Thursday, September 10, 2009

Poppy terror

Gretchen Peters’ interesting new book, Seeds of Terror, points the reader to America’s misguided efforts to locate the crux of terror emanating from the “Af-Pak” region. Peters, who has covered Afghanistan and Pakistan as a reporter for over a decade, stresses the importance of probing how opium trade has become a ready source of income for the al-Qaeda’s rise and continued relevance.

What gives heft to Peters’ analysis is her extensive travels through the heart of opium country, primarily the Helmand Province in southwest Afghanistan. She also visits other countries that connect the dots of the global drug network, and speaks to several US military strategists who are fighting the war against the Taliban on the ground.

The first myth that Peters busts is the hackneyed cry that the fight against Islamic terrorism should start with addressing the genuine grievances of those who are attracted by its seductive appeal. Peters elaborates the economics of the opium trade to show how dependent the Afghan economy is on poppy cultivation, and how the Taliban and al-Qaeda run their global enterprise of hate on the back of billions of dollars that drug trafficking generates.

The trouble with Afghanistan’s drug problem is accentuated by the easy conduit for drugs that countries in its neighbourhood provide. Intelligence agencies in Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and others work in cahoots to transfer drug shipments to the West in exchange for funds or even weapons. As Peters elaborates, “From the fields of Helmand to the hawala stands of Dubai, elaborate mechanisms filter drug money through the Taliban hierarchy...On the district level, each farmer will receive a handwritten receipt for 10 percent tax paid to the local Taliban subcommander...Each district commander has to kick a percentage of the taxes he collects up to his regional commander; then it goes to the provincial commander, and so on up the food chain.”

Peters delineates in shocking detail the trajectory of drug flow from the tribal regions of Afghanistan to all parts of the globe, including western Europe and the US. If there has been a singular failure on the part of the international community, it is not the unexpected outcome of the ideology-driven wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that the West has still not been able to nip the byzantine money laundering channels the traffickers plug with impunity.

Peters is not one to push ideology in her own text. While deriding the West, especially the US, for failing to contain drug trafficking, she also, reasonably, chides the US for being short-sighted in its pursuit of larger geostrategic goals. This is brought out most starkly in the US’ patronage of Afghan fighters who fought the might of the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1980s. It is the ghost of that Cold War era conflict against communism that is haunting the US is a different disguise today.

Peters shows how the US policy to “itemize and prioritize” the various issues has failed to create a holistic approach that would be conducive to victory in Afghanistan. She cites a conversation between an official of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the US Ambassador to Pakistan in 1986, where the Ambassador listed drugs as the third-biggest priority, after “fighting the Soviets” and nuclear proliferation.

It is a measure of the time warp that the US administration has been caught in that 20 years on, as the US faces a renewed crisis in the region, it is still too fixated, this time on the threat from radical Islam, to worry about addressing the region’s drug problem holistically.

Peters’ final assertion concerns the growing appetite among US policymakers for an aggressive aerial spraying campaign to wipe out Afghanistan’s poppy crop. This is the perfect way, the argument goes, to deny the insurgents and terrorists much-needed funding.

Peters lambasts this proposal and exposes its short-sightedness. “Wiping out poppy fields,” she says, “would actually drive up poppy prices and put more money in the pockets of drug dealers and terrorists.” Moreover, she cautions, such an approach would be economically devastating for Afghanistan, since income from poppy cultivation contributes 30 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Seeds of Terror is an eye-opening account for the lay reader, accustomed as he is to fire-and-brimstone pronouncements by administrations past of the need to “smoke ’em out”. The book cautions against the easy route of one-size-fits-all solutions. Afghanistan, an ancient society driven by strong tribal links, is a puzzle waiting to be cracked. Hubris won’t do, Peters seems to say, and a concerted strategy, separate from America’s larger middle eastern interests, will have to be employed if America is to have any hope of exiting the battleground in the foreseeable future.

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