Afghanistan reels under bumper harvests
By Jason Motlagh
Afghanistan boasts two bumper crops this season, and both could be lethal to
the already fledgling authority of its government.
Western officials expect the largest-ever opium crop in the face of a toothless
US$1 billion eradication campaign. And contrary to earlier pronouncements by
military officials, the Taliban are gaining steam in the volatile southern
provinces, where fighting has raged at levels not seen since the US-led
invasion that toppled the al-Qaeda-allied Islamic fundamentalist movement five
Forty thousand tons of narcotics were burned last week at a ceremony in Kabul
to show the state's determination to stamp out
illegal drugs that now account for nearly half of its gross domestic product.
This came just one week after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a
five-hour pit stop for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai to affirm
Washington's full support of his efforts to steer reconstruction and defeat a
But if US President George W Bush's surprise visit to Baghdad last month to
look the new Iraqi prime minister "in the eye" and give reassurances is held to
measure, gestures of this scale are exceeded only by the turmoil they betray.
As the war in Iraq usurps the brunt of US military might, the insurgent and
narco threats in Afghanistan have arisen at the flank. After diminished
harvests under the Taliban, the country now produces about 90% of the world's
opium, making it the number one global heroin producer and trafficker. Recent
estimates indicate that the poppy crop in Helmand province, a militant
stronghold, will more than double from last year, despite the presence of 3,300
This comeback is trumped by that of the Taliban, which is waging a fierce
campaign to destabilize the south as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
forces complete a takeover of peacekeeping responsibilities there from the US
by the end of July. Since mid-May, more than 700 people have been killed in
sporadic clashes. Said Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States,
estimates there are 20-25 heavily armed militias operating in five southern
provinces for a total of 3,000-5,000 men spoiling to test the resolve of
Western security forces - hardly a "spent force" as some officials have
Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry, head of US forces in Afghanistan, said at a
Pentagon news conference last month he was "confident the situation will
improve by the end of this year". This view is not shared by retired General
Barry R McCaffrey, who last week issued a troubling report after his second
trip to inspect US military operations in which he argued circumstances would
grow worse before they improved.
According to his report, the Taliban operated in small units three years ago;
last year, they grew to company-sized units of 100-plus men; and for this
year's summer fighting season they are maneuvering in 400-strong
battalion-sized units. When fighting broke out May 18 in Helmand, 300-400
militants bearing assault rifles and machine guns reportedly attacked a police
and government headquarters, killing 16 officers, an American civilian and a
Canadian soldier. "They appear to have received excellent tactical, camouflage
and marksmanship training," McCaffrey noted. The militants have become "very
aggressive and smart in their tactics".
That month, Taliban commander in Helmand, Mullah Mohammed Kaseem Farouqi,
bragged to The Times of London newspaper by satellite phone of having "between
2,500 and 3,000 men" with "thousands more ... in their homes waiting for [his]
message to fight". He also claimed to have "hundreds" of volunteers ready to
become suicide bombers, a method new to Afghanistan that, along with a 30%
influx of roadside bombs compared to last year, denote imitation of the Iraqi
insurgency. More than suicide bombings have been recorded in the past three
Karzai is sometimes called the "mayor of Kabul" since his authority is tenuous
at best in regions outside the capital. The pro-Western leader nominally heads
a democratic regime with a stable currency, but fault lines plague the country.
"Afghanistan has never had a stable government," Marina Ottaway, an expert on
democracy and rule of law at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
told Asia Times Online. "An extremely weak government in a large country with a
$600 million budget is just not capable of doing enough for the country in the
Unconfirmed coalition death tolls reveal roughly 20 insurgents are killed for
every Afghan or Western casualty, but the frequency of Taliban attacks has
increased as it seeks to expand its influence in the northern and western
provinces. Eroding security has scaled back UN operations to just six out of 50
districts nationwide. There are further reports that militants have crept
within 25 miles of Kabul itself, which has experienced unprecedented spasms of
violence recent weeks.
For the second day in a row, multiple bombs exploded in the capital last
Wednesday, killing one bystander and wounding 47. The latest attack took place
during rush hour, targeting government workers and security forces, according
to witnesses. Such emboldened tactics indicate Kabul is no longer an exception
to the turmoil that has paralyzed vast swathes of the country, as Afghans
frustrated with a corrupt government's failure to deliver on promises of
security and economic development look elsewhere.
In the absence of viable economic alternatives, some NATO officials and experts
say the war on drugs has reinforced the Taliban's power. Militants have offered
to protect lucrative crops, using kickbacks from drug smugglers to fuel their
campaign. "Like it or not, the opium trade is a huge part of the Afghan
economy," Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy
studies at the Cato Institute, told Asia Times Online. "Warlords and farmers
may support Karzai in the abstract, but not when he is compelled to target
their only reliable source of livelihood.
