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Saturday, February 04, 2006

A misbegotten decision

This blog is becoming very political! But this article does raise a very difficult problem: Afghanistan's economy depends largely on opium production. Attempts to destroy poppy fields in Afghanistan will not be economically productive, and will also be very unpopular with the farmers for whom it is the only possible source of a decent income.

My solution? Leet them grow poppies; de-criminalise drugs, of any kind, worldwide. Let those who will, kill themselves with heroin. What do you think?

South Asia Features
Kabul`s Mission Impossible
By Martin Walker
Feb 3, 2006, 19:00 GMT

WASHINGTON, DC, United States (UPI) -- The vote in the Dutch parliament Friday to send up to 1,400 of their troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan may help save the battered credibility of the alliance, but it faces something dreadfully close to Mission Impossible.

The United States wants to withdraw some 4,000 troops from the Afghan mission. NATO, or at least its energetic new Dutch secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, wants to be seen as militarily useful so it has deployed its first mission outside the traditional European theater of operations.

For the past two years, NATO has deployed some 9,000 troops in and around Kabul. The force includes some 2,000 Germans, about a thousand Turks, the same number of Canadians and just over 500 from Italy, Belgium, Spain and Britain, which is about to send some 3,200 more.

The Canadians are being reinforced to about 2,200, and the overall NATO contingent should soon amount to over 15,000 troops, and moving into some of the dangerous regions that have hitherto be mainly manned by U.S. forces. The British are being deployed to Helmand province, a dangerous zone where the Taliban remains powerful, and which has seen 100 U.S. troops killed over the past 6 months -- an ominous figure, given that the 100th British soldier has just been killed in Iraq.

In order to reinforce this NATO mission, the Dutch went through an agonizing public debate and a political row that brought up all the old European resentments about the Bush administration and the Iraq war, and for a while it threatened to sink the government. The government had to make all sorts of promises, like an insistence that no detained Afghan would be allowed to end up in the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to win the vote. And they pledged that the Dutch troops would be under strict Rules of Engagement that would let them fight back, but not initiate hostilities, nor fight alongside the U.S. forces on aggressive patrol missions.

The Dutch troops, like their NATO allies, are doubtless all brave, decently armed and trained. They have been assured by their commanders and their politicians that theirs is an important mission, bringing peace to a war-battered land. They will be helping guard the engineers and aid workers who are trying to rebuild, and facing the same extremist Islamist enemy that exploded bombs in Madrid and London.

Oh yes, and they are meant to help fight the war on drugs by supporting the Afghan government`s efforts to eradicate the opium trade and crop, which fuels the heroin that ends addicting and killing young Europeans.

And as part of the Alice-in-Wonderland Rules of Engagement under which NATO operates, the mandate does not allow the troops deliberately to damage civilian property, which means that cannot burn the poppy fields directly, only provide support to the Afghan government employees who will strike the matches.

This is the baffling part of the mission. Outside of drugs, and the money challenged in by aid workers and troops, there is almost no Afghan economy worthy of the name. One in four of the 25 million population is dependent on food aid.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Afghanistan is by far the world`s largest producer of opium. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says the country accounts for more than two-thirds of global opium production, and each of the last three years has seen record crops, despite the 2002 ban on illicit opium poppy cultivation and the trafficking and consumption of opiates. This should come as no surprise, since the poppies that produce opium are estimated to earn approximately eight times more income per acre than wheat, using less water and fewer inputs.

'The livelihoods of about 1.7 million rural people -- around 7 percent of Afghanistan`s population -- are directly dependent on poppy cultivation,' says the FAO.

'And poppy production has spread to more remote, less accessible parts of the country due to increasing political and physical pressure on the main growing areas. For poor rural farmers struggling to survive amid the chaos resulting from more than 20 years of conflict and, more recently, four years of drought, the cultivation of opium poppy has provided relatively secure cash income and the means by which poor farmers and the landless could get access to land. It has also offered the only source of credits and agricultural inputs, with traders often offering advances against future production.'

But the drugs trade is the only bit of the Afghan economy that works. By destroying it, we undermine the chances of President Hamid Karzai`s government to bring order, prosperity or very much else, except more of the $10 billions in Western aid that was promised at this week`s London conference.

Moreover, by destroying the drugs trade, we act as the Taliban`s recruiting sergeants, giving them the opportunity to pose as the defenders of Afghan peasants against the NATO troops and the hirelings of the Karzai government of Kabul. An impoverished Afghan peasant who finally gets some money from his opium crop is not going to welcome the arrival of NATO troops standing guard as the crop is destroyed. He might even join the Taliban in order to protect it.

The United States has been fighting the war on drugs for the past 34 years, with little visible success. Cocaine and heroin remain widely available despite draconian prison sentences. The U.S. Justice Department`s own figures show that 55 percent of federal prison inmates are behind bars for drug offences, and so are 21 percent of adults in state prisons -- a total of some 300,000 people.

In short, the demand for drugs from the West resists strenuous efforts to control it. The Afghan peasants, in the absence of anything else, feed that demand. Understandably, the governments of the West would like to curtail the Afghan supply, in conditions that will make such an effort not only dangerous for the troops, but liable to undermine the very mission of stabilizing the Afghan government they have been sent to fulfill.

This looks like Mission Impossible.

And this is the real danger to NATO. It was the Dutch Army, remember, that under their strict Rules of Engagement as peacekeepers in Bosnia in 1995, were unable to prevent the Serb forces from massacring some 5,000 Bosnians at Srebrenica, which had been declared a `safe zone.` The morale of the Dutch army has barely recovered from this humiliation.

Now they are on another peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, and a great deal of NATO`s political capital has been expended to get them there. NATO embarked on this operation to show the Americans that they remained serious and important allies. But with this misbegotten decision to join the war on drugs as well as the war on terrorism, they now risk losing more public support at home than any approval they may gain in the Pentagon

Copyright 2006 by United Press International

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