Afghanistan: Western countries looked the other way from opium production to avoid “radicalizing” locals; opium trade now propelling resurgent Taliban

May 11, 2009

Whoops: A gross over-estimation of the political and ideological will in Afghanistan to counteract the influence of the Taliban, both locally and nationally. “West looked the other way as Afghan drug trade exploded,” by Tom Lasseter for McClatchy Newspapers, May 10:

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Locals call them “poppy palaces,” the three- or four-story marble homes with fake Roman columns perched behind razor wire and guard shacks in Afghanistan’s capital.

Most are owned by Afghan officials or people connected to them, men who make a few hundred dollars a month as government employees but are driven around in small convoys of armored SUVs that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Kabul’s gleaming upmarket real estate seems a world away from war-torn southern Afghanistan , but many of the houses were built with profits harvested from opium poppy fields in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar .

“When you see these buildings, that’s not normal money . . . that’s drug money,” said Ghulam Haider Hamidi , the mayor of Kandahar’s provincial capital since 2007. “The ministers and the governors are behind the drug dealers, and sometimes they are the drug dealers.”

Last year, Helmand and Kandahar provinces accounted for about 75 percent of Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation, and Helmand alone was the world’s biggest supplier of opium.

Afghan and Western officials say that’s because U.S. and NATO -led forces failed to take the drug problem seriously for more than six years after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 ousted the Taliban regime.

“They (the Western military) didn’t want anything to do with either interdiction or eradication,” said Thomas Schweich , a former Bush administration ambassador for counter-narcotics and justice reform for Afghanistan . “We warned them over and over again: Look at Colombia .”

Now Helmand and Kandahar have become the core of a narco-state within Afghanistan , effectively ruled by the resurgent Taliban . Drugs are the main economic engine there, and most politicians and police are said to be under the thumbs of dealers. “I haven’t seen any good police during the last two years in Kandahar ,” Hamidi said.

In the west Helmand district of Nad Ali, thousands of acres of government land reportedly have been irrigated and cultivated — including wells and farm boundaries dug by heavy machinery — as poppy plantations. Police in the area fired on government eradication teams last year.

Asked what American and NATO forces have done to halt the flow of opium and heroin in the southern provinces, Afghanistan’s minister for counter-narcotics, Col. Gen. Khodaidad, who like many Afghans uses only one name, had a quick answer: “Nothing.”

The Afghan government hasn’t done much, either. Schweich said that at the highest levels of government the issue wasn’t always corruption, but political considerations.

For example, he said, U.S.-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai was seen in 2007 as “trying to prevent serious law-enforcement efforts in Helmand and Kandahar to ensure that he did not lose the support of drug lords in the area whose support he wanted in the upcoming election.” Schweich, though, added that Karzai has recently appeared to “adopt a more hands-off approach.”

A spokesman for Karzai, Humayun Hamidzada , denied that the government was soft on drugs, and said it was waging “an active campaign against corruption and drug dealing.”

Mirwais Yasini , a parliament member who headed Afghanistan’s anti-narcotics directorate for about two years, agreed that politics is a factor is the government’s lax enforcement. However, he said, there’s another consideration: “It’s also for their own benefit, because some government officials have large lands that produce opium.” […]

The British worried that strong-arming poppy farmers could create more militants, and they preferred to wait for the rule of law to be strengthened, at which point — the thinking went — the Afghans could take care of their drug problem themselves.

“We think that this was a rather simplistic view of the issue, because as we have seen in Colombia , as we have seen in the Golden Triangle ” — an opium and heroin production area in southeast Asia — “at the end of the day it is very hard to make a distinction between the drug cultivation and the insurgency,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu , representative for the United Nations office on drugs and crime in Afghanistan .

The softer British approach often didn’t achieve much. […]

Three former Helmand governors said the British forces‘ reluctance to deal with drugs was disastrous.

“When they’re not targeting the source that fuels the terrorism it is difficult to defeat terrorism,” said Mohammed Daoud , the governor from late 2005 through 2006. “Unless the international community includes poppy eradication and fighting drugs in their list of ways to fight terrorism, they will not succeed in this fight because it (the drug trade) is the fuel in the machine of terrorism.” […]

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