The deadly cocktail of poppy and incompetence.


Editor’s note: All of the pictures in this piece were taken by, and are the property of, Michael Yon. 


Slightly more context in Tarin Kot: This government sign threatens poppy eradication, but the area around it was heavily sowed with poppy. In some areas the flowers undulate for as far as the eye can see. I took this photo at a traffic circle where the local government often dumps the bodies of its enemies.

Half a decade ago, Steve Shaulis gave me a copy of the excellent book written by his Pakistani friend Ahmed Rashid , Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Shaulis had been working in Afghanistan for several years before the book was published, and had long maintained that we would suffer for ignoring Afghanistan. Rashid, a Pakistani journalist with extensive ties in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the West, clearly spells out, long before the 9/11 attacks, the structure of the Taliban and their close association with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. The closing paragraph of his book proved prophetic:

But if the war in Afghanistan continues to be ignored we can only expect the worst. Pakistan will face an Islamic-style revolution which will further destabilize it and the entire region. Iran will remain on the periphery of the world community and its eastern borders will continue to be wracked by instability. The Central Asian states will not be able to deliver their energy and mineral exports by the shortest routes and as their economies crash, they will face an Islamic upsurge and instability. Russia will continue to bristle with hegemonic aims in Central Asia even as its own society and economy crumbles. The stakes are extremely high.

Ahmed Rashid was painfully correct. Half a year after publication, four jets filled with passengers rammed into buildings in the United States, the culmination of a plan that had launched from Afghanistan. Of the current situation in Afghanistan, Rashid told me (listen here):

People are very frustrated; they have not seen the kind of development and reconstruction that they had hoped. They have not seen the kind of security because of a lack of foreign forces and also the very slow pace of building up Afghan forces. And in the midst of all this, the Taliban insurgency has gone on, at a low key for the last two or three years. But this summer it has exploded as NATO brings in more troops and tries to take control, for the first time, of Southern Afghanistan. That is the Taliban stronghold. That is where the insurgency is happening and it has been boosted by the public frustration and also by the fact that the Taliban and Al Queda have now formed links with Iraq. They are importing a lot of the tactics and methodology of the insurgency in Iraq.

The hand that pushed the button? The imported tactic of suicide bombing is used with increasing effectiveness in Afghanistan.

Until recently, suicide bombings were virtually unknown in Afghanistan. Today they are common. Several CADG employees, including one Brit, were driving on a dangerous section of road recently and came upon a fresh car-bomb detonation. An Afghan employee got out and picked up the hand and brought it back to the car, took it to the office, and buried it. Five suicide bombings have occurred this year in the immediate vicinity of CADG operations, although each attack was targeting a different person. Daily attacks of various sorts make reconstruction projects increasingly difficult to complete.

Steve Shaulis is saying what he has been saying for several years: We are fumbling in Afghanistan, and one of our greatest threats is a beautiful flower once memorably described as “attractive to the eye and soothing to the senses.” The threat derives not so much from the ravages opium and heroin inflict on people and societies, but from the Coalition and NATO’s tolerance of it and their half-measures to eradicate it, which render us unreliable allies in the eyes of many Afghans. Shaulis cautions that Afghans may be uneducated people, but they are not fools. As he explained in an e-mail:

Basically, the problems are simple.

1. Governance: Ask yourself why the Taliban is gaining strength? It is because of the lack of governance and distrust of the people for the government.
2. Justice: Case in point is the recent arrest and release of Haji Naimat, who is from Musa Qala village, who was caught in the town of Baramcha with four tons of opium and half ton of refined heroin. His appeal went up to the highest levels in Kabul, and he was quietly released. These smugglers are the same people that feed the Taliban in order to keep an unstable environment which suits them.
3. Why are the drug eradication forces being given more and more money, when they cannot even eradicate 2% of poppy? In Tirin Kot, they finally arrived on site, and are spending $1 million to build their compound which has caused them to completely miss the poppy harvest, since they are focused only on getting their pre-fab housing in place!The fact is that educated Afghans can see through this scam, because that is what it is. Uneducated Afghans simply understand now that they will have no long-term sustained protection from the Coalition, and no governance from their own leaders. The Taliban is now starting to strike that populist resonance with people in the countryside again.

Shaulis’s words were corroborated by Afghans with whom I spoke as we toured farms and worksites across southern Afghanistan, many of whom think we are in cahoots with the Taliban. The fact that we are not eradicating poppy, Afghans say, is only one piece of evidence. They do not trust their new government, or us, and they point to cases like the one Shaulis referenced, or to all the wasted reconstruction dollars that go to foreign contractors who deliver shabby work, if and when they deliver anything at all.

Another poppy farm. At a glance it appeared we had found Osama bin Laden farming in Lashkar Gah.

