Falling and Failing in Heroin Country

The news that President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan had to go to Germany in July to have surgery on a twisted ankle was widely reported and it is difficult not to be amused that he fell over “while attending an event to mark World Olympics Day.”  When in hospital in Bonn on August 2 he had a video conference with a roomful of officials in Kabul during which he stated that the operation had been successful and he would return home “as soon as possible on the doctors’ advice.” He was “accompanied by his personal physician”

This was not a major incident. A minor operation on the foot of Afghanistan’s president is not in any way of world-shattering significance. But what it reveals about Afghanistan as a country is decidedly important.

While President Ghani was in his hospital bed in Bonn the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) submitted his quarterly report to Congress in which he noted that “As of June 30, 2015, approximately $109.7 billion had been appropriated for Afghanistan relief and reconstruction since 2002.”

Very few of us can think in billions. Such sums are mind-bogglingly immense. But some clever people have tried to convey such magnitude in an understandable way.  They explain that a billion is one thousand million and that to count to a single million at the rate of one number per second takes just under twelve days. So it would take over 3,000 years to count to 109 billion, which is the amount in dollars that US taxpayers have been required by their government to spend on Afghanistan in 13 years.

In spite of the billions of dollars that America has poured into Afghanistan the country does not have a hospital in which its president can have a simple foot operation in comfort and safety. He had to travel to Europe for an ankle job in spite of the vast sums the US has provided for health care. The SIGAR (the most unpopular man in official Washington) reported that “US assistance disbursed to Afghanistan’s health sector totalled more than $920 million as of June 30, 2015 . . .  assistance to the Ministry of Public Health provides basic health-care and essential hospital services . . .  US Agency for International Development (USAID) funding supports 659 health facilities in 13 provinces.” But President Ashraf Ghani couldn’t have a simple operation on his ankle in his own country.

In any event much of the information provided about health care was suspect because, as reported by the Washington Post, SIGAR “tracked 551 [medical] facilities based on [locations] provided by USAID in May 2014. Thirteen of them weren’t even in Afghanistan. One was in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.”

None were said to be located in Bonn where President Ghani might have taken time to think about other health problems, such as those caused by his country’s production of heroin, in which it leads the world.

Since 2002 US “Drug Interdiction & Counter-Drug Activities” in Afghanistan have cost over 8 billion dollars, but in spite of this massive expenditure the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that “opium cultivation and production in Afghanistan reached record levels, with the former increasing seven per cent to 224,000 hectares (550,000 acres) in 2014.” (In 2001, before foreign military forces arrived in Afghanistan there were 3,200 hectares (8,000 acres) of poppy fields.)

Eleven years ago the then US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Charles told a Congressional hearing that in Afghanistan “Opium is a source of literally billions of dollars to extremist and criminal groups . . . cutting down the opium supply is central to establishing a secure and stable democracy, as well as winning the global war on terrorism.” This was so true as to be unremarkable, and it seemed that Washington was resolved to “eradicate the [opium poppy] crop in the ground, when it is most vulnerable” while creating “a centrally-directed, standing poppy eradication force” because “there is a need to deal with the drugs that flow over Afghanistan’s borders to world markets.”

After eleven years and expenditure of eight billion dollars the growth in drug production would excite the admiration of even the most avaricious tycoon. Commercial expansion of this sort is startling in any context, but for Afghanistan to achieve a drug harvest valued at $3 billion a year is truly amazing. As CBS News tells us “many Afghan poppy farmers are expecting a windfall as they get ready to harvest opium from a new variety of poppy seeds said to boost yield of the resin that produces heroin. The plants grow bigger, faster, use less water than seeds they’ve used before, and give up to double the amount of opium, they say.”

Where did the new varieties of poppy come from?  Why do they yield “better drug plants, which require less water and have a faster growth time”?   The people who know aren’t telling, and America, having spent 8 billion dollars on trying to eradicate drug production in Afghanistan, simply doesn’t know what to do. The British were supposed to clear “their” province of Helmand of poppies, and in May 2007 the British Parliament observed that “Drugs are one of the gravest threats to the long term security, development and effective governance of Afghanistan. The threat from drugs to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development ranks alongside the threat from the Taleban. The opium trade accounts for more than 30% of Afghanistan’s total economy and drug related crime and corruption are rife and permeate all levels of society.” But after all these years of foreign military occupation, and the politicians’ useless sacrifice of the lives of so many young soldiers, the BBC reported in July that “It is more than six months since British troops left Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban now control much of the north of the province, and Helmand continues to be one of the main areas for the illegal production of poppies. The United Nations forecasts another record harvest of opium poppies in Afghanistan – the raw material for heroin – with Helmand again providing most of the crop . . .  the social impact on Helmand is disastrous.”

In 2005 I wrote that even Donald Rumsfeld, arguably one of the most evil people of the last half-century, had realised “the danger that a large drug trade poses to Afghanistan is too serious to be ignored.” But he did nothing about it.  Then a year later I reflected that “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.”

It’s all very well to blame the Afghans for producing poppies, opium and heroin, but 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.

One thing is certain:  if the Afghan President was given a sedative while his twisted ankle was operated on in Germany, the soothing tranquilliser was not based on heroin from his own country’s poppies. Their product goes to much more lucrative markets — and the profits are reaped by countless crooked people in powerful positions in Afghanistan.  It is not surprising that in February 2015 the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction John Sopko reported to Congress that “the expanding cultivation and trafficking of drugs puts the entire US and international investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan at risk. The narcotics trade, which not only supports the insurgency but also feeds organized crime and corruption, puts the gains the U.S. agencies and their international partners have achieved over the past 13 years in women’s issues, health, education, rule of law, and governance in jeopardy.”

But nothing is being done about it.  After thirteen years of foreign military operations and expenditure of countless billions of dollars in Afghanistan, the place is a drug-sodden, violent and corrupt disaster area whose president has to go overseas to be operated on for a twisted ankle. Never mind :  it’s On To Syria for the next chapter of catastrophe.

A shorter version of this article appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on September 6.


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