Opium Wars

The war in Afghanistan has gone through different phases politically, militarily and socially. Politically I remember that at first it was opposed by the left. I don’t know about you but I had been bombarded for years with e-mails from my left leaning lady friends about the Taliban’s treatment of women. I got not one e-mail acknowledging their overthrow. I remember being sat down in front of a TV by one such to view a kind of ‘teach-in’ produced by the BBC and hosted by none other than Imran Khan. (He is not just Pakistani royalty, he is cricketing royalty and as well known in the UK or Australia as Michael Jordan in the US.) Earnest students talked about their aversion to the US and couldn’t understand why the US was attacking a neighboring Muslim country and, in their view, Islam itself. I wasn’t in America at the time and the American left may not have opposed the Afghan war as vigorously as the international left, but from my perspective it has been ironic to see how the Afghan war has become acceptable to much of the left that now reserves its rancor exclusively for the Iraqi war.

At the beginning, the press were predicting a quagmire, I thought quite rationally at the time, based on the Russian experience. The last we knew the Russian army was the greatest army in the world having done most of the heavy lifting in crushing the Nazis and the Afghans had fought them to a standstill just like they had done to the British in the 19th century. Even then the Vietnam meme was prominent in the press’s approach but again this seemed justified by the similarities to Vietnam and the Russian experience. Then there was that rapid US victory and the critics shut up only to reemerge to fight another day over Iraq. The Afghan war became the forgotten war. The press contented itself with ‘resurgence and ‘Taliban Spring offensive’ memes but on closer examination the offensives was usually organized by the Coalition troops and the there was little resurgence. Properly, there was concern with the tribal areas in Pakistan serving as a safe haven for the Taliban and Bin Laden.

The common perception is that Iraq is going badly; Afghanistan not so badly. Michael Yon, who is a blogger who has spent time in both countries and who has written some very supportive material about our soldiers in Iraq and their mission wrote this about Afghanistan in July 2006:

Iraq is not a quagmire and might be a good ally some day, but Afghanistan is a stone-aged disaster. The Iraqis tend to value education, while Afghans value inertia, and while the progress in Iraq is rapid, obvious and palpable, Afghanistan is mostly a lawless giant hunting lodge where our Special Operations people stalk terrorists, but its like a ensuring that the hunters never run out of gamein this case, game that hunts back.

It is a long and stunning post that contradicts the spin the press gives the two wars. I trust Yon’s reporting and ever since reading this story I have viewed the news from Afghanistan differently. In the light of Yon’s report, the recent increase in troop levels and activity makes sense. The continuing ability of Western troops – whether Brits, French, Australian or American – to prevail decisively when they fight with very few casualties continues to amaze me given the Russian experience. However, it is clear why the opium crop has been allowed to grow uncontrolled. You can’t control what farmers grow when you don’t control the countryside. It is still, however, a mystery to me what our overall strategy is.

The most stunning news to come out of the Afghanistan theater recently is that Pakistan has made peace with the Taliban and Al Qaeda controlled tribal lands of North and South Wirzirastan. (Here is a real Vietnam parallel – a safe haven much like Laos was in Vietnam.)What is going on here? The US pressured Pakistan into trying to pacify these areas – which have never been pacified by either the Pakistanis or the British. Pakistan has made a genuine attempt to do so and lost over 2000 men in the process – much like the US in Iraq. So they cut their losses and we now have two independent Emirates making the Taliban, Al Quaeda and Osama welcome. Not a good thing by the look of it. However I am not so sure. I am taking a wait and see attitude on this one. Here is why.

In the past when the US made incursions into the Tribal areas, Pakistan complained about the affront to their sovereignty. However, when our special forces made targeted raids on Al Qaeda leadership it was presented by both the US and Pakistan as cooperation. So what will happen now with Pakistan bowing out? I seriously doubt that Pakistan’s withdrawal is something that hasn’t been talked about between the US and Pakistan. There has been no outburst of diplomatic rancor between the two countries so I assume it has been discussed and some sort of agreement reached. I don’t think we will see a full scale invasion of Wirzirastan, but I think US Special forces will continue to operate there. Pakistan makes a sharp distinction between its own people and the foreigners such as Al Qaeda. I think that at a minimum the US will continue to carefully target Al Quaeda – perhaps more vigorously now that the Pakistani army is no longer a factor. There are quite large Al Qaeda training camps in Wirzirastan and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are hit harder with air power than just the hellfire missiles that a UAV can deliver. My best guess is that Pakistan wont complain too much about attacks on Al Quaeda and that our strategic goal will be to make the genuine locals see that they will not be left alone – their most fervent wish – so long as they harbor Al Quaeda. But we’ll see.

Perhaps we have recognized that Afghanistan isn’t going to develop into a modern country any time soon and are primarily engaged in trying to keep Al Qaeda and the Taliban under pressure but have no program to really replace the status quo as we do in Iraq. Here is Michael Yon again:

I have spoken with many Special Forces soldiers about Iraq and Afghanistan. Most agree that we are making serious progress in Iraq, but those same Special Forces soldiers say that Afghanistan is a disaster. One soldier had done two tours in Afghanistan, and he said it plainly. Mike, when we build a schoolhouse in Iraq, the Iraqis make a school out of it and use it to study. When we build a schoolhouse in Afghanistan, an Imam comes in and teaches people to hate us. Building a schoolhouse is not the same as building a school. A schoolhouse is just a building. Iraqis believe in learning and progress. Afghans walk in circles.

However the explosion in the growing of opium is a destabilizing factor. I think we have to be very careful that we don’t go backwards.

Here is Michael Yon on his first visit to Afghanistan in April 2006:

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.

If the EU is unhappy, and I agree with Michael Yon that they should be, then I think the EU has a big opportunity here to bigfoot the US and probatively make an effort to buy up the opium crop. It turns out there even is a shortage of opium and the EU ought to be in a position to outspend the Taliban when it comes to buying up opium. According to some figures – there is disagreement - there is actually a world shortage of opium for medical purposes and that Afghanistan’s crop would only supply a portion of it. Andrew Stuttaford writes at the conservative NRO’s Corner

….there is a worldwide shortage (the estimate comes from the Senlis Council ) of opiates for medical use of roughly 10,000 tonnes of opium equivalent a year……Afghanistan produces approximately 4,000 tonnes of opium each year, so if the Senlis numbers are even roughly correct, the entire Afghan crop (and more) could be used to meet the current shortage.

If the Coalition, or just the EU, went after the opium crop this way then there would be a strong strategic reason to extend the power of the Afghan government into insecure poppy growing areas so that the Taliban didn’t just terrorize the farmers out of selling to the EU. If all the farmers know they get a better price for their crop if they are in a safe area then economics, politics, and military action are all pulling in the same direction. Set the price nicely above what the Taliban are paying. If they meet it, it reduces their profit; if they use terror, then they identify the next area for the military to secure.

As little as I like Jacques Chirac I would love to see him sanctimoniously lecture Bush about why the EU is unilaterally creating an alternate market for opium in Afghanistan to protect the lives of young Europeans.


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