Pubdate: Sun, 11 Feb 2007
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Simon Jenkins


Last week Nato defence ministers met in Seville to review the coming 
spring offensive in Afghanistan. It was like Great War generals 
dining in Versailles to discuss the trenches. The new Nato commander, 
US General John Craddock, asked for 2,000 more troops. Just one more 
push and the Taliban would be defeated, the Afghan army readied to 
fight, the opium dealers arrested and more aid committed to 
reconstruction. It was as simple as that. Anyone for paella?

How does this strategy look from the other place in the world where 
it is being tried, Colombia? This month Washington is redeploying one 
of its star diplomats, William Wood, from Bogota to Kabul with the 
enthusiastic blessing of the Pentagon. Wood has been overseeing Plan 
Colombia, President Clinton's eight-year effort to fight the cocaine 
cartels and left-wing insurgents and make Latin America safe for 

Wood will be joining the new US Nato commander in Kabul, General Dan 
McNeill, and reversing the allegedly feeble policies of the outgoing 
British commander, General David Richards. The fourfold increase in 
violence over the past year is attributed by the Americans to an 
excess of soft hearts and minds. Wood will want to beef up poppy 
eradication to starve the insurgency of revenue.

Colombia is undeniably a country which, six years ago, faced 
disaster. Main roads were blocked by mafiosi and kidnappings and 
massacres were endemic. Drug lords, revolutionaries and right-wing 
paramilitaries fought for control of a trade that supplied 90% of 
America's cocaine. The Cali and Medellin cartels offered to finance 
public services and pay off Colombia's foreign debt in return for 
quasi-recognition by Bogota. This admirably capitalist innovation - 
de facto legalising supply - was too much for the Americans.

Instead Washington pumped $600m a year into Colombia's army and 
police, enabling the central government to reestablish a measure of 
command over its own country. An independent, Alvaro Uribe, was 
elected president in 2002 and hurled men and money at security. The 
murder rate fell by a third and kidnappings by two thirds. Most of 
Colombia is now as safe as anywhere in Latin America. Uribe was 
reelected last year with 62% of the vote in a fair election.

Uribe cannot stem the cocaine trade. Crop-spraying shifts production 
into Bolivia, Peru and the Amazon jungle, where mile upon mile of 
virgin forest is lost to coca each year, an ecological disaster that 
is a direct result of western drugs policy. As long as prohibition 
sustains a lucrative market for narcotics, countries such as Colombia 
will supply it. Traditional coca-growing nations on the Andean spine 
will have their politics and economics blighted by criminality. 
Growth will be stifled and governments left vulnerable to left-wing 
rebellion. The war on drugs is the stupidest war on earth.

The best that elected leaders such as Uribe can hope for is to 
establish a desperate equilibrium: drug suppliers kept relatively 
nonviolent while right-wing vigilantes are half-tolerated to 
counterbalance left-wing guerrillas. The only test is survival and as 
long as Uribe survives America smiles. On an increasingly rabid 
antiAmerican continent he is one sure ally.

Cut to Afghanistan. Here, too, the West is intervening in a 
narco-economy that is destabilising a pro-western government. Here, 
too, quantities of aid have been dedicated to security yet have fed 
corruption. Here, too, intervention has boosted drug production and 
stacked the cards against law and order. This year's Afghan poppy 
crop is predicted to be the largest on record. European demand has 
boosted the price paid for Afghan poppies to nine times that of 
wheat. At this differential a policy of crop substitution is absurd.

Afghanistan is not Colombia. Here the West is not using a local 
government to implement its drugs and counter-insurgency policy. Some 
40,000 Nato troops from more than 30 different countries are gathered 
in Kabul. Since many of them refuse to fight, the city has become a 
holiday camp for the world's military elite. Outside the capital, 
military occupation acts as a recruiting sergeant for insurgency, 
leaving Nato bases constantly on the defensive. The war in 
Afghanistan is proving that an enemy can be held at bay but only at 
vast expense in money and casualties. It will not be defeated.

The British policy of occupying small towns to win hearts and minds 
has been a bloody failure. It was wisely replaced last autumn with 
deals struck with local power brokers, the so-called Musa Qala and 
Helmand protocols. Up to $5m is handed over to any warlord who can 
claim provincial control, accepting the pragmatism of the Afghan 
president, Hamid Karzai, who on January 29 even called for 
negotiation with the Taliban. The local British commander, Brigadier 
Jerry Thomas, was explicit in seeking to "empower local people to use 
traditional tribal structures . . . to find an Afghan solution to an 
Afghan problem". In truth, there is no other conceivable way to 
disengage from this mess. A similar "endgame" is being pursued by the 
new American commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, in securing 
safe areas policed by local militias.

Now the Americans wish to reverse British realpolitik. To them what 
Afghanistan needs is a taste of Colombia and Ambassador Wood.

Musa Qala must be reoccupied and poppy-spraying must commence. This 
defies the view of western intelligence in Kabul which has been 
convinced that America's heavy-handed tactics and addiction to aerial 
bombardment have cost the West five years in Afghanistan. Local 
commanders are equally opposed to the opium eradication that obsesses 
the defence ministry in London and the Foreign Office's Kim Howells. 
Apart from the futility of trying to spray so vast an area as 
Helmand, drug lords are the only counterweight to the Taliban. 
Poisoning Afghanistan's staple crop and contaminating fields and 
water supply will push up the price of opium and further breed hatred 
of the occupation. It is madness.

In Colombia the Americans achieved a sort of equilibrium because 
local politics was left to police the narco-economy. In Afghanistan 
Karzai is treated as an American puppet whose authority outside Kabul 
depends entirely on occupying forces. There is no way that provincial 
Afghanistan will be pacified by Nato and left to Karzai's army. 
Afghan troops (like the Iraqis) will not fight local militias. 
Training them to do so is pointless as they merely switch sides when 
the occupiers depart. Ask the few journalists brave enough to visit 
the battlefields of Helmand and the Pakistan border.

In Colombia the central government enjoyed sufficient democratic 
legitimacy for its army to drive insurgents into the jungle and 
induce the drug lords and paramilitaries to surrender (some of) their 
guns and power, albeit at a heavy cost in justice and human rights. 
Afghanistan has never enjoyed such central authority, except briefly 
under the Taliban. It will not do so under the guns of 30 occupying 
powers. The south of the country craves security and gets only bombs 
and bullets and is increasingly inclined to the iron rule of the 
Taliban. Since any prospective Karzai/Taliban coalition is unlikely 
to please the Tajiks and other tribes of the north, all western 
meddling will achieve is to set Afghanistan on the road back to the 1990s.

Having visited both Afghanistan and Colombia, I have no doubt that 
those countries' miseries start and end in narcotics. With an 
almighty and bloodthirsty effort, the production of cocaine in 
Colombia and opium in Afghanistan might possibly be displaced, but 
only to other benighted countries. What would be the point? As long 
as rich countries consume these substances in massive quantities it 
is hypocritical to lay waste the poor countries producing them and 
thus make them poorer.

Punishing supply is not a "parallel" policy to curbing demand, as 
economically illiterate policy makers pretend. Demand is never curbed 
by limiting supply, since supply responds to price. It just will not work.

Hence pretending to victory in Colombia is no different from staving 
off defeat in Afghanistan. Both are cruel expiations of western 
narco-guilt. The difference is that in Afghanistan intervention has 
led us into an unwinnable war.

Simon Jenkins's book, Thatcher & Sons, was last week named as Channel 
4 political book of the year
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MAP posted-by: Elaine