In which Opium vanishes from the Afghan landscape, or, Barack in Wonderland

I had every best intention of doing little more than to acknowledge that president Obama made some sort of speech about some sort of strategy in some sort of country called Afghanistan, but people keep writing about it and I keep reading about it and, well, you know.

Most recently, I read the reaction from Slate’s Fred Kaplan. Kaplan is ok, generally, but he’s subject to sudden enthusiasms that tend to cloud his judgement. As are we all to one degree or another, but most of us aren’t paid to indulge them. Although some of us wish we were.

What first struck me about Kaplan’s take was what struck him as the best moment of the speech.

This line in the speech was particularly encouraging: “We will support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people”—suggesting that if President Hamid Karzai doesn’t come through on his recent promises, we will cultivate tribal or community centers of power, which, given the nature of Afghan society, are crucial to fending off insurgents in any case.

Kaplan’s reaction is entertaining, what with its implicit colonialism and the begged question of where insurgents come from and who they’re fighting. But Obama’s line, once Kaplan drew my attention to it, struck me as particularly bizarre.

Among the Obama administration’s measures of success for the new effort is the establishment of an effective Afghan army. One can’t have a national army without a legitimate and effective national government. One can’t have a legitimate and effective national government if one undermines it by cultivating “tribal or community centers of power” and, as Obama said, “ministries … that combat corruption and deliver for the people.” The notion is a recipe for bolstering independent fiefdoms and creating opposed power centers within the alleged national government, neither of which will disappoint the Taliban and other forces either opposed or indifferent to the US.

And then there’s the elephant in the room: Opium. Opium, from culitvation to production to trade, is second only to foreign aid as a slice of Afghanistan’s GDP. There’s not the slightest chance that Obama’s reference to corruption doesn’t include the influence of opium money at every level of Afghan government and civil society. It’s everywhere, fueling everything.

Yet there’s barely a mention of it in Obama’s speech and none at all in Kaplan’s analysis. A reading of the tea leaves suggests that the plan is to throw cash at leaders and institutions promising to forswear opium money and perhaps inhibit opium production, but that money is ultimately going to wind up somewhere and the somewhere won’t be any place that advances stated US interests, or at least not in any way that can be acknowledged.

Kaplan has elsewhere announced his fidelity (one of those sudden enthusiasms) to the idea of effectively dismantling the federal government (theirs, not ours) by surrendering the goal of building a working national army and instead creating what amounts to a confederation of Afghan city states, each with its own militia, so his embrace of Obama’s nod toward that strategy isn’t surprising.

But man, there’s money to be made; expecting or even hoping that more or less autonomous local or regional governments will devote themselves to born-again opium virginity, and expecting or hoping that the national government, such as it is, will stand idly by while the US attempts to devolve what power it has, is to dive head first down the rabbit hole.

All of which is to say that the “new” “strategy,” like the ones that preceded it and the ones no doubt to come, is nothing but a pipe dream.

3 thoughts on “In which Opium vanishes from the Afghan landscape, or, Barack in Wonderland”

  1. hola btc

    fwiw, for the (oft forgotten) record: Some further historic context adds to the mix here … I have a link for one source or two, but I only have copied articles (without links) from the time (2001) for two other sources, so forgive that copying them in full here means a bulky reply, but all to the point that many forget (and only blackwash) the Taliban’s complicated history vis-a-vis opium and/or whitewash the role of the Northern Alliance – the de facto Afghan government at present (cf. item #5 below), i.e., the “ministries” (aka warlords) that Obama/Kaplan speak of – has a seemingly less complicated history with it (i.e., consistent exploitation):


    2) Afghan Ban on Growing of Opium Is Unraveling
    October 22, 2001
    NY Times

    A highly successful government ban on the growing of opium poppies in Afghanistan, which had been by far the biggest source of opium in the world, has begun to unravel as the United States presses its war against the ruling Taliban, American and United Nations officials say.

    Reports from Afghanistan received last week by the United Nations show that farmers are planting or preparing to plant opium poppies in at least two important growing areas. Recent American intelligence reports also suggest that the year-old ban may be eroding as the military assault continues, United States officials said.

    “They may have told people they can plant, they may tell people nothing and allow them to plant, or there may be enough chaos with the war that it won’t matter what the Taliban says,” said the State Department’s senior official for international narcotics issues, R. Rand Beers. “We had a situation that showed promise that is now headed in absolutely the wrong direction.” [more]

    3) DRUGS
    Most Afghan Opium Grown in Rebel-Controlled Areas
    October 5, 2001
    NY Times

    New data collected by the United Nations indicates that most opium grown in Afghanistan this year was in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance, a rebel group now being courted by the United States and its Western allies as a means to destabilizing and even toppling the ruling Taliban.

    The United Nations study confirmed earlier findings by United Nations officials and United States narcotics experts that opium harvests in areas controlled by the Taliban — said by the United Nations to be about 90 percent of Afghanistan — have plummeted after a recent Taliban ban on the growing of opium poppies. Opium is used to produce heroin and other narcotics.

    The new data, which United Nations officials expect to issue shortly, is coming to light as government officials in the United States and Europe have emphasized the role of the Taliban in purveying Afghan opium and heroin. [more]

    4) from

    Opium poppies have traditionally been grown in Afghanistan, and, with the war shattering other sectors of the economy, opium became the number one export of the country.

    The Taliban have provided an Islamic sanction for farmers … to grow even more opium, even though the Koran forbids Muslims from producing or imbibing intoxicants. Abdul Rashid, the head of the Taliban’s anti-drugs control force in Kandahar, spelled out the nature of his unique job. He is authorized to impose a strict ban on the growing of hashish, “because it is consumed by Afghans and Muslims.” But, Rashid told me without a hint of sarcasm, “Opium is permissible because it is consumed by kafirs in the West and not by Muslims or Afghans.”[63]

    But in 2000 the Taliban banned opium production, a first[citation needed] in Afghan history. In 2000, Afghanistan’s opium production still accounted for 75% of the world’s supply. On 27 July 2000, the Taliban again issued a decree banning opium poppy cultivation. According to, by February 2001, production had been reduced from 12,600 acres (51 km2) to only 17 acres (7 ha).[64] When the Taliban entered north Waziristan in 2003 they immediately banned poppy cultivation and punished those who sold it.[citation needed]

    Another source claims opium production was cut back by the Taliban not to prevent its use but to shore up its price, and thus increase the income of poppy farmers and revenue of Afghan tax collectors.[65]

    The official verdict of the Taliban however was otherwise. Mullah Amir Mohammed Haqqani, the Taliban’s top drug official in Nangarhar, said the ban would remain regardless of whether the Taliban received aid or international recognition. “It is our decree that there will be no poppy cultivation. It is banned forever in this country,” he said. “Whether we get assistance or not, poppy growing will never be allowed again in our country.”[64]

    However, with the 2001 US/Northern Alliance expulsion of the Taliban, opium cultivation has increased in the southern provinces liberated from the Taliban control,[66] and by 2005 production was 87% of the world’s opium supply,[67] rising to 90% in 2006.[68]

    Hashemi also detailed this in his March 2001 lecture in California.[69]
    In October 2009 an uncredited report, citing only ‘American and Afghan officials’, appeared in the New York Times asserting that the Taliban are now supporting the opium trade and deriving funding from it,[70] seemingly counter to their documented prior banning and elimination of the drug trade in Afghanistan.

    5) And finally, this article captures succinctly the history I learned of from my Afghan friend back in Sept 2001 and which has predisposed me ever since to see the folly of this entire enterprise and who Bush aligned us with and why it’s still all a fool’s game:

    6) p.s. I thought you might find some deconstruction work to be done with Zakaria as well:

    1. Hey, Z, thanks for stopping by. I have taken the liberty of linking to the NYT stories in your comment and trimming them back a bit. I think I’ll pass on Zakaria, but if you still have the keys to the palace you’re welcome to take a whack at him. or if you lost the keys and you want to and you have the time, let me know.

  2. Me again: I imagine I could find the keys to the palace but not the time really – and Zakaria mostly just makes me sigh.

    Thanks for the linkages – realizing I could have done that legwork myself had I thought of it … But it seems your link for the 2nd of those two NYT pieces got misrouted a bit – same day’s issue but wrong article … So i’ll add it here and feel free to make the appropriate adjustments above and even delete this post afterwards if you like … (this being because i’m not really sure where i laid those kingdom keys… :-)

    Missing link:

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