Can Anyone Pacify the World’s Number One Narco-State?

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The Opium Wars in Afghanistan

* By Alfred W. McCoy TomDispatch *

In ways that have escaped most observers, the Obama administration is now trapped in an endless cycle of drugs and death in Afghanistan from which there is neither an easy end nor an obvious exit.

After a year of cautious debate and costly deployments, President Obama finally launched his new Afghan war strategy at 2:40 am on February 13, 2010, in a remote market town called Marja in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. As a wave of helicopters descended on Marja’s outskirts spitting up clouds of dust, hundreds of U.S. Marines dashed through fields sprouting opium poppies toward the town’s mud-walled compounds.

After a week of fighting, U.S. war commander General Stanley A. McChrystal choppered into town with Afghanistan’s vice-president and Helmand’s provincial governor. Their mission: a media roll-out for the general’s new-look counterinsurgency strategy based on bringing government to remote villages just like Marja.

At a carefully staged meet-and-greet with some 200 villagers, however, the vice-president and provincial governor faced some unexpected, unscripted anger. “If they come with tractors,” one Afghani widow announced to a chorus of supportive shouts from her fellow farmers, “they will have to roll over me and kill me before they can kill my poppy.”

For these poppy growers and thousands more like them, the return of government control, however contested, brought with it a perilous threat: opium eradication.

Throughout all the shooting and shouting, American commanders seemed strangely unaware that Marja might qualify as the world’s heroin capital — with hundreds of laboratories, reputedly hidden inside the area’s mud-brick houses, regularly processing the local poppy crop into high-grade heroin. After all, the surrounding fields of Helmand Province produce a remarkable 40% of the world’s illicit opium supply, and much of this harvest has been traded in Marja. Rushing through those opium fields to attack the Taliban on day one of this offensive, the Marines missed their real enemy, the ultimate force behind the Taliban insurgency, as they pursued just the latest crop of peasant guerrillas whose guns and wages are funded by those poppy plants. “You can’t win this war,” said one U.S. Embassy official just back from inspecting these opium districts, “without taking on drug production in Helmand Province.”

Indeed, as Air Force One headed for Kabul Sunday, National Security Adviser James L. Jones assured reporters that President Obama would try to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to prioritize “battling corruption, taking the fight to the narco-traffickers.” The drug trade, he added, “provides a lot of the economic engine for the insurgents.”

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