Thursday, May 8, 2008

Rubin: Marines Stuck Protecting Opium in Helmand

An AP story quoting me about the deployment of U.S. Marines to Garmser District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan is making the rounds on the Internets, and mostly being misinterpreted by conspiracy theorists who think it shows that the US government (or the "Bush crime family") is engaged in drug trafficking. A surprising number of them seem to be Ron Paul supporters. I thought I would try to explain what I think this story is about and what my quoted comments meant.

The nub:
The Marines of Bravo Company's 1st Platoon sleep beside a grove of poppies. Troops in the 2nd Platoon playfully swat at the heavy opium bulbs while walking through the fields. Afghan laborers scraping the plant's gooey resin smile and wave.

Last week, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit moved into southern Helmand province, the world's largest opium poppy-growing region, and now find themselves surrounded by green fields of the illegal plants that produce the main ingredient of heroin.

The Taliban, whose fighters are exchanging daily fire with the Marines in Garmser, derives up to $100 million a year from the poppy harvest by taxing farmers and charging safe passage fees -- money that will buy weapons for use against U.S., NATO and Afghan troops.

Yet the Marines are not destroying the plants. In fact, they are reassuring villagers the poppies won't be touched. American commanders say the Marines would only alienate people and drive them to take up arms if they eliminated the impoverished Afghans' only source of income.

Many Marines in the field are scratching their heads over the situation.

Thanks to the wonders of satellite technology (and, I imagine, the Thoraya company), the reporter, Jason Striuszko emailed me while he was in the field last week:
Hi. I'm on an embed right now with the Marines in Garmser and need to do a story about poppies. The whole town up and down the river is filled with fields. Some farmers have fled the barrages of fighting but many have stayed behind and are currently lancing. Marines are scratching their heads at the apparent contradictions --- hunting down and calling in airstrikes and artillery on Taliban but telling farmers they won't touch their fields, and telling farmers that they'll help protect them from the taliban. Of course, those fields will be harvested and some money likely used to help fuel the Taliban, and the Marines are thinking, essentially, "huh?"

Is this the best U.S. policy can do right now? To have Marines flooding a zone that Taliban will derive money from but not touching the crop?

I realize many would say this should be counterdrug policy or eradication police job, but it's a hard thing to swallow, no?

Will there ever be a day in Afghanistan, if the drug problem can't be fixed by other means, that military steps in?
I have already argued that there is no military or even law enforcement solution to the drug economy in Afghanistan. My answer, part of which Jason quoted, was:
This is the result on the ground of a one-dimensional military policy. All we hear is, not enough troops, send more troops. Then you send in troops with no capacity for assistance, no capacity for development, no capacity for aid, no capacity for governance, and you get a lot of head scratching. Of course now there is nothing they can do. Because they think it is a military problem, they send in the Marines during the fighting season, which is also the harvest season. Why didn't they send them in during the planting season with development aid? Because they don't know about planting and harvesting, or at least they have no idea how to integrate these very basic political and economic considerations into their planning.

If they attack the farmers of course they will lose control of the area. They should try to coopt as many of the local small traffickers as possible to keep them from selling to the Taliban (believe me, the local administration knows who they are) and then launch a big aid program for next year.

After all this time, they still have no idea what they are doing.
I can already hear the reply -- how can you say U.S. policy is one-dimensional, we are giving so much aid to Helmand that it would be the fourth largest aid recipient in the world if it were a country.... Of course, on paper U.S. policy is not one-dimensional. Somebody, somewhere is working in many different dimensions. But here is one of the most important U.S. policy decisions in Afghanistan -- a mini-surge of troops, even of Marines, who have not been in Afghanistan for years. And it seems to have been planned in a completely one-dimensionlal military fashion.

Just two weeks ago I was speaking at an Army seminar, where a colonel asked us civilian "experts" how the military could integrate non-military considerations into its planning. This is a perfect example of the failure to do so. These troops have been sent to Afghanistan with a mandate derived from years of lessons learned. Instead of being told to hunt, kill, and capture terrorists, they are being told to provide security to the local population. Finally. And how do they define providing security? Keeping the Taliban away.

If the planners had included analysts who understood Afghan society a little and also understood the concept of human security, they might have learned that the most important component of security in rural Helmand is gaining a livelihood, and that the opium economy is above all an adaptation to insecurity. The time to wean farmers from the opium economy is before planting, with aid and incentives, not at the time of harvest, when they have already sold their crop on futures contracts and have no alternative. Given the impossible situation in which their commanders have put them, the Marines are doing the right thing by leaving the poppy crop alone. But when will the decision makers understand what this struggle is really about? Not before January 21, 2009, I guess.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Rubin;

The noun "Internets," takes the special article "teh" not "the."

Thought I'd point that out.

Mytwords - NPR Check said...

Prof. Rubin,

"What exactly do you have to write to be discredited in this country?"

Answer: Truth.

It seems to me that the more truthful one's writing is the further one is removed from journalism's front-and-center. I had just read your thoughtful piece on the Holocaust and the Naqba and then saw you on the News Hour. In both, you were awesome (polite, forceful, thoughtful and well informed). I thought "What a rarity on TV or radio (including NPR!)
There seems to be a law of inverse proportion at work in mainstream journalism: the more these Millers, Ignatiuses and Gordons of the world put their audiences in the dark, the more spotlight they get to have.

tammyswofford said...

Regarding Marines and poppy plants.... Having trained alongside many of them, I can assure you that "farming" is not one of the skill sets taught to members of the USMC. The issue is being fired upon without lining up your journalistic scope properly. You will not hit a bulls-eye on this one. Polish up your firing pin up a bit too. smile

r/LCDR Tammy Swofford, USNR, NC

dailysketch said...

Dr. Rubin,

Why don't the US buy up the poppy harvest and then destroy it?

Barnett R. Rubin said...

To Tammyswofford: I know that Marines are not trained in farming. I am not criticizing the marines. I am criticizing those who sent them there at the wrong time and without the necessary civilian component of their mission.
Why not buy the opium? Because no matter how much we buy, they can produce more to sell illegally. There is no fixed amount called "the harvest." If we say we will buy the total amount produced last year, they will grow that much for us and even more to sell illegally. And

Anonymous said...

Why not criminalize growing it. (yes i know this sounds like a stupid idea.) on a annual scale,1 warning, 2nd time out. then give the farmers alternatives with food crops, surley with rising foodprices world wide and the world wide bio fuel (shortage) the farmers could make some cash from european and us markets if not world wide. Then we can eliminate the dick heads.

Anonymous said...

Afghanistan is producing 93% of the world's heroin. Our own congress says hundreds of billions of dollars in drug money is laundered through Wall Street annually. the marines are just taking their turn protecting the money flow. Illicit narcotics activity and US military/intelligence deployment have gone hand in hand for decades. Why anyone thinks the pattern would change is beyond me...

Anonymous said...

It was pointed out in an article elsewhere that many third world countries have absolutely no access to post operative painkillers and the like, and that these opium fields could help these countries medicate their people.

It kind of bothers me to see a Dudley Do Right attitude about poppies. Poppies have much more use then heroin in this world, but if that is the only market that will take them - why? Embargos? I would like to see you take this further.

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