when they failed to find Osama bin Laden and his henchmen, they said it was a war to topple the Taliban and liberate women from the burqa. Now, as Western troops continue to dig themselves into Afghanistan more than five years after 9/11, they’re calling it a “war on drugs.” One of the key justifications for the continuing presence of American, British, Australian, Spanish, Italian, and other forces in Afghanistan is to stem the growth of poppy fields, which reportedly provide the raw materials for 90 percent of the world’s heroin. According to Condoleezza Rice, if this “drug economy” is left unchallenged Afghanistan might well become a “failed state” and threaten stability around the world with its ceaseless export of narcotics.

Nothing better sums up the folly of Western intervention in Afghanistan than this latest metamorphosis into a “war on drugs.” In targeting Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation, America and Britain in particular are effectively externalizing their own social problems on to faraway fields. They are attempting to tackle the disillusionment and decadence within their own societies – which is what gives rise in the first place to a steady demand in the West for escapist and trip-inducing narcotics – by eradicating Afghan farms and severely punishing Afghan farmers who are merely responding to that Western demand. Not for the first time in recent years, Western powers are using brute military force overseas in an attempt to resolve a deep social and political malaise at home.

A large part of both Britain and America’s intervention in Afghanistan is now geared toward trying to eradicate drug production. Earlier this year 3,000 British troops arrived in southern Afghanistan to “assist” Afghan security forces in the eradication of poppy fields. According to one report, the British are “leading the anti-narcotics campaign.” They’re focusing their efforts on the Helmand province in the south in particular, which apparently produces a third of the world’s heroin. The British air assault force, led by the Parachute Regiment, provides cover and backup to Afghan troops who seal off suspected poppy-growing areas and then call in Afghan police to use tractors and plows to destroy the fields. On the ground, the eradication effort is led by Gen. Daud Daud, the former military commander of the Northern Alliance who now plays a leading role in the U.S.- and British-backed Ministry of Counter Narcotics.

Not surprisingly, given that many poor farmers in the south rely on poppy cultivation for their livelihoods, these British-led efforts to wipe out poppy farms have intensified local conflict. It is reported that Islamic militants, including Taliban members who once opposed poppy cultivation, have now joined forces with drug traders to hold back British and Afghan security forces. As one Helmand resident and Taliban fighter said defiantly earlier this year: “Would the British let us send soldiers to take over their country…?”

Western governments have pumped an estimated $2 billion into the counter-narcotics industry in Afghanistan since 2001, helping to turn the country into one of the most authoritarian regimes on Earth when it comes to dealing with drug-related crimes. The Bush administration alone has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the “war on drugs”: it funds programs to eradicate poppy fields and “educate” farmers about alternative crops, the building of high-security prisons for drug offenders and traffickers, and the training of special anti-narcotics police officers, prosecutors, and judges. With American backing and money, the Karzai government has brought in some harsh anti-drug laws. The Counter Narcotics Drug Law of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, brought in by Karzai in 2005, decrees that, “No person shall cultivate, produce, process, manufacture, trade, distribute, possess, supply, traffic, transport, transfer, acquire, purchase, sell, import, export, or transit … prohibited plants and substances with no medical use [or] strictly controlled plants and substances with a medical use,” unless they have a license from a “special committee.”

You break these laws at your peril: those found in possession of 5kg or more of heroin, morphine, or cocaine (or “any mixture containing those substances”) will be sentenced to life imprisonment; even those found in possession of 10kg or more of cannabis, a relatively harmless drug that is widespread in the West, can be imprisoned for between 10 and 15 years. Last weekend, a man was found guilty of possessing 37 pounds of heroin; it had been discovered in his car as he drove across Afghanistan to a city near the border with Iran. He claimed he didn’t know the heroin was there. No evidence was presented against him, there were no witnesses, and according to one account, “there were glaring gaps in the police report.” Yet the judges in this juryless special narcotics court – one of those set up at the behest and with the funding of Western governments – sentenced him to 16 years in one of Afghanistan’s grim prisons.

American and British leaders said they ventured to Afghanistan after 9/11 in order to liberate it from the grip of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This doesn’t look much like liberation. The Western-backed Karzai government has effectively criminalized millions of its own citizens by making poppy cultivation and drug-selling into the worst offenses in the New Afghanistan; it has also brought in a raft of hugely illiberal laws and courts to punish those citizens who refuse to toe the line. At the same time, Afghan security forces, backed by British fighter planes, harass poppy farmers and destroy their fields. This has massively exacerbated divisions in Afghanistan, especially between Karzai’s Kabul and the south of the country. Many have expressed surprise that Islamic militants and Taliban members, who previously were violently opposed to drugs, have joined forces with drug barons in the south. In fact, it seems logical. Western powers and their allies in Afghanistan have made poppy eradication into their defining mission, and used it to justify increasingly stringent security and legal measures – so it is not surprising that those who oppose the West and the Karzai regime should decide to take the side of the poppy cultivators and drug dealers.

