Sunday, September 3, 2006

The fourth "D"

One of the main reasons why support for Canada's mission in Afghanistan continues to decline (although not, it must be stated, for the troops themselves) is a perception that there are no clearly defined rules of engagement. All we have been told, over and over, is that this is a 3-D mission: Defence, Deterrence, Development. As NATO goes on a major mission this weekend to take back a region currently under the control of the Taliban, one has to ask if there is in fact a fourth "D": Drugs.

As despicable as the Taliban were in their suppression of women's rights as well as the destruction of religious antiquities (such as the statues of the Three Buddhas in 2001, a few months before 9/11) they were successful in one respect; they managed to take a huge bite out of the opium trade. Poppies have the ability to grow in almost any climate and any soil, and the vast mountain regions were and are a perfect place to run a grow operation. Before 9/11, the UN while refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Taliban government nevertheless praised it for a get tough approach that reduced the crops by 85% in just one year.

The Taliban was dumped and whatever is left of it must be destroyed (their collective and individual misogyny is the least of the reasons why); but their fall from power actually led to the resurgence of poppies. The UN reported this week -- according to an NYT article this morning -- that despite massive amounts of foreign aid designed to encourage Afghanis to seek alternate methods of economic development, the poppy crop in the country was 6300 tonnes. Not only is it up 49% from last year (which in turn was higher than the year before that), it's also 92% of the global supply and 30% more than worldwide demand. And people wonder how OBL and the rest of al-Qaeda finances its operations.

Ironically, it's now the Taliban that supports the drug trade. Their reasoning is this: President Harmid Karzai, although he was democratically elected, is seen as a tool of the West; and his inability to stabilize his country's situation even with NATO assistance is seen as a sign of weakness. Not only that, but not too long ago Karzai unilaterally removed a popular governor from one of the country's provinces and demoted him to a vacant Senate seat after one too many disagreements -- in other words, the West's favourite leader in the region has shown himself dictatorial tendencies. So the Taliban figures, increase the crop output so the government will be forced to react and crackdown. This will cause the people to revolt. It's not an entirely unreasonable theory. This is what has kept the civil war in Colombia going on for as long as it has, with drug lords still in control of large pockets of the country. There is a popular expression in that country: "Why make $200 a tonne growing coffee, when you can make $2000 growing cocaine?" That successive White Houses have refused to recognize this simple fact and continue to treat cocaine -- indeed all drugs -- as a criminal problem rather than a public health issue is why people in Latin America generally hate Americans.

The same is happening in Afghanistan. Growing opium is seen as taking a stand against the West.

The problem as I see it, as do many others, is that soon after 9/11 we helped the Northern Alliance sweep the Taliban out of office. What we neglected to do is go out on regular tours of duty and wipe out whatever remants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda were left. We were so busy securing Kabul and Kandahar that we neglected the rest of the country. And thus, we allowed the fourth "D" -- drugs -- to flourish at the expense of the other three for which we're supposed to be fighting. For the record, I don't subscribe to the "gateway" theory of drugs that a milder drug such as marijuana leads to addiction to harder substances, but opium is a nasty bugger and it has to be stopped. That's no excuse for having let the situation get out of hand in the first place which is precisely what we in the West did. Nor for not taking the time to give Afghanis the opportunity to consider alternatives.

There is no question that "peacekeeping" today involves a great deal of peacemaking. Canada has never been, not nor should it ever be, a neutral country; and we should support the legitimate government of Afghanistan in fighting back the insurgents, while encouraging an end to corruption. We also should be putting a high emphasis on development, because it is just as important as the defence and deterrence parts; but because of a much tougher than expected resistance it's taken a back seat. Afghanis need to be shown, and convinced, there is a better way than to allow the terrorists to -- excuse the expression -- put hands in their pockets. Failing to do so will make Afghanistan a failed state; and we're already witnessing the failure of Iraq before our eyes. I don't think it's too late to stop the plague, but we have to make up for lost time and the Taliban has used the opportunity to enrich, and thus rearm, themselves.

In that respect, I disagree with Jack Layton's call for a quick withdrawal. We committed to a job, and we should stick to it; but either refocus the mission to getting the job done once and for all (including wiping out the opium trade), or admit we've failed and the best we can do is act as the bodyguards for the "Mayor of Kabul" until our tour ends in early 2009.

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