Opium dreams of a better Afghanistan

opium newI spent two years of my life there. Not in Afghanistan proper, just across the small, ten-metre-wide border river between Afghanistan and the then-USSR, peering into the Afghani desolation, watching its vast emptiness, smelling the smoke of the dried camel dung used for cooking, observing the strange and sometimes revolting habits of Afghanis. I was lucky – as a 1968 Soviet Army conscript, I did not have to cross the river.

Being an artificial division imposed by the Tsars, the border was porous and, for the locals, open, creating a small but steady stream of relatives visiting each other. As a medic, I had to deal with many of the Pashtuns living on both sides of the border.  I will not describe local hygene habits (distinctly non-hygienic), nor the habitually brutal way locals treated their downtrodden wives and daughters – may Allah be merciful to their souls. My biggest discomfort was a distinct and clear feeling in the pit of my stomach that my life was in danger, even while attending to the locals’ health problems.

That feeling was shared by most non-Pashtuns in the area — Russians, Uzbeks, Koreans, Tartars, Turkomans and others. Not without the good reason. Pashtuns were notorious for their heightened capacity of being unintentionally insulted, were constantly on the lookout for being humiliated, wary of their “honour” being impugned. If they suspected they were being belittled, They were feared for their sudden, berserker volatility, for their predilection for violence as the only solution to  “honour” insults.

Under no circumstances could humour be attempted in a conversation with a Pashtun — only a visibly expressed respect, even obsequiousness, would serve as a relatively safe mode of discourse. For a non-Pashtun to be in or near Afghanistan is to be in an environment of constant danger, because even a trivial communication with locals is akin to stepping into a densely seeded minefield.

When I hear or read about our troops on the ground in Afghanistan,  my heart goes out to them. I appreciate that they can take care of themselves very well, that they need my concern like a fish needs an umbrella. Still, they are our troops, our boys. They do get hurt. They are in a harm’s way.

Does their presence there and the dangerous work they do lead to any measurable improvement in our lives or in the lives of the local civilians? Let’s have a look.

The graveyard of empires

Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires. The Persians, Mongols, Arabs, British and Russians have tried to conquer this rocky, dusty and desolate patch of thirsty space hemmed in between East and West. All have failed.

This vast, strategically located emptiness on the road between different civilisations is home to an ancient, semi-nomadic people. Their behaviour, culture and mentality are determined by age-old stereotypes of masculinity and honour deeply embedded in the Islamic tradition. It is difficult to imagine a place more separate from the rest of the planet than Afghanistan. This separateness is not determined by geography, but by the character of the locals, by their behaviour and their mentality.

One of their most unexpected character traits is their conceptual inability to negotiate a genuine, lasting compromise, unless there is a visible, immediate benefit – commercial, military or political.  Good/bad, friend/foe, black/white, win/lose are the direct and none-too-subtle approaches locals habitually adopt when interacting with outsiders. These categories can be switched around with startling ease, often making negotiations fruitless. Imagine the consequences of being re-classified as a foe twenty minutes after being proclaimed a friend. There is also an absence of any concept of the common good, with an accompanying self–centeredness. Whatever is good for myself, my family, my clan and my tribe is acceptable and welcome. Never mind anyone else. It also means universal corruption and disdain, or disregard, for any treaty or obligation as far as outsiders are concerned.

Untold wealth

With the biggest rich mines of lapis, gold, turquoise, coal, copper, iron, barite and as well as oil and gas fields Afghanistan is one of the countries with the richest and biggest intact mines in the world.”( Persian Encyclopedia of Economics and Management)

Despite its untold mineral wealth, Afghanistan is a failed state. Afghanistan is also very dangerous. Practically every male, especially in rural areas, carries arms und uses them whenever he feels appropriate. Allegiance is to clan, tribe, or family, not to a constitution or a government. There is no written law, and no law enforcement, to speak of. There is no centralised government, no universal education, no health care and no meaningful right to vote.

Women have no rights at all, unless granted by males. Afghanistan is one of the most misogynist places on the planet. For example, one of the reasons why the Russians failed, and eventually had to retreat, was their attempt to educate women. This shuravi (Russian) ‘misbehaviour’ triggered much of male anger and a large-scale insurgency.

opium rawTerrorism and narcotics are growth industries. The wealth of Afghanistan mostly derives from the raw opium trade. This country produces nothing else of significance. Afghanistan seems to have overtaken  Asia’s Golden Triangle as the number one source of the world’s raw opium. From there it spreads globally, destroying lives, spreading crime and corruption. Afghani poppy farmers, growers of that opium, are dependent for their income on local warlords and associated chieftains. Only they have the cash to dispense for a cash crop.

Western attempts to control poppy-growing by crop destruction, by confiscation or by any other means result in loss of income, continued pauperisation and further growth of local resistance. It also increases the popular support base for Taliban, seen as the providers of economic security. Coalition forces are, by contrast, seen as foreigners attempting to deprive locals of their livelihood. Coalition attempts to provide cash compensation to farmers are not taken seriously in a land where you get something for nothing only from a vanquished foe.

