Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Washington is not the only place were facts have fallen on hard times. It is now “quite impossible” for al Qaeda-linked terrorists to launch attacks across the 1,200 miles of mountains and valleys that separate Pakistan and Afghanistan. So said the commander of some 70,000 Pakistani troops deployed among 669 outposts.

From the highest eastern point at 21,000 feet in the Chitral area to the triborder region of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the average height is 12,000 feet. The foreign defense attaches who listened to Pakistani Gen. Safdar Hussain knew “quite possible” would have been a more accurate description for the movement of illicit goods and people across one of the world’s most porous borders.

The Pakistani side concedes it has lost 250 soldiers killed and 550 seriously injured while killing 306 terrorists, including 150 foreigners, in 48 search and destroy operations.

Millions of Pashtun tribesmen live on either side of the Hindu Kush’s baby mountain ranges. They don’t recognize the unmarked border and move back and forth freely. Pakistani troops, peering through their binoculars, cannot tell which civilian, swaddled in blankets and loose-fitting garments, carries a weapon. Pashtuns are hostile to the Pakistani military forbidden by treaty to enter border areas until the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

Illusions persist on both sides of the border. In Afghanistan, a full-fledged narco-state, President Hamid Karzai has convinced himself opium poppy production is down 30 percent. That is presumably what some provincial governors have reported to Kabul. Mr. Karzai has no way of knowing drug smashers and drug smugglers often are one and the same.

Drug Enforcement Agency veterans, with worldwide experience, say the extent to which drugs have gnawed the country’s still fragile institutions makes Colombia look clean.

Poppy cultivation keeps Afghanistan from joining the failed or failing states. It generates 12 times more income than wheat in the same acreage. Opium — the raw material for heroin — accounts for well more than half of Afghanistan’s GDP.

Ministers or their deputies are on the take. Police cars carry opium through roadblocks. Karzai spokesman Jawed Ludin acknowledged criminals in national police ranks get cover from senior government officials. Gangsterism is on the rise too.

Last September, Mr. Karzai removed Ismail Khan from the governorship of Heart and gave him Cabinet rank in Kabul. But warlord Ismail Khan still controls his domain from the capital.

The eradication program is in British hands. They concede it is mission impossible without additional billions earmarked for crop substitution. The illicit traffic from Afghanistan to Europe moves via Iran, Iraq, Turkey and/or Jordan, and supplies 90 percent of Europe’s heroin consumption.

Subsidized crop replacement programs — e.g., pomegranates and honeydew melons — are the obvious solution. But these would cost many billions of unavailable dollars. Some 400,000 acres now produce opium poppies.

Donor nations have fallen far short of their initial pledges. The U.S. is spending about $15 billion a year in Afghanistan, $13 billion for some 16,500 U.S. troops, $2 billion to rebuild a devastated country.

Mr. Karzai is in deep denial about the narcotics plague. He also seems to believe the militias of the dozen most important warlords have been disarmed. They turned in only their heavy weapons, which could not be used against U.S. and allied troops, but kept their AK-47s.

Most of the militias are intact and frequently used by warlords to secure their share of the drug trade. Some have followed their commanders into the local police force, which legalizes the now illegal militia. Former anti-Soviet guerrillas, known as the mujahideen, now populate the national highway police, which give the smugglers total security on the main roads.

Last month, when a U.S.-trained, 650-strong anti-drug unit moved out near Kandahar on its very first eradication operation, it was greeted by gunfire that killed six Afghans before they retreated.

Between $3 billion and $4 billion is derived from Afghanistan’s poppy paste. $100 million is divvied up locally all the way to Cabinet level, said a former ranking official who resigned and returned to his home in Europe.

Under the medieval Taliban regime of flat-Earth clerics, an Afghan family involved in poppy cultivation averaged $650 yearly. In its four years in power, the Taliban used the poppy to buy the allegiance of warlords and fund its own activities as well as al Qaeda’s. It suddenly banned all poppy cultivation in 2000. Warehouses were full and the price was dropping.

Today, the same poppy farming family averages 10 times more income. The U.S. and Britain offer farmers who abandon drugs for other cash crops a fraction of what they now earn.

Mr. Karzai’s prediction that the poppy will be history “in another five or six years” depends largely on how much more money the U.S., EU and Japan pony up.

Meanwhile, Britain’s defense chiefs have advised Tony Blair “a strategic failure” of the Afghan operation now threatens and that several thousand British troops are more urgently needed in Afghanistan, where 500 are based, than in southern Iraq, where there are presently some 8,000.

As reported by the Scotsman, an explosive cocktail of feuding tribal warlords, insurgents, Taliban remnants, and underperforming Afghan institutions has left the fledgling democracy on the verge of disintegration.

Despite the “strategic partnership” signed by President Bush and Mr. Karzai this week, which entails, in the Afghan president’s mind, a permanent security relationship with the United States, the looming crisis requires much more than solemn words and the stroke of two pens.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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