Kabul: as the dust settles, focus turns to narco-insurgency
Fighting drugs war, CIA ‘special forces’ will soon outnumber military Special Forces in Afghanistan
THE TALIBAN have opened their summer offensive early this year, with coordinated attacks across the capital Kabul, and in three different provinces, Paktia, Loga and Nangahar.
The offensive was well planned and coordinated to get the maximum media impact. But apart from the timing, the expertise seemed to run out pretty fast. None of their attacks, aimed at the US, British and German Embassies and the main parliament building in Kabul, penetrated their intended targets. There were no car bombs or coordinated suicide attacks.
One policeman was reported shot at the beginning of the Kabul attacks. However, it was the insurgents who came off worse – with all 17 gunmen now killed by the Afghan police and army, according to city officials speaking this morning.
The aim was to show Afghans how vulnerable they will be when the Nato forces leave and are no longer around to hold the hands of the Afghan security chiefs and their troops. Most Nato contingents, particularly the Americans and British, will step down from a full combat role at the end of this year, and will start the long retreat from Afghanistan after the summer of 2013.
Correspondents in Kabul say yesterday's attacks were much less successful than similar ones on the US Embassy and the Nato headquarters last September. This goes to show how much of a media game of smoke and mirrors much of the Afghan conflict is now.
Last September's attacks were actually largely ineffectual. The security forces' biggest battle was to winkle about seven Taliban fighters out of a half-built office block. This effort was impeded by a security minister, Bismullah Khan, who insisted on taking personal charge and imposing his own plan, which led to delays and casualties. None of this was reported by the media at the time.
Yesterday's offensive, which the Taliban's propaganda spokesman sais was the start of their "summer offensive", comes just as the poppy harvest is finishing. Increasingly the fortunes of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan are tied to the narcotics trade – and this wasn't always the case.
A leading British expert, Dr Robert Johnson of Oxford, author of The Afghan Way of War and political adviser to British forces in Afghanistan, describes the country now as in the throes of "a narco-insurgency" – just as Mexico and Colombia have been gripped by narco-insurgencies in recent times.
Cornering and commanding lucrative chunks of the production of opium and heroin is now the main route to power and influence for most Taliban leaders – who are less and less interested in ideology and religion.
This points to the enduring aspect of the conflict and why Afghanistan will spell trouble for countries like Britain, France, and Russia long after the bulk of international forces quit the country by 2015.
Very big gains have been made against the production of drugs in key areas like central Helmand. Due to British initiatives largely, farmers have switched increasingly from poppy to other crops like wheat, legumes and cotton.
But as last year's report from the UN Drugs and Organised Crime (UNDOC) agency suggests, opium and cannabis will still be the main cash crops for many years to come in Afghanistan. More than 300,000 households and families are involved in cultivating poppy – some are on the margins of subsistence.
While poppy cultivation is down in central Helmand, it is rising in the marginal land outside the floodlands of the Helmand River itself. Recently some 6,500 families have been expelled as squatters on government land and have been forced out into the ‘dasht' - the desert hinterland – where poppy is one of the few crops that will grow at all. These areas are now becoming the heartlands of narco-rebellion.
After 11 years of intervention, more than half Afghanistan's provinces still cultivate poppy, which gives a steady return of more than 5,000 tons of opium a year. Local addiction is rising alarmingly.
The Americans, who have the unlikely support of the Russians and Iranians on drugs, have become impatient with the way Britain has led counter-narcotics strategies after its was given the lead at the Bonn conference on Afghanistan at the end of 2001.
"They [the Americans] think our softly-softly approach hasn't worked," a British intelligence official told me recently, on conditions of anonymity. "They are now bringing in their own veterans of the counter-narcotics campaigns in Colombia. They want us to be more aggressive – and even support the Russian idea of blanket crop-spraying of poppy from the air.
That would be disastrous, he suggested, because it would ruin and alienate whole communities.
The Americans appear to be preparing for a very long narco-war in this part of Asia. The CIA is building up its own special forces across the region – and soon they'll outnumber the combined British and US military Special Forces in Afghanistan.
The covert operations promoted by Charlie Wilson against the occupying Russians in the 1980s seems to be coming back into vogue again. Though the colourful congressman may be long gone, along with his bevy of close female consiglieri, his legacy lives as we head for another round of private wars by private armies.