February 2nd 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: TRANSPORT: End of the line for rail freight?

FINANCE: Sub-prime mortgage crisis paralyses credit system

EDITORIAL: East Timor's new beginning

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Economic storm facing new government

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: A stern test for multiculturalism

CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: Family values overlooked in the market-place

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Reading the signs for the New Year (Through a hedge backwards...) / Hijacking foreign aid / Sub-prime lending crisis / Was Hitler's defeat inevitable?

AFGHANISTAN: Confronting terrorists and the drug trade

WOMEN UNDER ISLAM: Silence of the "sisterhood"

EDUCATION: The threat to our literary heritage

OPINION: Who is the real Kevin Rudd?

Global warming? Stop and think! (letter)

Flaws in our voting system (letter)

Who is running the country? (letter)

Barack Obama on foreign despots (letter)

Alternative to capitalism and communism? (letter)

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Juvenile crime in Britain / Feminist magazine's anti-Israel bias

GOD AND CAESAR: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics, and Society by Cardinal George Pell

BOOKS: CULTURAL AMNESIA: Notes in the Margin of My Time, by Clive James

THE TORCH AND THE SWORD: A History of the Army Cadet Movement in Australia, by Craig A. Stockings

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Confronting terrorists and the drug trade

by Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, February 2, 2008
The Taliban now controls Afghanistan's growing drug trade and is using the proceeds to fund its deadly counter-insurgency campaign, writes Sharif Shuja.

Fighting terrorists and securing the stability of Afghanistan are in both America's and the Afghan Government's national interests. There should be no doubt about it. But what are the best means to achieve these objectives? Military means are essential, but they must be linked with a broad strategy of economic reconstruction, social development and building networks of political trust among the local communities.

The world understood the Americans' logic in going after the Taliban. There was little international opposition to the American invasion of Afghanistan; rather, there was great support for the military operation against the Taliban within and outside the region.

Moreover, there was, and is, vast support for rebuilding Afghanistan as a united, secure, stable and peaceful nation. But the degree of that support and goodwill for the United States and others engaged in the war against the Taliban is dwindling fast as more time and money have been absorbed in a mistaken emphasis on war rather than on economic reconstruction.

The policy that commenced with the aim of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans has ended up in a big mess, generating widespread anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood.

The United States is increasingly being viewed as an occupation force and not a liberator from the Taliban. US policy-makers are not examining their own failures and weaknesses, nor are they looking at the ethnic lopsidedness of the power structure they have created in Afghanistan.

One of the major flaws of American strategy has been its heavy reliance on guns and bombs, a repeat of the mistake that the Soviets made after their invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. In bombing the Afghans to dust, the US has learnt nothing from Afghan history.

Contrary to their original expectations, the United States and its coalition partners are facing tough resistance. There is a raging Taliban insurgency in the south that took nearly 6,000 lives in 2007. Most Afghans are aware of the corruption in the government, the still-powerful warlords, the rampant poverty in the provinces, the illiteracy rate, the persistent oppression of women, and the suicide-bombings.


Meanwhile, Afghanistan is producing 92 per cent of the world's opium. If a narco-state can be defined as a nation where the production and export of illegal drugs comprises the equivalent of about 50 per cent of that country's legitimate gross domestic product, then Afghanistan is a narco-state.

According to the UN World Drug Report for 2007, which was issued in July, Afghanistan is home to 82 per cent of the area throughout the world that is devoted to the cultivation of opium. The UN estimates that "around 92 per cent of the world's heroin comes from poppies grown in Afghanistan".

The report further reveals that "there are indications that a small but increasing proportion of opiates from Afghanistan are being trafficked to North America". This means that Taliban-controlled areas in southern Afghanistan, where much of the recent increases in opium output have occurred, are effectively selling heroin to American addicts to finance Taliban military operations against US and allied forces.

Terrorism Monitor reports: "The opium economy in Afghanistan is a key component of the counter-insurgency campaign, yet remains one of the most difficult issues to tackle. It is a critical problem facing international efforts to create a functional government in Kabul that can prosecute counter-terrorism on its own territory." (Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 5, Issue 9, May 10, 2007).

