Thursday, December 18, 2008

More Afghanistan: Let's Score The Dope First!

Another interesting piece about Afghanistan in an interview with former NYT correspondent Stephen Kinzer at Truthout, with video:

Resisting foreign armies is something Afghans have been doing for thousands of years - they're probably better at it than anyone else in the world. The British learned this in the 19th century, the Soviets learned this in the 20th century. We shouldn't have to repeat those very painful lessons. So that's the first part: we should not be escalating our military presence there. What do we do instead of that? I think we need a dual process; a process that goes on within Afghanistan and a process that goes on in a much broader region. Within Afghanistan, it's important to understand that what we call the Taliban is actually a very broad coalition of tribal factions and warlords and other groups. Afghanistan is a place of constantly shifting factions. A faction that might be on your side today might not be tomorrow. A Taliban-allied warlord may not necessarily be anti-American, and if he is today, he might not be tomorrow. This system of flexible alliances holds out great opportunity for sophisticated diplomacy. There's a great possibility that once the United States is not seen as an invading force, it will be able to persuade a number of these warlords or factional leaders to shift their alliances. We ought to test that.

At the same time, we need to be negotiating throughout this region. This is not a problem anymore that can be solved within Afghanistan. It has long since become a regional problem. Just in the last week, after this recent attack on a concentration of American trucks, the American commanders started talking about alternative routes into Afghanistan for their supply convoys. They're talking about doing that from central Asian countries or even from places originating in Russia*. So this shows you what a regional dimension is involved here. Pakistan is a deeply influential player in Afghanistan. We need Pakistan to take a more resolute position, but Pakistan, like any country in the world, is only willing to make security concessions when it feels safe. Right now, Pakistan's security focus is - and has been for nearly all of its existence - on India. Its policy of insisting on having a pliant government in place in Afghanistan, and supporting favorable factions inside Afghanistan, is based almost entirely on its desire to counter India. India has been opening up consulates in Afghanistan, and there's talk about Indian military aid and Indian development aid in Afghanistan. Until the Pakistan-India confrontation can be ratcheted down several levels, there probably won't be peace in Afghanistan. Iran is another country that can have great influence inside of Afghanistan. Parts of Afghanistan used to be in Iran - it has tremendous ability to influence some large regions of Afghanistan.

Gee, all that sounded swell...

*I heard that Russia is already facilitating supply routes like this for other NATO nations.

We're now spending $4 billion per month on our war effort in Afghanistan. The total annual value of the poppy crop in Afghanistan is also about $4 billion. Today, the proceeds from nearly all the poppies growing in Afghanistan go into the pockets of the warlords. We are very rightly concerned about that. The money that's being used to finance the war against us is in part coming from the Afghan poppy crop. In addition, we're turning the poor farmers who grow most of these poppies into enemies by pursuing our traditional policy of burning fields and spraying with them from above with herbicides. How can we resolve all these problems together - not to mention that people are dying on the streets of Hamburg and Chicago every day from the heroin that comes from Afghan poppies?

My suggestion is that we abandon the idea of wiping out the poppy fields. That's like wiping out the Taliban. It's a great idea, but it's just not practical. Therefore, since it's not possible to do what we would like to do in our fantasies, what would be a realistic approach?

I'd like to see the United States buy the entire Afghan poppy crop. We would be paying as much as we pay each month for our war effort in Afghanistan. We could use some of that crop to make morphine for medical use, and the rest, we could burn. This will have the effect of, A, dramatically reducing the income that pours into the coffers of many of the most brutal Afghan warlords; B, showing poor Afghan peasants that we're actually buying something from them, giving them some money to live on rather than firing predator drones into their wedding parties; and C, presumably impacting the heroin supply worldwide.

Those last three paragraphs, folks, are the best examples of 'No Shit, Sherlock!' I've seen in a long time. I've been down with that idea for years.

Expanding on Mr. Kinzer's idea, I think a possible good use for our troops would be to protect the poppy crop and the poppy farmers from retaliation from the warlords who would come down on them like a sledgehammer if they sold the opium to us. It would mean a long-term military presence there, but over time would weaken the warlords/tribal factions/Taliban/whomever, perhaps make them more amenable to making deals with us.

We used to protect Vietnamese rice farmers so they could harvest their crop and sell it on the open market rather than let the Viet Cong 'tax' them out of it, aka 'steal' it. Problem was, given our government's short-term approach to things, after the harvest was over we would leave and expose the farmers to retaliation. There's next year and the next crop to consider.

Either we GTFO of Afghanistan or we make a long-term commitment there, and come up with a smarter plan than Bush did, which shouldn't be too hard. One problem we have is that 'commitment' runs in four-year stretches in this country. The Afghans have been doing what they do for thousands of years. Whether we act like guests instead of invaders is a key thing. They like guests. They destroy invaders.

This is just one element of a regional problem that stretches from the southern tip of India up through Central Asia, and from Bangladesh to Turkey.

The more I read and learn about Afghanistan and the region, the better I feel about finally getting a President who reads and listens and invites opinion. What difference it can make will not be instantly apparent. I can say this: like the Vietnamese, who are now doing OK, the Afghans are going to be there long after we leave, no matter how long we stay there.

We abandoned Afghanistan once, after the Russians left and Afghanistan was no longer useful to us. If going to do that again, let's get it over with sooner rather than later. If we're not, we have to do things differently than under Bush.

Stop and think about what will really be in America's interest over the long run.

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