Unlike many Islamic countries where anti-American sentiment is rampant, most Afghans were hopeful that the investments promised in 2001 would result in changes that improved their lives. They were genuinely happy to shed the Taliban. Now their views have shifted. Many Afghans turn to the Taliban now simply because they are the only group that delivers on both threats and promises. They may be the devil, but they are a devil who can get the job done.

As Rashid explains:

Until this spring, I think people generally, even in the south, were tolerating the Taliban more out of fear than out of love. After all we should remember that the Pashtun population in southern Afghanistan has been through the worst period of the Taliban. They suffered under the Taliban regime. They know very well that the Taliban would not care for them, or be able to provide jobs or health or education for their children. But the fact is they have waited now five years for the government and the international community to do what they promised to do back in 2001, which was to provide jobs and health care and education, and roads and infrastructure, and electricity and water, and all the rest of it. And, really, they haven’t seen it. For many, many people in Afghanistan, their lives have not changed very much. Apart from when they do go to the cities, where they see extraordinary wealth and very big houses made by the drugs barons or by the warlords.

In Afghanistan, rumors and innuendo serve as morning papers and nightly news broadcasts. They can have sweeping and devastating influence in shaping public opinion. This is something with which many Westerners doing business in Afghanistan have had to contend. In a mostly excellent article called “Afghanistan: The Night Fairies,” written for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Sarah Chayes writes:

This state of affairs is so bewildering that Kandaharis have reached an astonishing conclusion: The United States must be in league with the Taliban. They reason that America, with its power and riches, could bring an end to the “insurgency” in a month, if it so chose. They figure that America remains a close and munificent ally of Pakistan, the country that is sponsoring the “insurgency,” and so the continuing violence must be a deliberate element of U.S. policy. The point is not whether there is any factual basis for this notion; it’s that everyone here believes it. In other words, in a stunning irony, much of this city, the Taliban’s former stronghold, is disgusted with the Americans not because of their Western culture, but because of their apparent complicity with Islamist extremists.

More than mere rumor is at work in many southern provinces. There, the Taliban murder people who do not cooperate, make videos of the “executions,” and openly flaunt their control. Rumors may enhance the drama and volume of incidents, but the fact is, the Taliban are in control of parts of Afghanistan. Our military footprint is no larger than a few deer tracks.

Our military and our allies kill Taliban by the dozens on a regular basis, but in an area the size of Afghanistan and the surrounding region, this is irrelevant. Combine the populations of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida; Afghanistan has more people. Killing a few dozen Taliban here and there is like coming to Florida and killing a few dozen rabbits. But in Afghanistan, we hunt using satellites, spy drones, and so forth, then swooping in on the killer rabbits with expensive airmobile operations. What does it really cost to kill one terrorist in Afghanistan? The answer is probably in the millions of dollars, and since reconstruction has been a failure, if the entire budget, along with the true long-term costs and soft-costs, of the war in Afghanistan is divided by the number of real terrorists killed, the price of killing one easily-replaceable, illiterate terrorist might be in the tens of millions, or more. It’s as if we were shooting diamonds at them, while dropping bombs made of gold. If killing bad guys is all we do, we will be spending a lot of money to lose a war.

Afghanistan has become a sustainable hunting lodge — “sustainable” meaning we are not running out of game; we can hunt for as long as we are willing to spend the money and lives. Even among military leaders, it is unclear how willing we will be for how long.

In his June 2006 assessment report on the situation in Afghanistan, General Barry McCaffrey (Ret.) wrote:

We will encounter some very unpleasant surprises in the coming 24 months that will require US fighting forces which can respond rapidly throughout this huge and chaotic country to preserve and nurture the enormous successes of the past five years. The Afghan national leadership are collectively terrified that we will tip-toe out of Afghanistan in the coming few years—leaving NATO holding the bag—and the whole thing will again collapse into mayhem. They do not believe that the United States has made a strategic commitment to stay with them for the fifteen years required to create an independent, functional nation-state which can survive in this dangerous part of the world.

Besides the fact that killing bad guys alone will not win the war, the fact that most of the NATO forces streaming in simply do not have the resolve and the killer instincts needed to win there is something the Taliban have noticed and acted on. As Rashid explains (listen here):

They are targeting NATO troops, some of whom are coming from countries which are not fully committed to combat. They are more committed to peace-keeping than to combat. This is contributing to the sense of doom and gloom amongst many Afghans who fear that the Taliban may be coming back.

We must get serious, and not leave NATO to be chewed up in Afghanistan. NATO cannot handle it alone. But first we must stop the poppy, the Taliban’s ATM. Eliminating the ATM is the first step to eliminating the Taliban as a security threat, and the first step to rebuilding the faith and confidence of Afghans in the international community that middling efforts to date have so severely eroded. Although none will work quickly or at arm’s length, there are alternatives.

– Michael Yon blogs at