Poppies Rising


“Opium production in Afghanistan, which provides more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin, broke all records in 2006, reaching a historic high despite ongoing US-sponsored eradication efforts, the Bush administration reported yesterday . . . . White House drug policy chief John Walters called the news “disappointing”.”

Washington Post, December 2, 2006


“Today we mark the fulfillment of the ambitious vision that we all set out together four years ago in Bonn, Germany: A fully functioning, sovereign Afghan government.”

Condoleezza Rice, January 31, 2006

Rice is a gifted intellectual with the common sense of a traveling rabbit, and is exactly the sort of person who is invaluable in the dysfunctional bunker in which lurks the Fuhrer of the United States, fantasizing, as did Adolf in the mad chaotic days before the fall of Berlin, that some miracle will save his lunatic régime. Among so many matters of pressing importance that the Bush ménage considers a low priority is the débâcle in Afghanistan, and especially the ineffectiveness of Afghanistan’s totally non-functional government concerning the heroin trade.

So far as the use of the word “sovereign” by Rice is concerned, presumably she does not know that the Afghan government has no powers over the 40,000 foreign troops in the country, or over the countless thousands of “contractors” (as swaggering gun-toting foreign mercenaries are now known in Iraq and Afghanistan). If any of them imprisons or tortures or murders an Afghan civilian he is not held accountable under Afghan law (such, of course, as exists). This imperial arrogance is directly contrary to any idea of sovereignty. But who cares? Not Rice, drifting ever skywards in her cloudy little bubble of airy optimism.

The White House considers the explosion in Afghanistan’s drug production to be “disappointing”, which is a far cry from the verdict of grown-up observers who say it is catastrophic. For example, Mr Doug Wankel, director of the US Anti-narcotics Task Force in Afghanistan, says the country could be “taken down by this whole drugs problem”. He is obviously a man who analyses evidence and is not on message from the White House, so therefore can be listened to and trusted. He is joined in his warning by Nato’s Supreme Commander, US General Jones, who has said that the drug disaster is Afghanistan’s “Achilles’ heel”, which is an understatement.

Heroin-producing poppies have been grown in Afghanistan for centuries (remember the hippy trail of the 1970s?), but the real boom time came after the US bombed and invaded the country five years ago. The benefits of the global economy have been brought to the criminal entrepreneurs of Afghanistan in a very big way, because trade has followed the bombs.

The barbaric thugs who ran private armies around the country and produced most of the drugs were defeated by the equally barbaric Taliban in the late 90s, and opium/heroin production eventually collapsed. It was tiny in 2000-2001. But the fortunes of regional despots were to be restored.

The US poured in spooks of all shapes and sizes to buy the warlords before the bombing began at the end of 2001. During the massive air war against the Afghan government, the warlords’ private armies, with direction and encouragement from all sorts of weird Special Forces knuckle-draggers, slaughtered ignorant Taliban tribals and their own personal enemies by the thousands.

All the local warlords had to do, when they got the trust of the spooks, which wasn’t difficult, was to finger a long-time tribal rival and, Bingo!, the B-52s would be dropping 500 pounders on him before you could say “Fooled You Twice”.

An investigation by Associated Press reporter Andrew Selsky showed that all 83 Afghan prisoners in the Guantanamo Gulag who were sent back to Afghanistan were entirely innocent, like so many hundreds of others from all round the world. They had been freed because most had been reported to US forces for “tribal or personal rivalries” for which reports the warlords had collected millions of dollars for cooperating with a bunch of naïve and stupid cowboys whose irresponsible actions destroyed the lives of perfectly innocent people. And did anything happen to the gallant CIA/Special Forces’ morons who did this? In a pig’s ear. Decorations all round, more like.

So exit the Taliban and then came the drug boom on the re-entry of the warlords, laughing at the Americans up their capacious sleeves and all the way to their Swiss banks. Their lucrative enterprises were welcomed by their soul-mates in the West, who now make billions of dollars from selling high grade heroin, ironically in all the European countries that have troops in Afghanistan. The street price in Europe has fallen by two thirds in five years.

