Poppy Wars

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 six 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 well.

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 least.

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 they’re planting poppies again.

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 a plan.

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 spraying. Hyde, 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 his report.

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 Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan Books, 2006).

Copyright 2006 Ann Jones

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.