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Archive for March, 2010

Posted by on March 31st, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Mohammed el Baradei, former IAEA head and a favorite pinata of the "Real Men Go To Tehran" crowd, has spoken out against the West's support for repressive regimes and its inability to put fine-sounding rhetoric into action in the Middle east and further afield.

In his first English-language interview since returning to Cairo in February, the highly respected Nobel peace prize-winner said the strategy of supporting authoritarian rulers in an effort to combat the threat of Islamic extremism has been a failure, with potentially disastrous consequences.

ElBaradei, who has emerged as a potential challenger to the three-decade rule of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, said: "There is a need for re-evaluation … The idea that the only alternative to authoritarian regimes is Bin Laden and co is a fake one, yet continuation of current policies will make that prophecy come true."

He said: "I see increasing radicalisation in this area of the world, and I understand the reason. People feel depressed by their own governments, they feel unfairly treated by the outside world, they wake up in the morning and who do they see – they see people being shot and killed, all Muslims from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Darfur."

The former head of the International Atomic Energy Authority also said he felt vindicated in his cautious approach while he was head of the nuclear inspection agency. He revealed all his reports in the run-up to the Iraq war were designed to be "immune from being abused" by governments.

"I would hope that the lessons of Iraq, both in London and in the US have started to sink in," he said.

"Sure, there are dictators, but are you ready every time you want to get rid of a dictator to sacrifice a million innocent civilians? All the indications coming out of [the UK's Chilcot Inquiry] are that Iraq was not really about weapons of mass destruction but rather about regime change, and I keep asking the same question – where do you find this regime change in international law? And if it is a violation of international law, who is accountable for that?"

ElBaradei said that western governments must withdraw the unstinting support for autocrats who are seen to be a bulwark against extremism.

"Western policy towards this part of the world has been a total failure, in my view. It has not been based on dialogue, understanding, supporting civil society and empowering people, but rather it's been based on supporting authoritarian systems as long as the oil keeps pumping …

"If you bet on individuals, instead of the people, you are going to fail. And western policy so far has been to bet on individuals, individuals who are not supported by their people and who are being discredited every day.

"When you [the west] see that the most popular people in the Middle East are [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah, that should send you a message: that your policy is not reaching out to the people. The policy should be, 'we care about you, we care about your welfare, we care about your human rights' ."

…"Only if you empower the liberals, if you empower the moderate socialists, if you empower all factions of society, only then, will extremists be marginalised."

Personally, I agree with el Baradei, and consider his comments to be self-evident statements of fact. But I'm also certain that anti-Iran hawks will take them as proof-positive that he was always an America-hatin', Iran-lovin' double agent for Ahmadinejad, or something.

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Posted by DownWithTyranny on March 31st, 2010

From our partners at DownWithTyranny!

When many of us contributed to electing Larry Kissell to the house from North Carolina’s 8th CD, we were convinced we were voting for someone who opposed wars of aggression, foreign occupations and the dishonest budgetary procedures, “supplementals,” the Bush used to pursue wars without paying for them. But last June when the House voted on Obama’s war supplemental, Kissell was not among the 32 Democrats who has the guts to stand up and say no. He went along with the crowd– and didn’t stand up and say “no” until it came to helping ordinary American families with protections against predatory banksters and with healthcare reform.

Over the last few days we’ve looked at why North Carolina Democrats have grown disenchanted enough with Kissell to start flocking to the primary campaign of an outspoken Democratic activist, Nancy Shakir, who’s offering a far more family-friendly vision of what America should look like. Last December, writing in the Fayetteville Observer, Nancy explained why she opposes Obama’s troop escalation agenda and continued occupation of Afghanistan. She shows a great deal more insight into it than Kissell:

Like most Americans, I have close relatives who have served, were casualties or retired from the military. I support our troops, their families and my family. My mantra is “Love the warrior; hate the war.” But I am opposed to President Obama’s proposal for troop escalation in Afghanistan for some of the following reasons.

…In Gen. David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine, the accepted ratio of soldiers to natives is 20 to 25 per thousand. The current ratio is 1 to 430. Afghanistan today is a country of about 33 million. Even if we discount the population to the target group of Pashtuns, we must deal with 15 or so million people. So, when he and Gen. Stanley McChrystal ask for 40,000 more troops, it must be viewed as a first step only.

As the generals did in Vietnam, they will have to ask for another increment and then another, moving toward the supposedly winning number of between 600,000 and 1.3 million. Thus, over 10 years, a figure often cited, pretty soon we’ll be talking real money. The overall cost to our economy has not yet been summed up, but by comparing it to the Iraq war, it will probably amount to upwards of $6 trillion over a 10-year period.

