Malign Neglect

For me one of the most frustrating aspects of the war on terror is the persistence of blind opposition on the part of the Democrats instead of attacking where the Bush administration is really vulnerable. Last week I saw Ted Kennedy getting lots of air time here in Australia harping on Tora Bora and how we should have captured Bin Laden. SBS seemed to be intent on giving lots of time to Ted to counter any positive effects of the Iraqi government being formed. But, Tora Bora?

If the Democrats want a real current issue with which to tax the Bush administration there is one big enough happening right now in Afghanistan. Michael Yon, who’s excellent reporting I have commented on before here and here is currently in Afghanistan with his friend Steve, a military contractor working for the Brits. The biggest story he is finding isn’t directly military, it is the size of this year’s poppy crop and as usual he does a better job of reporting than his MSM counterparts. His latest dispatch, Desert of Death lays the issue out.

In 2006, opium will bring more money into Afghanistan than all other revenues combined.

Meanwhile, the farmers who are overproducing opium are set to flood the world with a massive crop that will cause prices to plummetmeaning they likely will earn far less than they anticipatedbut the cheap heroin this year will likely produce a larger market for the heroin crop of 2007.

What is the administration up to? Just keeping Afghanistan on the back burner without really trying to build an effective government? Sure looks like it. I have been watching with increasing concern as the poppy crop got bigger every year since we overthrew the Taliban. Interestingly enough, one of the few good things the Taliban did was suppress poppy cultivation.

Most of the poppy crop will end up in Europe and there is evidently some real opposition from the Europeans to US neglect on the issue. Michael Yon again:

No doubt some of the heroin also will land in America. A crop this bountiful is bound to flood the market. The reason most often cited for the Americans essential-acquiescence over the poppy is that we do not want to alienate farmers in our search for terrorists, although we contend that opium money funds the terrorists. Some of our European friends see this as, well – they have some choice words. Of those I am willing to convey in writing, the kindest and most diplomatic is that, You Americans are making a pact with the Devil. As much as I usually enjoy arguing with Europeans about Americans, there is no fun in it when they are right.

We made this mistake before with Afghanistan. We helped them defeat the Soviets because it was in our interests to do so, but then abandoned them to the Taliban. We then helped them to defeat the Taliban when it became in our interests to do so and now are abandoning them to the Taliban, the bandits, the smugglers and the war lords. This isn’t benign neglect – its malign neglect.

Still, the problem isn’t an easy one to solve. Michael Yon continues:

The situation is much more complicated than can be described by simple economics with wild-card variables. Agricultural programs here that would compete with products in Europe or America are not likely to receive aid. Imagine the outcry from French and American farmers if our governments subsidized a wheat crop in Afghanistan. Every product Afghan farmers could produce will compete with western farmers. Every product, that is, except opium. There is practically no competition for heroin.

I don’t know the answer to this problem but I have been painfully aware that it has been getting more and more out of control since we invaded Afghanistan. It is undermining the legitimate government we have set up and strengthening the Taliban and the war lords that stand in the way of Afghanistan building a viable democracy. Michael Yon points out getting serious about eradication has serious difficulties:

According to every knowledgeable person I spoke with, eradication, even if it were being done seriously, will not be enough. Farmers are investors, and as investors, they tend to avoid risks. A plausible eradication threat can add a risk factor, but with the massive amounts of poppy now dripping opium, eradication would require an army itself, and would leave destitute legions of farmers who invested in poppy.

The eradication threat must be sizable and plausible, but the farmers also need investment and enticement to move to crops such as grapes which can be lucrative but only over time.

The US certainly has experience from the War on Drugs to apply in trying to get farmers to plant alternative crops. We don’t seem to have applied that experience effectively here. I recall it was mentioned early on that we could try to convert the Afghan poppy farmers into growing for the legitimate pharmaceutical market, but I suspect that market is fully serviced by others. I know both Turkey and Australia are in the business and would be less than enthusiastic about the US and the EU buying up the Afghan crop for legitimate use. So the Afghans are left to survive as best they can with terrible consequences all around.

As far as I can see this is another example of America’s mixed reaction to 9/11 that I discussed here. I think Kanan Makiya’s explanation of serious contradictions in American policy in Iraq applies as well to this situation in Afghanistan.

Its all happening so fast, not everybody has caught up with everybody else, and so we have different levels of understanding, and these are tearing apart the administration. We have old ways of thinking interwoven with radically new ways of thinking and we have strange mixtures in between.

We set up a democracy against the odds and now have jeopardized it by allowing a serious threat to run out of control. Democracy and uncontrolled poppy production – strange mixture indeed.

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