Nir Rosen has an amazing account in Rolling Stone of his journey into Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan. Rosen discovers some expected things, for instance, that it’s still a dangerous region where foreigners are not welcome and coalition forces only engage from the air. But he also finds some unexpected things, like that the ranks of the Taliban are not so much the religious fundamentalists that they once were. Their movement is once again driven primarily by nationalism, as was the mujaheddin that drove out the Soviets in the 1980s.
Both John McCain and Barack Obama have said they’d send more troops to Afghanistan, but they should also listen to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen:
But Mike Mullen added bluntly that military means alone were no longer sufficient. “We can’t kill our way to victory,” he declared. “Afghanistan doesn’t just need more boots on the ground.” The keys to success, he explained, were “Foreign investment. Alternative crops [to replace poppy cultivation]. Sound governance. The rule of law… No armed force anywhere — no matter how good — can deliver these keys alone.”
This is why I’ve cringed when Afghanistan has come up at the debates. Obama hasn’t even dared to challenge John McCain on whether or not the surge in Iraq worked. The reduction in violence in Iraq came from reaching out to former insurgents, improved tactics on the ground, building walls throughout Baghdad, and the fleeing of millions of Iraqi’s who’ve seen their prospects for a better life dwindle. Having greater numbers of troops was certainly helpful, but it was far from being the main thing that quieted down the insurgency. And Mullen is warning us not to take such a simple-minded approach to Afghanistan, even as John McCain keeps talking about bringing “the surge” there as well. That Obama appears to be the one candidate more willing to listen to Mullen’s advice is just one of the many reason why he’s getting my vote this year.
As part of the new push in Afghanistan, NATO recently authorized coalition forces to target the drug trade more directly by going after traffickers, labs, and drug lords, but leaving the farmers alone. Afghanistan still produces a majority of the world’s heroin which, despite being illegal, accounts for over 50% of the country GDP. And it’s because Taliban forces have provided protection for the industry that they’ve become such a well-funded and well-armed fighting force threatening to topple the coalition-led leadership across the county. Now the coalition will be trying to go after the people who’ve been paying the Taliban:
The alliance is not in the business of crop eradication, [Sec. of Defense Robert] Gates said, “but if we have the opportunity to go after drug lords and … labs — to interrupt this flow of cash to the Taliban — it seems like a legitimate security endeavor.”
Up until now, the only method being used to eliminate the opium crop was to have Afghan-led eradication teams tour the countryside and plow over opium fields. This approach has been totally ineffective. The teams were easily corrupted, often being used by a local drug lord (who would often happen to also be within the government) to eliminate a rival’s crops. Considering that individuals within the Bush Administration and the C.I.A. openly accept that even Hamid Karzai’s brother is involved in the trade, it’s easy to see why trying to enforce this law has been pointless.
Hard-core drug warriors in the Bush Administration and Congress continually pushed for aerial eradication (including Joe Biden, who helped push a bill to allow dangerous toxins to be dumped on Latin American fields). Our NATO allies and the Afghan Government both opposed us. What’s happening now is clearly a different approach, but it’s every bit as pointless. What we’re trying to do is similar to what we’ve been trying to do in Mexico for years. And when you’re dealing with an industry that accounts for half of a nation’s economy, destroying a few labs and killing some of the drug lords is not going to put a dent in the profiteering.
Instead, Taliban forces will shift from guarding the opium fields to guarding both the labs and the drug lords themselves. The more effective the coalition becomes at eliminating the elements of the trade, the more money will be spent for protection. While it seems like a legitimate security endeavor to Bob Gates, it’s actually one that will completely backfire. As with every anti-drug initiative we undertake in our foreign policy, we forget that the source of the money cannot be uprooted by eliminating the supply. As long as the demand for that supply exists, the best we can ever do is move it, as we once moved it in the 1970s from Turkey to Afghanistan (which, it should be noted, was done in part by allowing Turkey to legally grow it).
The foreign policy discussions in the Presidential debates have rarely deviated from the belief that we defeat our enemies across the globe through fear and intimidation. And in Iraq, our attempts in the early stages of the occupation to use the military alone to quell the insurgency just fanned the flames until we got smart and sat down with the leadership in Al-Anbar and other dangerous areas. Human beings tend to react one way or another to overly authoritarian approaches. Some submit, others rebel. How much of each group there ends up being tends to rely on whether the authority is trusted. In Iraq, we’ve gotten to a point where the vast majority of Iraqis are never going to see us as legitimate occupiers in their nation. It’s possible to keep a rebellious population under wraps if you have the resources, but it doesn’t provide security in the way that the proponents of that policy hope for. Israel has been lost in this psychological quagmire for decades when it comes to the West Bank and Gaza.
In Afghanistan, our unwillingness to dial back our air offensives, which even Hamid Karzai has questioned, is only part of why we’re losing ground there. It’s also because we believe that the drug trade is a form of defiance in much the same way that refusing to accept the coalition’s right to be there and rebuild the country is a form of defiance. It’s not.
The case of Bashir Noorzai is a good indication of how this misunderstanding will only make matters worse there. Noorzai was a wealthy drug lord who came to New York in the hopes of working with Americans to improve the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. It was all a ruse. He was arrested and charged with drug trafficking.
Now the strategy is to go after these guys all over Afghanistan. But people like Bashir Noorzai don’t break the law because they hate us or because they support the Taliban. They break the law because it allows them to be rich and powerful. Our decision to go after a heroin trade that we will never be able to stamp out aligns those whose motivation is profit and power with those whose motivation is to get the foreigners out of their country. This will just accelerate the defeat of Karzai’s fragile regime. We are hooked on a bad policy that just gets exponentially worse as we ignore the real roots of the drug trade and blame those trying to profit from it. While I’m eager to vote for Barack Obama in two weeks, I worry that this mess could eventually be his undoing.