Then there are the casualties: So far we have lost about a thousand in Afghanistan – or about 20 percent as many as in Iraq. Although casualties can be counted, the number of seriously wounded keeps growing because many of the effects of exposure to modern weapons do not show up until later.

About one in four soldiers have reported “acute stress, depression or anxiety.” In Iraq, at least 100,000 of the 1.5 million soldiers who served there suffered severe psychological damage and about 300,000 have reported post-traumatic stress disorder and a similar number have suffered brain injuries. These veterans, sometimes referred to as the “walking wounded,” will be unable to fully contribute to American society, and also will require care for many years to come.

It has been estimated that dealing with a brain-injured soldier over his remaining life will cost about $5 million. Cancer from exposure to depleted uranium is only now coming into full effect. Exposure is then passed on to the offspring of those who served, resulting in birth defects.

About 40 percent of the soldiers who served in the 1991 Gulf war– which lasted only 100 hours– are receiving disability payments. Inevitably, more “boots on the ground” will lead to more beds in hospitals.

What of our own casualties at home: unemployment, foreclosure, growing “food insecurity,” homelessness, despair resulting in suicide and homicide?

The initial Soviet war in Afghanistan began in 1979. The final troop withdrawal ended on Feb. 15, 1989. The Russian army fought a bloody, brutal campaign, using every trick or tool of counterinsurgency, killing a million Afghanis and turning about 5 million into refugees. But after a decade during which they lost 15,000 soldiers and almost bankrupted the Soviet Union, they gave up and left. Gen. McChrystal says it may take him a decade or more to “win.” But what is winning? Even Gen. Petraeus has said, “You cannot kill your way out of an insurgency.”

Removing Afghanistan as a threat requires rebuilding that whole country. Unfortunately, that is a 20-year project at best, and we can’t afford it. So our political leadership needs to insist on a strategy that will get the most security for less money and less presence.

We don’t have the surplus we had when we started the war on terrorism after 9/11– and we desperately need nation-building at home… We need to reduce our footprint in Afghanistan and not dig in deeper. We do not have the Afghan partners, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests to justify an enlarged and prolonged nation-building effort in Afghanistan. We cannot afford intercontinental warfare to rebuild Afghanistan. It doesn’t take much thought to realize, as most Americans do, that if any rebuilding should go on, it needs to be here at home– rebuilding America’s economy, its infrastructure, its educational system and its healthcare system.

If you’d like to help Nancy replace the faithless Kissell, please click over to the Blue America Sending A Message page and contribute what you can afford. Her grassroots campaign can really use some help.

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Posted by Just Foreign Policy on March 31st, 2010

From our partners at Just Foreign Policy

During the House debate over the Kucinich resolution calling for a timetable for military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Rep. Bob Filner, chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, pointed out that hundreds of thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have gone to the VA for service-related injuries.

The video of Filner’s statement is here.

A March 13 fact sheet from Veterans for Common Sense gives a more precise figure: they reported that 508,152 Iraq and Afghanistan veteran patients had been treated at the VA. This figure is from VA documents obtained by VCS under FOIA, and appears to be current through the end of FY 2009, i.e. through September 30, 2009.

The VCS fact sheet is here.

Note that these figures are very different from the official DoD statistics for "wounded" at, often cited in press reports. The total U.S. wounded figure given there for "Operation Enduring Freedom," which is mainly but not exclusively Afghanistan, is 5188 through March 2010, while the total US wounded figure for "Operation Iraqi Freedom" through March 2010 is 31716. That suggests the total U.S. "wounded" from the two wars is 36904, about 7.3% of the VA figure, which covers a slightly shorter period.

If for comparison to the VA figures, we just take the figures through September 30, 2009, that gives 31513 wounded for Iraq, 4174 wounded for OEF, for a total of 35687 wounded. 35687 is 7.02% of the VA figure of 508,152. So it appears that the DoD "wounded" figure is about 7% of the figure of vets who have been treated at the VA.

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Posted by The Agonist on March 31st, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

Quite an admission from General McChrystal:

“We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who became the senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan last year. His comments came during a recent videoconference to answer questions from troops in the field about civilian casualties.

So if none have proven to be a threat, what are we doing there, exactly? Might General McCOIN want to rethink the our checkpoint policy?

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Posted by alexthurston on March 30th, 2010

This article originally appeared at

A front-page New York Times article by Rod Nordland on the aftermath of a recent U.S. Marine offensive in Helmand Province, opium poppy-growing capital of the planet, began this way: “The effort to win over Afghans on former Taliban turf in Marja has put American and NATO commanders in the unusual position of arguing against opium eradication, pitting them against some Afghan officials who are pushing to destroy the harvest.”  Given the nature of Afghanistan — the planet’s foremost narco-state — such conundrums are only likely to multiply as war commander General Stanley McChrystal implements his strategy for pushing back the Taliban in southern Afghanistan and securing the embattled southern city of Kandahar and its environs.

