For the past month the Western alliance's International Security Assistance Force, tasked with restoring Afghanistan's security and protecting its reconstruction effort, have been running a series of radio ads suggesting that local farmers would no longer be punished for growing opium poppies. NATO hoped its security effort would get better cooperation from the local population if its mission was separated from that of a widely resented poppy-eradication program.
[The leaflets dropped in Helmand province stated] "The ANA [Afghan National Army] forces and ISAF forces will not eradicate your poppies, because ANA and ISAF forces know that the people there have no other income, that is why they are cultivating poppies."
Needless to say, officials were not impressed and the ads were pulled.
Via NATO's Spring Review, 2006:
NATO, if only by its presence in Afghanistan through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), cannot be isolated from this issue. Operation Plan 10302, the guidance document according to which ISAF forces should operate as they expand into southern Afghanistan, a major poppy-growing area, specifies the role of NATO forces in supporting Afghan counter-narcotics efforts. This includes logistic support, sharing intelligence and information, and providing training assistance to the Afghan National Army and police in counter-narcotics procedures. While ISAF must perform these duties, NATO-led forces must also avoid becoming so entangled in counter-narcotics activities that their ability to implement key tasks is undermined.
The poppy eradication campaign presents a number of complex challenges and the vicious cycle of violence coupled with the slow reconstruction and lack of alternatives for affected farmers (who consist of about 10% of the population and who produce some 90% of the world's opium) has also caused problems that we, in the west, don't hear much about at all:
In 2004, Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan was estimated to produce approximately one-fifth of Afghanistan's opium. In 2005, its opium cultivation had decreased by as much as 96 percent. While considered an eradication success story, significant economic hardship and major social discontent followed. For many peasants, it meant a 90 percent reduction in their total cash income, by as much as $3,400. The Cash-for-Work programs designed to provide alternative livelihoods, such as digging wells, offered compensation significantly below income losses. The programs also failed to reach the poorest and most vulnerable. The impoverished peasants have been forced to curb basic food intake and sell long-term productive assets, such as livestock and land. Many have been left feeling betrayed that the promises to help make a new life were unmet, and many are going back to planting poppies this season. The situation in Helmand to the south is analogous.
The most pernicious side effect of the efforts in Nangarhar and Helmand is the inability of peasants to repay their accumulated opium debt. Creditors who lend money to peasants to make it through the winter months and buy seeds for the following season - the only microcredit system available - double or triple the peasants' debts if they are not repaid in the same year. The peasants then have to grow even more poppy than they would have otherwise. If peasants take too long to repay, they face the possibility of being killed by the traffickers and having their houses seized. They are left with two options: Give away their daughters (girls as young as 3) as brides to the creditors or abscond to Pakistan.
It is this migration to Pakistan that especially threatens the counterinsurgency and state-building efforts in Afghanistan. First, migration forced by eradication further alienates the populace from the Kabul government and the international community sponsoring eradication. Second, the refugees easily become fodder for the insurgency. It was Afghan refugees indoctrinated in the radical madrassahs of the Deobandi movement in Pakistan who comprised the bulk of the Taliban's fighters in the 1990s. The shelter most easily available to Afghans driven out by eradication is once again the madrassahs. They try to indoctrinate the current refugees to reject the Karzai government and the very concept of democracy and instead join the Taliban insurgency in a jihad against Karzai and the United States. All too easily, the Taliban insurgents who use Pakistan as a haven can remind them of the good times when the Taliban sponsored poppy cultivation during the 1990s.
The success in curbing drug production in Afghanistan has thus come at the price of undermining state-building and empowering the insurgency.
So, from that perspective, one might think that NATO's ill-fated ad campaign may have had a point.
But there's more to this situation than these realities.
The standard line pushed by western governments about the poppy cultivation situation in Afghanistan can be found in many news stories such as this one, published after US troops were attacked during eradication efforts last week:
Officials say the Taliban are raking in millions of dollars through poppy taxes. The U.S. government estimates the opium trade generates US$3 billion a year in illicit economic activity.
While that is true, there is also another layer to this story. Via Global Research:
Who benefits from the Afghan Opium Trade?
by Michel Chossudovsky
The Western media in chorus blame the Taliban and the warlords. The Bush administration is said to be committed to curbing the Afghan drug trade: "The US is the main backer of a huge drive to rid Afghanistan of opium... "
Yet in a bitter irony, US military presence has served to restore rather than eradicate the drug trade.
What the reports fail to acknowledge is that the Taliban government was instrumental in implementing a successful drug eradication program, with the support and collaboration of the UN.
Implemented in 2000-2001, the Taliban's drug eradication program led to a 94 percent decline in opium cultivation. In 2001, according to UN figures, opium production had fallen to 185 tons. Immediately following the October 2001 US led invasion, production increased dramatically, regaining its historical levels.
According to the UN, Afghanistan supplies in 2006 some 92 percent of the world's supply of opium, which is used to make heroin.
The UN estimates that for 2006, the contribution of the drug trade to the Afghan economy is of the order of 2.7 billion. What it fails to mention is the fact that more than 95 percent of the revenues generated by this lucrative contraband accrues to business syndicates, organized crime and banking and financial institutions. A very small percentage accrues to farmers and traders in the producing country.
