Via Attackerman, I see that John Hannah, a former aide to Dick Cheney, is still scratching his head about what went wrong in Afghanistan:
Ever since last year’s presidential campaign, there’s been an unfortunate tendency to assess America’s Afghan campaign as one long, steady downward spiral to disaster. “Eight years of drift,” according to Obama administration officials seeking to explain their lengthy deliberations over strategy and troop numbers. But, as Stephens suggests, the reality is a good deal more complex. The fact is that, after a period of genuine progress following the Taliban’s removal in late 2001, the situation in Afghanistan only began to deteriorate markedly between 2005 and 2006. Suicide attacks quintupled that year. Remotely detonated bombs more than doubled. Insurgent attacks nearly tripled. And the trends have steadily worsened every year since. The question is why? What changed in that time period that might help account for the sharp decline in America’s war fortunes?
Hannah provides a couple of guesses, but doesn’t stumble upon the answer. But what happened there during that time wasn’t much of a mystery. In fact it was fairly obvious that it would produce the outcome that it did. Let’s take a look back at what happened:
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that in 2004, opium cultivation in Afghanistan increased by two-thirds, with the opium economy now valued at about 60 percent of Afghanistan’s 2003 Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
“Opium cultivation also spread to all 32 provinces,” the UN reported last year, “making narcotics the main engine of economic growth and the strongest bond among previously quarrelsome populations.”
The UN warned that Afghanistan could deteriorate into a narco-state controlled more by violent drug traffickers, terrorists and warlords than by the elected government in Kabul.
Critics say the crisis in Afghanistan is the direct result of US policies administered by Khalilzad, American military commanders and the Karzai government. Those policies include making close alliances with organized crime syndicates and so-called “warlords” who constitute formal or informal authority in different regions of the country. Such figures initially opposed the Taliban but were also suspected of being involved in drug smuggling. Some smugglers have reportedly been given posts in the Afghan police force.
Emphasis mine. While the UN regarded this trend as a threat, they also recognized that it both helped the economy and kept fighting between warlords to a minimum. But because the industry was one that the western world deems illicit, an Afghanistan that was relatively peaceful and becoming more prosperous was in “crisis”. This led to some changes to our approach. From March 2005:
The Pentagon has asked for $257m (£137.5m) emergency funding to step up the war on drugs, four times the amount it sought last year.
The New York Times reported that the US would use military helicopters and cargo planes to transport agents, and would help to plan missions and identify targets.
American troops would provide support to US and Afghan narcotics agents if they were attacked, a senior Pentagon official said.
“We know the military is not the best tool for fighting drugs,” the official added. “But this is not about burning crops or destroying labs. Eventually it is about finding a better option for Afghans who have to feed their families.”
Until now there have been restrictions on using US forces against the drugs trade, and troops were barred from destroying opium crops or labs unless they stumbled across them in their hunt for al-Qaida or Taliban suspects.
Even with a stepped-up effort, though, Afghanistan still produced nearly 90% of the world’s opium in 2005. But what started to change was who was making money off of it. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released their November 2005 report on Afghanistan’s Opium Trade showing some of those trends. Provinces closer to Kabul, in the central and eastern parts of the country, saw sharp declines, while provinces in the south, west, and north saw increases. In surveys taken between 2004 and 2005, the percentage of farmers who refrained from growing opium crops due to a fear of eradication doubled. In the end, we had no real ability to stop the overall opium trade, so the net effect was to hand a greater percentage of the profits to those who were more willing to defy the Karzai government and the coalition troops. Karzai knew this and was pretty pissed about it.
Aided by great weather in 2005 for producing opium, Afghanistan only saw a slight drop off in overall production (even though the UN reported that there was a 21% decrease in the total amount of land being used to grow poppies from 2004 and 2005). Unfortunately, this laid the groundwork for the explosion in violence in 2006. Farmers who refrained from growing opium felt burned. Farmers who grew opium and saw their fields get eradicated began to more strongly oppose Karzai’s government and the coalition. And as the harvest season in 2006 approached, armed Taliban insurgents were able to collect protection money (they called it a tax) from farmers in return for guarantees that their fields wouldn’t be plowed. We’d established a dynamic by which the harder we tried to eradicate the opium fields, the more money could be made by the Taliban.
