Monday, April 05, 2010

calling afghanistan what it is - a drug war

Salon | In the late 1990s, the Taliban, which had taken power in most of the country, lost any chance for international legitimacy by protecting and profiting from opium -- and then, ironically, fell from power only months after reversing course and banning the crop. Since the U.S. military intervened in 2001, a rising tide of opium has corrupted the government in Kabul while empowering a resurgent Taliban whose guerrillas have taken control of ever larger parts of the Afghan countryside.

These three eras of almost constant warfare fueled a relentless rise in Afghanistan's opium harvest -- from just 250 tons in 1979 to 8,200 tons in 2007. For the past five years, the Afghan opium harvest has accounted for as much as 50 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) and provided the prime ingredient for over 90 percent of the world's heroin supply.

The ecological devastation and societal dislocation from these three war-torn decades has woven opium so deeply into the Afghan grain that it defies solution by Washington's best and brightest (as well as its most inept and least competent). Caroming between ignoring the opium crop and demanding its total eradication, the Bush administration dithered for seven years while heroin boomed, and in doing so helped create a drug economy that corrupted and crippled the government of its ally, President Karzai. In recent years, opium farming has supported 500,000 Afghan families, nearly 20 percent of the country's estimated population, and funds a Taliban insurgency that has, since 2006, spread across the countryside.

To understand the Afghan War, one basic point must be grasped: In poor nations with weak state services, agriculture is the foundation for all politics, binding villagers to the government or warlords or rebels. The ultimate aim of counterinsurgency strategy is always to establish the state's authority. When the economy is illicit and by definition beyond government control, this task becomes monumental. If the insurgents capture that illicit economy, as the Taliban have done, then the task becomes little short of insurmountable.

Opium is an illegal drug, but Afghanistan's poppy crop is still grounded in networks of social trust that tie people together at each step in the chain of production. Crop loans are necessary for planting, labor exchange for harvesting, stability for marketing, and security for shipment. So dominant and problematic is the opium economy in Afghanistan today that a question Washington has avoided for the past nine years must be asked: Can anyone pacify a full-blown narco-state?