Needless to say, the Taliban’s high profit margins from the narcotics trade finance the war. Inevitably, large groups of refugees move in and out of Afghanistan, creating an ideal environment for terrorists to melt into a background of distressed and desperate people. Add the amply demonstrated duplicity of Pakistani rulers and the porosity of a long, high-altitude border and one cannot help but wonder – what have Australian forces been doing there for the past decade and more?

The Western presence in Afghanistan

The noun ‘taliban’ is the plural of the word ‘talib’, a student at a madrassa, a religious school. In the 1980s, these people were called ‘Mujahideen’, the ones who fought the hated Russians. The West regarded them as freedom-fighters; Rocky Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone, went there to singlehandedly destroy the Soviet Army. Rocky almost succeeded in one of his movies. The Americans gave the Mujahideen the Stingers to shoot down Soviet helicopters and planes. The Soviets lost their aerial advantage — and the political will to remain. Gradually, they left.

One of the reasons the Soviets were so slow in withdrawing was that they did not know what to do with their Afghani allies. They did not want to leave them behind, knowing they would be slaughtered. The Russians took all  who wanted to go. There were no helicopters on the roof.  The West was jubilant. We had won! The West had won! Again!

Well, nothing is as it seems. The Soviet withdrawal taught the Islamic veterans of the Soviet-Afghani war how easy it is to scare the infidels with losses, how easy it is to manipulate Western media, to split Coalition allies from one another, and many other equally useful skills. As the result of their Afghanistan invasion, the Soviets triggered an extremist Islamic awakening with which we are now saddled. However, the Americans committed an equally gigantic blunder – thinking that they were fighting the Soviets in the Cold War, they trained the very people we today call Islamic extremists and supplied them with sophisticated weaponry.

Suffice to say that the late Osama bin Laden was an active participant in this war. History is full of exquisite irony.  After the great victory over the Russians, we forgot Afghanistan for a while, until the Afghans reminded us, and especially the Americans, about themselves with the help of the same Osama bin Laden and his hijacked planes. Clearly, they were not our friends any longer.  Who knows, had we realised that we were dealing with a psychologically damaged society, with all the hallmarks of mass borderline personality disorder, Western donors mightn’t have withdrawn so unceremoniously. People or societies suffering from a borderline disorder cannot tolerate being abandoned. And abandoned they must have felt. And if that is so – the most serious reason for 9/11 was the Taliban’s revenge for its rejection and abandonment by the West — not because of religion, economics or politics. Anyway, that is my theory and I will stick with it.

Afghani nation-building as the road to political failure

The Coalition forces kicked out the Taliban and started ‘nation-building’. That is where things started to go wrong. The aid money disappeared like water on sand – without a trace, in other words. The schools, built  by the West,  are full only while our soldiers are nearby. Schoolgirls were murdered because they were learning to read and write. Corrosive acid was thrown in the faces of women who dared to work or study without (or even with) their men’s permission. The roadsides continue to be seeded with improvised explosive devices faster rate than the roads are built. Opium crops are larger than before, bringing in the cash with which to fight the war. The government governs in Kabul and nowhere else.

What is the reason? Why are we failing the same way the Soviets did?

The reasons for the extended Western presence is relatively simple – to demonstrate displeasure at the 9/11 outrage and associated terrorist atrocities, and to prevent them from happening again. The displeasure was expressed by force of arms, the Taliban routed and the regime changed. Then we started ‘nation-building’. However, this can succeed only if and when the recipient nation is culturally and developmentally at a similar level to that of the builder. Post-WWII Germany and Japan are good examples.

Afghanistan, however, is not at the same level – neither culturally nor developmentally. It is a semi-feudal society with virtually no educated middle class. To impose change on its Islamic, misogynistic, tribal culture from the outside, as we have been trying to do, is unrealistic in the extreme. Change can come only from within. Imposition of a Western-style state structure without a change of culture cannot succeed, never any better than futile.

Those caring for people with a borderline personality disorder commonly entertain fantasies of rescue, that some miracle will sweep the problem away. These fantasies are no foundation for the recovery the West is seeking in Afghanistan. No-one can live someone else’s life, no outsider can change the local culture – not without extensive bloodshed. The only people who could possibly introduce any measurable change in this semi-feudal society and propel it into modernity are the Afghani women – not Western soldiers.

Why women?

The most heartbreaking tragedy of societies like Afghanistan is gender inequality, translated into an absolute lack of female power. A society deprived of the civilising, gentle, female influence inevitably becomes deformed into an exclusively male dominion, with all the macho pretentions that implies, plus an emphasis and respect for brute force and a lamentable lack of subtlety and lateral thinking. A male-dominated society, lacking emotional or cultural female input, inevitably slides into polygamy, disregard for women as worthy members of society. Their physical and sexual abuse is inevitable.

Afghani women live out their lives totally at the mercy of their men – interminably traumatised by their powerlessness and lack of protection by the law. A significant proportion inevitably develop a constantly festering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The distress of these women is not contained, it is transmitted – to their children, to their families, to their men, permeating the whole of their society. Trans-generational transmission ensures that the emotional trauma festers on for generations, gradually becoming part of this society’s culture. Oppression of females in any society, including denial of contraception, ensures this society’s lack of development and failure to thrive. It leads to a high birth rate and notorious youth “bulges” in the demographic profile, associated, in turn, with societal instability and increased levels of violence. Only female emancipation could reverse these malignant trends and gradually transform such a society into a prosperous and self-sufficient polity.

