Pubdate: Wed, 02 May 2007
Source: Hamilton Spectator (CN ON)
Copyright: 2007 The Hamilton Spectator
Author: Gwynne Dyer
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. 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 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 Taliban regime is making an armed
comeback attempt.

The soldiers of ISAF do not want to be seen as destroyers of the poppy
crop because that would get lots of them killed (for the farmers can
turn into Taliban fighters overnight). It was allegedly a newly
arrived British Territorial Army (reserve) officer 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 Taliban and a "war on drugs"
successfully at the same time.

That was clearly understood at the time of the invasion in 2001. The
Taliban, 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 Taliban begged for Western aid for the distressed farmers, who
were only earning 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

Then the Taliban'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 Taliban 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 guerrilla war and ultimate humiliation
for the United States, just as it had done for the Soviet Union in the

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 Taliban 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 guerrilla war.

However, the United States now 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 over one-third of
Afghanistan's gross domestic product and almost all of its exports. So
the U.S. 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 6,400 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
U.S. and allied armies end up trying to destroy the farmers' crops.
The Taliban 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 6,400 tonnes by $200 a kilo, to outbid the drug
smugglers, and 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 South-East Asia. But
buying up the opium crop is about the only thing that would give ISAF
a chance of winning its increasingly nasty little war.
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MAP posted-by: Steve Heath