Afghanistan: A Modest Proposal

14 September 2006

Afghanistan: A Modest Proposal

By Gwynne Dyer

Most people in Afghanistan are farmers. If Hamid Karzai’s Western-backed government in Kabul is to survive, it must have their support. So not destroying their main cash crop should be an obvious priority for Karzai’s foreign supporters. But what the hell, let’s go burn some poppies.

“We need to realise that we could actually fail here,” said Lieutenant General David Richards, British commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, last week. In south-western Afghanistan, where 7,000 British, Canadian and Dutch troops were committed during the summer to contain a resurgent Taliban, the guerillas now actually stand and fight, even against Nato’s overwhelming firepower and air power, and everything that moves on the roads gets ambushed.

The combat in Afghanistan is more severe and sustained than anything seen in Iraq, for the Taliban fight in organised units with good light infantry weapons. In the past month, Britain and Canada have lost about half as many soldiers killed in Afghanistan as the US lost in Iraq in the same time, out of a combat force perhaps one-tenth as big.

Concern in Europe about Western casualties in Afghanistan is already so great that none of the Nato countries was willing to commit more troops to the fighting when their defence chiefs met in Belgium on 13 September, despite an urgent appeal from General Richards for 2,500 more combat troops. Most of them just don’t believe that a few thousand more troops will save the situation in Afghanistan.

To limit their casualties, the British have already abandoned their original “section-house” strategy of spreading troops through the villages of the south-west in small groups that would provide security and help with reconstruction. They were just too vulnerable, so they have been pulled back to bigger base camps and replaced by Afghan police (who will make deals with the local Taliban forces to save their lives.)

The rapid collapse of the Taliban government in the face of America’s air power and its locally purchased allies in late 2001 created a wholly misleading impression that the question of who controls the country had been settled. Afghanistan has always been an easy country to invade but a hard country to occupy. Resistance to foreign intervention takes time to build up, but the Afghans defeated British occupations (twice) and a Soviet occupation when those empires were at the height of their power, and they are well on the way to doing it again.

Perhaps if the US and its allies had smothered the country in troops and drowned it in aid at the outset, the rapid increase in security and prosperity would have created a solid base of support for the government they installed under President Karzai. But most of the available troops were sent off to invade Iraq instead, and most of the money went to American contractors in Iraq, not American contractors in Afghanistan (though little of it reached the local people in either case).

The various warlords who allied themselves with the United States are the real power in most of Afghanistan, and in the traditional opium-producing areas in the south they have encouraged a return to poppy-farming (which had been almost eradicated under the Taliban) in order to get some cash flow. Poor farmers struggling under staggering loads of debt were happy to cooperate, and by now Afghanistan is producing about 90 percent of the world’s opium, the raw material for heroin.

That’s the price you pay for disrupting the established order, and the US should just have paid it. There’s no real point in destroying poppies in Afghanistan, because they’ll just get planted elsewhere: so long as heroin is illegal, the price will be high enough that people somewhere will grow it. Even if it is ideologically impossible for the United States to end its foolish, unwinnable “war on drugs,” it should have turned a blind eye in Afghanistan.

But it didn’t. For the past five years a shadowy outfit called DynCorps has been destroying the poppy-fields of southern Afghanistan’s poorest farmers with US and British military support. This was an opportunity the Taliban could not resist, and the alliance between Taliban fighters and poppy-farmers (now often the same people) is at the root of the resurgent guerilla war in the south.

It begins to smell like the last year or two in a classic anti-colonial war, when the guerillas start winning and local players begin to hedge their bets. After taking heavy casualties, Pakistan has agreed with the tribes of Waziristan to withdraw its troops from the lawless province, giving the Taliban a secure base on Afghanistan’s border. Karzai, seeking allies who will help him survive the eventual pull-out of Western troops, is appointing gangsters and drug-runners as local police chiefs and commanders. The end-game has started, and the foreigners seem bound to lose.

Only one chance remains for them. The futile “war on drugs” will drag on endlessly elsewhere, but if they legalised the cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan — AND BOUGHT UP THE ENTIRE CROP AT PREMIUM PRICES — they might just break the link between the Taliban and the farmers. Store it, burn it, whatever, but stop destroying the farmers’ livelihoods and put a few billion dollars directly into their pockets. Otherwise, the first Afghan cities will probably start to fall into Taliban hands within the next year to eighteen months.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“To limit…lives”; and”Perhaps…case”)