Why the only winner of America’s war in Afghanistan is opium

0
43
Why the only winner of America’s war in Afghanistan is opium

It was 2005, four years after America and its allies had ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan. 

Maj. Charles Abeyawardena, a strategic planning officer, was there to document the training efforts that the Pentagon believed would transform the ragtag Afghan National Army (ANA) into a professional fighting force strong enough to fend off any future threats. 

But when Abeyawardena asked Afghan soldiers whether they planned to continue serving their nation once the Americans left, “Almost everyone I talked to said ‘No,’ ” he told an Army historian. 

“They were going to go back and grow opium or marijuana or something like that,” he recalled. “That threw me for a complete loop.” 

Sixteen years later, as America reckons with Afghanistan’s catastrophic collapse, the major’s experience seems prophetic. But, as Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock shows in “The Afghanistan Papers” (Simon & Schuster), out Tuesday, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. 

Under the Obama administration, the US funded the expansion of Afghanistan’s irrigation system and paid farmers to cultivate US seeds in place of poppies. This led to the farming of more poppies (seen in 2013).
Under the Obama administration, the US funded the expansion of Afghanistan’s irrigation system and paid farmers to cultivate US seeds in place of poppies. This led to the farming of more poppies (seen in 2013).
Alamy

The book, based on once-secret federal documents, paints a damning picture of an occupation that officials knew to be futile almost from the very beginning, yet dragged on through three presidential administrations. 

“We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, a top Afghanistan adviser for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, admitted in 2015. 

As a result, the United States and its allies committed blunder after fatal blunder in a rudderless war effort that cost an estimated $2.3 trillion and killed more than 2,300 American military personnel. 

One of the greatest missteps was the allies’ fruitless battle against Afghanistan’s opium industry. 

Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute advised Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who advised Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, admitted the US was out of its depth in Afghanistan.
AFP via Getty Images

Between 2002 and 2019, American taxpayers spent at least $9 billion to eliminate or transform the poppy fields that produced almost all of the world’s heroin — but instead ended up tripling that production, quadrupling the acreage covered by the deadly flowers, and intensifying the insurgency that plagued the country. 

As a result, opium “emerged as the unrivaled winner of the longest war in American history,” Whitlock writes. 

We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.

Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute

Opium poppies thrive throughout Afghanistan, and nowhere better than in the hot, dry Helmand province — thanks in part to a network of irrigation canals built with American foreign aid money in the 1960s. The steady water supply means the plants need little tending. The resin they produce can be stored for long periods without rotting or losing value: a perfect cash crop for a strife-torn land. 

Only the Taliban, the brutal Islamic fundamentalists who ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, have ever managed to curtail Helmand’s opium production. In 2000 Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar declared the drug trade to be “un-Islamic” as part of a vain effort to court American favor — and gain US aid dollars. 

But the 9/11 attacks, organized by al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden while under Taliban protection, brought American retribution instead. When the United States chased the Taliban from power in 2001, Helmand’s farmers returned to their favorite crop — infuriating American politicians who had voted to approve President Bush’s invasion plan. 

Bush’s poppy eradication plan was thwarted by corrupt local officials — and farmers fought back.
Bush’s poppy eradication plan was thwarted by corrupt local officials — and farmers fought back.
AFP via Getty Images

“Everyone in Congress brought it up immediately,” recalled Michael Metrinko, then a staffer at the US Embassy in Kabul. 

Republican elected officials particularly couldn’t believe the United States was fighting to protect the world’s largest opium producer. They pushed Bush to disrupt the drug trade — arguably taking the first steps in “nation-building” after the successful allied invasion. 

The Bush administration, along with the UK, came up with a plan: a $30 million cash-for-poppies scheme paying $700 an acre to farmers if they agreed to destroy their crops. 

“Afghans, like most other people, are quite willing to accept large sums of money and promise anything knowing that you will go away,” Metrinko noted in 2003. 

“An appalling piece of complete raw naivete,” agriculture consultant Anthony Fitzherbert later complained to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. 

Afghan officials ceremonially burn a pile of opium in Kabul in October 2014 — even as by that year, the nation’s poppy cultivation grew by some 80 percent.
Afghan officials ceremonially burn a pile of opium in Kabul in October 2014 — even as by that year, the nation’s poppy cultivation grew by some 80 percent.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Predictably, the program backfired. The big bucks spurred farmers to plant more and more acres of poppies. Some would present one ruined field to British inspectors while tending another on the sly. Others harvested their flowers’ opium-containing seed pods and “destroyed” the worthless stems — “two sources of income from the same crop,” Metrinko explained. 

In 2006, as suicide bombings and roadside IED attacks rose, the US State Department became convinced that the opium trade was fueling the growing insurgency, despite little hard evidence. 