"Even supporters of the war on drugs need to wake up and smell the coffee ...
The anti-drug-effort needs to be put on the back burner at least until we can
fight off the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces."
Jawad insists the Taliban relies on intimidation tactics to subdue Afghanis
living in the countryside. They include killing moderate tribal leaders and
clergy to create a climate of fear, and burning down schools and medical
clinics. A United Nations report confirms that on average, a school is torched
or a female teacher is killed every day somewhere in the country. In a recent
bout of fighting near Kandahar, the US military said several insurgents "used
innocent Afghan civilians as shields" to escape to nearby villages.
The latest counter-offensive waged by international troops, dubbed Operation
Mountain Thrust, kicked off in mid-June to beat back Taliban forces. The
effectiveness of the 10,000-man sweep has received conflicting reports, but
Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak recently said insurgents had been "coming
out with bigger groups and confronting us directly" since the beginning of the
operation. Afghan officials say the Taliban wanted to discourage the further
deployment of NATO forces (now at 21,000 troops), spearheaded by Britain and
Canada, as they take over security responsibilities from the US, which is
drawing down its presence to 17,000 troops from 23,000.
Washington has spent $1.3 billion on reconstruction projects over the past four
years and will remain Afghanistan's largest benefactor, but anti-Americanism
continues to percolate at a grassroots level. The US military has relied
heavily on air strikes to pound Taliban enclaves in rugged terrain, an approach
experts say tends to backfire and foster support for insurgents in bombed
areas. "Air power works against you, not for you. It kills lots of people who
weren't your enemy, recruiting their relatives, friends and fellow tribesman to
become your enemies," military analyst William S Lind wrote in a June 23 United
Press International story. "In this kind of war, bombers are as useful as
42-centimeter siege mortars."
Fifteen innocent villagers were killed in a May air strike, setting the stage
for mass riots that rocked the capital the following week when a US military
truck hit civilians in a traffic accident. Official reports put the death toll
as high as 20 people; aid agencies were burned and looted; and protesters
shouted "Death to America" in the streets.
Karzai has long opined that the West has not provided enough resources to
hasten economic and political reform in his country, while ignoring the alleged
sanctuary given to Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives by Pakistan inside its
lawless border region. Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, a key
Washington ally in its global "war on terror", has been accused of allowing
Islamist militants - including Osama bin Laden - to infiltrate and recruit from
remote Pashtun tribal areas, a charge he denies.
Pakistan has already deployed more than 80,000 troops along its western border,
adding 10,000 more during Rice's visit, and officials in Islamabad counter the
Taliban are regrouping on the Afghan side.
According to McCaffrey's report, the Afghan Army is "miserably under-resourced"
to be effective against a Taliban bent on "waiting us out" in the coming years.
He said they possessed "shoddy small arms", if any at all, relaying that Afghan
field commanders told him they tried to seize weapons from the Taliban for
their own troops to use.
The national police, whose US-sponsored training program is three years behind
schedule, is in tatters as well, "badly equipped, corrupt, incompetent, poorly
led and trained, riddled by drug use" and without infrastructure.
The former Gulf War commander recommends the US provide "at least five years of
continued robust ... military presence" or six ground combat battalions and
extensive air and armored support, along with special forces permitted
"unilateral action" in counter-terror operations.
"The Afghan national leadership," he writes, "is collectively terrified that we
will tip-toe out of Afghanistan in the coming few years - leaving NATO holding
the bag - and the whole thing will again collapse into mayhem.
"They do not believe the US has made a strategic commitment to stay with them
for the 15 years required to create an independent, functional nation-state,
which can survive in this dangerous part of the world."
Other experts are less sanguine about the future and argue the US has already
paid dearly. Indeed, half of the 141 American servicemen killed in Afghanistan
since the 2001 invasion died last year, Defense Department records show. The
BBC has also reported that Pakistan-based foreign militants with links to
al-Qaeda have been offering large bounties to Afghans to kill US soldiers.
"This becomes increasingly expensive in terms of blood and treasure," said the
Cato Institute's Galen Carpenter, urging a 10-15 month timetable for the Karzai
government to take responsibility for its own national security. "Otherwise
this could become an endless mission where we're slowly bled. We can't make
Afghanistan into a model of stability."
Jason Motlagh is deputy foreign editor at United Press International in
Washington, DC. He has reported freelance from Saharan Africa, Asia and the
Caribbean for various US and European news media.