Since Afghanistan now grows the opium poppies that provide more than 90% of the world’s opium, the raw material for the production of heroin, it’s not surprising that drug-trade news and war news intersect from time to time.  More surprising is how seldom poppy growing and the drug trade are portrayed as anything but ancillary to our Afghan War.  Fortunately, TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy has been focused on the drug trade — and the American role in fostering it — in Southeast, Central, and South Asia for a long time.  In the Vietnam era, the CIA actually tried to suppress his classic book (since updated with a chapter on Afghanistan), The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.  He’s been following the story ever since, and now for TomDispatch he offers what may be the first full-scale report that puts the drug trade in its proper place, right at the center of America’s 30-year war in Afghanistan.  It’s a grim yet remarkable story, full of surprises, that makes new sense of the bind in which the U.S. military now finds itself in that country.  (And check out the latest TomCast audio interview in which McCoy discusses just who is complicit in the Afghan opium trade by clicking here or, if you prefer to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

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

The Opium Wars in Afghanistan

By Alfred W. McCoy

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.”

Just as these Marja farmers spoiled General McChrystal’s media event, so their crop has subverted every regime that has tried to rule Afghanistan for the past 30 years. During the CIA’s covert war in the 1980s, opium financed the mujahedeen or “freedom fighters” (as President Ronald Reagan called them) who finally forced the Soviets to abandon the country and then defeated its Marxist client state.

In the late 1990s, the Taliban, which had taken power in most of the country, lost any chance for international legitimacy by protecting and profiting from opium — and then, ironically, fell from power only months after reversing course and banning the crop. Since the US military intervened in 2001, a rising tide of opium has corrupted the government in Kabul while empowering a resurgent Taliban whose guerrillas have taken control of ever larger parts of the Afghan countryside.

These three eras of almost constant warfare fueled a relentless rise in Afghanistan’s opium harvest — from just 250 tons in 1979 to 8,200 tons in 2007.  For the past five years, the Afghan opium harvest has accounted for as much as 50% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and provided the prime ingredient for over 90% of the world’s heroin supply.

The ecological devastation and societal dislocation from these three war-torn decades has woven opium so deeply into the Afghan grain that it defies solution by Washington’s best and brightest (as well as its most inept and least competent). Caroming between ignoring the opium crop and demanding its total eradication, the Bush administration dithered for seven years while heroin boomed, and in doing so helped create a drug economy that corrupted and crippled the government of its ally, President Karzai.  In recent years, opium farming has supported 500,000 Afghan families, nearly 20% of the country’s estimated population, and funds a Taliban insurgency that has, since 2006, spread across the countryside.

To understand the Afghan War, one basic point must be grasped: in poor nations with weak state services, agriculture is the foundation for all politics, binding villagers to the government or warlords or rebels. The ultimate aim of counterinsurgency strategy is always to establish the state’s authority. When the economy is illicit and by definition beyond government control, this task becomes monumental. If the insurgents capture that illicit economy, as the Taliban have done, then the task becomes little short of insurmountable.

Opium is an illegal drug, but Afghanistan’s poppy crop is still grounded in networks of social trust that tie people together at each step in the chain of production.  Crop loans are necessary for planting, labor exchange for harvesting, stability for marketing, and security for shipment. So dominant and problematic is the opium economy in Afghanistan today that a question Washington has avoided for the past nine years must be asked: Can anyone pacify a full-blown narco-state?

The answer to this critical question lies in the history of the three Afghan wars in which Washington has been involved over the past 30 years — the CIA covert warfare of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s (fueled at its start by $900 million in CIA funding), and since 2001, the U.S. invasion, occupation, and counterinsurgency campaigns. In each of these conflicts, Washington has tolerated drug trafficking by its Afghan allies as the price of military success — a policy of benign neglect that has helped make Afghanistan today the world’s number one narco-state.

CIA Covert Warfare, Spreading Poppy Fields, and Drug Labs: the 1980s

Opium first emerged as a key force in Afghan politics during the CIA covert war against the Soviets, the last in a series of secret operations that it conducted along the mountain rim-lands of Asia which stretch for 5,000 miles from Turkey to Thailand. In the late 1940s, as the Cold War was revving up, the United States first mounted covert probes of communism’s Asian underbelly. For 40 years thereafter, the CIA fought a succession of secret wars along this mountain rim — in Burma during the 1950s, Laos in the 1960s, and Afghanistan in the 1980s. In one of history’s ironic accidents, the southern reach of communist China and the Soviet Union had coincided with Asia’s opium zone along this same mountain rim, drawing the CIA into ambiguous alliances with the region’s highland warlords.

