Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Operation Panchai Palang: seeds of conflict

The Ministry of Defence was pleased as punch when it announced it had made a record haul of 1.3 tonnes of poppy seeds in Southern Afghanistan. Announcing Operation Panther's Claw a run away success they estimated the operation had cost the Taliban something like $400 million.

Last week The Sun was in paroxysms of delight over the operation, drooling over how many troops and helicopters were involved in the operation known locally as Operation Panchai Palang (Panther's Claw). They describe how the 'hero' troops had fought off the enemy in the 'bad lands' where they had made the seizure.

Scotland on Sunday talked to one soldier who said "We had dominated an area which normally belongs to the enemy. That gives the guys a high." The Daily Star crowed that the Taliban had been "crushed" and "Lieutenant Colonel Nick Richardson, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said it showed the link between the insurgency and opium drug production."

According to the Guardian the army were so proud of their success they took the press to "the site where the seizure was made, an abandoned market and petrol station that was still coming under sustained enemy fire when the reporters arrived."

Alas, there was a hitch. They'd seized 1.3 tonnes of mung beans, part of the staple diet of the Afghan people. For a while the top brass tried to deny it claiming the beans were a strain of "super poppy", snigger, but eventually they had to give in and with a pouty face said they'd give the beans back. Let's hope they haven't killed the owner in the meantime.

Now, just a few points I'd like to make.

The market clearly wasn't abandoned until British troops arrived guns blazing. At the very minimum it was well stocked with mung beans that local people might have had some use for. Now, whilst the troops might feel brilliant about "dominating" the area how might the Afghans feel about it?

Foreign troops fly in with over whelming force, kill some local people, take their food, shut down their market and then gloat about how amazing it all makes them feel. This is a blow against the Taliban? I think not, rather the operation has been an extremely effective Taliban recruiting tool. Hearts and minds people, hearts - and - minds.

I've advocated it before so wont bang on but we should be buying the opium (when it actually is opium) not seizing it and burning it.

Firstly that would prevent us destroying people's 'legitimate' livelihoods and undermining the formal economy, as in this case. Secondly it would put the Taliban, rather than the occupation force, in opposition to the local population's attempts to build a viable economy. Thirdly it's a win / win situation where both sides of the deal get something genuinely socially constructive. Fourthly, the attempt to control the Afghan people by foreign fighters is not a tool for democracy but one that suppresses their freedom and it must stop.

I don't want to tell the army their job but... scratch that... I really *do* want to tell them their job. You're supposed to be there to free the people not "crush" them. Either buck up or ship out, preferably both.


Strategist said...

Spotted a version of this article in yesterday's print edition of the Morning Star. Good stuff!

...and here it is online

Jim Jay said...

Indeed, I was even mentioned on the front page :)

I shall be in the M Star again this coming Tuesday too

Strategist said...

You want to get yourself a picture byline like that John Pilger!