Sunday, August 26, 2007

Coca Cola for Heroin

When the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, they still did not have control of all of Afghanistan. In particular, Mazar El Sharif, the Shiite holy city to the North was still firmly in the hands of Dostum and his followers despite Pakistani Madrassa sending thousands of willing fighters to the Taliban to take it over. Mazar Il Sharif fell in October of 1999 and it was widely accepted that the Taliban now basically controlled the entire country. However well before this point in time, the Taliban had established a ban on the growth of poppies, required to make opium and heroin. They never managed to eradicate the crop entirely, but they certainly reduced the exports to a trickle by 2001. One of the ways they did this was by applying draconian punishment to those who dared to grow poppies proclaiming it to be against the will of Allah and secondly, by effectively subsidizing the farmers to grow other crops.

In the wake of the US invasion in 2001, President Bush exhorted the world to provide aid for this new fledgling democracy, a favorite Neoconservative expression. The world responded and led by Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom as well as the United States, over five billion dollars were pledged to rebuild the country. Barely 5% of that money ever reached Afghanistan and when it did, it mainly went to foreign contractors, such as a well known Virginian law firm that pocketed $14 million to rewrite Afghan trade laws, an exercise so pointless, so futile, it boggles the mind. One of the main effects of the invasion however, was the sudden stop in subsidies the Taliban gave the private farmers especially in the more rural areas and the other, was the almost total cessation of governance of all the provinces apart from Kabul and Herat.

During my trips in 2003 and 2003, the outlying Afghan provinces were operating almost entirely without any form of administration. There was a severe drought which had been going on for almost six years by then and the Afghans outside Kabul were in dire straits whereas those within the Kabul city limits were not much better off than before despite the fact that the Taliban’s reign of terror had now ceased. The Afghan soil does not support many crops, but one of the crops that does grow exceedingly well are opium poppies. Farmers, desperate to earn something began growing poppies again in 2003. By 2005, Afghanistan was supplying 75% of the world’s opium and heroin. More recently articles appeared in both
The New York Times as well as The International Herald Tribune stating that Afghan poppy growth had skyrocketed since then to new record levels.

One of the reasons for this is that the Taliban, erstwhile the ones who prohibited poppy growing are now encouraging it and reaping the profits. In fact, they have now set up labs all over southern Afghanistan to process the crop which now no longer needs to leave the country as the raw product, but can be manufactured into heroin which is then exported thus raising the reaped profits by several hundred percent. The other factor is that despite the intentions of the occupying forces to do something about the poppy growers, there is strong resistance from the Afghan central government in Kabul, whose true reach does not extend much further than Bamiyan, some 140 miles from the Kabul City walls. Hamid Karzai’s government is well aware that it is caught between a rock and a hard place. The Taliban now profit from the growth of the poppies, but eradicating them would further alienate the farmers who would then turn to the Taliban.

The sheer numbers are staggering. Afghanistan now produces 92% of the world’s heroin and Helmland Province, which covers an area about the size of West Virginia, produces more narcotics than any other place in the world including Columbia and Morocco. Last year’s bumper poppy crop amounting to a mind blowing 6,100 metric tons represents a 50% increase over the previous year.

To understand this one has to understand the nature of the country. It is true that the Taliban represented a fiendish government which cracked down on freedom in ways that are unthinkable in the West. But a farmer somewhere in Helmland province was little affected by this. To him, the ensuing ‘freedom’ offered by the West has only meant an increase in poverty and a decrease in his living conditions. Attempts by the West to introduce new crops into Afganistan such as growing chillis, which are quite profitable fail because the initial expenditure and outlay for the farmer is too high. In addition, his crops are endangered from marauding thieves and the Taliban militias that roam the countryside who do not wish to have their business undermined.

The current state of affairs points at a further misstep by the West and a continuing failure to grasp that nature of the country that is Afghanistan. There was a chance, back in 2001, to really turn the tide. Five billion dollars could truly have sufficed to put the country on its feet, to educate the farmers in new farming techniques, to supply them with the initial seeds to begin growing crops which they can sell. But in 2003 most of the ministries were still non-functional, the country, including Kabul still lacked drinking water and power and the population of Afghanistan still lacked a perspective. The governments of Germany and the United Kingdom pompously declared that they would not abandon Afghanistan, but they did. The United States declared solidarity with the Afghan people, but they never followed through. Continuing reports of massive civilian casualties caused by predominantly United States led Special Forces and aerial bombardments have further strengthened the wedge between the government of Hamid Karzai and the indigenous population. Who can blame them for resorting to growing mildly profitable drug crops which then find their markets here, in our countries, in the West, where they destroy the fabric of our society? We have so thoroughly shot ourselves in the foot by creating a monster through sheer ignorance, greed and incapability.

The Afghan people, who have lived through 25 years of war are experiencing the continued slow death of their country, now at the hands of the West. Symbolically, one of the projects that succeeded is the construction of a giant soft drink bottling plant in the new industrial park outside Kabul. We could not give them freedom, we could not give them peace, we could not give them electricity or clean water, but we managed to give them Coca-Cola.

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