Washington’s first Afghan war began in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded the country to save a Marxist client regime in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Seeing an opportunity to wound its Cold War enemy, the Reagan administration worked closely with Pakistan’s military dictatorship in a ten-year CIA campaign to expel the Soviets.

This was, however, a covert operation unlike any other in the Cold War years. First, the collision of CIA secret operations and Soviet conventional warfare led to the devastation of Afghanistan’s fragile highland ecology, damaging its traditional agriculture beyond immediate recovery, and fostering a growing dependence on the international drug trade. Of equal import, instead of conducting this covert warfare on its own as it had in Laos in the Vietnam War years, the CIA outsourced much of the operation to Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), which soon became a powerful and ever more problematic ally.

When the ISI proposed its Afghan client, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as overall leader of the anti-Soviet resistance, Washington — with few alternatives — agreed. Over the next 10 years, the CIA supplied some $2 billion to Afghanistan’s mujahedeen through the ISI, half to Hekmatyar, a violent fundamentalist infamous for throwing acid at unveiled women at Kabul University and, later, murdering rival resistance leaders. As the CIA operation was winding down in May 1990, the Washington Post published a front-page article charging that its key ally, Hekmatyar, was operating a chain of heroin laboratories inside Pakistan under the protection of the ISI.

Although this area had zero heroin production in the mid-1970s, the CIA’s covert war served as the catalyst that transformed the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands into the world’s largest heroin producing region. As mujahedeen guerrillas captured prime agricultural areas inside Afghanistan in the early 1980s, they began collecting a revolutionary poppy tax from their peasant supporters.

Once the Afghan guerrillas brought the opium across the border, they sold it to hundreds of Pakistani heroin labs operating under the ISI’s protection.  Between 1981 and 1990, Afghanistan’s opium production grew ten-fold — from 250 tons to 2,000 tons. After just two years of covert CIA support for the Afghan guerrillas, the U.S. Attorney General announced in 1981 that Pakistan was already the source of 60% of the American heroin supply. Across Europe and Russia, Afghan-Pakistani heroin soon captured an even larger share of local markets, while inside Pakistan itself the number of addicts soared from zero in 1979 to 1.2 million just five years later.

After investing $3 billion in Afghanistan’s destruction, Washington just walked away in 1992, leaving behind a thoroughly ravaged country with over one million dead, five million refugees, 10-20 million landmines still in place, an infrastructure in ruins, an economy in tatters, and well-armed tribal warlords prepared to fight among themselves for control of the capital. Even when Washington finally cut its covert CIA funding at the end of 1991, however, Pakistan’s ISI continued to back favored local warlords in pursuit of its long-term goal of installing a Pashtun client regime in Kabul.

Druglords, Dragon’s Teeth, and Civil Wars: the 1990s

Throughout the 1990s, ruthless local warlords mixed guns and opium in a lethal brew as part of a brutal struggle for power.  It was almost as if the soil had been sown with those dragons’ teeth of ancient myth that can suddenly sprout into an army of full-grown warriors, who leap from the earth with swords drawn for war.

When northern resistance forces finally captured Kabul from the communist regime, which had outlasted the Soviet withdrawal by three years, Pakistan still backed its client Hekmatyar.  He, in turn, unleashed his artillery on the besieged capital.  The result: the deaths of an estimated 50,000 more Afghans. Even a slaughter of such monumental proportions, however, could not win power for this unpopular fundamentalist.  So the ISI armed a new force, the Taliban and in September 1996, it succeeded in capturing Kabul, only to fight the Northern Alliance for the next five years in the valleys to the north of the capital.

During this seemingly unending civil war, rival factions leaned heavily on opium to finance the fighting, more than doubling the harvest to 4,600 tons by 1999. Throughout these two decades of warfare and a twenty-fold jump in drug production, Afghanistan itself was slowly transformed from a diverse agricultural ecosystem — with herding, orchards, and over 60 food crops — into the world’s first economy dependent on the production of a single illicit drug. In the process, a fragile human ecology was brought to ruin in an unprecedented way.

Located at the northern edge of the annual monsoon rains, where clouds arrive from the Arabian Sea already squeezed dry, Afghanistan is an arid land.  Its staple food crops have historically been sustained by irrigation systems that rely on snowmelt from the region’s high mountains. To supplement staples such as wheat, Afghan tribesmen herded vast flocks of sheep and goats hundreds of miles every year to summer pasture in the central uplands. Most important of all, farmers planted perennial tree crops — walnut, pistachio, and mulberry — which thrived because they sink their roots deep into the soil and are remarkably resistant to the region’s periodic droughts, offering relief from the threat of famine in the dry years.

