Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Afghanistan -- more parts to the puzzle

A couple of weeks ago I wondered what the heck was going on with Afghanistan. Since then it has become clear that what the US has done in Afghanistan may be more disastrous than what we have done in Iraq. There won't be much in the way of domestic political repercussions, but from what I have been reading developments in Afghanistan may turn out to be more counterproductive to US interests than events in Iraq. That is an incredible statement, but in terms of where each of the two countries may be ten years from now, my guess is that the US will have a better image in the minds of Iraqis than Afghans.

Two readings are recommneded.

This analysis by UPI's Shaun Waterman is excellent. Brian Ulrich at American Footprints provides the link along with several others. The more I read, the more I recall the word "inscrutable" from old references to all things Asian.

Finally, Elizabeth Rubin's first of a two-part series in Sunday's NY Times Magazine is long, well-written and revealing. Printed out it can run to 23 pages, but I was able to copy it to a document, stretch the margins, format two columns and reduce it to fifteen.
Highly-recommended reading...

To find out how the opium trade works and how it’s related to the Taliban’s rise, I spent the afternoon with an Afghan who told me his name was Razzaq. He is a medium-level smuggler in his late 20’s who learned his trade as a refugee in Iran. He was wearing a traditional Kandahari bejeweled skull cap, a dark blazer and a white shalwar kameez, a traditional outfit consisting of loose pants covered by a tunic. He moved and spoke with the confident ease of a well-protected man. “The whole country is in our services,” he told me, “all the way to Turkey.” This wasn’t bravado. From Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, he brings opium in the form of a gooey paste, packaged in bricks. From Badakhshan in the northeast, he brings crystal — a sugary substance made from heroin. And from Jalalabad, in the east on the road to Peshawar, he brings pure heroin. All of this goes through Baramcha, an unmanned border town in Helmand near Pakistan. Sometimes he pays off the national soldiers to use their vehicles, he said. Sometimes the national policemen. Or he hides it well, and if there is a tough checkpoint, he calls ahead and pays them off. “The soldiers get 2,000 afghanis a month, and I give them 100,000,” he explained with an angelic smile. “So even if I had a human head in my car, they’d let me go.” It’s not hard to see why Razzaq is so successful. He has a certain charm and looks like the modest tailor he once was, not a man steeped in illegal business.

Razzaq’s smuggling career began in Zahedan, a remote and unruly Iranian town near the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is filled with Afghan refugees who, like Razzaq and his family, fled after the Russian invasion in 1979. Razzaq apprenticed as a tailor under his father and eventually opened his own shop, which the Iranians promptly shut down. They said he had no right as a refugee to own a shop. He began painting buildings, but that, too, proved a bureaucratic challenge. He was paid in checks, and the bank refused to cash them without a bank account, which he could not get.

Razzaq was newly married with dreams of a good life for his family. So one day he took a chance. “I had gotten to know smugglers at my tailoring shop,” he told me over a meal of mutton and rice on the floor of my hotel room. “One of them was an old man, so no one ever suspected him. The smugglers asked me to go with him to Gerdi Jangel” — an Afghan refugee town in Pakistan — “and bring back 750 grams of heroin to Zahedan. The security searched us on the bus, but I’d hidden it in the heels of my shoes, and of course they didn’t search the old man. I was so happy when we made it back. I thought I was born for the first time into this world.”

So he took another chance and managed to fly to Tehran carrying four kilos in his bag. Each time he overcame another obstacle, he became more addicted to the easy cash. When the Iranian authorities imported sniffing dogs to catch heroin smugglers, Razzaq and his friends filled hypodermic needles with some heroin dissolved in water and sprayed the liquid on cars at the bus station that would be continuing on to Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz. “The dogs at the checkpoint went mad. They had to search 50 cars. They decided the dogs were defective and sent them back, and that saved us for a while.” Eventually, he said, they concocted a substance to conceal the heroin smell from the new pack of dogs.

After the fall of the Taliban, Razzaq moved back to Helmand, built a comfortable house and began supporting his extended family with his expanding trafficking business. Razzaq’s main challenge today is Iran. While the Americans have turned more or less a blind eye to the drug-trade spree of their warlord allies, Iran has steadily cranked up its drug war. (Some 3,000 Iranian lawmen have been killed in the last three decades battling traffickers.) To cross the desert borders, Razzaq moves in convoys of 18 S.U.V.’s. Some contain drugs. The rest are loaded with food supplies, antiaircraft guns, rocket launchers, antitank missiles and militiamen, often on loan from the Taliban. The fighters are Baluch from Iran and Afghanistan. The commanders are Afghans.

Razzaq’s run, as he described it, was a scene out of “Mad Max.” Three days were spent dodging and battling Iranian forces in the deserts around the earthquake-stricken city of Bam. Once they made it to Isfahan, however, in central Iran, they were home free. They released the militiamen, transferred the stuff to ordinary cars and drove to Tehran, where other smugglers picked up the drugs and passed them on to ethnic Turks in Tabriz. The Turks would bring them home, and from there they went to the markets of Europe.

Should he ever run into a problem in Afghanistan, he told me, “I simply make a phone call. And my voice is known to ministers, of course. They are in my network. Every network has a big man supporting them in the government.” The Interior Ministry’s director of counternarcotics in Kabul had told me the same thing. Anyway, if the smugglers have problems on the ground, they say, they just pay the Taliban to destroy the enemy commanders.

Razzaq has at times contemplated getting out of the smuggling trade, he said, but the easy money is too alluring. Depending on the market, he can earn from $1,500 to $7,500 a month. Most Afghans can’t make that in a year. Besides, he said, “all the governors are doing this, so why shouldn’t we?”

So what's the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan? Well, there are too many to list. But after all the fluff is blown away, one pays the way with oil, the other with poppies. We can hope for peace and reconcilliation with oil-based economies. But unless and until drugs are made legal, we will always be at war with countries that pay their bills with drug money.

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