Ever heard of Mr Loren Stoddard? I’m tempted to advise you to Stay That Way, but to give an illustration of how absurd and disastrous are Washington’s policies in Afghanistan it is of interest to consider his performance. Bush of Washington sets an example by being ignorant of many things, and Stoddard of Kabul follows him by being magnificently uninformed about Afghanistan.
In spite of his lack of knowledge of the country and its customs and culture Mr Stoddard has been made Director of USAID’s Afghanistan program. Before this he “helped Wal-Mart move into Central America” when he was USAID Supremo in that unfortunate region. So of course he is superbly qualified to direct American aid projects in a country of which he is profoundly ignorant. Stand by, Wal-Mart, for a leg-up from your devoted admirer.
With tongue firmly in cheek, David Rohde of the New York Times reported that “On Wednesday [August 21], Mr. Stoddard and Rory Donohoe, the director of the American development agency’s Alternative Livelihoods program in southern Afghanistan, attended the first ‘Helmand Agricultural Festival.’ The $300,000 American-financed gathering in Lashkar Gah [population 45,000] was an odd cross between a Midwestern county fair and a Central Asian bazaar, devised to show Afghans an alternative to [growing] poppies.”
Helmand is a disaster area in which British soldiers are sacrificing their lives for nothing. And I feel strongly about this because soldiers and officers of my old Regiment have died for no reason. If they had been killed destroying poppy fields that produce heroin which then kills thousands of young British drug addicts, perhaps I might be able to understand and even support the British presence in Afghanistan. But these soldiers aren’t there to stop drug production. In fact nobody’s quite sure why they are there at all, least of all the soldiers, one of whom emailed recently to say exactly that.
So we must remember that Mr Stoddard is not alone, because London declares that “The UK assumed control of the Province Reconstruction Team in Lashkar Gah in May 2006. Despite difficult working conditions in the toughest of environments Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development in Helmand province to provide a seamless package of reconstruction assistance. The UK is delivering reconstruction, recovery and development activity to a part of Afghanistan that the Afghan Government and the international community is committed to helping succeed.” I won’t describe the rest of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s ungrammatical PR pomposity about Helmand, save to say that rarely have I read such piddling tripe. A “seamless package” ? . . . “delivering recovery activity” ? – you couldn’t parody this twaddle without being accused of overkill.
But if Mr Stoddard is in charge in Helmand, can it be presumed that Britain has not “assumed control”? After all, the UK was supposed to take the lead in combating drug production in Afghanistan.
The head of the UN’s anti-drugs office, Mr Antonio Maria Costa, said recently that “Helmand province is on the verge of becoming the world’s biggest drug supplier, with the dubious distinction of cultivating more drugs than entire countries such as Myanmar, Morocco or even Colombia.” But never fear, Mr Antonio Maria Costa : the USAID Batman has arrived, cape flying, eyes agleam, with Robin Donohoe in tow, to bring Washington’s anti-poppy culture to the admiring citizens of Lashkar Gah. He might even have a seamless package to deliver recovery activity.
The fatuous duo of Stoddard and Donohoe “arrived [and] walked through the festival surrounded by a three-man British and Australian security team armed with assault rifles. ‘Who won the cow? Who won the cow?’ shouted Mr. Stoddard, 38, a burly former food broker from Provo, Utah. ‘Was it a girl or a guy?’ After Afghans began dancing to traditional drum and flute music, Mr. Donohoe, 29, from San Francisco, briefly joined them.” (Knowing a little bit about the tribes in the region I can just imagine their reaction to that little bit of cross-cultural activity.
The phrase “was it a girl or a guy” used by the sophisticated Mr Stoddard is only one indication of his profound ignorance of the country in which he heads an agency responsible for billions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money, of which he wasted 300,000 on a futile jamboree.
If Mr Stoddard imagines for one second that women in Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province (or anywhere else in Afghanistan) can own cows, he is a fool. If he thinks that a woman could enter a raffle to win a cow (“a generator, cow and goat were raffled off”) he is demonstrating a staggering lack of knowledge of regional custom for which he can be offered only deep sympathy. There were no women at Mr Stoddard’s absurd ‘Festival’. Women don’t go to social gatherings in Afghanistan. Mr Stoddard obviously doesn’t know that even the wife of the President of Afghanistan, a medical doctor, does not appear in public.