During these two decades of war, however, modern firepower devastated the herds, damaged snowmelt irrigation systems, and destroyed many of the orchards. While the Soviets simply blasted the landscape with firepower, the Taliban, with an unerring instinct for their society’s economic jugular, violated the unwritten rules of traditional Afghan warfare by cutting down the orchards on the vast Shamali plain north of Kabul.

All these strands of destruction knit themselves into a veritable Gordian knot of human suffering to which opium became the sole solution.  Like Alexander’s legendary sword, it offered a straightforward way to cut through a complex conundrum. Without any aid to restock their herds, reseed their fields, or replant their orchards, Afghan farmers — including some 3 million returning refugees — found sustenance in opium, which had historically been but a small part of their agriculture.

Since poppy cultivation requires nine times more labor per hectare than wheat, opium offered immediate seasonal employment to more than a million Afghans — perhaps half of those actually employed at the time. In this ruined land and ravaged economy, opium merchants alone could accumulate capital rapidly and so give poppy farmers crop loans equivalent to more than half their annual incomes, credit critical to the survival of many poor villagers.

In marked contrast to the marginal yields the country’s harsh climate offers most food crops, Afghanistan proved ideal for opium.  On average, each hectare of Afghan poppy land produces three to five times more than its chief competitor, Burma.  Most important of all, in such an arid ecosystem, subject to periodic drought, opium uses less than half the water needed for staples such as wheat.

After taking power in 1996, the Taliban regime encouraged a nationwide expansion of opium cultivation, doubling production to 4,600 tons, then equivalent to 75% of the world’s heroin supply. Signaling its support for drug production, the Taliban regime began collecting a 20% tax from the yearly opium harvest, earning an estimated $100 million in revenues.

In retrospect, the regime’s most important innovation was undoubtedly the introduction of large-scale heroin refining in the environs of the city of Jalalabad.  There, hundreds of crude labs set to work, paying only a modest production tax of $70 on every kilo of heroin powder. According to U.N. researchers, the Taliban also presided over bustling regional opium markets in Helmand and Nangarhar provinces, protecting some 240 top traders there.

During the 1990s, Afghanistan’s soaring opium harvest fueled an international smuggling trade that tied Central Asia, Russia, and Europe into a vast illicit market of arms, drugs, and money-laundering.  It also helped fuel an eruption of ethnic insurgency across a 3,000-mile swath of land from Uzbekistan in Central Asia to Bosnia in the Balkans.

In July 2000, however, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar suddenly ordered a ban on all opium cultivation in a desperate bid for international recognition.  Remarkably enough, almost overnight the Taliban regime used the ruthless repression for which it was infamous to slash the opium harvest by 94% to only 185 metric tons.

By then, however, Afghanistan had become dependent on poppy production for most of its taxes, export income, and employment. In effect, the Taliban’s ban was an act of economic suicide that brought an already weakened society to the brink of collapse. This was the unwitting weapon the U.S. wielded when it began its military campaign against the Taliban in October 2001.  Without opium, the regime was already a hollow shell and essentially imploded at the bursting of the first American bombs.

The Return of the CIA, Opium, and Counterinsurgency: 2001-

To defeat the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11, the CIA successfully mobilized former warlords long active in the heroin trade to seize towns and cities across eastern Afghanistan.  In other words, the Agency and its local allies created ideal conditions for reversing the Taliban’s opium ban and reviving the drug traffic. Only weeks after the collapse of the Taliban, officials were reporting an outburst of poppy planting in the heroin-heartlands of Helmand and Nangarhar. At a Tokyo international donors’ conference in January 2002, Hamid Karzai, the new Prime Minister put in place by the Bush administration, issued a pro forma ban on opium growing — without any means of enforcing it against the power of these resurgent local warlords.

After investing some three billion dollars in Afghanistan’s destruction during the Cold War, Washington and its allies now proved parsimonious in the reconstruction funds they offered. At that 2002 Tokyo conference, international donors promised just four billion dollars of an estimated $10 billion needed to rebuild the economy over the next five years. In addition, the total U.S. spending of $22 billion for Afghanistan from 2003 to 2007 turned out to be skewed sharply toward military operations, leaving, for instance, just $237 million for agriculture.  (And as in Iraq, significant sums from what reconstruction funds were available simply went into the pockets of Western experts, private contractors, and their local counterparts.)

Under these circumstances, no one should have been surprised when, during the first year of the U.S. occupation, Afghanistan’s opium harvest surged to 3,400 tons. Over the next five years, international donors would contribute $8 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, while opium would infuse nearly twice that amount, $14 billion, directly into the rural economy without any deductions by either those Western experts or Kabul’s bloated bureaucracy.

