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Doing Afghan Drugs

Drug addicts are pathetic but sometimes happy people.  They are pitiable in their hopeless enslavement to something that dominates and will probably kill them, but seem content in a warped sort of way because they can be taken out of their bleak and dismal lives into who knows what warm and cozy cocoons of whirligig private ecstasy by use of narcotics that will ravage their minds and bodies.

Rehab International, one of these saintly organizations that receives little publicity but does enormous good, notes that “Over four million US citizens have admitted to using heroin at least once throughout their lives; such statistics are most likely a reflection of the minimum number of people who have tried heroin, underestimating the true magnitude of the problem.  More than 80 percent of heroin imports into the United States are derived from Afghanistan alone.”

This is an appalling and inexcusable situation.

Before the Russian and American invasions of Afghanistan, growth of opium poppy was insignificant.  Only tiny amounts were involved, mostly packages of dry opium produced for Western hippies passing through in vacant-minded pursuit of nirvana.  But now there is massive production of heroin in Afghanistan, because of international demand.  It has become a huge industry that produces at least tenth of the country’s income.  In real terms — in cash in local pockets — the proportion is much greater because growing poppies sustains thousands of communities. Conversion into heroin is simple and produces even more money.

Afghan poppy farmers benefit from an easily-grown cash crop, as do their families, villages and tribes. They don’t make as much as the local buyers or the legions of sleazy officials and politicians who plunge their snouts in the trough along the way;  Afghanistan, after all, is the second most corrupt country in the world.  But even politicians and processors don’t get as much as the eventual sellers in the west, who make most money of all in this loathsome chain of destruction for profit.  But why does it exist?

The only reason Afghan (or any other) farmers grow poppies for heroin is because there is an international market for their product.  Were there no foreign, and especially Western, heroin addicts and traffickers, there would be few poppy fields in Afghanistan.

The problem is obvious, but what can be done about it?  The country has been occupied by scores of thousands of foreign troops for ten dismal years, and there are many hard-working, warm-hearted, humanitarian aid agencies of all descriptions.  But poppy production has grown enormously, with occasional setbacks caused by adverse climate and plant disease rather than half-baked eradication programs.

It is amazing — and a prime example of institutional self-delusion — that the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, is claiming success in countering the poppy boom.  On December 2 its spokesman, a Disney character called Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, announced that “Narcotics trafficking has been a key generator of funding for the insurgency, but that source of revenue is diminishing. Afghan security forces, together with ISAF partners, seized an incredible amount of illicit drugs and related material in 2011 versus 2010.”   It is pathetic that ISAF and US spokesmen have to highlight “Afghan security forces” in media statements because they have been ordered to spread the fable that Afghan troops are “standing up” (fatuous phrase) and taking over from foreign “partners”.

I remember this sort of rubbish only too well, from serving in Vietnam. It was intended that Vietnamese troops would take over from the US army and its “allies”;  it didn’t work then, and it won’t work now in Afghanistan. “Vietnamisation” was a mirthless and very cruel joke. The “Five o’clock Follies”, as the US daily media briefing in Saigon was known, had lots of Jacobsons spouting this sort of drivel.

Even if an operation involves only ten Afghan army soldiers, tacked on to a hundred US special forces and supported by airstrikes from US helicopters and C-130 gunships and F-18 fighters (I describe, exactly, the US operation across Pakistan’s border that killed 24 Pakistan army soldiers and wounded 13 others last November 26), the impression has to be given that the Afghan army is increasingly and efficiently assuming responsibility in the war.   This is baloney;  but duplicity and half-truths go even further.  On January 24 jocular Jacobson announced that “Over 97,975 kg of opium, 8,823 kg of heroin, 61,168 kg of marijuana and 148,875 kg of hashish was [sic] seized during counter narcotic operations in Afghanistan last year.”  This sounds impressive, but when we consider that the total of all types of seized drugs was 350 tons, and production of opium poppy alone was 5,800 tons, it isn’t quite as striking.  Figures in kilograms are so much more attractive to public relations mouthpieces, especially if comparative amounts are omitted.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has produced accurate figures for drug production which invalidate ISAF claims that there has been anything approaching success in curtailing cultivation and sales. Its 2011 Afghan Opium Survey records that “Opium poppy-crop cultivation in Afghanistan reached 131,000 hectares in 2011, 7 per cent higher than in 2010.” Yields were  “back to around 45 kg per hectare, potentially raising opium production to 5,800 tons —  up 61 per cent from 3600 tons produced in 2010.” The UN estimates that about 10%  of opium profits within Afghanistan go to the insurgents and 20% to the farmers, with the rest pocketed by corrupt officials and other criminals further up the supply and export chain.

