Cultivating Opium, Not Democracy

Cultivating Opium, Not Democracy

Afghanistan’s crop “has spread like wildfire.”


Why am I such a party pooper? Trust me, I desperately want to be like those happy-go-lucky folks in the red states who apparently think things are hurtling along just fine. Unfortunately, the facts keep bridling my optimism.

Take the United States’ alleged great achievements in Afghanistan. Remember during the campaign how President Bush repeatedly celebrated the divinely inspired success of his Administration toward turning Afghanistan into a stable democracy? “In Afghanistan, I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty,” he said in the third presidential debate. “And I can’t tell you how encouraged I am to see freedom on the march.” As compared with Iraq, which Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show has aptly titled “Mess-O-Potamia,” Afghanistan has claimed fewer American lives and taxpayer dollars, while managing to hold a presidential election since US and warlord irregulars deposed the brutal Taliban regime three years ago.

Sure, we haven’t captured Osama bin Laden or the Taliban’s Mullah Mohammed Omar, and 20,000 young American soldiers are rather miserably stationed there, but who am I to nitpick when faced with the stirring sight of democracy abloom?

Well, truth is, freedom in Afghanistan continues to be on more of a stoned-out stumble than a brisk march. The Taliban has been driven from Kabul, but it still exists in the countryside, and the bulk of the country is still run, de facto, by competing warlords dependent on the opium trade, which now accounts for 60 percent of the Afghan economy.

“The fear that Afghanistan might degenerate into a narco-state is slowly becoming a reality,” said the executive director of the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa. “Opium cultivation, which has spread like wildfire…could ultimately incinerate everything: democracy, reconstruction and stability.”

Costa’s office has just released a slew of discouraging numbers that lay out in numbing detail how Afghanistan’s opium production has soared in the last year to an all-time high. The raw form of heroin is now the staple crop in every province, while in just one year the area under poppy cultivation has increased 64 percent. The country produces 87 percent of the world’s opium, and one out of ten Afghans is employed by the illicit industry, according to the alarming UN report.

Of course, brandishing quotes from the UN doesn’t sit well with isolationist yahoos. So, for them, here are highlights from the White House’s own Office of National Drug Control Policy report, which Friday painted an even darker picture: “Current [Afghan opium] cultivation levels equate to a…239% increase in the poppy crop and a 73% increase in potential opium production over 2003 estimates”–a sixfold increase in the three years since the Taliban was driven from Kabul.

No matter whom you listen to, then, the drug war in Afghanistan is a bust. Unfortunately, both the UN and the White House have repeatedly said the drug war and the war on terror are nearly synonymous, especially in Afghanistan, where drug money has long directly and indirectly aided and abetted extremists such as Al Qaeda.

Indeed, this Administration came into office preoccupied by the war on drugs and indifferent to the war on terror. Before 9/11, even though Afghanistan was harboring the world’s No. 1 terror suspect and his organization, the White House was so happy with the Taliban regime’s drug-trade crackdown that Secretary of State Colin Powell announced in May 2001 May that the United States was extending $43 million in humanitarian aid to Kabul, under UN auspices, as a reward.

Now that it has the war on terror as a perfect excuse for such wildly risky fantasies as the wholesale remaking of the Middle East at gunpoint, winning the drug war in Afghanistan is no longer even on the White House’s radar. Never mind that the drug trade is booming in Afghanistan and those who harbored bin Laden and Al Qaeda are regrouping.

In the opium haze that threatens to swallow up Afghanistan’s vaunted rebirth, it is only the illusion of progress–not progress itself–that is being sold. Because the President has presented all this as a wonderful dream instead of a nightmare that Afghanistan has had before, it raises the question: Just what is he smoking?

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