While opium production continued its relentless rise, the Bush administration downplayed the problem, outsourcing narcotics control to Great Britain and police training to Germany. As the lead agency in Allied operations, Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department regarded opium as a distraction from its main mission of defeating the Taliban (and, of course, invading Iraq). Waving away the problem in late 2004, President Bush said he did not want to “waste another American life on a narco-state.” Meanwhile, in their counterinsurgency operations, U.S. forces worked closely with local warlords who proved to be leading druglords.

After five years of the U.S. occupation, Afghanistan’s drug production had swelled to unprecedented proportions.  In August 2007, the U.N. reported that the country’s record opium crop covered almost 500,000 acres, an area larger than all the coca fields in Latin America. From a modest 185 tons at the start of American intervention in 2001, Afghanistan now produced 8,200 tons of opium, a remarkable 53% of the country’s GDP and 93% of global heroin supply.

In this way, Afghanistan became the world’s first true “narco-state.” If a cocaine traffic that provided just 3% of Colombia’s GDP could bring in its wake endless violence and powerful cartels capable of corrupting that country’s government, then we can only imagine the consequences of Afghanistan’s dependence on opium for more than 50% of its entire economy.

At a drug conference in Kabul this month, the head of Russia’s Federal Narcotics Service estimated the value of Afghanistan’s current opium crop at $65 billion.  Only $500 million of that vast sum goes to Afghanistan’s farmers, $300 million to the Taliban guerrillas, and the $64 billion balance “to the drug mafia,” leaving ample funds to corrupt the Karzai government in a nation whose total GDP is only $10 billion.

Indeed, opium’s influence is so pervasive that many Afghan officials, from village leaders to Kabul’s police chief, the defense minister, and the president’s brother, have been tainted by the traffic.  So cancerous and crippling is this corruption that, according to recent U.N. estimates, Afghans are forced to spend a stunning $2.5 billion in bribes. Not surprisingly, the government’s repeated attempts at opium eradication have been thoroughly compromised by what the U.N. has called “corrupt deals between field owners, village elders, and eradication teams.”

Not only have drug taxes funded an expanding guerrilla force, but the Taliban’s role in protecting opium farmers and the heroin merchants who rely on their crop gives them real control over the core of the country’s economy. In January 2009, the U.N. and anonymous U.S. “intelligence officials” estimated that drug traffic provided Taliban insurgents with $400 million a year. “Clearly,” commented Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “we have to go after the drug labs and the druglords that provide support to the Taliban and other insurgents.”

In mid-2009, the U.S. embassy launched a multi-agency effort, called the Afghan Threat Finance Cell, to cut Taliban drug monies through financial controls. But one American official soon compared this effort to “punching jello.” By August 2009, a frustrated Obama administration had ordered the U.S. military to “kill or capture” 50 Taliban-connected druglords who were placed on a classified “kill list.”

Since the record crop of 2007, opium production has, in fact, declined somewhat — to 6,900 tons last year (still over 90% of the world’s opium supply). While U.N. analysts attribute this 20% reduction largely to eradication efforts, a more likely cause has been the global glut of heroin that came with the Afghan opium boom, and which had depressed the price of poppies by 34%. In fact, even this reduced Afghan opium crop is still far above total world demand, which the U.N. estimates at 5,000 tons per annum.

Preliminary reports on the 2010 Afghan opium harvest, which starts next month, indicate that the drug problem is not going away. Some U.S. officials who have surveyed Helmand’s opium heartland see signs of an expanded crop. Even the U.N. drug experts who have predicted a continuing decline in production are not optimistic about long-term trends. Opium prices might decline for a few years, but the price of wheat and other staple crops is dropping even faster, leaving poppies as by far the most profitable crop for poor Afghan farmers.

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.

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. To check out the latest TomCast audio interview in which McCoy discusses just who is complicit in the Afghan opium trade, click here or, if you prefer to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 Alfred W. McCoy

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Posted by The Agonist on March 30th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

Let’s say everything works out as well as we could hope. AQ remains exiled. The insurgency shatters and most of the fighters reconcile. What is left is a desperately poor country, with a massive military (relative to its population and wealth), and an entire economic elite whose way of life is built around diverting international aid dollars.

. . . writes Bernard Finel at his website. . .

Corruption in Afghanistan… and the Future of Afghanistan


Run with that scenario for 10 years or 15. Maybe it turns into South Korea, but more likely you get a dysfunctional state, prone to military coups, and constantly being threatened by competition among elites for a bigger piece of the pie. It remains a country that for a variety of reasons will continue to tempt external actors to play out geopolitical games — the Iranians looking to manage their Balochi problems, Indians looking tweak the Pakistanis, Pakistanis trying to create “strategic depth.” In the meantime, various and sundry jihadis will continue to focus on the country due to its connection to the “glory days” of the 1980s. The best case is simply not likely to transition into a sustainable state. And of course, the United States will want to remain involved until the place is stable, and yet our actions while perhaps managing short-term challenges probably undermines the possibility of a long-term solution. The Afghan war is the epitome of a worldview focused on the in-box — crisis management over strategic planning.

