For most of the American public, once US troop stop dying in significant numbers, then the wars that the US is involved in have effectively ended, even though the US continues to rain havoc on those countries and inflict immense misery on its people using its firepower. Andrew Cockburn has been covering the many wars that the US is involved in and writes in the April issue of Harper’s magazine (subscription required) that the war in Afghanistan is now effectively on autopilot, with the US continuing its bombardment with no end in sight. The same strategies are tried over and over again based on the same rationales. The fact that the strategies have not worked in the past and the rationales go counter to the actual evidence seems to have no effect on the policy makers back in the US or the commanders in the field.
He takes as an example the strong belief that the Taliban receives much of its income from the cultivation and export of opium and that if the poppy fields can be eradicated and the farmers who grow them can be persuaded to plant other crops, then the Taliban can be starved of the resources necessary to wage war. He says that not only is the basic belief wrong, but that these efforts have not only failed repeatedly and have actually led to an increase in the poppy cultivation. To cover up this failure, the US military grossly exaggerates the effectiveness of its bombing campaigns.
Cockburn talked with David Mansfield, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics, considered by many to be among the world’s greatest experts on the Afghan opium economy.
Mansfield has spent much of the past twenty years investigating the realities of the Afghan opium trade, traveling to the most remote and dangerous areas of the country. In a recent conversation, he pointed out that even if the destroyed labs had indeed been full of narcotics, the claims regarding the value of the merchandise were completely implausible, as was the argument that the Taliban would have collected $16 million in taxes. Such a claim presumed that the Taliban was an efficient, monolithic organization exacting unquestioning obedience from a compliant population. “The idea that the Taliban runs a tax system that the IRS would be proud of, in remote rural areas of a country that doesn’t have a centralized government and never has had a centralized government,” he told me, “just doesn’t make sense.”
For those American officials who considered fighting narcotics as key to combating the Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan, Gul Agha Sherzai, who had been appointed the governor of Nangarhar province in 2005, was a welcome and indeed exciting ally. “Their attitude was, ‘He’s a real tough guy, and he’s our friend,’” recalls Matthew Hoh, a senior civilian adviser in the province during those years who later quit the State Department in pro- test at the futility of the war. “They were thrilled to know him. He was ‘our Tony Soprano.’ ” Burly, famed for his record as an anti-Soviet guerrilla commander in the Eighties, Sherzai earned the nickname Bulldozer for his ability to deliver, especially on projects cher- ished by the Americans.
Most importantly, as US officials increasingly fixated on opium as the source of Taliban revenues, he was hailed for ridding his own province of the crop. In 2008, the UN declared Nangarhar “poppy free”—an achievement that earned Sherzai $10 million from a Good Performers Initiative fund set up by the United States and Britain to encourage communities fighting narcotics. Ambassador Wood, known as Chemical Bill for his eagerness to import toxic spraying to the poppy fields, nominated Nangarhar as a “model province.” American aid soon swelled to a torrent. Even presidential candidate Barack Obama dropped by in July 2008 and was so charmed that he invited Sherzai to his inauguration.
The reality was a little different. In his previous role as the governor of his native Kandahar, Sherzai had earned a well-deserved reputation for corruption and cruelty, as well as garnering a healthy income from his extensive involvement in the local opium business. Sarah Chayes, who arrived in Kandahar in 2001 as a journalist, later founded an NGO to help Afghans find an alternative to opium farming, and ultimately served as a senior adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, well understood the reality behind America’s favorite Afghan governor. “He was deeply involved in poppy in Kandahar,” she recalled recently, and when appointed governor of Nangarhar, “what he did was move into processing.” So while Sherzai was basking in plaudits for stamping out opium growing (and impoverishing farmers in the process), he was manufacturing heroin. “Those rewarding him should have known,” Chayes told me. “This was not just the Afghan rumor mill.” Her sources, she said, were at NATO headquarters in Kabul, meaning intelligence. “It was utterly typical of the double games we put up with and rewarded and thus be- came guilty of ourselves.”
Even when knowledgeable Westerners informed their superiors of the true state of affairs, as Sarah Chayes did when she heard of Obama’s visit to Sherzai (“I cringed and tried to convey why that was exactly the wrong thing to do”), the government-versus-insurgency narrative was almost impossible to shake loose.
One spectacular example of making things worse can be found in the explosive growth in the 2017 Afghan opium harvest: an eye-catching 87 percent in- crease over 2016. It was this bumper crop that did much to bolster the American designation of the Taliban as a narco-insurgency and launch the subsequent targeting campaign.
But why did Helmand farmers really grow so much more opium all of a sudden? In a supreme irony, the root cause would appear to be a multimillion-dollar effort by the United States and Britain to wean them away from opium.
Beginning in 2008, the Americans and British began an ambitious project known as the Helmand Food Zone. The aim was to persuade farmers to shift from opium to wheat by means of inducements (seeds and fertilizer) and force (the prompt destruction of opium crops).
Opium, however, is a labor-intensive crop, while wheat is not. This meant that the farmers growing wheat had no need for the laborers and sharecroppers they had previously required. No one had thought about what might happen to the men who had worked on the opium plantations and were now without a livelihood. For many, the solution was to move to the dry desert north of the Boghra Canal— built by the Americans in the Fifties— drill wells, and start planting opium. According to Mansfield, the population in that region went from almost zero in 2008 to 250,000 eight years later. Land was cheap to rent or buy, and planters were free of the unwelcome attentions of the US and Afghan government forces. Thus, as opium production declined in the Helmand Food Zone—to the delight of the project’s sponsors and supporters, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein— the desert began to bloom. By 2012, opium production in the newly worked land exceeded the amount by which it had declined in the Food Zone.
The satirical film War Machine (2017) that I reviewed favorably has this as its theme, focusing on the effort to get rid of the Taliban from Helmand province, something that the US and British have tried to do repeatedly and failed. That film was based on the first eight years of the war. The subsequent eight years have not changed a damn thing. Cockburn says that this lack on institutional memory that results in the same failed policies being repeatedly pursued has led to a truism in that region that gets updated every year: “America has not been in Afghanistan for sixteen years; it has been in Afghanistan for one year, sixteen times.”
Here’s the trailer.