As the UN Office on Drugs and Crime observed in September 2006 :

“Afghans profit from the opium: so do foreigners [in] droves and by much greater amounts. Around the world, in too many financial centers and offshore tax havens, in too many banks and corporations, the income produced by illicit drug trafficking is laundered. Afghanistan gets a bad name [and] foreigners get a good income : $ 50 billion [a year].”

Almost all the heroin goes to Europe, although significant amounts are siphoned off (with less profit but equal social devastation) in Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics en route. These countries now have monster drug problems where none existed before. But only a tiny amount of Afghan heroin finds its way to the US. Which is probably why Washington has little interest in forging consensus about how to deal with the disaster, or in committing US troops and (most importantly) aid effort to eradicate production.

The egregious Senator McCain, never at a loss to trim his sails to what he imagines to be the prevailing wind, said on December 17 that it’s “important that our European friends and allies do more in the effort that has to be made to counter narcotics” and “We are indeed in danger of having Afghanistan becoming Europe’s Colombia.” But what does the master fence-sitter propose in real terms? What is “more”?

The Afghan drug shambles is a world problem for which the US must bear responsibility, as it is the prime international player in Afghanistan. If it wasn’t for American policy, there would be no other foreign troops in the country.

According to US official figures, over the past year there has been an increase of 26 percent in drug production, up to a total of 5,644 metric tons. The land area involved in poppy growing has “increased by 61 percent. Cultivation in the two main production provinces, Helmand in the southwest and Oruzgan in central Afghanistan, was up by 132 percent.”

And Mr John Walters of the White House calls this “disappointing”. How one envies his ability to describe a world catastrophe in such a trite and emollient fashion.

It was unfortunate for the White House, in its deep bunker denial mode, that the US drug survey of Afghanistan complemented and confirmed that of the UN. But as we know from its hostile reaction to the findings of the Iraq Survey Group the only reason the White House welcomes multiple reports is not in order to adopt the recommendations of the wisest but to use friendly ones to rebut any findings and recommendations that might be contrary to White House opinion. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime was clear and uncompromising in its stance concerning eradication of drug production in Afghanistan. But it could not expect even a cursory hearing from Cheney and Bush.

There is no point in tens of thousands of foreign troops chasing round the country after so-called Taliban when the biggest problem of all is that of drug production. And the reference to “so-called Taliban” is apposite, as NATO’s commander, the US General Jones, has stated bluntly that “There is a tendency to characterize all of the violence in Afghanistan as the resurgence of the Taliban. This is inaccurate. It doesn’t capture the nature of the problem.” He indicated that the violence had other causes, including “the strong presence of the drug cartels which have their own infrastructure, their own export system, their own security system . . . ” Of course he is right; but the White House fixation is on Big Pictures. The intricacies of Afghan society and the compulsions of its insurgents are of no interest to Cheney, Bush and Rice. According to US officialdom, Afghanistan has “a fully functioning sovereign government”. Ignorance is bliss, indeed.

The insurgents in Afghanistan are rapidly developing from fragmented and marginalised opposition figures into nationalists with widening popular appeal (it takes me back to Vietnam in 1970-71), and are making propaganda during the winter while the fields are barren. Come the first days of spring 2007 and the seeds will be sown : both poppy seeds and those for an increasingly barbaric war again foreign troops. Both will prosper, because the war in Afghanistan is being waged in entirely the wrong way and with the wrong priorities.

There is no accord among foreign nations with troops in Afghanistan as to how the drug menace should be tackled. Differing military rules of engagement, combined with opaque mission statements, have worked against establishment of cooperative effort. The oft-repeated foreign mantra that the Afghan government must take responsibility for poppy eradication is patently insupportable, as the incompetent and corrupt government of President Karzai, centrally and in the provinces, contains powerful figures close to or actually involved in the drug trade. He cannot act without massive, open and concerted support from his foreign backers whose lack of agreement on major policy matters has contributed significantly to instability.

Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, appealed in September 2006 for “NATO forces to destroy the heroin labs, disband the open opium bazaars, attack the opium convoys and bring to justice the big traders. I invite coalition countries to give NATO the mandate and resources required.”

As yet, nobody has accepted his invitation. Because nobody has the guts. It’s downhill all the way from now on.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY spent five weeks in October-December in Pakistan, with a visit to Afghanistan. He can be reached through his website at www.briancloughley.com.




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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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