Afghanistan: back to the brink?

Talk about Phyrric victories. The quick overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 paved the way for the invasion of Iraq and the quick overthrow of Saddam Hussein a year and a half later. Now, just as Iraq is spinning horribly out of control, it looks like Afghanistan is going in the same direction. Tom Coughland writes for the UK Independent, May 19:

Violence escalates in Afghanistan

The storming of Musa Qala was ferocious. Hundreds of Taliban fighters poured incessant fire into the government buildings and police station. The ensuing battle was the longest and fiercest since the end of the war four years ago. As homes and shops were set alight, Qari Mohammed Yousef, a Taliban commander, used his satellite telephone to announce to a news agency that the town in Helmand had fallen to the “forces of Islam”.

The Taliban were eventually forced to retreat, but the scale of the offensive was a symbolic declaration of intent as British troops pour into the province for their new mission in Afghanistan.

British forces evacuated the injured from Musa Qala, leaving the actual fighting, they insisted, to Afghan forces. The interior ministry, in Kabul, declared that 40 Islamists had been killed, although police said they had recovered only 14 bodies. The official body count registered 13 police killed and five wounded.

The deputy governor of Helmand province, Amir Mohammad Akhundzada, said: ” It was the biggest attack in this area since the fall of the Taliban. They must have been planning this for some time.”

Sangin district, where yesterday’s fighting occurred, is a mountain area close to the point where Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar, three of Afghanistan’s most lawless provinces, meet. It has been an area of intense Taliban activity for the past year and a half. It is also a region thick with opium poppies this summer as Helmand heads for what is likely to be a record harvest.

Violence was spreading throughout the country, but was at its most intense in Helmand and Kandahar, the two provinces where the vast bulk of the 6,000-strong British forces would be based. There is growing confusion over the role of the British troops in the country. The Government stated that the British deployment would concentrate on peacekeeping, staying clear of the US-led “search and destroy” operation, and also the controversial eradication of the opium crop. However since then, John Reid, just prior to his departure as Defence Secretary, acknowledged that there would be “overlaps” between the British and American operations.

The bulk of the force will be stationed at Camp Bastion. Officially, the force is being deployed for three years at a cost of £1bn. But Jack Straw, when he was Foreign Secretary, said that Britain and the West would have to remain engaged there for up to a decade.

The recently arrived commander of British forces, Brigadier Ed Butler, has acknowledged that his force is in Afghanistan for the “long haul”.

The Taliban have kept up a barrage of threats. “We will turn Afghanistan into a river of blood for the British,” said one of its commanders, Mohammed Hanif Sherzad, who says that he speaks for Mullah Omar, the former leader of the Taliban who is now believed to be somewhere in Pakistan. “We have beaten them before and we will beat them again.”

Also note that the puritanical Taliban, who supressed opium gorwing when they were in power, are now exploiting popular rage at the eradication program to gain support, just like the FARC does in Colombia. From DPA via the Bangkok Post:

Afghanistan fights an opium war

Mazar-i-Sharif/Kabul – Ghulam Rasul should be harvesting his crop now, but he has nothing to do. Teary-eyed, he stands next to his field in the northern Afghan village of Shinkai. Just a few days earlier, it was filled with opium poppy. But the army ploughed it up.

“I don’t know how to feed my family now,” he said, his voice trembling with anger and disappointment. Rasul, 62, is not alone in his sorrow.

According to the United Nations, Afghan authorities are destroying many more fields of opium poppy than previously. Despite their efforts, the cultivation of poppy for the production of raw opium – the basic component of heroin – is once again rising in Afghanistan.

There were reports of success last year for the first time, but they proved to be short-lived. The area under opium poppy cultivation decreased by 21 per cent in 2005, and traditionally opium-rich provinces like Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan were virtually free of the plant.

Traffickers took advantage of the decrease to raise prices and reduce stocks. Opium poppy is now blooming again in wide swaths of the country. “We expect an increase in most provinces this year,” said Doris Buddenberg, who represents the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is still far and away the world leader in opium poppy cultivation. According to UNODC figures, 87 per cent of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan, and 2 million of its some 23 million inhabitants are involved in opium poppy cultivation.

The UNODC put the export value of the narcotic at 2.7 billion dollars last year – more than half of Afghanistan’s official gross domestic product of 5.2 billion dollars. A hectare of opium poppy was worth 5,500 dollars last year, ten times more than a hectare of wheat.

Opium-growing is now seen to be nearly as great a threat to Afghanistan’s security and stability as terrorism. Indeed, the two are intertwined. The European Union’s special representative in Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, said drug traffickers had ties to the Taliban and militias, and to local authorities as well.

Another representative of the international community noted: “The opportunities for corruption are simply overwhelming,” adding that anti-corruption efforts had failed to break old structures. Powerful drug traffickers bought protection, he said.

Buddenberg said patience was needed in the fight against Afghan opium poppy. “The problem developed over 20 years and can’t be solved in one or two,” she remarked. Past hopes of quick fixes were “unrealistic from the start.”

Buddenberg predicts that opium poppy cultivation will fall in the long run – provided that the demand for heroin does not rise. While sales in Europe and the United States have stabilized, she said, new markets were growing in Russia and China. “That’s a big danger.”

Simply eradicating poppy crops will not solve the problem. The profits are too large, and drug fighters have too few means at their disposal. Last year, just 5,000 of Afghanistan’s 104,000 hectares of opium poppy were destroyed. More is being destroyed this year, but more is being planted, too.

There has been no success in raising living standards of Afghanistan’s largely poor farmers, and in convincing them to grow crops other than opium poppy.

“Not nearly enough is being done in the area of rural development,” Buddenberg said. “The international community acts merely selectively, in an uncoordinated fashion, and too little.”

Eradicating opium poppy crops does, however, put considerable pressure on farmers. In a survey last year by the UNODC, 70 per cent of the farmers who either reduced their poppy cultivation or stopped it altogether said the reason was fear that the authorities could destroy their fields.

After his bitter experience, Rasul, too, has soured on opium poppy. “We’ve had enough,” he said. “If the government gives us seed, we’ll plant wheat next year.”

See our last post on Afghanistan, and the new opium wars.