Global Policy Forum

Afghanistan: Our Modern Opium War

This Guardian article attempts to frame the occupation of Afghanistan not as part of the United States’ "War on Terror", but rather as part of its "War on Drugs". In doing so, it highlights some of the conceptual failures of mainstream analysis of the war. While "fighting for freedom" and "neutralizing the threat of Islamic terrorism" in Afghanistan, Western forces are also occupying a nation whose economic cornerstone, opium, is forbidden by the legal and political norms of the occupying nations. However, this economic dynamic is rarely if ever considered, as government and media discourse places the ongoing war within the tradition of wars fought for profoundly different reasons - for example the Vietnam war. This unimaginative approach shields the true power dynamics of the occupation, and confuses attempts to disengage or formulate a peaceful future for Afghanistan.

By Pratap Chatterjee

April 1, 2012 

Parween, the opium farmer in Badakhsan province, who supported her ageing husband. Haji Barat, the opium merchant in the provincial capital of Fayzabad, who built a health clinic with 50 beds with his profits. Images one does not expect from war-torn Afghanistan, a country which makes headlines now only when Korans and burnt or another massacre takes place.

The stories of Opium Nation, a new book about Afghanistan by Fariba Nawa, an Afghan American who was born in Herat but grew up in northern California after her family fled the Soviets, offer a rare and contradictory glimpse into the drug trade that is the economic life blood of Afghanistan. This is the actual narrative that the media and politicians should be grappling with.

The author takes the reader on a seven-year journey through many provinces, in her search for the story behind Darya, a 12-year-old opium bride, who was sold by her father to pay off a debt. As Nawa nears her goal of following the young girl-turned-woman whom she meets in the opening pages, she starts to understand the complexities of the drug trade.

She discovers, for example, that not all those involved in this transnational business are simply victims or villains. Some of the farmers and traders are small-town heroes whose tales are seldom heard because they don't fit the picture we want to hear.

Nawa also discovers that the same is true of the country of her birth. She writes:

"The western media propagates an image of a romantic Afghanistan, one that cannot be conquered or tamed. Its people are unruly natives unwelcoming to modern society. Others believe that it's the white man's burden to save it from ignorance and tribalism."

When she started this odyssey in 2000, during the time of the Taliban, Nawa says that she, too, believed these myths and believed that it was her mission to save Darya. At the end, having traveled to opium bazaars and rehabilitation clinics, visited the beautiful homes of warlords and attended the Blackwater-run police training sessions to destroy the trade, she discovers that the good solutions are much harder to come by than one might hope. She concludes:

"Darya is no longer a mystery or a victim I must liberate. The Afghan women who live there are not the weak, voiceless victims they are so often made out to be in the western media."

Instead of trying to just save the victims and punish the villains of the drug trade in Afghanistan, she argues that the west needs to understand that it has taken Afghanistan 30 years to build a strong opium trade and it is unlikely to take less time to dismantle what has become the cornerstone of the national economy. "There are no short cuts, quick fixes, or shock-and-awe solutions," says Nawa. It is a lesson that would be well noted by those in power in Washington, if they are contemplating embarking on the even more ambitious project of introducing "democracy" to the struggling masses in Central Asia.

Bringing peace and prosperity to war-torn Afghanistan was a first and major mission of Barack Obama's foreign policy. Today, with the fresh new images of burnt Qur'ans and the innocent victims of the alleged rampage by a US soldier, the question of the endgame of this conflict has been pushed back to the front pages of the daily newspapers yet again. "When Koran Burnings Incite Riots and a Mass Murder Doesn't" was the headline of a New York Times article, puzzling over the eternal mystery of the unruly native.

Every day on TV network news, we hear the grave voices of experts on the "war on terror" speaking to us from Washington. Sometimes, it is Peter Bergen at the New America Foundation, who met Osama bin Laden; on other occasions, it is Lisa Curtis at the Heritage Foundation, who worked at the CIA.

Time and again, the media tell us that Washington is consulting books galore on how to "solve" Afghanistan. "The struggle to set the future course of the Afghan war is becoming a battle of two books – both suddenly popular among White House," declared the Wall Street Journal in 2009. Which would it be? Lessons in Disaster or A Better War, both of which are chronicles of Vietnam. Yet, with more than half the income of Afghanistan derived from the opium trade, it would a mistake to imagine that the war in Afghanistan has anything in common with fighting the Viet Cong or even Communism.

Opium Nation reminds us that Afghanistan is not just a war, but a country of many ordinary yet unique people, kind and cruel, rich and poor. Not least of all, Nawa points out the obvious, inescapable fact: the solution to the opium trade – and the war – lies not in bullets or military strategy, but in addressing the root cause, which is the demand for the drug in the west.


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