Do Agonist readers think there’s any chance of Afghanistan becoming a sustainable state? Is the U.S. expediting or retarding that process?

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on March 29th, 2010

President Obama made a surprise visit to Bagram, Afghanistan, on March 29, 2010, where he met with President Karzai and spoke to American and international personnel. As this new video shows, a number of the President’s assumptions and premises about the Afghanistan war are false, especially the idea that the Afghanistan war makes Americans safer. Our current Afghanistan policy increases the risk of suicide terrorism, has failed to produce a competent, licit security force in that country, and exacerbates the budget crisis undermining our public structures in the United States.

U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations in the Middle East lead to more, not fewer, suicide bombings. As Robert Pape demonstrated in his recent talk at New America Foundation, suicide bombings are like the “lung cancer” of terrorism–they are the most lethal forms of attacks. Al Qaeda would not have been able to kill more than 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, without attackers willing to commit suicide attacks, for example. According to Pape’s research with the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, between 2004 – 2009 (June), over 98 percent of suicide attacks were directly related to foreign occupation, and more than 90 percent of suicide attacks around the world are anti-American-inspired.

The president also praised the Afghan National Security Forces. Not one week prior, Newsweek reported that even after $6 billion-worth of U.S. and allied “training,” the Afghan National Police were a corrupt, incompetent joke, toxic to the local population:

“We are still at zero,” says Captain Moqim, 35, an eight-year veteran of the force. “They don’t listen, are undisciplined, and will never be real policemen.”

Poor marksmanship is the least of it. Worse, crooked Afghan cops supply much of the ammunition used by the Taliban…

America has spent more than $6 billion since 2002 in an effort to create an effective Afghan police force, buying weapons, building police academies, and hiring defense contractors to train the recruits—but the program has been a disaster. More than $322 million worth of invoices for police training were approved even though the funds were poorly accounted for, according to a government audit, and fewer than 12 percent of the country’s police units are capable of operating on their own. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s top representative in the region, has publicly called the Afghan police “an inadequate organization, riddled with corruption.”

The public’s distrust of the cops is palpable in the former insurgent stronghold of Marja. Village elders welcomed the U.S. Marines who recently drove out the Taliban, but told the Americans flatly they don’t want the ANP to return.

The Afghan National Army, on the other hand, are absolutely consumed with drug addition.

U.S. State Department officials cited in the report said 12 to 41 percent of police recruits in regional training centers tested positive for illicit drugs and that the percentage likely was higher as opiates leave the system quickly.”

During this economic crisis, when Americans are struggling to make ends meet and when state budgets are facing multi-billion-dollar shortfalls, the U.S. government continues to charge taxpayers $200,000 per minute for the Afghanistan war. For our money, we’re getting troops dying at twice the rate compared to this time last year; broken, corrupt and incompetent Afghan National Security Forces; and increased risk of suicide terrorism.

In these tough times, we can’t afford to spend billions on a war in Afghanistan that’s not making us safer.

Help us spread the word: Share this video with your friends and become a fan of Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook.

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Posted by on March 28th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Renowened British national security reporter Michael Smith – he off "Downing Street Memos" fame – notes in the London Times today that a report by the Commons foreign affairs committee says that using the term "special relationship" to describe Britain's relations with the U.S. “is potentially misleading and we recommend that its use should be avoided”.

Ed Driscoll at PJM comes over all dishonest and tries to blame Obama, but the Smith article makes the blameworthy individuals clear.

 the perception of the UK after the Iraq war as America’s “subservient poodle” has been highly damaging to Britain’s reputation and interests around the world. The MPs conclude that British prime ministers have to learn to be less deferential to US presidents and be “willing to say no” to America.

…“Over the longer term, the UK is unlikely to be able to influence the US to the extent it has in the past,” the committee adds.

In an apparent rebuke to Tony Blair and his relationship with President George W Bush, the report says there are “many lessons” to be learnt from Britain’s political approach towards the US over Iraq.

“The perception that the British government was a subservient poodle to the US administration is widespread both among the British public and overseas,” the MPs say. “This perception, whatever its relation to reality, is deeply damaging to the reputation and interests of the UK.”

While the relationship between the American president and the British prime minister was an important part of dealings between the two countries, the cabinet and parliament also had a role to play. “The UK needs to be less deferential and more willing to say no to the US on those issues where the two countries’ interests and values diverge,” the MPs say.

None of this is exactly news to anyone who watches British politics with even cursory attention to the zeitgeist – which apparently Driscoll doesn't – but it's interesting that a bipartisan committee is willing to say it so very plainly. Both Gordon Brown – who has come in for criticism of his own for too eagerly taking over the part of Blair as Obama has taken over Bush's wars – and David Cameron will have to pay some heed as they seek the electorate's votes on May 6th.