Military confrontation cannot achieve nation-building. The most it can do is to provide physical security for those who go against tribal customs and stereotypes and engage in reform. But — and this is the biggest ‘but’ of our Afghanistan commitment  – do we have to go against tribal customs? Because, and let’s make no mistake here, the building of a modern, democratic state does involve a conflict between contemporary customs and tribal ones. Is it our responsibility? Are we prepared to commit our resources to it? And if we are – do we appreciate the magnitude of such work? There is a better way, one which incorporates the existing parameters of Afghani society and, at the same time, allows the West to gain millions of allies instead of enemies.

Should we, then, cut and run?

Yes, realistically it is one option. Possibly ‘the’ option.

However, as FDR said after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, that day would “live in infamy”. Besides, for the reasons I have described, it would invite a repeat of 9/11 or a similar calamity.

There are other options.

Option one: balkanisation

Dividing of Afghanistan according to tribal and clan territorial claims would mean a possible continuation of the existing state of civil war and slow the process of re-integration of the country under a single warlord who could achieve that. However, it would not mean that the danger for the West would subside simply because the Afghanis were busy fighting each other. Not at all. Their resentment at again being abandoned would propel them to continue terrorist training, continue their attacks, and continue the cultivation and mass production of heroin.

Option two: restore the monarchy

The exiled Afghani king might be able to restore territorial integrity and maintain the precarious inter-tribal power balance. King Mohammed Zakir Shah, the last ruling king, was doing well until he was overthrown. The country was stable, it did not represent an acute danger to the world, as it now does now, and it was gradually developing. Interestingly, a similar situation was observed in Iran under Shah Pahlavi, in Libya under King Idris, and in Egypt under King Farouk. The image of father figure exemplified in the royal persona is a strong unifying factor in such damaged societies.

Option three: an international mandate

The useless and impotent UN could not care for and administer any country which has lost its way. Unfortunately, the UN seems to exist nowadays for the sole purpose of passing anti-Israel resolutions and feeding generations of Palestinian refugees, their children, their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s children. It has no interest in, nor time and the resources for, any other work.

Option four: a cordon sanitaire

Afghanistan, with its opium and extremism, represents such a danger to the outside world that until the raw opium cultivation is discontinued, a militarily imposed  isolation of this country might be necessary. That is if the cordon could be maintained, creating a space which would become de jure badlands, rather than, as now, de facto. The cordon would have to continue until Afghanis themselves agreed to cease being a danger to others. This is the least palatable of available options because it means that Western forces would have to remain involved in Afghanistan indefinitely, if only from the air.

Option five: outright annexation by neighboring countries

As a result of this interminable war, Pashtuns are already living in several neighboring countries, comprising an extensive diaspora.. There is a signficant degree of depopulation, creating an operating space for the Taliban to conduct their military undertakings.

Each of these options would require the physical destruction of the harvested and stored raw opium. The seed material, sown fields and growing plants would have to be razed. That would mean an open confrontation with a significant part of population, increasing an almost certainty of a guerillia war.

There is, however, a better option.

Option six: turning lemons into lemonade

Afghanistan, with its high level of traditional expertise in narcotics cultivation, harvesting and storage could be used as an official supplier of painkillers to the world’s pharmaceutical industry under international supervision and with appropriate safeguards against crime and corruption. Payments for the raw opium, paid directly to the growers, would undermine the financial foundation of the insurgency and transform countless opium farmers into Coalition supporters, Islamic principles notwithstanding. In this scenario, the presence of Coalition forces, helping to ensure that the farmers were not bullied or intimidated by the Taliban, that they, the farmers, were paid properly, promptly and generously would ensure the biggest turnaround in this sorry Afghanistan saga.

The most important element – increased prosperity – would gradually empower Pashtun women, slowly changing the semi-feudal culture. The universal law of human nature – ‘business is business’ – would ensure the decisive and quick demise of the Taliban introduce whatever normalcy one could hope for.

Using one of the above options or an eclectic combination of some or all of them could get the West out of this militarily unwinnable quagmire.

Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978

  • paksdale@bigpond.com

    At last, a positive solution for this troubled country. To achieve success would be very difficult, but it seems that such a plan may be the only way. It is no more than a dream, but what has passed for dreams in the past hasn’t worked. The money currently wasted on arms could be more productive if those farmers were paid directly.

  • MalW

    Having spent a decade in Saudi Arabia one year, I find your article very credible, informative and surprisingly optimistic. I previously thought there were no possible solutions, but I believe you are onto something. I would take issue, however, with your description of the UN as useless. That is grossly inaccurate and misleading as it is far worst than that. An organisation that commands such vast resources and does so few positive things, is preventing an effective organisation from attracting funding and producing benefits for the world. Unlike Afghanistan, however, I think the UN is genuinely beyond reform.

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