In fact, as Whitlock demonstrates, the CIA was well aware that tribal warlords — the agency’s occasional allies in the ongoing search for bin Laden — were the biggest drug traffickers at the time. The illicit industry now made up about a third of the Afghan economy. 

Afghan farmers harvest opium sap from a poppy field in Nangarhar province.
Afghan farmers harvest opium sap from a poppy field in Nangarhar province.
AFP via Getty Images

But in the dysfunctional US war effort, agencies often worked at cross purposes. The Bush administration allocated up to $1 billion for Operation River Dance, an opium eradication effort that aimed to destroy poppy farms by force. Contractors attacked fields of young plants with tractors and bulldozers, crushing them to bits or plowing them under. The military hired hundreds of Afghans to hack at smaller poppy plots with sticks. 

Enraged farmers resisted. Some flooded their fields to mire down the Americans’ heavy equipment, or planted booby traps and homemade explosives to disable the machines. Others offered workers inflated wages to labor as poppy harvesters rather than poppy smashers; 80 percent of them deserted to work for the farmers instead. 

Meanwhile, US officials realized their good intentions were fueling corruption, as tribal leaders and local police used ANA forces as muscle in a widespread bribery scheme. 

Afghan National Police officers “would shake down these farmers and say if you paid them 10,000 afghanis, they would bypass a field,” Maj. Douglas Ross, an American military adviser stationed in Helmand, later recalled. 

Obama paid farmers to grow other crops — but they grew poppies anyway.
Obama paid farmers to grow other crops — but they grew poppies anyway.
AFP via Getty Images

“My presence and the ANA’s presence gave legitimacy to the illegal operation,” Ross said. “We’re trying to train the ANA to be ethical and build trust with the local populace. Well, if somebody’s in there fleecing the people and we’re providing security, then we’re sending the wrong message.” 

In turn, many of the small farmers who were too poor to make the payoffs reacted by joining the very insurgency that the United States was trying to throttle. 

“Yeah, of course they’re going to take up weapons and shoot at you,” said Col. Dominic Cariello of the Wisconsin National Guard later told an Army oral historian. “You just took away their livelihood.” 

Both the American and the British eradication efforts were dismal failures. By 2007, according to United Nations estimates, Afghanistan’s opium harvest hit an all-time high. 

When Obama took the reins in 2009, his special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke — a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s opium policies — tried a new tack. 

Trump bombed “opium labs” that turned out to be mud huts.
Trump bombed “opium labs” that turned out to be mud huts.
Getty Images

Instead of destroying the poppy fields, Holbrooke sent squadrons of agriculture experts into Afghanistan to teach local farmers how to raise alternative crops like saffron, wheat, soybeans and pomegranates. The new administration spent millions to extend Helmand’s irrigation canals and to subsidize farmers willing to cultivate American seeds in place of their usual poppies. 

But the subsidies backfired just as the previous payoffs had: Farmers would take the cash, plant a field of wheat for show, and sow a poppy field elsewhere. The push for pomegranates faltered when it dawned on planners that the fragile fruit must be refrigerated during shipment — impossible in a country with spotty electrical supplies. 

By 2014, the expanded American irrigation system had helped boost the nation’s poppy cultivation by 80 percent. 

Afghan police and provincial security forces destroy poppy fields in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan.
Afghan police and provincial security forces destroy poppy fields in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan.
Getty Images

The string of failures betrayed how little the administration’s elite advisers understood Afghanistan and its people, complained Mohammed Ehsan Zia, a former member of the Afghan cabinet. 

“They read ‘Kite Runner’ on [the] plane” — the bestselling novel about an Afghan boy’s coming of age — “and believe they are an expert on Afghanistan,” Zia grumbled. 

“The only thing they are experts in is bureaucracy.” 

Afghanistan Papers

In late 2017, President Donald Trump’s commanders launched Operation Iron Tempest, a series of 200 airstrikes that smashed satellite-guided bombs into what the military billed as a secret network of 25 Taliban opium labs that had spun up to $200 million for the insurgency. 

“This is a new war and . . . the gloves are off,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch boasted in a Kabul press briefing. 

But within weeks, a British researcher reported that the ruined facilities were not state-of-the-art laboratories, but primitive mud-walled buildings that could only handle small batches of opium. One year after the bombings began, the administration quietly pulled the plug on Iron Tempest, informing Congress with a two-paragraph note buried in an 84-page report. 

“We stated that our goal is to establish a ‘flourishing market economy,’” Gen. Lute told a government investigator in 2015. 

“We should have specified a flourishing drug trade,” Lute said. “That is the only part of the market that’s working.”

Source link