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In a uncanny sort of way the slow motion failure of the US war effort in Afghanistan is a testament to the fiercely stubborn nature of our species. The US has total control of the air, real-time satellite imagery, and soldiers equipped with the best (and most expensive) military equipment known to our species. And yet, they continue to fail. The war in Afghanistan is almost two decades old now, and an favourable end for the West is unlikely.

The US, despite its world leadership, seems to learn little from it mistakes.  Vietnam remains a powerful lesson and reminder that ‘big guns, best tech’ military option is not a guarantee of victory.  The cost of resisting the US war machine is appalling, some two million(plus) dead, but Vietnam illustrated it is possible to resist.  Afghanistan is on a similar course.

This is what happens when a country decides to wage an unpopular war.  A disconnect grows between the citizens of the country and the political class that is waging the war.  A professional military bears the causalities with little coverage at home, so the war in question can fade out of the public consciousness.  Coupled with a lapdog media that should be exposing the tragedy of errors that is the Afghan war, little is said, and the boondoggle can continue.

Alfred McCoy reviews a small slice of the American failure in Afghanistan, focusing on the drug trade, that happens to fuel the Taliban and provide roughly 85% of the world’s heroin.  You’d think the biggest guns and the brightest minds could plot victory over a dirt poor nation and peasant farmers…

 

“Not only did this problematic drug war fail to curtail the traffic, but it also alienated the rural residents the government so desperately needed to win over. Worse yet, in the end it actually encouraged illicit opium production — a frequent outcome in Washington’s worldwide drug war that I once called “the stimulus of prohibition.”

Using sophisticated satellite imagery, Sopko’s team, for example, found a troubling disconnect between areas that received development aid from Washington or its allies and those that were subjected to opium eradication programs. In strategic Helmand and Nangarhar provinces, for instance, satellite photographs clearly reveal that the various drug eradication projects ripped through remote areas where “the population was highly dependent on opium poppy for its livelihoods,” rendering poor farmers destitute. The development aid was, however, lavished on more accessible, largely drug-free districts near major cities elsewhere in Afghanistan, leaving countless thousands of farmers in critical rural areas angry at the government and susceptible to Taliban recruitment.

Even liberal development alternatives to those rip-up-the-poppies programs, claims Sopko, only served to stimulate opium production in surprising ways. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for instance, spent $36 million on irrigation for a showcase Food Zone project, meant to promote the growing of legal crops in southern Kandahar Province. As it happened, though, this important infrastructure program actually turned out to contribute “to rising levels of opium poppy cultivation” — an unintended outcome that could be seen in similar “irrigation projects in provinces like Nangarhar, Badakhshan, and Kunar.”

Next door to Kandahar in central Helmand Province, another Food Zone program initially helped reduce the opium crop by 60%. But as British agronomist David Mansfield reports, by the spring of 2017 an “unprecedented” proliferation of poppies covered up to 40% of the farmland targeted by that project; guerrillas were back in force; and farmers felt, as one put it, that “the Taliban is better than the government; they don’t ban poppy, they just ask for tax.” By now, of course, given all the years of bungled anti-drug programs, Mansfield concludes that the Kabul government has little hope of wresting “back control of central Helmand.”

USAID programs that emphasized increased wheat production proved similarly counterproductive. “With higher-yielding varieties and improved agricultural technologies,” writes Sopko, “households in the well-irrigated central valleys of rural Afghanistan would be able to meet their family wheat requirements with a smaller part of their land,” allowing “a larger area… to be allocated to [the] high-value… opium poppy.”

An Uncertain Future

Corroborating Sopko’s pessimism, a recent report by Mujib Mashal of the New York Times depicted the worsening Afghan drug situation as the product, in part, of Washington’s failed policies. Fueled by a booming opium harvest, the Taliban has recently expanded from poppy growing into large-scale heroin production with an estimated 500 labs refining the drug inside Afghanistan — part of a strategy aimed at capturing a greater share of the $60 billion generated globally by the country’s drug exports.

Out of the whole opium eradication project, the National Interdiction Unit, an Afghan outfit trained by U.S. Special Forces, is more or less what’s left when it comes to hopes for reducing the traffic in drugs. Yet their nighttime helicopter interdiction raids on mobile, readily reconstructed heroin labs are proving futile and their chief, reports Mashal, was recently sacked for “probably leaking information to hostile forces.” U.S. military commanders now realize that local Taliban bosses, enriched by the heroin boom, have nothing to gain from further peace negotiations, which remain the only way of ending this endless war.

Meanwhile, the whole question of opium eradication has, according to Mashal, gotten surprisingly “little attention in the Trump administration’s new strategy for the Afghan war.” It seems that U.S. counter-narcotics officials have come to accept a new reality “with a sense of helplessness” — that the country now supplies 85% of the world’s heroin and there’s no end to this in sight.

So why has America’s ambitious $9 billion counter-narcotics program fallen into failure again and again? When such illegality corrupts a society as thoroughly as opium has Afghanistan, then drug trafficking comes to distort everything — giving even good programs bad outcomes and undoubtedly twisting Trump’s headstrong plans for victory into certain defeat.

Think of the never-ending war in Afghanistan as Washington’s drug of choice of these last 16 years.”

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