Earlier this week, President Bush said that poppy eradication remained a priority for Western forces and their allies in Afghanistan. He argued that “failure to act decisively now could undermine security, compromise democratic legitimacy, and imperil international support for vital assistance.” In Bush’s narrow view, it is the drug industry that is causing instability, both in Afghanistan and also internationally. This gets things entirely the wrong way around: in truth, it is the instability wrought by America and Britain’s war that allowed poppy cultivation and drug-trading to flourish once more. The Taliban, also through brute force and threats of death, outlawed poppy cultivation in 2001. As a consequence, the number of acres under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan fell from more than 200,000 in the year 2000 to just 19,800 in 2001. Following the fall of the Taliban, the number of acres used for growing poppies has risen exponentially, from around 180,000 in 2002 to 200,000 in 2003, and from 256,900 in 2005 to a whopping 407,600 in 2006. Between 2005 and 2006 the number of Afghan workers involved in poppy cultivation rose from 2 million to 2.9 million, and production levels rose from 4,500 tons to 6,700 tons.

The drug industry in Afghanistan is not the cause of instability; rather it has been a beneficiary of the West’s postwar instability. Following America and Britain’s invasion and the victory of the Northern Alliance in 2001, the country fragmented, with various “warlords” and tribal chiefs asserting their authority in different provinces. This meant that profitable poppy growth could be kick-started once more, benefiting both poor local farmers and also tribal leaders. The West’s transformation of Afghanistan into a battlefield in the war on drugs is likely to exacerbate tensions further between Kabul and local leaders, stirring up potential conflict for the future. In declaring war on drugs in Afghanistan, Western governments are trying to rein in the instability unleashed by their own invasion, while storing up bigger problems for themselves in the future.

More to the point, it is ludicrous to believe that Western powers can resolve today’s “drug problem” by using force and emergency measures in a faraway land. The reason why nearly 3 million Afghans are employed in the poppy-cultivation business is because it is profitable – and the reason it is profitable is because there is a demand for drugs primarily in the West itself. It is estimated that 90 percent of the heroin dealt on British streets comes from Afghanistan. This suggests there is a drug problem in Britain rather than in Afghanistan, a demand and a desire for drugs among British youth that Afghan farmers are merely offering to satisfy in order to make a living.

A report from the UK Home Office provided a breakdown of the number of “occasional” drug users in Britain: apparently 3.2 million use cannabis, 358,000 use cocaine, 432,000 take ecstasy tabs, 270,000 take heroin, and 178,000 use crack. Drug use is also widespread in parts of America, especially among the young. Of course, these figures must be taken with a very large dose of salt; governments are good at exaggerating their own drug problems in order to justify police and legal intervention into people’s lives. However, the growth of the “drug culture” in the West over the past four decades does point to a problem: it captures the lowered horizons and diminished expectations of contemporary Western society, where so many feel the need to turn to drugs for a thrill or a sense of meaning. The drug problem has its origins not in the poppy fields of Afghanistan, but in Western society itself, where some try to compensate for the deficiencies of contemporary life and politics by submerging themselves in the artificial ecstasy provided by drugs.

In Afghanistan, Western governments are effectively seeking to resolve their own crises of legitimacy and purpose, which has allowed an alternative, anti-mainstream drug culture to emerge, by destroying poppy fields and harshly punishing poppy farmers. It is a displacement activity of quite breathtaking proportions, which does nothing to address drug problems within the West but an awful lot to intensify tensions and divisions in Afghanistan. We have been here before: in the early 1990s, George Bush Sr. took part in a “war on drugs” in Colombia, sponsoring local vigilantes to hunt down and execute drug barons who were supplying narcotics to America. This intervention, too, provoked further instability in Colombia while failing to address what it is about contemporary America that creates a high demand for the artificial highs provided by illicit substances.

The current war on drugs in Afghanistan provides a clear snapshot of what motivates Western military intervention today: not any genuine commitment to democracy and liberation, but rather a desperate search for a sense of meaning in battles overseas because there is little at home. But if the American and British governments really believe they can resolve their own profound political and moral crises by punishing poppy farmers thousands of miles away, then they must be on something.

Author: Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill is editor of Spiked in London.