Thursday, October 29, 2009

Afghanistan for Dummies, Part 2: Just say "No" to drugs -- and weapons

I just got an e-mail from my secret deep-throat covert expert source on Afghanistan and this was an occasion of note. "And why is that?" you might ask. Here's why. Unlike the many and various Washington "Deciders" that have vociferously held forth on the subject of Afghanistan since even before Charlie Wilson's War (including the terrible blunders Bush and Cheney committed before, during and after they bombed the crap out of Afghanistan), MY source actually knows what he is talking about. And so I have decided to do all these benighted Washington "Deciders" a big favor and let them in on the stuff that my favorite Afghanistan source has just revealed. And I'm going to call this instruction manual "Afghanistan for Dummies".

About three weeks ago, I found out that Prof. Peter Dale Scott, a noted Berkeley historian most widely known for his research into the JFK assassination, had begun doing research on the opium trade in Afghanistan. Hmmm. I want to know about opium in Afghanistan too! So I asked my covert source what he thought.

"In my own research," answered my source, "I have not looked at the opium trade -- mainly because others (such as Barnett Rubin at NYU's Center for International Cooperation) have already covered this field intensely. However, I have checked in on various urban sectors to see how the 'trade' is affecting urban development in Kabul, and the role seems to be indirect: People are using real-estate investments in Kabul as a way of laundering money, a pretty typical phenomium worldwide." Yeah. I've heard about that too. It appears to be going on in America as well.

"The two inferential bits that I can only speculate about are these," continued my source. "First, the U.S. started helping the Afghan mujahideen in the same years that the CIA in Central America started trafficking cocaine to help fund the Contras. That was exposed in the San Jose Mercury News -- so I'm pretty confident the CIA actually did that. They may have also set up opium-trafficking networks for the mujahideen at the same time. And those may still be the ones used."

That makes sense. If the CIA did it successfully in Latin America (and probably also in Burma) then what would keep them from trying the same thing elsewhere? Our fierce watchdog Congress? LOL.

"Second, an opium culture existed historically in Badakhshan Province (extreme NE Afghanistan), but not in south. Now, 70% of Afghan opium comes from Helmand Province, where there was no history of it before 2002. US has been in Helmand, both militarily and supplying rural-rehab aid, since 2002. Weird coincidence, if that is all that it is. Note that opium grown in the southern provinces seems to be trafficked out by Baluchi truckers who cross south into Pakistan, west into Iran, then through northern Iraq (Mosul) into Turkey, then to the EU. So, also weird that they can travel through US-occupied Iraq without trouble; but probably because traffickers are the least of American concerns in Iraq."

My source has come through again! Sort of.

Then my source gave me his "Afghanistan for Dummies" speech. Like Matthew Hoh, my source is truly concerned that America's biggest problem in Afghanistan is that Washington and the Pentagon don't really KNOW what their mission in Afghanistan actually is. To quote Hoh, "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war but why and to what end. To put it simply, I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war." My source also asks the same question.

"What is the U.S. mission in Afghanistan? And, since we don't seem to have one, what should it be? Here are some of my brief recommendations: First, we need to completely distinguish our military mission from our humanitarian activism. Operationally, they are incompatible regardless of what we at home might feel about 'military humanitarianism'."

Next, my source suggests that we "distinguish the pursuit of transnational terrorism completely from counterinsurgency. I am not sure if we should even be fighting this counterinsurgency; however transnational terrorism remains a serious threat to domestic security."

Regarding the difference between transnational terrorism and counterinsurgency, Matthew Hoh also notes that it is a local insurgency by the Pashtuns that we are fighting, not Al Qaeda or the Taliban. "The US and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified. In both RC East and South, I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul."

