Destabilizing Afghanistan: the Quagmire Expands

The anti-American Taliban extremists are resurgent not only in Afghanistan, where they once sheltered Osama Bin Laden, but also in neighboring Pakistan (which has nuclear weapons) as well. Thousands of Pakistanis are fleeing the Swat Valley, which is dominated by the Taliban.

But the Obama Administration stubbornly refuses to learn from the Bush Administration’s mistakes in Afghanistan. It’s stepping up efforts to wipe out the mainstay of the Afghan economy, by eradicating the opium poppies that Afghan farmers cultivate. Afghans are so poor that the poppies are 60 percent of their economy: a bigger fraction of their economy than agriculture and manufacturing combined are of the U.S. economy. Many Afghans have little choice but to grow opium: the Soviet invasion and occupation destroyed their irrigation works (and roads), making large-scale food production and transport extremely difficult. And when food prices went up in 2006 and 2007 as a result of ethanol mandates and rising demand for food in India and China, thousands of Afghan children starved to death. The Bush Administration’s attempts to eradicate the poppies turned many Afghans against America, and helped fuel the Taliban’s resurgence.

Jacob Sullum gives a number of reasons why the Administration’s anti-opium campaign will backfire and is probably doomed to failure, such as:

2. “The terrain is a guerrilla’s dream. In addition to acres of shoulder-high poppy plants, rows and rows of hard-packed mud walls, used to stand up grape vines, offer ideal places for ambushes and defense.”
3. “The opium is tilled in heavily populated areas…The prospect of heavy fighting in populated areas could further alienate the Afghan population.”
. . .
5. Opium poppies are “by far the most lucrative crop an Afghan can farm.”
6. “The opium trade now makes up nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, American officials say.”
7. “The country’s opium traffickers typically offer incentives that no Afghan government official can: they can guarantee a farmer a minimum price for the crop as well as taking it to market, despite the horrendous condition of most of Afghanistan’s roads.”

Some will argue that the U.S. supported drug-eradication programs in Colombia, despite its civil war, so why not in Afghanistan. But the two countries are vastly different. Colombia was and is a much more prosperous country, with income levels ten times greater, and life expectancies 30 years longer, than in Afghanistan, which is one of the world’s poorest (and most warlike) countries. There are viable alternatives to growing drugs in Colombia, unlike in arid, impoverished Afghanistan.

In a war, you can’t be too fastidious about local customs. In World War II, the U.S. fought the Japanese with the assistance of Naga headhunters. We didn’t give them lectures about their practice of collecting the heads of their enemies (not that I would suggest that growing drugs is as bad as killing people). In the Vietnam War, the U.S. allied itself with tribesmen in Laos and Vietnam who grew opium and other drugs. We didn’t try to destroy their drugs. That would have made them kill us rather than support us.

If you want to win a war in a country you are occupying, sometimes you have to try to win the hearts and minds of the local people, rather than telling them what to do.

For those who think that tolerating drug cultivation is somehow an extraordinary measure: is it remotely as extraordinary as using torture, as the Government did in the aftermath of 9/11 (producing false information and bogus orange alerts in the process)? Keep in mind that for most of American history, there were no bans on drug cultivation (the federal government did not regulate marijuana until the 1930s), but torture to obtain confessions has always been illegal in the U.S.

If we can do something like torture (which I opposed) to win the War on Terror, why not something far less extreme and less historically-unprecedented, like allowing Afghan farmers to keep cultivating opium poppies?

And for those of you bleeding-heart liberals who objected when the phone companies were given protection against lawsuits for assisting the federal government in its antiterror surveillance programs (something I supported; such surveillance would be perfectly legal in many countries, like Sweden): is it not far worse to make Afghan families starve by destroying their crops?