The Afghan Bungle

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The
stated reasons for the invasion of Afghanistan were to topple the
Taliban, manacle Osama bin Laden, and generally stamp out terror
support in the region. Too bad. Obviously, the Taliban is pretty
much kaput. Osama is admittedly still on the prowl, but as we are
often told the hunt is on. It's really in the last category where
we buggered it the biggest. Postliberation, terror support is still
flowering in Afghanistan – mostly shades of white, pink, and
red.

As
the various Super Bowl ads and other sources are wont to remind,
proceeds from opium poppies end up in the bank accounts of terrorists.
And right now opium poppies are abloom in a big way.

As
I detail in my new book, Bad
Trip: How the War Against Drugs is Destroying America
, in
2002, opium production jumped to 3,400 metric tons. Last year was
no different, except bigger. According to U.N. estimates, in 2003
production was upwards of 3,600 metric tons – more than three-quarters
of the world's heroin, much of it destined for the bloodstreams
of Europeans and Asians. Despite the presence of thousands of U.S.-led
troops, U.N. figures show that poppies are being grown in 28 of
32 provinces. And the heroin stores created from these crops are
tremendous.

So's
the money. "Last year, Afghan drug farmers and traffickers
earned $2.3 billion," reports the June 20 Houston Chronicle,
"an amount equal to half the nation’s gross domestic product
and five times the annual budget of the central government, according
to U.N. estimates."

The
troubling thing is where this money goes: Besides feeding the families
of drought-hammered farmers, proceeds from this enterprise also
end up in fairly disreputable hands. Director of the Afghan Counternarcotics
Department Mirwais Yasini claims that Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents
are siphoning smuggling profits by offering protection to growers
and traffickers and in some cases are directly involved in the trade
themselves.

And
while terrorists flourish in chaos, the country's new government
is as stable as an elephant balancing on a bowling ball. "Growers,
brokers and traffickers enjoy the protection of police chiefs, militia
commanders, provincial governors and even Cabinet ministers,” one
U.S. official told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May.
“These officials use the proceeds from drugs to fund personal armies
and to maintain their independence from the central government."

Sound
like a mess? It gets worse.

Cartels
are now forming, and they are streamlining the business – e.g., bringing
in the equipment required to process opium in the country instead
of farming out the heroin refining process to labs in Pakistan as
previously done. Once syndicates have cemented themselves, authorities
are worried that uprooting them will be nearly impossible. Even
if defeated, the squashing of a drug organization is only an advertisement
that new management is needed – a "space available" sign
to other dopers. Just think how successful the uprooting of the
Medellin and Cali cartels of Colombia turned out to be; not only
did it take exorbitant amounts of resources and time, it also stopped
the flow of drugs nary a bit. Now, in fact, more than cocaine and
high-priced pot comes out of the Andes; so does most of America's
heroin.

Next,
Afghanistan is geographically bigger than Iraq, yet far fewer U.S.
troops occupy it. According to the Chronicle, for the last
30 months, as few as 11,000 troops have been stationed in the country,
while some 135,000 occupy Iraq – a place where the cry for more men
and materiel is constant. And it's not like the U.S. can simply
plop another 100,000 troops on the ground. Furthermore, dope isn't
the primary concern of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. They'll take
care of a drug lab or a poppy crop when they see them, but their
primary focus is keeping order and finding bin Laden. What's more,
certain Afghan leaders who cultivate poppies have been instrumental
in helping U.S. troops track down terrorists, putting us in an strategic
bind: we can't go pulling up the crops of the guys delivering the
real bad apples, can we? Better just turn a blind eye.

This
leaves crop eradication to employees of the new government, and
the obstacles to mowing the moneyfields are many: Land mines and
other booby traps dot poppy plantations. With the big bucks involved,
growers and their terrorist allies hardly want a scythe cutting
through their profits. Reports the Chronicle of one eradication
team's problems, "When the eight-bus convoy of eradicators
first hit the road, a homemade bomb exploded along the route. No
one was hurt, but as the workers regrouped the next day, a rocket
landed 100 yards short of their rural bivouac." Rather difficult
work, hacking down poppies amid falling ordinance.

Further,
government gimmicks to stymie growing have proven less than successful.
In the province of Konar, for instance, the agriculture ministry
has offered incentives to farmers who pull up their poppy crops:
$1,625 per acre. Even someone who flunked Econ 101 can see the problem
here: poppies pull in about $20,000 per acre – not that such numbers
stop some from taking the government money and continuing to grow
dope on the side. Everybody's doing it. In the village of Jata,
even the local mullah has a crop.

"If
there was serious government pressure, the peasants would stop growing
poppies, especially if they were given free fertilizers and free
seeds for other crops," said one heroin smuggler from Kabul,
quoted in the Nov. 26, 2001, Manchester Guardian. But then
he thought better of it: "Then again, the peasants might choose
not to. When they're earning so much from the poppies, it's not
very likely. People will still grow poppies in secret. People get
richer quicker that way."

Like
coca in the Andes, poppies easily out-compete alternative crops.
In the mountainous regions, the hardscrabble terrain is well suited
to poppies and little else. They require less water than wheat,
fetch 20 times the income of cotton, and because of opium's indefinite
shelf-life, growers can either harvest and sell the opium right
there in the fields or save it for a rainy day.

It's
a win-win for everyone involved. Except those of us in the U.S.
wondering how this jaunt accomplished very much. Think about it:
The U.S. invades Afghanistan to stamp out terrorism, yet the principal
crop used to fund terrorism is grown at the same or higher rate
than during the heyday of terror activity in the country.

The
Taliban is gone, yes, but the terrorists are still lurking on the
edge, sucking huge profits from poppies.

Doesn't
sound like a real victory to me, certainly not in the long term.
Instead, think Clinton's victory in Haiti: The baddies put on the
run; Aristide placed in power; whole country goes back to hell in
a few years. One crucial difference is that in Afghanistan the reversion
started almost immediately. In the end, the opium trade might actually
end up stronger than before, as the new, ostensibly secular government
is bound to be more liberal than the previous one. With machine-gun
toting mullahs out of the picture, Islam's restrictions on intoxicants
are bound to loosen more openly and obviously, while criminal gangs
step into the relative anarchy and exploit it for all it's worth.

I'm
not against hunting, capturing, stringing up bin Laden – one use for
hemp even the most stringent of drug warriors would scarcely oppose.
But if kicking the legs out from beneath the terrorists is really
a valuable goal for us, rather than harrumphing in hollow victories
and nation building, then we need to radically rethink our current
tack.

New
course: Take the extreme profit out of opium by legalizing the stuff.
And not just here; send the memo to Tony Blair and all the others.
After all, it's the money created by prohibition's squeeze in Europe
and America that terrorists need, right? Opium by itself is good
for getting high, killing a headache, and stopping diarrhea – count
its uses minimal after that.

Legalization,
by cutting holes in the pockets of people like bin Laden, will hurt
terrorists far more than our bungled nation-building exercise can
ever hope to.

June
22, 2004

Joel
Miller [send him mail] is the
author of Bad
Trip: How the War Against Drugs is Destroying America
.

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