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Posted by on March 27th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Just days after Hillary Clinton's giggling presser with Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan is already walking back any real co-operation with American interests – and, as always, Pakistani fears of India are the prime motive. The Financial Times eports:

Pakistan has sent extra troops to its border with India, saying rising tensions with its neighbour prevent it from expanding its military campaign against Taliban militants on its western border.

The move came as Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, held talks with Pakistan’s military leadership in Washington about how to exert more pressure on Taliban forces fighting US and Nato troops in Afghanistan.

…Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said recent arrests of Afghan Taliban leaders, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, were motivated by the desire to seize control of negotiations between Kabul and the international community and the Taliban.

He said Pakistan was “motivated by the conviction that India, not the Afghan Taliban, is the main enemy to be neutralised in the Afghan endgame”.

Khurshid Kasuri, a former Pakistani foreign minister, said Islamabad would continue to prioritise its eastern border to protect itself against a rival with which it had fought “three major wars and two minor ones”.

“We have enough problems of our own on our eastern border,” said Mr Kasuri. “We are concerned about India. Resolve the problems with India and then [our security orientation] could change.”

It continues to amaze me that senior leaders in both the White House and Pentagon appear to be hypnotised by General Kayan's Jedi mind tricks. Pakistan is not now and never will be a natural ally of the United States; it is already a satellite state of China's, with deep economic and military ties that bind it to its larger neighbour as well as a mutual enemy in India. Pakistan has clearly stated that it wishes "strategic depth" in Afghanistan – which translated means a place to retreat to if a conflict with India starts. An American military presence in Afghanistan would hardly allow that so whatever they say publicly the Pakistani military do not want a long-term American military presence across their Western border. These simple truths means that anything Pakistan may offer the U.S. will be short-lived and probably more about style than substance.

But give the Pakistani military an inch and it will try to take a mile. Having promised more aid and more military equipment – equipment which is mostly going to be aimed at India, like the F-16s being fitted with beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles and maritime patrol planes fitted with harpoon missiles the U.S. keeps handing out like candy – it now wants the U.S. to tell India to be sure not to retaliate when Pakistan-based and ISI-funded terrorists cross the border to attack, at the same time saying that Indian threats are why it cannot rein in those state-sponsored terrorists. Their audacity would be staggering if it wasn't par for the course.

America's natural ally in the region is India, since both are faced with the challenge of preserving and extending their status in an economic and military race with China. But America's continual pandering to Pakistan – albeit for the very laudable short term goal of exiting Afghanistan – has left India isolated and facing some very tough choices. India can overcome that isolation on its own merit, but I doubt it will be willing to forgive and forget American short-termism when it does so.

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Posted by on March 26th, 2010

From our partners at

By Derrick Crowe

Q: Why would U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan go out of their way to smear a journalist?

A: Because he told the truth about a night raid that killed Afghan civilians, including pregnant women.

Last week, I spoke with Afghanistan-based journalist Jerome Starkey about his reporting on special forces raids that killed civilians and NATOs surprising–and disappointing–response. This video contains disturbing images, and an even more disturbing story of violence, and an attempt to silence a truth-teller. It shows why its absolutely essential that we keep pushing back against the Pentagon's message machine.

Over the past few months, Starkey exposed two incidents where NATO initially claimed to have engaged and killed insurgents, when they'd in fact killed civilians, including school children and pregnant women. In both cases, when confronted with eye-witness accounts obtained by Starkey that clearly rebutted NATO's initial claims, NATO resisted publicly recanting.

In the first case, NATO officials told him they no longer believed that the raid would have been justified if they'd known what they now know, but no official would consent to direct attribution for this admission.

In the second case, NATO's initially made sensational claims that they'd discovered during the raid the bodies of pregnant women that had been bound, gagged and executed. Starkey's reporting forcefully rebutted this claim. Instead of simply retracting their story, NATO went so far as to attempt to damage Starkey's credibility by telling other Kabul-based journalists that they had proof he'd misquoted ISAF spokesman Rear Adm. Greg Smith. When Starkey demanded a copy of the recording, NATO initially ignored him and eventually admitted that no recording existed. NATO only admitted their story was false in a retraction buried several paragraphs deep in a press release that led with an attack on Starkey's credibility.

Under Gen. Stanley McChrystal, NATO's made a big show of apologizing early and often when civilians are killed in broad daylight. But Starkey's reporting and ISAF's reaction to it shows that their natural inclination to escape accountability remains strong and operative when they think they can get away with violent mistakes under the cover of darkness.

Help us spread the word: become a fan of Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook.

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