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.