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The New Surge in Afghanistan: Drug Production

Voutenay sur Cure, France.

All news coming out of Afghanistan is depressing, and it seems the country is collapsing more deeply into chaos day by day.  The new President, Ashraf Ghani, is a good man with progressive ideas for his people — but he’s taken over a country that has been wrecked by over a decade of war and Olympic-style corruption.  One of the worst  developments has been the enormous surge in production of opium poppies which, according to the UN and John Sopko, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, has hit “unprecedented” heights.

Mr Sopko, arguably the least popular person in official Washington (and therefore, by definition of that accolade, an honest man), told secretary of state John Kerry and defense secretary Chuck Hagel that “the recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts [to control and reduce production].”  But the “prior efforts” by the US and other foreign forces in Afghanistan have been so flawed as to be absurd.  If the catastrophe wasn’t so serious it would be hilarious.

The State Department came back at Sopko saying “Essentially, poppy cultivation has shifted from areas where government presence is broadly supported and security has improved, toward more remote and isolated areas where governance is weak and security is inadequate,” which is misleading to the verge of mendacity.   Then the Defense Department went further down the track of shameless blame-ducking by declaring that  “In our opinion, the failure to reduce poppy cultivation and increase eradication is due to the lack of Afghan government support for the effort.”

Mr Sopko records that in 2001-2014 the US spent over seven billion dollars on counter-narcotics programs in a country that now produces 80 percent of the world’s opium.  During the thirteen years of frantic money-chucking there were indeed various US efforts to control drug production, and exactly seven years ago I recounted how and why these exertions were doomed to failure.  Here is a shortened (not “redacted”) version of the piece with some explanatory figures given in square brackets:

The Flat Drug World.   October 13, 2007

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, 2007], 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.”

The head of the UN’s anti-drugs office, Mr Antonio Maria Costa, said recently [May 31, 2007] 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.

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 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) [2 billion dollars in 2012;  3 billion in 2013] 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.  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 [October 2007] 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” [the USAID phrase of the time]) 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.

* * * 

That was the state of Afghan drug production in 2007.  And as we hear in 2014 from the UN and the admirable Mr Sopko it has since surged to staggering proportions.  But is anyone going to be held accountable for the waste of 7.6 billion dollars of US taxpayers’ money?  Or — of much more importance — for the lives of all the thousands of soldiers who have died or been maimed for nothing in the horrible useless Afghan War?

Don’t hold your breath on that one.

Brian Cloughley lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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

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