The Afghan Bungle

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