Travels in Narcostan

Drug-dealing warriors lord it over a “free” Afghanistan.

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Two years after the U.S. clobbered the Taliban and declared Afghanistan en route to a pluralist, democratic future, the country is plagued by violence and insecurity and overrun by warlords.

And there’s worse. A U.N. report released on Wednesday revealed that, thanks to a big comeback by the opium trade, “there is a palpable risk that Afghanistan will again turn into a failed state, this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists.”

U.S. and British forces stationed in Afghanistan haven’t been very effective against the warlords who control the drug trade and threaten hopes for a new constitution. The difficulties in reconstructing Afghanistan make for an easy (OK, perhaps too easy) comparison to Iraq, where similarly little planning was done for security after the government in power was removed.

The UN office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that this year’s harvest of poppies in Afghanistan is the second largest recorded in the country’s history; the report said Afghanistan supplies 75 percent of the world’s illicit opium, and is turning opium into heroin at record rates, notwithstanding attempts by President Hamid Karzai to eliminate the drug trade. Antonio Maria Costa, director of UNODC said:

“Out of this drug chest some provincial administrators and military commanders take a considerable share. The more they get used to this, the less likely it becomes that they will respect the law, be loyal to Kabul.”

“Terrorists take a cut as well. The longer this happens, the greater the threat to security within the country and on its borders.”

In a country ravaged by two decades of war, many Afghans turn to the profitable crop as a means of survival. The survey found that 1.7 million Afghans, out of a total population of 24 million, are involved in opium cultivation. Two-thirds of the world’s opiates originate in Afghanistan, which is by far the biggest supplier of heroin to Western Europe. Interestingly, the Taliban almost completely shut-down cultivation, partly on moral grounds, in 2000 — and the trade has picked only since they were ousted.

Some say that one encouraging sign from the report is the cooperation of the Afghan government in a counter-narcotics effort. President Hamid Karzai first move in office was to outlaw opium production. Even so, many see Karzai as an ineffectual leader, ruling on sufferance of the United States, and virtually powerless beyond Kabul.

And troublingly, critics say the U.S. may just be perpetuating and reinforcing warlordism that dominates most areas of the country. Jonathan Steele of the Guardian writes that even though Afghanistan asked for help from a peace-keeping force, the U.S.did nothing to accommodate their demands until recently, when German troops were sent to some of the least violent parts of the country:

“…In victory, the Americans behaved as though they were in the warlords’ debt, rather than the other way round. They ignored the persistent demands of virtually every Afghan, including President Hamid Karzai, to deploy an international peace-keeping force outside Kabul to disarm the warlords. A few weeks ago the US line changed and the U.N. security council was finally asked to mandate such a force. Implementation? Germany is sending 450 troops to Kunduz, one of the least problematic areas of the north, and no other foreign government has offered to put troops into the Mazar region or the western city of Herat, which is home to another U.S.-supported warlord.”

The heavy presence of warlords isn’t helping the process of creating a constitution–a crucial step in rebuilding the country. Human Rights Watch, a watchdog group, recently released a press release calling for President Karzai to curtail the warlords, who are corrupting the constitution process. Afghanistan is in the midst of holding elections to choose candidates who will take part in a constitution drafting session in December. HRW said they found that warlords have been intimidating candidates from taking part in elections. Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch said:

“These attacks on political freedom are putting Afghanistan’s future at risk. The drafting of a new constitution is a critical step in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and is essential to protect the rights of the weakest members of Afghan society. What hurts the constitutional process today will hurt Afghans for a long time to come.”

A draft of the constitution, which has already been circulating, has received criticism and some doubt it will be passed by the Loya Jirga, the Grand Council of candidates to discuss the constitution. Tanya Goudsouzian writes in Gulf News that in many ways, the Afghan people are stuck between two frightening leadership possibilities:

“So, as the transitional administration struggles to achieve the rehabilitation program prescribed by the international community, the Afghan people lay in limbo, hovering between what is perceived as an ineffective administration and the looming threat of chaos should residual Taliban and Al Qaida regain a foothold.”

The U.S. failure to deal with problems of Afghan reconstruction doesn’t bode well for Iraq, which, like Afghanistan, saw a government overthrown quickly followed by a need for reconstruction. The problems facing Iraq are somewhat different than those facing Afghanistan (Iraq, for example, doesn’t have a history of warlordism or a raging drug trade.) Still, there are similarities that can’t be overlooked. Steele writes:

“How is it possible that the Bush administration could launch its war on international terror while being so unwilling to clip the wings of warlords who inflict terror mainly on other Afghans? The cynics may say the question answers itself. But even a less negative view has to accept that, just as in Iraq, no planning was done for providing immediate security in Afghanistan once the Taliban lost power.”

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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