Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dark Poppies, full of blood and poverty

The war in Afghanistan is not going well for anyone. Not for the Afghans (whichever side, or caught in the middle) and certainly not for the occupying forces who've recently had to admit that they don't trust the Afghans to run their own nation and they've had to scale down their military objectives.

Now that Afghanistan is the source for the majority of the world's heroin we're in a bind. We came to make the world free from terror (mission accomplished, natch) and whilst we were at it we'd make the Afghan's free from tyranny (they'll get back to us on that one I reckon).

The justification for our foreign fighters being in Afghanistan is the war on terror - but whilst we're there we may as well pursue the war on drugs and blame the Taliban for the increased drug production. Under quite what mandate we're doing this I've never quite worked out.

The US forces have hoped to spray chemical agents from the air in order to destroy the only livelihood Afghan farmers have. A charming guy called Chemical Bill is very keen on the idea but they're always getting knocked back. Possibly because the whole concept does not fit very easily with winning over the hearts and minds of the Afghan population.

Whilst we should give Western forces the credit for sticking to what they know - destroying economies - this is not a tactic that is likely to end up with an effective and democratic state at the end of it. You don't meet developmental goals in one of the poorest places on the planet by poisoning the soil.

It seems we can't even do what the Russians did in the seventies, namely build a functioning state which delivered some sort of benefit to the population - or what the Taliban did when they all but eradicated drug production in the areas they controlled. With British backed corruption (that appears to go right to the top) and a third of the Afghan police as drug addicts you've got an uphill struggle on your hands.

What I don't understand is why we don't try the obvious solution. Instead of setting ourselves against the interests of the Afghans why not work with them? Buy up the poppy and manufacture medicines. We get life saving drugs, they get a legitimate income with which they can begin to build decent lives from themselves.

Afghanistan would be a better place to live, they'd be less violence in the world and maybe, just maybe, we'd stop stoking the flames of hate that creates terrorism and religious fundamentalism. Where's the down side? That it's not politically expedient for "respectable" politicians to endorse buying opium perhaps? Maybe, although my concern is that, in fact, it's because the welfare of the Afghan people isn't even on their agenda. It just is not part of the plan.

The crisis is a gift to the Obama campaign who have led with criticism of the Bush strategy on Iraq and Afghanistan, describing the Afghan situation as a forgotten war. We can hope that a removal of Bushite foreign policy from the White House may mark some sort of shift in the region, although I suspect it might not.

Of course, if Sarah Palin were ever to get a say over Afghan policy Christ knows what would occur seeing as she doesn't even know where it is (which I think is pretty bad when she is fighting an election where Afghanistan is one of the major issues).

Whatever the disheartening short term prospects, it seems to me that there are things that we can do to meet the aims of rebuilding the country, giving some sort of empowerment to local people and easing up on the killing and destruction that does not seem to have served us particularly well up to this point. But those alternative strategies involve working with Afghan people with their interests at the top of our priorities, which is probably why I'm pessimistic about the chances of that happening any time soon.

Interesting link on winter '08 survey of Afghan opium farming.

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