By Rafia Zakaria
September 12, 2018
THE US has failed in Afghanistan. The news is not new but the details of its failures and the consequences are ever more alarming. Since President Donald Trump announced his administration’s new South Asia strategy last November, giving the military more authority to undertake actions, a new spate of bombings has ensued.
Between last November, when the new strategy of attacking sources of Afghan Taliban funding was put in place, and this past May, the US military and Nato have carried out over 100 air strikes against what they believe are drug-testing facilities. Bombing these areas, the US military now believes, will stem the opium production that over $8 billion in funding for anti-narcotics measures have not.
But, ending drug addiction, a huge problem in Afghanistan, is not really the goal. The current commander of US forces in Afghanistan and the Trump administration believe that the main source of funding for the Afghan Taliban is opium production. It is true that opium production in Afghanistan has increased by huge percentages in the last few years. In 2017, estimates show that opium production increased by over 60pc. After 40 years of war, 17 of them under US/Nato occupation, poppy is a rescue crop for farmers leading an existence in extreme poverty. A study by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit found that for millions of Afghans, the drug economy is the only source of income.
It is indeed a dilemma: while poppy cultivation has provided livelihood to many with no recourse to other occupations in a war-ravaged country, it has lethal implications within and outside Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, even as it courts the Taliban for peace talks, the US under Trump believes that a ‘victory’ is only possible if the sources of funding are eliminated. In the words of former US army commander Gen John Nicholson, the plan is to “hit the Taliban where it hurts; their finances”, and “nearly 200 million of this opium industry goes into the Taliban’s bank accounts and this … really pays for the insurgency”.
While Nicholson and the bomb-happy Trump administration may believe this, not everyone within the US security establishment does. A CIA report from 2009 disputed the idea that the opium trade was the only source of Taliban funding. Instead, it proposed that the funding on which the group relied comes from a variety of sources. Other more recent reports, including those by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, have shown that while the Taliban undoubtedly receive funding from opium production, it is not the only form of revenue, with money from taxation and donations also forming significant sources of income for the insurgent group.
Under President Donald Trump, carrying out hundreds of bombings on alleged centres of narcotics testing and production is just the sort of face the US wants to present to the world. Devoid of understanding or nuance and bent on creating a lurid and unnecessary show of its military power, the bombings are a cruel reminder of an America that bombs first and thinks later.
It is unknown when that moment of thinking and evaluation will ever come. In the meantime, reports and studies from Helmand province, where many of the air strikes have taken place, show that the reason for poppy and opium cultivation is related strongly to the lack of a central government and security.
In Helmand province, where over 40pc of Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation is said to take place, only a handful of districts are controlled by the central government, with the rest being under control of the Taliban. According to a recent paper on the insurgency and drug trade in Helmand province, many poor people prefer to live in the Taliban-controlled districts of the province because they are then permitted to cultivate opium while the government-controlled areas crack down on it — crucially, without providing any alternatives for their livelihood. It is tragic that the Afghan government and international donors have not concentrated on curbing poppy production by investing in sustainable long-term occupations for the people.
Air strikes will inevitably kill and hurt and injure and destroy the poor in a place where death and violation have commanded lives for too long. In the rage of defeat, it seems, the US has turned to the fury of destroying even further what it has been unable to transform. If all else fails, bombs will do, despite the fact that they promise only destruction and little prospect of reversing either Afghanistan’s or America’s fortunes.
The bombs and air strikes will neither defeat the Afghan Taliban, nor end opium production. They will make life harder for Afghans who, because of a lack of options and the yearning for survival, farm opium. Others will die in the path of bombs, their undeserved ends justified by the assumption that they deserved to die. The dead, even the children and the women, will be collateral damage in the war against drugs, sating perhaps the ire of a US that has, at least in Afghanistan, lost the ‘war on terror’.
Lost wars necessitate bombs and blame, and that is precisely what is being doled out in Afghanistan. The options before the US seem to be a lost war or an endless war, and so far it seems to be choosing the latter. The bitter truth is that the Afghan people, weakened, ravaged, used and massacred, need opium to survive — they have been stripped of forms of livelihood that do not carry such devastating consequences for millions around the globe.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.