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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 03:29 am

Afghanistan forever. And ever. And ever.

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A farmer guards his poppy field, in Jalalabad. The cash flow from the illegal cultivation of poppies supports local warlords and accounts for half of Afghanistan's economy.
PHOTO BY MALCOLM GARCIA/MCT

Oh, to be in Afghanistan again, when the poppies are in bloom!

If you need a symbol of how America’s decade-long war is going in this faraway land, look no farther than the beautiful fields of red poppies flowering so bountifully there. Unfortunately, that bounty symbolizes a failure of an ambitious Western initiative against the Taliban forces.

Innocent little poppies are the raw material for producing opium – and the poppy crop in just one Afghanistan province supplies more than 40 percent of the world’s opium trade. In turn, that illicit flower power fuels the Taliban with tens of millions of dollars a year to buy weapons, recruit and train fighters, make bombs, bribe Afghan officials and otherwise make war.

So, the West’s strategy has included an all-out effort to eradicate poppy production in the province, both by banning the crop and by helping Afghanistan’s impoverished sharecroppers switch to such alternatives as wheat and cotton. Good theory! If it works.

It hasn’t. Many poppy growers didn’t like having their cash crop taken away from them, so they moved to a desert region of the province that’s under Taliban control and turns out to be remarkably productive poppy land. Meanwhile, those raising wheat and cotton are producing good crops, but Western development specialists forgot to focus on the key factor in convincing people to switch: profit. For example, Afghan cotton is not competitive with cheaper cotton from Pakistan, plus, the lone cotton mill in the province often isn’t working and is notoriously slow in paying farmers.

Bottom line is that more farmers are going into the desert because, as one put it, “there aren’t any other crops where we can make enough money to fill our children’s stomachs.” Overall poppy production in Afghanistan is on the rise – up by 7 percent last year and expected to increase more this year. Lesson: Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people is one thing, but begin with their children’s stomachs.

But what about the hearts, minds and stomachs of the American people –  especially in these times of politically imposed austerity on the middle class and the poor? Imagine how thrilled they’ll be to learn that a bipartisan majority in Washington has been running a little-known, multimillion-dollar educational initiative to lift people up. The people of Afghanistan, that is.

Well, not exactly “the People.” The program is actually only open to top Afghan officials. What instruction is our tax money providing? Get ready to upchuck: the art of PR. As part of Washington’s inexplicable war effort, an American-financed government information center has been schooling the leaders of President Hamid Karzai’s corrupt regime on how to hold news conferences.

How’s that going, you ask? Not all that well, though in fairness let’s acknowledge that Karzai’s officials have at least begun to hold a few press meetings. Previously, Afghan ministries required the media to submit any questions by fax – which was a bit of a runaround, since most ministries had no working fax machines. So, actually agreeing to meet the press is counted as a giant step forward for good government.

Now, though, the U.S. instructors have abruptly withdrawn from the information center. Apparently, they’re annoyed that Karzai and his cohort keep frustrating our efforts to help them establish a functioning government. Last year, for example, the Afghan attorney general expelled American advisors from his office. Why? Because they kept pointing out that the public credibility of his office was zilch unless he began prosecuting at least a few of the officials who are blatantly corrupt. But in Karzai-Land, cronyism trumps credibility as a virtue, so the pestering Americans had to go.

Still, while our advisors and instructors have been pulled from the center, our money has not. American financing of the PR school continues. It’s all part of our 8 billion tax dollars a month (a month!) that Washington keeps airlifting into Afghanistan, while our people’s own educational and job-training needs are slashed.

Well, at least President Obama is getting us out of there in 2014, right? Maybe not. Pentagon war hawks now say they want to negotiate with Karzai to keep thousands of American forces there (as well as billions more of our tax dollars) beyond Obama’s deadline.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.


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