Pubdate: Wed, 02 May 2007
Source: New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2007 New Zealand Herald
Author: Gwynne Dyer
Note: Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.
Bookmark: (Heroin)


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. The 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.

So does that mean that the ISAF really is going to destroy the 
farmers' poppy fields?

Well, not exactly. The latest plan is that it will be civilians who 
spray the farmers' fields with herbicides, while the Western soldiers 
just 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 Taleban regime is making an armed 
comeback attempt.

The ISAF soldiers do not want to be seen as destroyers of the poppy 
crop because that would get lots of them killed (the farmers can turn 
into Taleban fighters overnight).

It was allegedly a Territorial Army (reserve) officer newly arrived 
from Britain who "got a bit carried away with the language" 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 a war against the Taleban and a "war on drugs" 
successfully at the same time.

That was clearly understood at the time of the invasion in 2001. The 
Taleban, austere Islamist fanatics that they were, had eradicated 
poppy-growing entirely by 2000, by the simple expedient of hanging 
anybody they caught growing poppies.

The Taleban begged for Western aid for the distressed farmers, who 
were earning only 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 Taleban's house guests, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda 
friends, carried out the 9/11 attacks against the United States. Bin 
Laden probably didn't mention this to the Taleban in advance because 
Afghanistan was bound to get invaded as a result.

In fact he almost certainly wanted the United States to invade 
Afghanistan, imagining that it would result in a long guerilla war 
and ultimate humiliation for the United States, just as it had done 
for the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The United States dodged that bullet by not really invading 
Afghanistan at all. It simply contacted the various ethnic warlords 
who were already at war with the Taleban regime, gave them better 
weapons and lots of money, and left the fighting on the ground to 
them. It worked very well and there was no guerilla war.

However, the United States then depended on those warlords to keep 
Afghanistan quiet without flooding it with American troops (who were 
all heading for Iraq anyway).

The warlords needed cash flow, which meant poppies: opium and refined 
heroin account for more than a third of Afghanistan's gross domestic 
product and almost all of its exports.

So the US 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 either.

Opium production soared last year to 6400 tonnes and Afghanistan now 
produces 92 per cent of the world's heroin.

The "war on drugs" lobby in the United States insists that something 
be done about it, so the US and allied Armies end up trying to 
destroy the farmers' crops. The Taleban swallow their anti-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 the crop up.

Afghan farmers get paid considerably less than $100 a kilo for their 
raw opium. Multiply 6400 tonnes by $200 a kilo, to outbid the drug 
smugglers, and the ISAF could have bought up last year's entire 
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 per cent of 
Afghans who are involved in the opium trade.

Next year, of course, Afghan farmers would plant twice as many 
poppies so the costs of the operation would rise over time.

And nothing will stop the flow of heroin to the West: even if poppy 
production were entirely suppressed in Afghanistan it would simply 
move somewhere else, like the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia.

But buying up the opium crop is about the only thing that would give 
the ISAF a chance of winning its increasingly nasty little war.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake