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Bush's Phony Afghan Drug War
April 5, 2002
By Richard Prasad

In the post September 11th mindset of George W. Bush, the key element was to find a causal link between anything and everything and the war on terrorism. By taking down the Taliban, the US would end Afghanistan's lucrative heroin market. By ending the drug trade in Afghanistan, one source of funding for terrorism would dry up. The logic was impeccable.

The only problem is, the growing season for poppy is upon us, and alas the Bush administration is doing nothing to stop the planting, and cultivation of the poppy plant. Was it a mistake to tie the war on terror to the war on drugs, and if we don't eliminate the poppy crop from Afghanistan, how can there ever be stability in the future of that country?

Early on, one of the stated goals of the US war in Afghanistan was to eliminate the poppy crop in Afghanistan. In a September 24th 2001 article on CNN.com a Senior Pentagon official said that drug facilities were on "a list of potential targets" Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he was considering a "full spectrum" of options against the Taliban. Rumsfeld went further. "We are intent on altering behavior." Meaning the US would alter the heroin sales that netted Afghanistan over 50 million dollars in 1999. Rumsfeld's optimistic statements were made before the bombing even started.

As the war began, however, it became clear that ending the Afghan drug trade was not the highest US priority. November 27th 2001 article on CNN.com a group called the International Crisis Group, or ICG, headed by a former Austrailian foreign minister and ex Finnish President called US and Euopean efforts to stop the flow of opium from Afghanistan, and the rest of Cental Asia has been limited in "scope, funding, and imagination." The ICG argued that in order to effectively fight the opium war in Afghanistan, more cooperation is needed from central Asian countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. So far, those countries have helped militarily in the war on terrorism, but have helped little in the opium drug war.

Despite this early criticism, the facade of fighting the drug war in Afghanistan continued, and seeking to take advantage of the early popular success in the war on terrorism, the Bush Administration aired two 30 second commercials during the Super Bowl, that had kids saying in essence that they funded terrorism, every time they did drugs. To the average kid, whose worst drug offense is smoking a joint, this argument is laughable. And laughter is what greeted this Bush anti-drug ad from its target audience of kids. The ad was laughed off the air, by the very kids it sought to inform. The ads cost 3.2 million dollars to air.

Despite such missteps, Hamid Karzai put on a brave face as an Afghan drug warrior. He was going to fight the war against opium wasn't he? On February 23, 2002, according to CNN.com Karzai made the following statement: "The cultivation, manufacturing and use of opium and all its derivatives are now considered illegal." The truth was, Karzai was just restating a ban already put on the poppy crop by the Taliban, in the year 2000.

Ironically, the Taliban, the same Taliban that let Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda flourish, the same Taliban that demeaned and degraded women by locking them in their homes. This same Taliban banned the growing of poppy in the year 2000, and almost no poppy was grown in Taliban controlled areas. Even though the Taliban banned the growing of the poppy crop, they kept enough of it stockpiled to keep the money coming in.

By April of 2002, the hard reality was sinking in. The hard reality is that the US could do nothing to stem the tide of heroin coming from Aghanistan. According to a New York Times article from April 1st, American officials have quietly given up hopes of reducing the opium crop in Afghanistan. According to this same article, the 2002 drug harvest from Afghanistan could be large enough to inundate the world with cheap heroin.

The US originally intended to buy out poppy farmers, but is now trying a less ambitious strategy, trying to destroy opium producing facilities, and trying to strengthen anti-smuggling efforts in neighboring countries. But the fluid nature of the war make these tasks difficult. According to Bush drug czar John Walters, "There are no major opium producing institutions in the country." "What we can do is very limited." In fact, the US has ceded leadership in the Afghan opium war to Britain, who can trace most of the heroin on its streets directly to Afghanistan.

The sad truth is that the US does not want to stop the drug trade in Afghanistan, because that would mean taking on the Afghan warlords, and if the US did that, we might face a wider, more intense war than we faced against the Al Qaeda. More people are willing to fight for 50 million dollars in drug money than they are for Islam, that is for sure.

If the US was truly serious about the heroin problem that finds its origin in Afghanistan, we would have destroyed the poppy crops as they grew, and paid the poppy farmers to grow other crops. But that would mean an increase in foreign aid, and foreign aid is an anathema to most Republicans.

Now that we are only going after heroin processing labs, the truth of the Afghan drug war is the same as the drug war in any other country, it is a phony war. There will be occasional interdiction victories, like the arrest of Mexican drug kingpin, Benjamin Arellano-Felix, in March 2002. The head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Asa Hutchinson will be more than happy to take credit for arrests such as these, but does interdiction really make a dent in drug supply and demand? The answer is, of course not. For every kingpin that is arrested or shot, there are ten more to take their place.

This is not an argument for drug legalization, just a shift in priorities. The Bush administration should be emphasizing drug abuse as an addiction, a health problem. This would mean less jail time, more time in rehab. If rehab is good enough for the Bush daughters prescription addiction, and alcohol abuse, it is good enough for a crack addict who keeps going to jail, instead of getting the treatment he or she needs. But with "old school" thinkers like drug czar Walters, DEA chief Hutchinson, an approach to the drug problem based on rehabilitation is not likely.

The Bush Administration's failure to stop the production of heroin is a failure in the war on terrorism as well. As long as warlords in Afghanistan have easy access to money from herion, the long term stability of Afghanistan will always remain in doubt. The Bush administration had a chance to make a strong anti-drug, anti terrorism statement by burning those poppy fields, a stronger statement than any 30 second advertisement during the Super Bowl, but they blew it.

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