Sunday, November 12, 2006


Poppies. The wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz used them to put Dorothy and her companions to sleep, and it took the intervention of someone much more powerful than the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, or the Cowardly Lion to overcome their dangerous and deadly effects. The good witch Glynda had to step in and prevent the poppies from keeping their powerful hold over the poor lost souls. Judging from the piece I read today by Michael Yon, that same kind of intervention is necessary in Afghanistan. He's written an interesting and sobering article on opium poppy farming in Afghanistan, and what it will take to eradicate the lucrative poppy business, which is funding the resurgence of the Taliban. According to Yon, that resurgence is putting the military and political gains from previous victories in Afghanistan very much in peril.

Poppies, as it turns out, are extremely easy to grow in the conditions Afghanistan's terrain and climate provide--so easy, in fact, that unskilled and illiterate farmers find the income poppy production offers almost irresistible, given their limited resources. Yon believes that, considering all the money the West is continuing to spend to fight the ongoing battle against Taliban control of Afghanistan, we need to commit the money and personnel required also to eradicate the poppy fields, and, what is equally important, to provide farmers with the resources to profitably grow alternative crops. This means equipment and education, not just seeds. Yon's belief is that the military has not sufficiently addressed the problem of poppies and the benefit they are to the Taliban, and that this is one of the main reasons that Afghanistan is still very much in danger of being lost despite all the early successes in overturning the oppressive regime and establishing a democratic government.

The dispatch is not entirely negative. Yon does show how other options are being made somewhat available to Afghan farmers, but he believes those efforts have been very inadequate to date, and that they must be dramatically improved if the situation is to change for the better there in the future. He also makes it clear that he, among others, believes that Iraq became a distraction from finishing the job in Afghanistan. I don't know that he's saying Iraq should never have happened, so much as that Afghanistan has suffered from the divided attention and resources. It is clear, however, that he sees both Iraq and Afghanistan as going badly at this point, and that the cause in Afghanistan is a lack of adequate resources and the Western will to destroy the poppy crops before they can supply the Taliban. He believes that destruction is imperative, and that it needs to be convincingly conveyed to farmers that poppy crops will not be tolerated. He makes it clear that along with that zero-poppy tolerance must come the provision of those alternatives that will still enable the farmers to take care of their families without the valuable opium crop:

The alternative crops approach can work, and there are other ideas for alternative economies not mentioned here. People are thinking about it. But we are not moving fast enough on long overdue and badly mismanaged reconstruction efforts. We are not taking the opium threat seriously, and so we literally are subsidizing a deadly enemy with poisoned blood and dirty money. Western money will flow into Afghanistan whether we invest it wisely or not. We’ve seen what happens when we ignore the place.

It's revealing that the Taliban, which used to destroy poppy fields when they were in control of Afghanistan, now is supporting poppy farmers and protecting the crops. They are playing the wicked witch's role to the hilt, abandoning their former "moral" stand against opium production, because now it is in their financial interests and gives them what they truly want--power. We're being called on to be Glynda, here. In this particular story of Oz, it falls at least partly to the allied forces of the U.S. and Europe to break the financial hold that poppies have over Afghanistan's poor lost souls. Yon believes we need to focus on that goal, or the money from poppies will continue to strengthen the Taliban, and the Taliban will eventually regain the ground the initial war took from them. It's quite a dark prediction. It's like saying the wicked witch of the Taliban will get the ruby slippers in the end and the evil flying monkeys will be free to wreak whatever havoc their vengeful hearts devise. Yon believes there are changes that can prevent this, but they had better happen now.

Note: Yon's piece is the third in a series. The first part is here and the second here.

Update: I wanted to note that I don't agree that Iraq has taken away from our ability to properly take care of our responsibilities in Afghanistan, unless Yon means politically. Our military is perfectly capable of prosecuting both campaigns at once. The challenge, though, does increase with the constant nay-saying at home and the impulse to placate political adversaries who were demanding that the exact path out of both countries be spelled out before we ever went in. I appeal to the history of WWII and the nation building the U.S. did afterwards in Germany and Japan. Those were both long and extremely messy recoveries, with protracted military involvement, but the results were so beneficial to the world that I doubt there are any mentally stable people who would denounce those efforts, or their cost. It is wise, however, to heed the warnings of people like Yon, on the ground in Afghanistan, and encourage the government to invest as much as is necessary to eradicate the poppy crops. Terrorist thugs still have a hold in that country, and their grip has been gaining in strength. Yon is not the only person with first hand knowledge to say so, not by a long shot. It's still a front in the ongoing War on Terrorism, and those of us at home need to be vocal in our support for the war effort.