Pubdate: Fri, 04 May 2007
Source: Salmon Arm Observer (CN BC)
Copyright: 2007 Salmon Arm Observer
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

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' poppyfields?

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
come-back 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, but most other army officers in Afghan-istan,
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.

Then the Taliban's house-guests, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda
friends, carried out the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. Bin Laden
probably didn't mention this to the Taliban in advance, because
Afghan-istan was bound to get invaded as a result. In fact, he
almost certainly WANTED the U.S. to invade Afghanistan, imagining that
it would result in a long guerilla war and ultimate humiliation for
the U.S., just as it had done for the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The U.S. 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.

However, the U.S. 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.

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. 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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