Australia-based writer Gregor Salmon spent the last eight months exploring the world of Afghanistan’s opium trade.
“Poppy is not just a crop… it’s a financial system, a finely-tuned industry,” he said.
“It’s a low-risk crop in a high-risk environment.”
He got used to feeling a “constant sense of unease” and managed to talk farmers, police, government officials and Taliban.
And he found corruption is so rife in the police force and government that Afghanistan isn’t likely to shake its addiction any time soon.
When we invaded Afghanistan back in 2001, this wasn’t the mission we signed up for. We went there to remove a government that provided safe haven for the people who planned 9/11 and to capture the leaders of al Qaeda – who were based there and operating training camps for potential terrorists. We removed the government. The leaders of al Qaeda and the terrorist camps have gone elsewhere. But 8 years later we’re still there, trying to solve a problem that’s only related to terrorism because of how we’re dealing with it.
“There are farmers who I spoke with who will obviously tell you … ‘We don’t have much money, this is a lifeline crop, it’s against our religion and we don’t want to be growing this garbage, but ultimately we have no choice’.”
And Salmon says the Taliban are also finding enormous benefits in opium cultivation.
He says Taliban commanders and officials told him the general rule is the Taliban take a 10 per cent cut of opium income, giving them roughly $500 million per year.
That money, of course, buys a lot of weapons with which to continue their protection racket and attack American troops.
There are government attempts to eradicate the crop, but Salmon is critical of such efforts.
He tagged along with a poppy eradication team, but he says it was all for the cameras.
“It was a sham,” he said.
“The whole eradication [program] is corrupt. The poor people get their crops eradicated because they don’t have the money to pay off the government.
“You pay to have your crops spared.
We’ve known for a long time now that the eradication program has functioned like this. Either farmers and drug lords pay the Taliban to provide armed protection against the eradicators, or they pay off local officials directly to keep the eradicators from their fields. And the poor farmers who have their fields eradicated often just join the Taliban. In the end, the Taliban ranks (and weaponry arsenal) grow and the drug lords and corrupt members of the government get richer. And Afghanistan still produces around 90% of the world’s opium when it’s all said and done. It would be hard to devise a more backwards strategy if one tried.
The Obama Administration has inherited this mess, and have shown signs that they can do something the previous administration didn’t… deal with reality:
“We are downgrading our efforts to eradicate crops-spraying, a policy we think is totally ineffectual,” [Richard] Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in his testimony.
The money spared would be devoted to stopping trafficking, pursuing drug lords and helping farmers grow other crops, he added.
“Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars we’ve spent on crop eradication has not done any damage to the Taliban. On the contrary, it’s helped them recruit,” Holbrooke said.
“In my experience,” the veteran US diplomat and negotiator said, “this is the least effective program ever.”
Holbrooke deserves credit for shattering that illusion, but what happens now that we’ve launched another major military offensive there? What exactly are we trying to accomplish? We’re not fighting quite the same kind of ideologically driven religious fanaticism that had overtaken Kabul in the 90s and welcomed Arab religious extremists to use their land as a safe haven. We’re fighting an illegal industry, one that through our attempts to stop it has become a new and far more potent threat to our occupation.
The new strategy appears to be aimed at the titans of that industry, the drug lords themselves. Can it be done? We can’t do it in Mexico, although the industry became concentrated in Mexico after we spent years trying to eradicate it in Colombia. It’s worth noting that while most of the cocaine in still grown in Colombia, the people who are now making the vast majority of money off of it are in Mexico. It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that we’ll end up with a similar dynamic along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where the crops are grown in Afghanistan, but the huge profits end up being shifted to the border area of Pakistan.
This is another situation where government officials continue to believe their own drug war propaganda. A person making money by producing heroin is not a terrorist. You may not agree with what they’re doing, but they’re not the same level of threat as a group of people training to kill civilians within the United States. We’ve made this shift in our objectives in Afghanistan to something completely different from what our original mission was. And the new mission is something that has only ever succeeded by moving the targeted problem elsewhere. Drug trafficking never goes away, it just shifts to different routes.
What’s even more odd about what’s happening right now in Afghanistan is that it’s causing reporters at The New York Times to completely make shit up:
With a nationwide election only weeks away, the paradox of President Hamid Karzai has never seemed more apparent: He is at once deeply unpopular and likely to win.
The article cites data from a survey conducted by the International Republican Institute which can be found here. On page 36, you can very clearly see that the “deeply unpopular” Karzai is in fact the most popular politician in the country, with a favorability rating of 69%
What exactly is going on here? And it’s not just the New York Times who’s been selling this lie, even while referencing the same polling data.
I know I shouldn’t be surprised when public officials get journalists to lie for them, but what’s the motivation for it? American officials have long been complaining about Karzai’s unwillingness to crack down on the corruption, but it’s also long been true that if he really cracked down the corruption, he’d be dead within a week. This is what happens in a country where an industry that’s roughly 1/3 to 1/2 of their GDP is made illegal. Even Karzai’s brother is making money from it. Does the Obama Administration really think that an election is going to change all of that? That it’s just a matter of motivation and will to stop it?
Afghanistan remains a place where our soldiers (and the soldiers of a number of our NATO allies) continue to fight a very real war – while our politicians appear to be fighting a propaganda one to convince us that this war is still the war we started there in 2001. It’s not. It’s a drug war now, and it’s one that makes no sense for us to fight and one that we have no hope of actually winning. Even if we recognize that there’s a more real terrorist threat next door in Pakistan, all we’re doing is handing those groups more and more of the profits that once went to people all throughout Afghanistan, some of whom were eager allies of the United States.
Another page (14) in the IRI survey showed the results when Afghans were asked to rate the overall performance of various entities on a scale of 1 to 5. Scoring dead last, below “The president”, “The police”, “The government”, “The Afghan National Army”, and even “The opposition”, was the “International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)”. The Obama Administration and Richard Holbrooke deserve some praise for ending our truly idiotic five-year attempt to wipe out Afghanistan’s opium trade by plowing the fields of poor farmers, but we still deserve a much better explanation for why we’re still there and what we think we can accomplish.