Can freedom and opium coexist in Afghanistan?

Can freedom and opium coexist in Afghanistan?

Can freedom and opium coexist in Afghanistan?

Military analysis.
June 21 2006 6:02 PM

Can Freedom and Opium Coexist?

Winning Afghan hearts and minds one poppy farmer at a time.

This is Kaplan's second report from Afghanistan. Click here to read the first part, about NATO's Afghan strategy.

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Military security, economic development, political reform—NATO has to accomplish all three, in sequence. The strategy is to start out locally, in a village or region where success is more likely, then spread out with each success. NATO chiefs call it the "ink-spot theory," a term from classic counterinsurgency doctrine. In some provinces, it's well under way, in the form of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, 21 of them at the moment—joint civil-military operations that work closely with local authorities, identify needs, and then fill them, at least to the extent security allows.

One problem is that, in many areas, security doesn't allow much; life is too dangerous for development to take hold. (Several nonprofit organizations have pulled out after seeing too many of their specialists killed.) Another problem is that the operations are uneven and diffuse. A "provincial development center," which is supposed to set a common agenda for the PRTs, hasn't met since April. Money abounds, from governments and the private sector, but there's no mechanism for fast-track contracting. The PRTs themselves each combine a dozen or more entities with no clear hierarchy. "I call it a Franken-agency," said the deputy commander of a PRT in southern Afghanistan. "It's a composite organization bolted together. Somebody gives it a jolt of electricity. Let's see how it lumbers along." Some lumber well, some don't.


Still, Afghanistan is making "unspectacular progress," as one NATO political adviser put it, and that's good in two ways—the progress itself and the modesty of the claim. Unlike Iraq in the days just before and after Saddam fell, you don't hear wide-eyed officials singing prophecies of Afghan Jeffersons or de Tocquevilles.

The writers and analysts who went on this NATO-sponsored trip last week were handed several "mission statements" by various officers. None of them put it quite so starkly, but they all boil down to this: Create an environment sufficiently secure to let the Afghan government muddle through.

Gen. David Richards, NATO's commander in Afghanistan, was most direct. "Don't try to impose Western precepts on what is basically a post-medieval society," he said. "People here want basic things. They want them quickly. Go to places that need governance. Listen. Send in engineers. Within a week, send in bulldozers. Build roads. Don't talk about sophisticated structures of government or demands for gender equality."

Put in these terms, if the West is willing to pour in a lot of money, materiel, and manpower (though far, far less than we've squandered in Iraq) and stays put for, say, a decade, the task is feasible.

Consider what's gone on here the last quarter-century. The United States helped the mujahideen kick out the Soviet invaders—then we abandoned the place; the Cold War was won, who cares about Afghanistan? The Taliban filled the vacuum and opened the gates to al-Qaida. After 9/11, the United States helped the Northern Alliance kick out the Taliban—then, remarkably, left the place once again, or at least the southern provinces. The Taliban once more moved in. (The surge of fighting in the south these last few months stems not so much from the Taliban's return—they came back a while ago—as from the West's return, prompting Taliban resistance.)

An anarchic Afghanistan is in nobody's interest. The country's poppy fields account for 87 percent of the world's opium and heroin supply. They also fill the Taliban's coffers. The return of Taliban rule will wreak havoc not only here but across the border in Pakistan and beyond—maybe, as before, far beyond. If the United States and NATO packed up tomorrow, the place would fall apart for sure. In the end, preventing that dim prospect is what this operation is all about.