...what distinguishes narcotics from legal commodity trade is that narcotics constitutes a major source of wealth formation not only for organized crime but also for the US intelligence apparatus, which increasingly constitutes a powerful actor in the spheres of finance and banking. This relationship has been documented by several studies including the writings of Alfred McCoy. (Drug Fallout: the CIA's Forty Year Complicity in the Narcotics Trade. The Progressive, 1 August 1997).
In other words, intelligence agencies, powerful business, drug traders and organized crime are competing for the strategic control over the heroin routes. A large share of this multi-billion dollar revenues of narcotics are deposited in the Western banking system. Most of the large international banks together with their affiliates in the offshore banking havens launder large amounts of narco-dollars.
This trade can only prosper if the main actors involved in narcotics have "political friends in high places." Legal and illegal undertakings are increasingly intertwined, the dividing line between "businesspeople" and criminals is blurred. In turn, the relationship among criminals, politicians and members of the intelligence establishment has tainted the structures of the state and the role of its institutions including the Military.
So, is there actually a vested interest by the US, other governments and even NATO not to interfere with much force in poppy cultivation? Especially since they have failed so miserably in their reconstruction efforts? Or could these shadow deals actually be driving the slow pace of rebuilding in Afghanistan?
And just how much can we trust Karzai's corrupt government to set things right?
Afghan anti-corruption chief is a convicted heroin trafficker
KABUL, Afghanistan — When the deal went down in Las Vegas, the seller was introduced only as "Mr. E." In a room at Caesars Palace hotel, Mr. E exchanged a pound-and-a-half bag of heroin for $65,000 cash — unaware that the buyer was an undercover detective. The sting landed him in Nevada state prison for nearly four years.
Twenty years later and Mr. E, whose real name is Izzatullah Wasifi, has a new job. He is the government of Afghanistan's anti-corruption chief.
Wasifi leads a staff of 84 people charged with rooting out the endemic graft that is fueled in part by the country's position as the world's largest producer of opium poppy, the raw ingredient of heroin.
President Hamid Karzai's office won't say if he knew about the drug conviction when Wasifi was appointed two months ago as general-director of the General Independent Administration of Anti-Corruption and Bribery. Wasifi, a childhood friend of Karzai, is the son of a prominent Afghan nationalist leader.
An Associated Press review of criminal records in Nevada and California revealed that the 48-year-old Wasifi was arrested at Caesars Palace on July 15, 1987, for selling 650 grams (23 ounces) of heroin. Prosecutors said the drugs were worth $2 million on the street.
And then there's Karzai's attorney-general:
The Harper government has been caught off guard by a deepening scandal in Afghanistan's justice system, following a police raid Tuesday evening on the country's most popular TV channel. The operation was ordered by Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabet -- who is also a former resident of Montreal.
For more than a month, officials at Foreign Affairs, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Prime Minister's Office have dodged questions about Mr. Sabet's entry into Canada in 1999, and exactly how he was able to gain residency. Mr. Sabet has a history of association with Afghan extremist groups, and his earlier attempt to move to the United States was denied by American authorities.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's accident-prone attorney general first created a potential problem for Canadian Forces personnel last autumn, when he abruptly suspended Kabul Airport's respected police chief. Gen. Aminullah Amerkhel was an accomplished drug-buster, and his removal triggered a resumption of heroin trafficking through the airport, according to senior Afghan lawmen and legislators. Heroin profits help finance the Taliban's war effort against NATO forces, including Canadian troops based in Kandahar province.
Yet Canada and its NATO allies acquiesced to the crisis, despite calls from the Speaker of Afghanistan's Senate to have Gen. Amerkhel reinstated, and choruses of demands from Parliament that Mr. Sabet himself be removed from office. There, legislators lament that President Karzai's international sponsors appear content to be spectators of the corruption and ineptitude wracking their client administration in Afghanistan. Tuesday's raid may change that.
"The international community now has an obligation to act," says Saad Mohseni, head of Tolo TV, the channel whose offices were raided by 50 heavily armed policemen. Several Tolo journalists were badly beaten, and three were arrested. Four Associated Press employees covering the raid were taken away and roughed up as well. Mr. Mohseni says: "Sabet has shown that he is totally unfit to hold his position. Our international allies must tell the president this type of official is not acceptable to the Afghan people."
The problem is that Afghanistan's international allies, most notably the Bush administration and Canada's government, actually support this man, despite what he's done.
Considering the complexities and political maneuvering that goes on constantly behind the scenes, funded by billions of dollars in drug money, what chance do ordinary Afghanis have that they'll ever see anything resembling security and stability in their country? While everybody's so focused on insurgent and "terrorist" attacks in the news on this side of the pond, perhaps we need to spend more time gauging exactly what it's going to take to set Afghanistan on the correct path and, considering the many powers working against that end ("allies" and non-allies), we really need to ask if that's even possible.
It's certainly true that there is no military solution to Afghanistan's problems but is it even conceivable that a political one can be in the offing any time soon? The level of corruption, international interference and addiction to drug money would seem to signal that that answer is "no".