Stepping into this mess at the end of 2005 was former ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson, who’d been made Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. She was tasked with taking a failing drug control effort in Colombia and bringing it to Afghanistan. A more clueless public servant could not have been found. Completely unable to understand that the drug war was strengthening the Taliban, she clashed with members of the military, including Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who told her that the Pentagon was more focused on defeating the Taliban than it was on dealing with the opium trade. Unfortunately for the Pentagon, the Bush Administration sided with Patterson and the State Department and continued to intensify their efforts to eradicate the opium harvests. The results were as disastrous as they were predictable:
KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 2  — Afghanistan’s opium harvest this year has reached the highest levels ever recorded, showing an increase of almost 50 percent from last year, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, said Saturday in Kabul.
He described the figures as “alarming” and “very bad news” for the Afghan government and international donors who have poured millions of dollars into programs to reduce the poppy crop since 2001.
He said the increase in cultivation was significantly fueled by the resurgence of Taliban rebels in the south, the country’s prime opium growing region. As the insurgents have stepped up attacks, they have also encouraged and profited from the drug trade, promising protection to growers if they expanded their opium operations.
The UNODC’s report from 2006 makes it abundantly clear that the new effort didn’t just fail, it was remarkably counterproductive:
Either Afghanistan destroys opium or opium will destroy Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has warned. As this survey shows, we are coming dangerously close to the second option. This year, opium cultivation rose to 165,000 hectares, a 59% increase over 2005. An unprecedented 6,100 tons of opium has been harvested, making Afghanistan virtually the sole supplier to the world. “Revenue from the harvest will be over three billion dollars this year, making a handful of criminals and corrupt officials extremely rich” Mr Costa said. “This money is also dragging the rest of Afghanistan into a bottomless pit of destruction and despair.”
This year the largest cultivation took place in the South, especially in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where governance has collapsed under the weight of insurgency, drugs, crime and corruption. In other provinces, like Badakhshan in the north-east, opium crop increases are the fault of greedy officials and arrogant warlords. Around the country, the number of people involved in opium cultivation increased by almost a third to 2.9 million — 12.6% of the total population.
Only six of the country’s 34 provinces are opium-free. They are also the country’s poorest regions (mostly in the East). Cultivation fell this year in eight provinces, mainly in the more stable north.
The report shows that opium harvests didn’t just go up, but the profits taken from it became much more concentrated in the Taliban stronghold Helmand Province, which went from having 25% of the total harvest in 2005 to having a whopping 42% in 2006. With that massive increase in profits, the Taliban were able to regroup and – through their “taxes” – build up a much more powerful arsenal than in years past. At the same time, the total acreage eradicated by the Afghan government and coalition troops was also going up, intensifying the animosity towards NATO and the Karzai government and driving larger numbers of farmers into the arms of the Taliban. In a Canadian Globe and Mail survey of Taliban fighters in 2008, half of them said they’d joined the Taliban out of anger that their opium fields had been eradicated.
The end result is the dead end we find ourselves in today. Opium production, which has overall remained at the same high levels that the UNODC was so alarmed about in 2004, became far more concentrated in the Taliban-controlled southern region over the past five years. Those provinces went from having 44% of the total harvest in 2005 to having 84% in 2009 (Helmand Province alone has 57%). What worries me most about this is how rarely we publicly acknowledge that this is what happened. By turning the war effort in Afghanistan primarily into an anti-drug effort, we handed control of a lucrative industry over to our enemies and stoked a civil war over it where loyalty to the coalition’s policy would nearly always end up with a loss of power and influence. The idea that we’re potentially going to escalate our efforts there without even a public discussion about how it became a mess in the first place is a disservice to the public and an insult to the military.