The Opium Wars in Afghanistan

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

Published on Global Research.ca, by Alfred W. McCoy, March 30, 2010.

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 …

… Ending the Cycle of Drugs and Death

With its forces now planted in the dragon’s teeth soil of Afghanistan, Washington is locked into what looks to be an unending cycle of drugs and death. Every spring in those rugged mountains, the snows melt, the opium seeds sprout, and a fresh crop of Taliban fighters takes to the field, many to die by lethal American fire.  And the next year, the snows melt again, fresh poppy shoots break through the soil, and a new crop of teen-aged Taliban fighters pick up arms against America, spilling more blood. This cycle has been repeated for the past ten years and, unless something changes, can continue indefinitely.

Is there any alternative? Even were the cost of rebuilding Afghanistan’s rural economy — with its orchards, flocks, and food crops — as high as $30 billion or, for that matter, $90 billion dollars, the money is at hand. By conservative estimates, the cost of President Obama’s ongoing surge of 30,000 troops alone is $30 billion a year. So just bringing those 30,000 troops home would create ample funds to begin the rebuilding of rural life in Afghanistan, making it possible for young farmers to begin feeding their families without joining the Taliban’s army.

Short of another precipitous withdrawal akin to 1991, Washington has no realistic alternative to the costly, long-term reconstruction of Afghanistan’s agriculture. Beneath the gaze of an allied force that now numbers about 120,000 soldiers, opium has fueled the Taliban’s growth into an omnipresent shadow government and an effective guerrilla army. The idea that our expanded military presence might soon succeed in driving back that force and handing over pacification to the illiterate, drug-addicted Afghan police and army remains, for the time being, a fantasy. Quick fixes like paying poppy farmers not to plant, something British and Americans have both tried, can backfire and end up actually promoting yet more opium cultivation. Rapid drug eradication without alternative employment, something the private contractor DynCorp tried so disastrously under a $150 million contract in 2005, would simply plunge Afghanistan into more misery, stoking mass anger and destabilizing the Kabul government further.

So the choice is clear enough: we can continue to fertilize this deadly soil with yet more blood in a brutal war with an uncertain outcome — for both the United States and the people of Afghanistan. Or we can begin to withdraw American forces while helping renew this ancient, arid land by replanting its orchards, replenishing its flocks, and rebuilding the irrigation systems ruined in decades of war.

At this point, our only realistic choice is this sort of serious rural development — that is, reconstructing the Afghan countryside through countless small-scale projects until food crops become a viable alternative to opium. To put it simply, so simply that even Washington might understand, you can only pacify a narco-state when it is no longer a narco-state. (full text).

  • (Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, which probes the conjuncture of illicit narcotics and covert operations over half a century. His latest book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, explores the influence of overseas counterinsurgency operations on the spread of internal security measures at home.
  • Recommended citation: Alfred W. McCoy, “Can Anyone Pacify the World’s Number One Narco-State? The Opium Wars in Afghanistan,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 14-4-10, April 5, 2010
  • Articles by Alfred W. McCoy).

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