Gwynne Dyer / Georgia Straight – 2007-05-05 23:09:45
(May 3, 2007) — “Respected people of Helmand,” the radio message began. “The soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan National Army do not destroy poppy fields. They know that many people of Afghanistan have no choice but to grow poppy. ISAF and the ANA do not want to stop people from earning their livelihoods.”
It was such a sensible message that it almost had to be a mistake — and, of course, it was.
The message, written by an ISAF officer and broadcast in Helmand province last week on two local radio stations, was immediately condemned by Afghan and American officials, from President Hamid Karzai on down. So does that mean that ISAF really is going to destroy the farmers’ poppy fields?
Well, not exactly. The latest plan is that it will be civilians who spray the farmers’ fields with herbicides, while the western soldiers just stop the farmers from retaliating. That should win lots of hearts and minds in Helmand and other opium-producing provinces of Afghanistan where the former Taliban regime is making an armed comeback attempt.
The soldiers of ISAF do not want to be seen as destroyers of the poppy crop because that would get lots of them killed. (The farmers can turn into Taliban fighters overnight.) It was allegedly a Territorial Army (reserve) officer newly arrived from Britain who “got a bit carried away with the language” and sent the offending message to local radio stations in Helmand, but most other army officers in Afghanistan, whatever their nationality, privately agree with him. You cannot fight a war against the Taliban and a “war on drugs” successfully at the same time.
That was clearly understood at the time of the invasion in 2001. The Taliban, austere Islamist fanatics that they were, had eradicated poppy-growing entirely by 2000 by the simple expedient of hanging anybody they caught growing poppies.
Then the Taliban’s houseguests, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda friends, carried out the 9/11 attacks against the United States [Really?]. Bin Laden probably didn’t mention this to the Taliban in advance, because Afghanistan was bound to get invaded as a result. In fact, he almost certainly wanted the United States to invade Afghanistan, imagining that it would result in a long guerrilla war and ultimate humiliation for the United States, just as it had done for the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
The United States dodged that bullet by not really invading Afghanistan at all. It simply contacted the various ethnic warlords who were already at war with the Taliban regime, gave them better weapons and lots of money, and left the fighting on the ground to them. It worked very well, and there was no guerrilla war.
However, the U.S. now depended on those warlords to keep Afghanistan quiet without flooding it with American troops (who were all heading for Iraq anyway). The warlords needed cash flow, which meant poppies: opium and refined heroin account for more than one-third of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product and almost all of its exports. So the U.S. turned a blind eye in 2002 while its warlord allies encouraged farmers to replant the poppies, and it didn’t object when they were “elected” to parliament and joined Karzai’s cabinet, either.
Opium production soared last year to 6,400 tonnes, and Afghanistan now produces 92 percent of the world’s heroin. The “war on drugs” lobby in the United States insists that something be done about it, so the U.S. and its allied armies end up trying to destroy the farmers’ crops. The Taliban swallow their antidrug principles and promise to protect the farmers. Guess who wins the war.
“We cannot fail in this mission,” said John Walters, head of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, last December, as if wishing would make it so. But if he would like to succeed in Afghanistan, he might just try buying the crop up, at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion.
The next year, of course, Afghan farmers would plant twice as many poppies, so the costs of the operation would rise over time. And nothing will stop the flow of heroin to the West: even if poppy production were entirely suppressed in Afghanistan, it would simply move somewhere else, like the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia. But buying up the opium crop is about the only thing that would give ISAF a chance of winning its increasingly nasty little war.
NATO: Taliban targeted in battle that Afghans say killed dozens of civilians
Published: Friday, May 4, 2007 | 5:26 AM ET
Canadian Press: FISNIK ABRASHI
KABUL (AP) – NATO is looking into reports that dozens of civilians died in clashes and air strikes in western Afghanistan, its top commander in the country said, but insisted that only militants were targeted.
The U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan has said international and Afghan troops killed 136 suspected Taliban fighters in the Zerkoh Valley of Herat province last week, in some of the deadliest fighting so far this year.
However, an investigation by Afghan officials has found that 51 civilians died, prompting President Hamid Karzai to warn that Afghans can no longer accept such losses.
Gen. Dan McNeill, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said in remarks released Friday that he was personally examining detailed battlefield reports.
“This much I can tell you about it: Only firing insurgents were targeted,” McNeill told a group of journalists in Brussels via teleconference on Thursday, according to an official transcript of his comments.
“If there have been civilian casualties that’s regrettable,” McNeill said.
“But there is a lot of allegations and not a whole lot of substantiations. We are going into this and are looking at this thoroughly, and we will take whatever necessary actions there are” to avoid harming civilians, he said.
Civilian deaths have deepened Afghans’ distrust of international forces and of the U.S.-backed government as they try to combat a resurgent Taliban – itself accused by human rights groups of indiscriminate attacks that often kill noncombatants.
According to an Associated Press tally, based on reports from Afghan and western officials, 151 civilians have been killed by violence in the first four months of this year, including at least 51 blamed on NATO and the U.S.-led coalition.
The figures do not include the alleged civilian fatalities in Herat, which earlier this week sparked angry anti-U.S. protests by residents.
© The Canadian Press, 2007
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