Pubdate: Fri, 04 May 2007
Source: Review, The (CN ON)
Copyright: 2007 Osprey Media Group Inc.
Author: Gwynne Dyer


"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 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
  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 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, 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  country."

Then the Taliban's house-guests, Osama bin Laden and  his al-Qaida
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
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

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 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: Derek