And it isn’t just Mr Stoddard’s ignorance of national customs that is so laughable. He “cited American-financed agricultural fairs, the introduction of high-paying legal crops and the planned construction of a new industrial park and airport as evidence that alternatives [to poppy growing] were being created.”
The man is in cloud-cuckoo land. An industrial park? – In a province where electricity is a rarity and there is no commercial infrastructure of any description? One could be forgiven for imagining that Mr Stoddard might have been inhaling products inducing a high credibility threshold.
There are no “high-paying” legal crops in Helmand province. Some nuts are exported to the Gulf, but generally people grow enough plants (wheat, barley, fruit, vegetables) for their own sustenance and to sell a bit to their neighbors and use most of their fields to grow poppy because the warlords and the criminals many of both being government ministers pay reasonably well.
Sure, some cash ends up in the hands of the evil and disgusting Taliban religious fanatics who move between Pakistan and Afghanistan, killing at whim the while and blowing themselves up in murderous futility; but drug money isn’t nearly the insurrectionist problem the would-be mind-benders would have us believe. The billions of dollars (not just millions; we’re talking real money here) created from Afghanistan’s poppies go to thuggish Afghan warlords and Afghan army generals; to many members of President Karzai’s own government (some of whom are thuggish warlords and generals) ; to Uzbek, Pakistani, Iranian, Tajik, Turkmen and, increasingly, Han Chinese middle-men in the west of the PRC (big problem on the rise there for China); to Pakistani tribals who have been smuggling drugs since time was invented; to freelance ruffians of all descriptions, and, above all and most lucratively, to Western criminals who appear immune to the efforts of US and British law-enforcement agencies to put them behind bars.
Within Afghanistan the stink of drug corruption is as obvious and calamitous as it is in London or New York.
Here’s Declan Walsh of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, a fine reporter from one of the two British newspapers having an objective view on world events. He is ” . . . a few streets from Mr Karzai’s presidential palace in Sherpur, a gleaming new neighborhood in central Kabul [where] dozens of giant gaudy mansions squeeze into small plots. Pink or green windows, towering Roman columns and mirrored cupolas peek over high walls and concrete blast barriers. A giant stone eagle perches on one roof. The British embassy stands across the road. A property agent stood on the roof of one glass-walled mansion, pointing at the neighbors and naming the owners. ‘General in the army. General. Minister. Warlord,’ he said.”
You would think that such a report might raise an eyebrow among the hundreds of diplomats, anti-drug experts, spooks and international advisers who sit in well-guarded compounds in Kabul and a few other places in Afghanistan. Not a hope. All these people know very well that Afghan army generals are paid only a few hundred dollars a month – a generous salary in Afghanistan, to be sure (their soldiers get $80 a month), but they also know that such an amount isn’t enough to live in luxury. Government ministers earn even less, but have even more opulent lifestyles. It would take only a few days to present evidence of corruption that would convict the known criminals.
But nobody is going to rock the sleaze boat in Afghanistan.
The anti-drug effort in Afghanistan is a farce. There is talk at the moment of aerial spraying to eradicate the crop in Spring next year. Of course that would play right into the hands of the insurgents who have already convinced much of Afghanistan’s population that occupation by foreign forces is simply a rerun of the years when troops of the former Soviet Union went round blitzing villages.
If the nations with troops in Afghanistan are serious about eradicating the drug trade they would combine their best brains (which automatically excludes Mr Stoddard) and produce a workable plan (not a fatuous “seamless package”) to wipe out poppy, jail the drug thugs and introduce controlled compensation. Mind you, it’s all very well to blame the Afghans for producing poppies, opium and heroin. What they are doing is meeting market demand. After all, there would be no drug production in Afghanistan if there wasn’t a welcoming market in the drug-loving prosperous West. The drug world is very flat indeed.
BRIAN CLOUGHLEY is a former army officer who writes on political and military affairs. His website is www.briancloughley.com