Afghanistan Craziness and the 2012 Election
The press over the past few days has produced two basic stories about American involvement in Afghanistan. One story surrounds what we should do about the poppy crop in the country, especially Helmand Province that has been the site of a major Marine incursion and is also the major source of the opium poppy crop. The other, reported in today’s Washington Post, is an assessment by a series of military talking heads about the future of the involvement. Both are reported as if they were imminently sensible analyses. Both are openly crazy: how can adults think and talk this way?
The poppy story comes first. In order to disrupt the source of Taliban income from the opium “industry” that starts in Afghanistan, the United States has initiated yet another “war on drugs”, centering in Helmand Province. Proceeding as if the tragicomedy of the 1990s war on drugs in South America never happened, American strategists have been trying to figure out a way to squash poppies without alienating the poor largely Pashtun farmers at the bottom of the production chain who grow them by diverting their attention from growing poppies to growing something else, in this case wheat and fruit. Anyone who remembers similar efforts in the mountains of Peru will find this more than vaguely familiar, and can project the outcome. The idea is to subsidize the farmers by selling them wheat seeds and fruit tree saplings at well below market costs and to pay them to grow these on land previously devoted to poppies. What could be wrong with that?
Several things, actually. First, it is probable that the crop substitution plan (the term used in South America) will not produce anywhere near the income to farmers that poppies do. The only way to compensate for that is to overpay for the crops, a subsidizing that could go on forever. Second, it is not clear the Afghan government will wholeheartedly support the effort, since parts of the income of many Afghan officials comes from corruption underwritten by drug money. The Taliban, of course, also profit from the trade and can expected to be less than wholehearted supporters. Third, aside from putting a crimp in Taliban financing, it is not clear why the United States, which will doing all the heavy lifting in this effort, really cares about all this. The Afghan opium does not, by and large, find its way into the systems of Americans; why not let those who suffer do the work? Fourth, the more this works in terms of cutting down poppy production, the more it will likely alienate the very rural Afghans who are the core of the “battle for the hearts and minds” of the Afghan population. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke argues that this is different than before, that we have it right this time. Don’t believe it.
For all these reasons, this new war on drugs is almost certain to fail. Pat Lang, in his Sic Semper Fidelis blog, suggests it would make more sense for the United States simply to buy up the poppies, thereby not alienating the Afghan peasants and still denying funds to Al Qaeda. Hey, we the people already own General Motors; why not branch out into the drug lord business as well?
The Washington Post, in an article compiled by Walter Pincus, interviewed a series of the more prominent defense talking heads around the capital about their expectations for the American commitment in Afghanistan. To avoid identifying the terminally stupid, I will not use their names, but they are all household names in the defense business. Their combined “wisdom” on the subject is that the United States is in for a long commitment in Afghanistan that will likely take a decade or more to complete, will cost thousands of American lives and numerous billions of dollars too great to estimate, and whose eventual outcome is impossible to project. What a good deal! Where can we all sign up? At the risk of being repetitive, political democracies do not like long, indeterminate military commitments where the necessity of American sacrifice is neither blindingly obvious or clearly necessary for American well being. Neither is the case in Afghanistan. It is a dumb war, fought in one of the worst parts of the world for success, and the American people will turn on it. Moreover, the American people will turn on this war before the next presidential election.
I will make what I think is a not-so-dumb projection about Afghanistan. Between now and 2012, the situation will not visibly improve (at least from a US vantage point), and attachment to the Afghanistan albatross will be an increasingly heavy burden for anyone forced to run on it. Right now, the Republicans do not possess a presidential candidate who could win an unopposed election campaign. However, if Afghanistan–poppies turned to peaches and brave projections by those who will not have to carry them out notwithstanding–is still going on, it is the one thing that could cause the defeat of President Obama for reelection. That is not a prediction I like to make, but it is one I fear.