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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama's men in Afghanistan

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
February 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
Earlier this month, the United Nations released a report predicting a decline in opium cultivation in Afghanistan for the second year in a row. Because Afghan heroin funds the insurgency, corrupts the government and interferes with legitimate agricultural programs, this was good news for everyone. Four years ago, farmers grew poppies in all 34 of Afghanistan's provinces. Three years ago there were six poppy-free provinces; two years ago, there were 13; last year, there were 18; and experts predict that 22 of the 34 will likely be poppy-free this year. Nationwide, poppy cultivation was down 19 per cent last year, and it will likely fall even more this year, prompting the top UN diplomat in Afghanistan to say a few days ago, "This year could be a turning point" in the war against Afghan heroin.
As one of the U.S officials who developed and co-ordinated the counternarcotics strategy currently in effect, I felt heartened, but only a little. We — the international community and the Afghans — should have done a lot better. We have not delivered an effective counternarcotics campaign in two insurgency-ridden southern provinces — Helmand and Kandahar — the source of more than three-quarters of the heroin produced on Earth. The principal culprits are the Taliban, who protect their fields aggressively (killing dozens of Afghan narcotics police each year), and corrupt Afghan officials, many of whom come from these two provinces, and need the support of powerful drug lords in upcoming elections.
Outside Afghanistan, there are, regrettably, two other reasons we could not make inroads in Helmand and Kandahar: Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry. U.S. President Barack Obama has just chosen Mr. Holbrooke, a former Clinton administration official, as his special representative in the region, and Lt.-Gen. Eikenberry as his ambassador to Afghanistan. We all wish them well, but, if they are to succeed, they need to get their facts straight, establish clearer lines of authority, and avoid the increasing militarization of civilian projects.

Hired farm hands pick the last of the poppy crop in an undisclosed field near Kandahar City last year. These seasonal labourers form a pool of potential Taliban fighters every year once the harvest is complete. (CP/Murray Brewster)
In early 2008, Mr. Holbrooke wrote in the Washington Post that the U.S counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan is "the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy." Almost every salient fact in his piece was wrong. He claimed that the U.S. had a policy that focused on destroying poppy fields; in fact the policy — published on the State Department website — balances incentives such as development assistance and alternative crops with disincentives such as eradication and arrest. The U.S. developed the policy in close co-ordination with its allies, principally Britain and Canada.
Mr. Holbrooke also said that the poppies are grown in "rocky, remote" areas by destitute farmers with no alternatives, when two UN reports have demonstrated that relatively wealthy farmers grow most of the poppies in Helmand, which is the epicentre of world poppy cultivation. Many of them are government officials. Most of them only recently switched from growing wheat or other badly needed food crops to growing poppy. And they grow it on a well-irrigated, flat fertile plain near the major city of Lashkar Gah. These farmers are not poor, they do not live in remote areas, and they have alternatives. Mr. Holbrooke played into the hands of the Taliban and corrupt war lords, who also perpetuate the destitute-farmer myth in order to prevent any serious law enforcement action in that part of the country.
He has claimed that it was "an absolute scandal" that the Afghans and their allies have never arrested a single Afghan drug lord. In fact, four Afghan drug lords are in jail in the United States: Haji Bashir Noorzai, Mohammed Essa, Khan Mohammed and, most recently, Haji Juma Khan, aka HJK, probably the biggest drug lord in Afghan history. Afghan and international agents arranged for his arrest in October, and have since transported him to the U.S., where he will soon stand trial in open court.
I met Karl Eikenberry at the end of 2005, during his tour as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, when he briefed the drug-enforcement bureau at the U.S. State Department. He told us point-blank that the military would not get seriously involved in the drug trade in Afghanistan; it was not their mission. Drug experts warned him that the Taliban were likely to re-enter the trade to raise money, but Lt.-Gen. Eikenberry ignored the warning.
As a result, we did not get serious U.S. or NATO military support for counternarcotics development and enforcement activity in Helmand and Kandahar. Because those provinces are volatile the program cannot succeed without some sort of force protection for both humanitarian and law-enforcement efforts there. We never asked the military to destroy poppy fields or even arrest traffickers, but rather to enable Afghan counternarcotics authorities, and their international mentors, to execute a balanced plan of incentives and disincentives, including, but not limited to, eradication of the fields of wealthy farmers. Lt.-Gen. Eikenberry did nothing to help. Now, by UN estimates, the Taliban raise up to $300-million a year from the drug trade, and use it to kill Americans and Canadians.
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Lt.-Gen. Eikenberry was also the architect of what another American general told me was the "flimsy and under-resourced" initial plan to train the Afghan police. So we could not count on the Afghan National Police for force protection either.
The misinformed statements of Mr. Holbrooke and Lt.-Gen. Eikenberry have greatly hindered our efforts to build a consensus in the international community on the drug issue. Yet even so, we have had two relatively successful years.
Equally disturbing is the continued militarization of the civilian effort in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has already taken over police training in Afghanistan. Their latest plan is to arm Afghan militias, a scheme that U.S. allies, including Canada, have roundly and rightly criticized. And now Mr. Obama — in an unprecedented move — intends to appoint Lt.-Gen. Eikenberry — a three-star general — to be the U.S. ambassador there. So the U.S. National Security Adviser, the Director of National Intelligence and the ambassador to Afghanistan will have 11 stars among them. Civilians, mainly seasoned foreign service officers, once held all those posts. This is a dangerous trend if we want to build confidence among Afghans, who are weary of civilian casualties.

