The Taliban’s Opium War (by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker)

Afghanistan now supplies more than ninety-two per cent of the world’s opium, the raw ingredient of heroin. More than half the country’s annual G.D.P., some $3.1 billion, is believed to come from the drug trade, and narcotics officials believe that part of the money is funding the Taliban insurgency… Much of Uruzgan is classified by the United Nations as “Extreme Risk / Hostile Environment.” The Taliban effectively controls four-fifths of the province, which, like the movement, is primarily Pashtun. Mullah Omar, the fugitive Taliban leader, was born and raised here, as were three other founders of the movement. The Taliban’s seizure of Tirin Kot, in the mid-nineties, was a key stepping stone in their march to Kabul, and their loss of the town in 2001 was a decisive moment in their fall. The Taliban have made a concerted comeback in the past two years; they are the de-facto authority in much of the Pashtun south and east, and have recently spread their violence to parts of the north as well. The debilitating and corrupting effects of the opium trade on the government of President Hamid Karzai is a significant factor in the Taliban’s revival. The Taliban instituted a strict Islamist policy against the opium trade during the final years of their regime, and by the time of their overthrow they had virtually eliminated it. But now, Lieutenant General Mohammad Daud-Daud, Afghanistan’s deputy minister of the interior for counter-narcotics, told me, “there has been a coalition between the Taliban and the opium smugglers. This year, they have set up a commission to tax the harvest.” In return, he said, the Taliban had offered opium farmers protection from the government’s eradication efforts. The switch in strategy has an obvious logic: it provides opium money for the Taliban to sustain itself and helps it to win over the farming communities… Before Doug Wankel could do anything in Uruzgan, he had to talk to the Dutch. In a bewilderingly complicate arrangement, NATO member states have been put in charge of military operations in different Afghan provinces—the British in Helmand, for instance, and the Canadians in Kandahar. Since August, 2006, the Dutch have been in Uruzgan. A seventeen-hundred-member Dutch force occupies a sprawling walled base southwest of Tirin Kot. Smaller bases within the walls house contingents of Australians, U.S. Special Forces, and the Afghan Army. Military aircraft land at and take off from an airstrip there at all hours. There are small firebases elsewhere in the province, but troops at the main base rarely venture far from Tirin Kot… In Uruzgan, the Dutch have advocated a policy of nonconfrontation and the pursuit of development projects. (The Dutch commander, Hans van Griensven, was quoted in the Times in April as telling his officers, “We’re not here to fight the Taliban. We’re here to make the Taliban irrelevant.”) A European official told me that the Dutch had doubts about Wankel’s mission; they feared that it might be counterproductive, because it was only about destroying poppies and did not include any of the other seven pillars of the national plan. “There was concern that it might crosscut other activities focussed on security and development,” he said. Wankel was frustrated by the wariness of the Dutch. “Most or all Europeans are opposed to eradication—they’re into winning hearts and minds,” he said. “But it’s our view that it isn’t going to work. There has to be a measured, balanced use of force along with hearts and minds.” He conceded, however, that the Uruzgan operation fell squarely on the use-of-force side of the scale. Later, he told me, aid, seed, and fertilizer would be offered to the farmers around Tirin Kot, but not yet. Other Americans were frankly contemptuous of the Dutch policy, which they regarded as softheaded… Soona Niloofar, a member of parliament from Uruzgan, found the debate over development versus forceful eradication somewhat abstract; she didn’t think much had been accomplished on either front. “Before the Dutch arrived, I told them, ‘You must do reconstruction and help the farmers.’ And the Ministry of Agriculture also spoke about helping them with alternative livelihoods. But nothing happened,” she said. “They have done little reconstruction. There is a big gap between them and the people.” The Dutch presence was felt only around Tirin Kot, she said, and, as far as she knew, the only significant things they had done were to repair a damaged bridge and set up a women’s sewing coöperative… After a meeting with the Dutch, Wankel returned to the A.E.F.’s camp, looking tired and exasperated. He had a map approved by the Dutch, showing a tight quadrant of land within which his team was to confine its work. It was miles away from the Dutch base. “They’re as nervous as whores in a church,” Wankel said... A farmer approached Glen Vaughn, one of the DynCorp medics, and told him that he had pains in his back which made it hard to move his legs. He had gone to the Dutch base to be treated at the hospital there, but had been turned away… Wankel climbed on the back of an A.T.V. driven by Mick Hogan to get across a stream at the base of the bluff, and, at the last minute, one of the Dutch newsmen got on, despite Hogan’s warnings that his weight would throw off the balance. The A.T.V. cleared the stream but toppled off the steep embankment on the other side. The Dutchman leaped clear; Wankel and Hogan were pitched into the field as the A.T.V. flipped over. Wankel was on his back, and both his legs were pinned under the vehicle. Several of us lifted the A.T.V. and saw that his legs had deep, ugly gashes; on one, the white bone of his shin was exposed. Hogan, unhurt, began cursing the Dutchman, who had vanished… Tyrone, who was a Vietnam veteran, said he thought that the war could not be won the way it was being waged. “We’re really not fighting it,” he said. “The Taliban are just right over the ridge there. The Dutch are tolerating it.”.. After hearing so many recriminations, I tried to arrange an interview with the Dutch military. They declined to speak to me while I was in Uruzgan. But when I returned to Kabul I spoke to a European official based in Afghanistan, who dismissed the reports that the Dutch had been unwilling to treat the wounded; the problem was that their hospital had been full at the time, and the Special Forces hospital had had space available… The Taliban’s Opium War (by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker)… This week in the magazine, Jon Lee Anderson writes about the difficulties and dangers of the opium-eradication program in Afghanistan. Here, with Matt Dellinger, Anderson discusses his time in the Uruzgan Province, and an ambush apparently orchestrated by the Taliban. Listen to the mp3 (11:35), or right-click to download…. AUDIO: Afghan Ambush


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