Then my recommends that, "the U.S. should seriously consider a 'development campaign' in Afghanistan. Oddly, we are used to the idea of a military campaign in other countries clear across the planet, which is a very difficult thing to accomplish and sustain. But we think that development interventions are too difficult. Okay, I accept the problem that significant cultural variation means you cannot feasibly do all aspects of development. But you don't need to (and shouldn't even try). There is actually a thick literature on this, which just doesn't get publicly discussed enough. So here I boil it down: Use the Human Development framework as a guide. Why? Because the United Nations Development Program has been refining this framework since 1990, and even the most rudimentary interpretation of the framework is useful."

Then my source offers up the following restatement of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan:

"First, we will raise the literacy rate by one percentage point per year. Second, we will raise life-expectancy by one percentage point per year.

"What would it take to meet these two targets? A lot of close involvement, yes; and it can be done in myriad ways, including many that are culturally sensitive! But rather than proximal goals (we built 250 schools! Only 100 have been blown up by insurgents!), it would mean actual change: prevalence of literacy. Instead of how many needles or pills or whatever the short-term metric of health aid might be, we should look at long-term, actual outcomes: Can Afghans expect to live longer? Longevity is influenced by many things, from de-mining to better nutrition to lower levels of domestic violence to healthcare. Tackling some or all of these in a culturally-respectful way is do-able."

Here comes the next chapter in my source's "Afghanistan for Dummies". It's long and I don't quite understand it all myself but here it is. "I have described this operation as a development 'campaign' because we are used to military campaigns, no matter how complex, expensive, and long-term they may be. Yes, a development campaign might cost several billion dollars a year in one small country. That seems expensive until it is compared to military campaigns."

I just read somewhere that it takes a million dollars a year to keep just one soldier in Afghanistan. A development campaign has GOT to be cheaper than that.

"And yet, I think it might achieve the same intended effect, as far as US congress and the American people are concerned: long-term improvement of domestic US security. If you finish your involvement in a country with a population who are healthier and more capable in their life-options, they are likely to remember that and have your back for at least a whole generation. Note that this is not a kumbaya argument: I would not argue to American taxpayers that we should help Afghans because it is the right thing to do in some abstract sense, or even appeal to our sense of loyalty by pointing out that Afghans bled for our sake as they demoralized the Soviets with their insurgency. But I would argue that major intervention to get their political economy back up and running is worth it for our own security. Even if the US is not likely to remain a hyperpower indefinitely, we are very likely to remain a major global player for the very long term. We need policies that match that understanding."

I can see what he means. According to Robert Parry, "As security worsens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is clear that al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies outwitted President [sic] George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers by tying down U.S. forces in Iraq for five years while the Islamic militants rebuilt their forces for the war on their 'central front'.” And what is Al Qaeda's 'central front'? America, of course. So it could be very beneficial to our own security if we upped our "development campaign" in Afghanistan.

As for my own self, I am torn between the realization that America CANNOT afford to stay in Afghanistan -- because the money we are spending there is coming directly our of our budget for decent schools for our children. However. I sort of do want our troops to stay there because I have a dear friend in Kabul who somehow survived the Russian invasion, who somehow surrived Charlie Wilson's War and who somehow survived Taliban rule -- and I would hate to have anything violent and nasty happen to him now. And if it costs American taxpayers 100 billion dollars every few months just to keep my friend in Kabul safe, that's fine with me!

But wouldn't it be more cost-efficient if we could think of a better way to protect him -- and us -- than to spend a million dollars per year per soldier in Afghanistan? Maybe we could spend a thousand dollars per year per school over there instead? And perhaps a thousand dollars per year per school over here too?

PS: So. What can we expect things to be like in Afghanistan in 20 years if Washington and the Pentagon keep using their current policies and techniques? My guess is that the U.S. will be lucky if Afghanistan only resembles the Israel-Palestine situation right now -- an uneasy truce between the "haves" in charge and the "have-nots" in the occupied territories, draconionally maintained by an enormous outpouring of funds from American taxpayers, spent mainly on things like F-16s, drones, white phosphorus bombs, tanks and check-points the size of three football fields -- not to mention a Wall or two -- as these things become increasingly necessary to separate the "haves" in charge in Kabul from the "have-nots" in the occupied Pashtun tribal areas.