Rethinking Afghanistan’s Sticky Icky Quagmire

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

It’s April 20th, the unofficial holiday of 420. It’s that special day of the year when stoners around the world decide that discretion is not the better part of valor and liberally advertise their use of marijuana. Accordingly, we’ll try to rethink Afghanistan from that angle, and be completely honest about its marijuana use. Today is the perfect day after all, when you have reports like this in the Asia Times:

In addition to being the world’s leading producer of opium, Afghanistan has now become the largest producer of hashish, according to the first-ever cannabis survey released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) this month. Again, the US invasion is behind the new record.

The 2009 Afghanistan Cannabis Survey revealed that there is large-scale cannabis cultivation in half (17 out of 34) of Afghanistan’s provinces, covering a total area of 10,000 to 24,000 hectares every year (lower than opium cultivation, which covers 125,000 hectares). Afghanistan’s crop yield is so high at 145 kilograms of resin per hectare that it overtakes other leading producers like Morocco, where cannabis covers a larger land area but whose yield is lower, at 40 kg/ha.

It is estimated that Afghanistan produces 1,500-3,500 tons of hashish annually, an industry involving 40,000 households. The total export value of Afghan hashish is still unknown, but its farm-gate value – the income paid to farmers – is estimated at about US$40-$95 million, roughly 15% that of opium ($438 million in 2009).

Now because of all the COINdinista mythology that’s been beaten into your head, you probably think I’m going to rant about the drug trade supporting the insurgency and the international criminal-terrorism nexus and all that scary sounding stuff. Not true. The Taliban get their funding from a myriad of sources; Ransoms, charities, and even a formalized taxation system on the local economies. That is, if they’re not running the local businesses themselves. We could incinerate every last iota of opium and cannabis in the entire country and all we’d do is bankrupt and starve the farmers. The insurgency wouldn’t even blink, they’d be too busy recruiting those farmers. No, if we want to talk about drugs and Afghanistan, we’ve got to look at our allies in the war.

Let’s start with the Afghan police force:

Brannon, who is the operations officer for the battalion that is patrolling Arghandab River Valley, says about 30% to 40% of Afghan police officers regularly smoke the drug hashish in Arghandab. He says the percentage is higher in other districts where marijuana — from which hashish is derived — is easier to get.

Brannon says in the Panjwai District, just south of Kandahar, he found marijuana plants growing inside Afghan police stations. When Brannon’s 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment established its headquarters at a government center in the Arghandab River Valley, they had to destroy a hashish-smoking hut used by the police.

“If you push them too hard on it, they get pissed,” he says.

I’ll bet they’re pissed! They probably had a long night molesting boys and robbing the locals, when else are they supposed to smoke a bowl? The problem is, they’re sort of the lynch pin of our whole war strategy:

The United States plans to ring the city of Kandahar with soldiers to prevent the Taliban from entering as the Afghan army and police clear the city of enemy forces. The strategy relies on thousands of Afghan police officers preventing suicide attacks, protecting villagers, manning checkpoints, ferreting out Taliban infiltrators and making sure they do not find sanctuary anywhere, according to the International Security Assistance Force.

That kind of role requires a professional police force that can take over duties performed by U.S. troops, allowing those forces to eventually depart Afghanistan.

That’s a pretty big job. What that means is that person you know who’s deployed over in Afghanistan, that friend from school or that dude you know from work, they’re counting on those police. Right now as you’re reading this, that soldier, all his buddies at the checkpoints, the local Afghan villagers, their very survival is depending on an Afghan policeman who is baked out of his mind. And again, this isn’t the Taliban we’re talking about, this our allies that we spend many billions of dollars on. The Taliban certainly isn’t sitting around getting high, they’re doing this:

Officials now say at least three people were killed in the blast. Four others were wounded, officials said.

Zalmai Ayoubi, spokesman for the Kandahar government, said three children were killed by the blast, and two police and two civilians were slightly wounded.

A spokesman for the Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the bombing, said 11 people were killed in the explosion.

“Today’s donkey cart bomb explosion was on foreign forces, which killed 11 foreigners and four were injured,” Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said.

Ahmadi said the bombing was in response to the planned U.S.-led offensive to oust Taliban fighters from the volatile Kandahar region this summer.

