Saturday, July 01, 2006

Opium in Afghanistan: Nobody wants to talk about it...except me!

Note: I am spending a week in Afghanistan with a study group from Global Exchange. I have been doing research on the poppy/opium/heroin trade here. It's fascinating -- as is everything else about this country....

In Afghanistan there are some things you talk about and some things you don't. For instance, the government just issued a press release stating that the newspapers must stop calling warlords "warlords". Very clever. The "warlord" problem can now be safely talked about because it has just been eliminated with a stroke of the pen.

Theses guys must have either been taking spin lessons from the White House or George Orwell.

In Afghanistan everyone talks about the next major earthquake. The Kabul valley is surrounded by mountains that seem to shoot straight up from the valley floor. And each of these mountains is covered with adobe-brick huts, clinging on to the mountainsides for dear life because this is the only area where the ultra-poor (Afghanistan is something like the fourth poorest nation in the world) can afford to build. "The precariousness of this housing is very much like last year's pre-earthquake situation in Pakistan," one Afghan explained to me. If the Big One ever hits here, 100,000 people could be killed.

Everyone in Afghanistan talks about corruption. It's becoming a way of life. "Government employees are paid rock-bottom wages, only a few dollars a day. Common laborers sometimes get paid more than we do," an Afghan friend in the Interior Ministry told me. As a result, corruption is rife.

"They have 'ghost workers' here. And in some departments, as many as 20,000 to 30,000 imaginary employees are on the payroll."

Apparently, poor Afghans are as honest as the day is long and seem to have the same approach to morality as Americans back in 1910 did. "I dropped my cell phone on the street," said one American, "and someone ran after me for a whole block in order to give it back."

It's only among the rich and powerful here that theft and corruption are rampant. Hey. That sounds like America in 2006.

Everybody talks about Condoleeza Rice's new policy for Afghanistan. The US-AID program here has been totally successful in winning the hearts and minds of Afghans by funding local schools and health clinics. But Condi has other ideas. "We need stop all that and put our money into roads and hydroelectric construction." Looks like she's been reading "Confessions of an Economic Hitman" again. Money that goes to the betterment of Afghans doesn't go to Halliburton, Bechtel and KBR. Forget about hearts and minds! Taxpayers' money that's not going to Bush's friends is money wasted. Period.

Corruption in Afghanistan? "Imagine Enron times ten."

Everyone here in Afghanistan talks about Pakistan. Everyone here LOVES to talk about Pakistan. "Pakistan is falling apart. Its four regions are in conflict and it's always fighting with India! It's just a matter of time before Pakistan fails as a state. But it thinks that if it can seize Afghanistan, it will gain 'strategic depth' in case of a war with India," said one diplomat I talked with. "Pakistan has been working to destabilize Afghanistan for decades for this reason. Everyone in Afghanistan hates Pakistan."

People here LIKE a lot of the things that US AID and various American NGOs are doing here. But universally and to a man Afghans hate Pakistan as far as I can tell.

And while there is not hardly any of the hatred of America that I thought I would find here, Afghans HATE all the money the Bush bureaucracy pours into Pakistan.

In addition, Pakistan's policy toward Afghanistan is the same as Israel's policy toward Palestine -- subtly undermine it, destabilize it and then, when things fall apart, go for the land grab. Also Pakistan's policy toward the various Afghan tribes is the same as America's policy toward the Shi'a and Sunnis and Israel's policy toward Hamas and Fatah: Get them fighting among themselves and then just stand back.

Everyone in Afghanistan talks about all this other stuff going on but NOBODY likes to talk about opium, the country's major source of revenue. Even George Bush doesn't talk about it. Why should he? Opium production has sky-rocketed here on his watch.

American drug companies don't talk about it. Why should they? If all the opiates in Afghanistan were sold as a legal medical cash crop, the drug companies wouldn't make all that money by selling morphine.

The "Warlords" who make more money from the drug trade than you or I will ever see in a lifetime even if we won the lottery once a week for a month -- they DEFINITELY don't talk about opium. They are too busy growing, packaging and shipping the stuff.

In the Northern Alliance region, opium poppies grow EVERYWHERE -- on the farms, in the schoolyards, in the park. And 25% of the North is strung out.

The Russians and Iranians don't talk about heroin -- which needs to be processed from the raw opiates grown here. Why should they talk about it? The Russians and Iranians own most of the labs.

The people of Kabul don't talk about opium either. At least not to me. "What about opium?" I keep asking officials. Dead silence.

"Can I buy some here in Kabul? How many people use opium here? Is it illegal? What does it look like? Is it a problem with the young people? Where is it processed? How much does it cost?"

Shut up, Jane. No one wants to talk about opium. No one. Yet it is Afghanistan's largest source of income. It's the elephant in the living room that MUST be talked about if you want to understand anything going on here.