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Confused in Helmland

By Gwynne Dyer

Posted May 3, 2007

Respected people of Helmand,” the radio message began. “The soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF] and the Afghan National Army [ANA] do not destroy poppy fields. They know that many people of Afghanistan have no choice but to grow poppy. ISAF and the ANA do not want to stop people from earning their livelihoods.”

It was such a sensible message that it almost had to be a mistake, and of course it was.

The message, written by an ISAF officer and broadcast in Helmand province last week on two local radio stations, was immediately condemned by Afghan and American officials from Afghani Pres. Hamid Karzai on down. So does that mean that ISAF really is going to destroy the farmers’ poppy fields?

Well, not exactly. The latest plan is that it will be civilians who spray the farmers’ fields with herbicides, while the Western soldiers just stop the farmers from retaliating. That should win lots of hearts and minds in Helmand and other opium-producing provinces of Afghanistan where the former Taliban regime is making an armed come-back attempt.

The soldiers of ISAF do not want to be seen as destroyers of the poppy crop because that would get lots of them killed (for the farmers can turn into Taliban fighters overnight). It was allegedly a territorial army (reserve) officer newly arrived from Britain who “got a bit carried away with the language” and sent the offending message to local radio stations in Helmand, but most other army officers in Afghanistan, whatever their nationality, privately agree with him. You cannot fight a war against the Taliban and a “war on drugs” successfully at the same time.

That was clearly understood at the time of the invasion in 2001. The Taliban, austere Islamist fanatics that they were, had eradicated poppy-growing entirely by 2000, by the simple expedient of hanging anybody they caught growing poppies.

The Taliban begged for Western aid for the distressed farmers, who were only earning a quarter as much from growing grain and vegetables, but Mullah Amir Mohammed Haqqani was adamant: “Whether we get assistance or not, poppy growing will never be allowed again in our country.”

Then the Taliban’s house guests, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda friends, carried out the 9/11 attacks against the United States. Bin Laden probably didn’t mention this to the Taliban in advance, because Afghanistan was bound to get invaded as a result. In fact, he almost certainly wanted the United States to invade Afghanistan, imagining that it would result in a long guerilla war and ultimate humiliation for the United States, just as it had done for the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The United States dodged that bullet by not really invading Afghanistan at all. It simply contacted the various ethnic warlords who were already at war with the Taliban regime, gave them better weapons and lots of money, and left the fighting on the ground to them. It worked very well, and there was no guerilla war.

However, the United States now depended on those warlords to keep Afghanistan quiet without flooding it with American troops (who were all heading for Iraq anyway). The warlords needed cash flow, which meant poppies: opium and refined heroin account for over one-third of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product and almost all of its exports. So the United States turned a blind eye in 2002 while its warlord allies encouraged farmers to replant the poppies, and didn’t object when they were “elected” to parliament and joined Karzai’s cabinet either.

Opium production soared last year to 6,400 metric tons, and Afghanistan now produces 92 percent of the world’s heroin. The “war on drugs” lobby in the United States insists that something be done about it, so the United States and allied armies end up trying to destroy the farmers’ crops. The Taliban swallow their anti-drug principles and promise to protect the farmers. Guess who wins the war.

“We cannot fail in this mission,” said John Waters, head of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, last December, as if wishing would make it so. But if he would like to succeed in Afghanistan, he might just try buying the crop up.

Afghan farmers get paid considerably less than $100 a kilo for their raw opium. Multiply 6,400 metric tons by $200 a kilo, to outbid the drug smugglers, and ISAF could have bought up last year’s entire Afghan crop for $2.5 billion. What’s more, the money would be going straight into the pockets of the people whose “hearts and minds” are at stake: the 13 percent of Afghans who are involved in the opium trade.

Next year, of course, Afghan farmers would plant twice as many poppies, so the costs of the operation would rise over time. And nothing will stop the flow of heroin to the West: even if poppy production were entirely suppressed in Afghanistan, it would simply move somewhere else, like the Golden Triangle in South-East Asia. But buying up the opium crop is about the only thing that would give ISAF a chance of winning its increasingly nasty little war.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

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