I hope you don’t have the munchies, because that could make you puke. And I don’t know what kind of sick bastard it takes to blow up a bunch of kids, but it certainly wasn’t some pothead who can barely show up to work on time. That’s how serious the insurgency is and we’re dumping billions into a bunch of stoner cops to fight them? We need them to repel suicide attacks and man check-points? They’re not remotely interested in taking on a job like that, being professional enough to replace our already questionably professional occupation.

Check this out:

Mr Maxwell climbed onto a roof of the privately-run Bakhtar guesthouse and held the suicide attackers at bay with an assault rifle so colleagues could escape.

Until now Mr Maxwell was believed to have been killed in the attack, along with another UN security guard, Laurance Mefful of Ghana, but his actions were credited with saving 17 lives.

Two Afghan guards and an Afghan civilian also died in the attack.

However an amateur video of the attack seen by UN officials and Stern magazine now appears to show Mr Maxwell being shot repeatedly at close range by Afghan police responding to the attack. […]

One official who had seen the video said “it looks like an execution”.

Why’d the cops do that?

The motivation for the shooting is unclear from the video and an official said it was possible police had mistaken Mr Maxwell, an African American, for a foreign terrorist.

[Stern Magazine] reported another theory was that the Afghan police officer wanted to steal his sophisticated assault rifle.

Oh, OK. So either they were summarily executing a suspected terrorist (nice rule of law there) or they just wanted to murder the heroic guy and steal his sweet lookin’ gun. Got that? This is the police that we’re counting on. I won’t even get into the rumors that President Karzai is a fan of the hashish, or the fact that his brother is a CIA-backed drug lord.

Why? We know we don’t have to do this, investing billions and billions into a bunch of crooked cops, dope dealers, and gorked politicians, not to mention the flim-flammer private contractors to train them. Just look at what the Canadians are doing:

Canada’s role will shift from the war room to the classroom after troops leave Afghanistan next year.

A decade-long involvement in Afghanistan will last up to another 10 years as Canada oversees the training of Afghan teachers. The Canadian International Development Agency is seeking firms to help Afghanistan certify its teachers and the schools that prepare them.

Contained in the recent call for proposals are hints at how Canada’s function in Afghanistan will change after its soldiers come home in 2011.

Chalkboards and classrooms and curricula will replace the bombs and bullets and bloodshed of Kandahar province, where the bulk of Canada’s 2,800 troops are based.

We’ve talked about the Canadian peace plan before, and now we’re finally seeing some details. They’re able to completely withdraw their military forces and yet still remain in Afghanistan to work on the objectives of development, governance, etc, all of which begin with having a basic education. Brilliant! And so much for abandoning the Afghan women, the Canadians will be there supporting them for an entire decade. All for just $10 million. We could even add that laughably small cost to our list of ways to spend the peace dividend.

But instead we do this:

US/NATO policy played a role in stimulating cannabis and hashish production in several ways. First, the invasion itself removed the Taliban’s ban and empowered Northern Alliance and other drug lords who received the necessary protection to continue and increase their production and trafficking of cannabis and opium, up to this day.

Secondly, cannabis cultivation has also been stimulated by poppy eradication campaigns, which led some farmers to simply switch to cannabis. The latter has been sometimes safer to grow, having been targeted even less than poppies, to which the US and NATO have not paid much attention in any case.

Thirdly, US/NATO’s militaristic policies have not helped to contain the spread of hashish production: the UNODC report notes that “villages that had not received agricultural assistance were slightly more likely to have cannabis cultivation”. The problem is that while the US spends about $1 million a year to support the deployment of one American soldier in Afghanistan, an average of just $93 in development aid has been spent per Afghan per year over the past seven years. Put differently, the US alone has spent $227 billion on military operations in Afghanistan since 2001, while all international donors together have spent less than 10% of this amount on development aid.

So there’s our honest 420 look at Afghanistan. There is definitely a huge drug problem, and our strategy seems to be the cause of it. But we insist on an expensive and bloody policy of military aggression, instead of much easier ways to achieve our objectives. Our allies that we desperately rely on are all high on drugs, selling drugs, or both. And not only are we paying for it, people are dying because of it.

Had enough? Join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook page and collaborate with the tens of thousands of others around the country working to bring this war to an end.

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  • Yet more reason to just legalize it. However many powerful forces want it illegal as they make huge money off it.

    And why couldn’t the US just let the Afghan police station smoking hut stand? Sounds like hash is just part of the culture there. As if our troops aren’t smoking it too.

    Great post, thanks!

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