Hired farm hands pick the last of the poppy crop in an undisclosed field near Kandahar City last year. These seasonal labourers form a pool of potential Taliban fighters every year once the harvest is complete. (CP/Murray Brewster)
In the drug arena, some NATO officials have been looking into the often discussed "silver bullet" of legalizing the opium trade. This is another example of what happens when military personnel get into areas outside of their expertise, advocating simplistic schemes that would have no chance of success.
First, the price for legal opium is much lower than the price of illegal opium, so farmers would have no incentive to switch to legal opium and would continue to sell to the illegal market under the convenient cover of legality.
Second, only about 15 per cent of the Afghan people grow heroin, so if you subsidize a legal opium program, everyone will grow it. Finally, Afghanistan is facing a serious food shortage; the last thing it needs is more opium. Maybe if the starving Afghans are all high on heroin, they won't notice … We have had two years of successful cultivation reduction; we need to build on that, not reverse course.
It is unclear who is running Afghan policy in the Obama administration. In recent weeks, we have seen Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and General James Jones, the National Security Adviser travel to the region and to Europe, or testify to Congress about the need for change in Afghanistan. Now we have Mr. Holbrooke, a sometimes difficult personality, with the title "special representative," an unclear term, usually used in the context of the United Nations, not the United States.
According to press reports, Mr. Holbrooke does not report to Secretary Clinton. It is not clear if he has authority over the Pentagon, or if the Pentagon would recognize his authority. And his relationship to Gen. Jones — whose job is to co-ordinate among the relevant U.S. agencies — is equally ill-defined.
A couple of weeks ago, someone in this convoluted hierarchy anonymously leaked word that Mr. Obama might withdraw support for President Hamid Karzai. Though I am one of Mr. Karzai's harshest critics, I was astounded that a government official would make such an irresponsible statement to a media organization, instead of discussing these concerns directly with Mr. Karzai. In the past, when making huge policy shifts, we spoke on the record. And we never advocated regime change in Afghanistan, just regime reform. Afghanistan is a democracy and a sovereign state. The U.S. can ask for change, but we have no right to announce, anonymously or on the record, that it needs a new president.
This statement had everyone reeling both in Washington and inside the Karzai government. No one knew where it came from. This is what you get with an unclear chain of command.
President Obama promised the U.S. and the world a renewed focus on Afghanistan, and that is needed. But he will not improve things unless the he shows the international community that he has a clear leader for that effort: someone who knows the facts, accepts a larger civilian role and can bring discipline to the process.
Thomas Schweich is a visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He has been U.S. ambassador for counternarcotics in Afghanistan, deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement, and chief of staff of the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

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