Helmand province, where the Taliban is very influential, has become the centre of the narcotic trade and cultivation. And 80 per cent of the opium is produced in the provinces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

According to Fazel Ahmad Sherzad, head of the anti-narcotics department in Helmand, "Last year, 40 per cent of land was used for poppy cultivation. This year it is up to 80 per cent in places. Three months ago I came and told these farmers not to grow poppy, but look, it's all poppy." (International Herald Tribune, February 17, 2007).

President Hamid Karzai's government and its international backers are suffering a drastic lack of credibility when it comes to curbing poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. Poppy-growing is so rampant that, despite millions of aid dollars spent to train counter-narcotics forces and to help farmers grow other crops, Afghanistan is showing no sign of leaving its position as the world's biggest producer of opium.

With the demand for drugs rising in the lucrative markets of the West, an Afghan farmer can expect to earn $4,600 a hectare annually if he cultivates the opium poppy. In comparison, if he grows wheat, he can expect only $530 a year.

The much-heralded reconstruction plan for the country promised by the international community is yet to show results after five years. Industry and agriculture have not recovered from the devastation caused by the civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. Legitimate employment opportunities for the average Afghan are virtually non-existent. Only a lucky few are able to get work in one of the thousands of non-governmental organisations and international aid agencies that have set up camp in Kabul.

One of the stated goals of the US and NATO invasion of Afghanistan was the eradication of opium cultivation. Ironically, at the time of the 2001 invasion, opium production under the Taliban had touched an all-time low. The UN and other international agencies had issued certificates of good behaviour to the Taliban government in this respect. Most of the opium cultivation in those days was done in areas under the control of warlords. The Taliban had in fact decreed that anyone caught cultivating poppy would be summarily hanged.

After the overthrow of the Taliban, the Americans let the warlords once again have a decisive say in the running of the country. In no time, they reverted to their wicked ways, including large-scale production of opium. The US initially turned a blind eye to this, as the support of the warlords was essential to prop up the Karzai regime and keep a resurgent Taliban at bay. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration's attention became fully focussed on Iraq, with resources and troops badly needed in Afghanistan being diverted to the West Asia battle zone.

Now it is the Taliban that has a stranglehold on the drug trade. Like insurgent groups and guerrilla forces in other parts of the world, the Taliban considers the taxing of revenues from the drug trade a legitimate tactic to fight the occupation forces.

The Taliban are now promoting the growing of poppy as a source of income for their operations. They have distributed leaflets ordering farmers to grow poppy. They have forced an alliance with the drug-smugglers, providing protection for drug convoys, and are carrying out attacks to keep the government away and the poppy flourishing.

Insurgency and change in tactics

As Afghanistan and the international community try to come to grips with the drug problem, the insurgency seems to be picking up steam. Suicide-bombings have increased. The high-profile kidnappings in recent months also point towards a change in tactics. Many leading Taliban figures were released from prison this year in exchange for the freedom of a kidnapped Italian. The release of South Korean hostages in late August seems to have involved huge amounts of ransom money - the Taliban claims that it was paid $420 million - and the South Korean Government had to strongly reiterate that it was committed to withdrawing the last of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

There is a serious debate currently taking place in Italy and Germany about the desirability of keeping their respective troops indefinitely in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF).

Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said recently that there had been a lack of coordination between the US and ISAF forces. He described as "morally unacceptable" the deaths of hundreds of Afghan civilians as a result of military actions. In Germany, a recent poll showed that 64 per cent of the people wanted their army to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, a top US military commander stationed in Afghanistan, Major-General Robert Cone, said recently that military force alone may not be enough to beat the Taliban in Afghanistan. Cone, who is in charge of equipping and training Afghan security forces, said that ultimately only "political solutions" end insurgencies.

One could be pessimistic about the future of Afghanistan. But the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which conducted a survey earlier this year in 32 out of 34 provinces in Afghanistan, found that nearly 80 per cent of Afghans polled said they felt optimistic about the future.

This finding reflects the inner ability of Afghans to remain optimistic in the face of overwhelming hardship and instability. This, to me, makes it a moral imperative that we in the West not give up on a people who have not given up on themselves.

What can be done? Without a genuine and sustained long-term commitment on the part of the United States and its allies, Afghanistan is doomed.

- Sharif Shuja is a lecturer and coordinator of Issues in Contemporary Asia subjects at Victoria University.

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