By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 23/12/07):
The power to destroy does not carry within it the power to control. A century of failed colonial rule and the American misadventure in Vietnam etched that lesson on global consciousness for a time. It has taken the huge problems that affluent, nuclear-armed nations are encountering in the miserable ruins of Afghanistan and Iraq to drive it home anew.
Call it the paradox of overwhelming but insufficient force. It is surfacing in a struggle in Afghanistan over the wisdom of chemically eradicating that nation’s expanding poppy fields. They are the source of (1) the livelihoods of many Afghan peasants, (2) a record flood of heroin into Western markets and (3) funding for the Taliban and other terrorist forces.
William Wood, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, has pushed so aggressively for aerial spraying to destroy the poppy fields that he has been nicknamed “Chemical Bill” by NATO officers serving there. President Bush posted Wood to Afghanistan after he oversaw a large eradication-by-air project in Colombia, with mixed results.
Wood’s priorities have divided U.S. and Afghan policymakers. President Hamid Karzai’s government fears both environmental damage and the radicalizing political effect that a spraying program might have on the peasants Karzai is trying to coax away from the Taliban. For the moment, Karzai has gained the upper hand over the State Department’s narcotics bureau in this ongoing fight.
The argument over how abrupt and how harsh the anti-drug campaign in Afghanistan should be is in fact part of fundamental disagreements over strategy within NATO. Many alliance officials fear that an approach they term as “with us or against us” and which seems to emphasize firepower over reconciliation is proving to be unsustainable.
I first heard rumblings of this larger debate in London in October. It has now been settled, at least as far as the British are concerned. Speaking to Parliament on Dec. 12, Prime Minister Gordon Brown endorsed Karzai’s campaign to get midlevel Taliban operatives to lay down their arms and seek reconciliation. Brown also outlined an expanded development program targeted on the poppy-growing countryside.
The State Department’s spray-first, reconcile-later tactics have created divisions even within the Bush administration. Like the British, the Pentagon is wary of abruptly destroying crops in areas where there is little government control and no alternative livelihoods immediately available.
“Spraying is not a long-term strategy,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a group of foreign officials in a private meeting some weeks ago, according to notes taken at the meeting by a foreign diplomat. Gates emphasized that he was stating his view, not settled administration policy.
A long-term strategy involves convincing Afghan farmers that they can find alternatives to growing poppies, Gates continued. For him, the immediate focus has to be on preventing the corrosive effect of drug-financed corruption seeping deeper into the Afghan government — to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a narco-state that would fund world terrorism in the way petro-states now do.
Spraying in Colombia did not diminish the flow of drugs from that South American country. Gates and other U.S. officials credit President Alvaro Uribe (and Wood’s support for him) with “uprooting corruption in government” and keeping it from tipping into the narco-state category. Only in that sense could Colombia be a model for Afghanistan.
The West will begin to resolve the grim and massive problems that the international drug trade creates only when the United States and Europe make justice rather than vengeance the center of drug laws, create effective rehabilitation programs that fill hospitals rather than jails and curb the demand for life- and soul-destroying narcotics at home. Even a “successful” poppy eradication program in Afghanistan would be no more than a bandage on a gaping wound, while inflicting great damage on Karzai’s government.
Afghanistan has been treated as a one-dimensional device in the current U.S. presidential political season. Democrats use it to establish that they are not pacifists, citing Afghanistan as a just war that they endorse in contrast to Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which they deplore, and move on quickly. Republicans are little better on the stump.
But Afghanistan is an urgent, rapidly evolving crisis that demands the attention and commitment of all candidates for national office. So do America’s overly harsh and counterproductive drug laws.
And so does the paucity of support for providing tax dollars for prevention and rehabilitation rather than incarceration of simple users. The American nation could give itself no better present in this season than a thorough rethinking of its war on drugs and of many aspects of its war on terror.