This makes nonsense of ISAF’s declaration by the imaginative Jacobson that “Counter-narcotics operations are successfully disrupting the insurgents’ ability to process opium into heroin. We will continue to choke off revenue generated by the sale of illicit drugs in 2012.”  It isn’t the insurgents who are getting anything like the most out of all this criminal activity,  and it is downright dishonest to imply that this is so.

In parts of Helmand Province the British have had modest success in encouraging alternative crops, mainly wheat, but poppy cultivation will continue, and there is no overall ISAF/US policy to combat it.  Afghanistan is in chaos. Socially, politically, militarily and economically it is a disaster area, a pathetic caricature of a country with little resemblance to a nation.

None of the billions of dollars poured into it with such well-meaning and atrociously bungled abandon has made it a more livable place for ordinary people. There has been scandalous waste of money wrenched from hundreds of millions of foreign taxpayers in order to bolster the notion that Afghanistan will be a governable country in three years’ time.

The Human Rights Watch 2011 Report records that

“The Afghan government continues to give free rein to well-known warlords and human rights abusers as well as corrupt politicians and businesspeople . . .  Civilian casualties rose again, with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recording 1,462 conflict-related civilian deaths in the first six months of the year, a 15 percent increase since 2010 . . .  One in seven Afghan soldiers, a total of 24,000, deserted in the first six months of the year, twice as many as in 2010.”

Foreign troops continue their costly operations, and take hideous casualties — mainly of young soldiers.  Look at the record of some recent deaths:  US Corporal Jon-Luke Bateman, aged 22;  US Private Dustin Napier, 20; UK Private John King, just 19 . . .   on and on the toll continues — and what did they die for?  Did they die so that the corrupt and venal elite who run the country can continue to make money from their criminal capers?  And think of the thousands of young soldiers who have been grievously wounded in the prime of their lives. They live on, to be sure —  but maimed in mind and body,  the politicians’ victims of a needless war.

Bear in mind John Kerry’s words on April 23 1971 (when I was in the middle of my Vietnam tour, incidentally; and I scoffed at him at the time — we all did —  how dim-witted we were),  when he asked Congress “how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?  How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

The starry-eyed Brigadier General Jacobson claimed on January 23 that  Kabul is now “a thriving commercial capital, able to absorb and respond to spectacular attempts to disrupt security with resolute response to insurgent attacks, leaving the insurgents largely in a state of failure.”  This bizarre pronouncement was made six weeks after over 50 Afghans were killed in a suicide attack in the city, and only ten weeks after ten Americans died in a suicide car bombing.  What planet is he on?  Certainly there are masses of people with government connections and patronage who are “thriving” and indeed spectacularly prosperous, living in luxurious well-guarded compounds in Kabul, with glitzy villas and lotsa cash in Dubai — and in the main they are evil thugs who indulge in blatant corruption, so much of which is engendered by the vast and lucrative drug trade.

It would not be difficult to implement an effective counter-drug production policy in Afghanistan —  if the Kabul government wanted to do so and if governments of countries having armed forces there would agree to an all-out program.  Many aid agencies and think tanks have come up with plans which, with a bit of twitching and realism, would contribute to reducing the heroin menace.

But nobody in any of the foreign high military commands is interested. These Western martial people live in their own gilded and magnificently superior macho-techno world, determined to exterminate, with hi-tech precision,  but with cultural ignorance and staggering arrogance,  all Afghans who are determined to rid their country of foreigners, just as they have succeeded in doing for centuries.  (The other Afghans take their money and laugh.  And wait.)   But according to Brigadier General Jacobson, the foreign forces he represents have the insurgents on the run, and  “will continue to defeat them on the battlefield.”

He and his superiors are living in a warm and cozy cocoon of whirligig private ecstasy.

Brian Cloughley’s website is www.beecluff.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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