- 07 Sep 21
Afghanistan has been plunged into a political and humanitarian crisis, by the botched withdrawal of US and UK troops and the re-emergence of ISIS. But there is an opportunity still to use soft power to support the advances that women have made in an irredeemable patriarchal world. Illustration: David Rooney
So, what connects the Taliban to a discarded needle in Dublin’s inner city? Drugs! In the days of the hippy trail to Kathmandu, there was Afghan Gold, then considered the champagne of hashes. But that was then. Now heroin and methamphetamine are the new gold in them thar hills.
According to Cesar Guedes-Ferreyros, who represents the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Kabul, Afghanistan produces at least 85 percent of the world’s heroin. And, notwithstanding their pieties and purities, the now-victorious Taliban currently take a very large cut of the profits.
In 2020, as the Taliban inexorably re-took rural Afghanistan, supported by local populations outraged by US airstrikes, the area under opium poppy cultivation increased by 37 per cent to reach the third highest level ever reported. So, the war on drugs isn’t doing any better than the war on terror....
There’s more to it than heroin. The UN anti-narcotics officials have described the Taliban as the world’s biggest drug cartel and claim that they are now using heroin routes to introduce methamphetamine into new markets in Australia, Asia, North America, Europe and Africa.
Since they’ve been at it a long time, and likewise their mujahideen predecessors, one can’t say that a new narco state has been born. Rather, the narcos are now officially back in charge.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, President Bush!
RESTRICTIONS ON WOMEN
Of course, they say they’ll outlaw drug production now they’re in government. Dream on, unless they’re bullied into it by their Sunni backers in Qatar, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Even then, given the porous borders and ungovernable warlord fastnesses, one doubts it’ll stick. Apart from anything else, they need the money.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands scramble to escape, and with good reason. When the Taliban last seized power in the late 90s they promised moderation. They lied. Their sharia law was primitive and brutal. Hands were cut off. Alleged adulterers were stoned to death. Torture was commonplace.
It’s over. They won, they’re back and their fundamentalist belief system hasn’t changed.
What they should do about their drug dealing and cartel gangsterism is just one of the questions they face.
A second is to do with the status of women. Under the first Taliban government they were oppressed, subjected to the most literal interpretation of scripture, as though they were still living in the 7th century. Now, the demobilising Taliban fighters will have expectations of marriage.
So, the omens are bad. Yet, the last two and a half decades of education and technological development can’t just be written off. Women are more educated, have more power and, crucially, knowledge and experience.
They even play a significant role in the Afghan drug trade, and not just as couriers. Women are also involved in manufacturing and trafficking, concealment of drugs prior to shipping, information gathering, recruitment of couriers (usually other women), logistics and security.
Hey, they can be gangsters too!
The Saudis have introduced some “liberalisation” of restrictions on women (they can now drive cars!) and, being of the same brand of Islam and likely to grant-aid the new administration, this may influence the Taliban.
We’ll see. But there’s no evading their success, and the failure of the western (mainly the US and UK) mission – and that raises a third question, this one about the future.
Where will Afghanistan fit into the world’s geopolitical order?
Their victory, and the tame – many would say lame – withdrawal of the US and UK forces, have been interpreted as heralding the end of the American century.
Perhaps it’s so. But there’s another way of seeing it: that the US has finally had enough of pumping vast amounts of money into Afghanistan for no benefit to itself but very much to the advantage of Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan and India, none of them great allies of the US.
Each will now have to take a much more active role. Iran, a Shi’ite state, is engaged in military action in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq as well as a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
Russia has Islamic states and rebellions to the south, the most violent and threatening of which is in Chechnya from whence many mujahedeen went to fight in Afghanistan (against the Soviet occupation), the Balkans, Iraq and for ISIS.
China has major issues in Xinjiang and has already looked for guarantees that Uighurs, who are Muslims, will be barred from Afghanistan and not allowed to train and organise, as were militants of al-Qaida and IS in the past.
Meanwhile, India and Pakistan are permanently at loggerheads over Kashmir, just up the road from Afghanistan.
All of them were happy for the western forces to spend billions and fight. Now they’ll have to do it themselves. This, you could say, is more like the way it should be.
Their conundrum is this: What is Afghanistan anyway? From a distance it looks like an ungovernable tribal no-man’s-land, of no significance other than occupying a strategically important intersection of multiple empires, past and present.
Yes, Herat was once a great seat of learning in the heyday of Islamic scholarship and there was the Silk Road. But nowadays, high mountains aside, when you get there, there’s no little or no ‘there’ there.
The new government has few friends and scant resources as it faces a series of major humanitarian challenges – demobilisation, refugees, hunger, the pandemic and oncoming winter. There’s also internal military opposition in the Tajik territory to the north. And the re-emergence of ISIS, whose suicide bomb mission at the airport in Kabul, in the final days of the withdrawal, killed over 170 people, including 13 US service personnel.
The Taliban have been as adept as the Americans at blowing things up. Now they’re going to have to start building, and fast. But how to pay? The temptation to keep selling drugs will be strong. Their smile may just be the grim rictus of those who have no choice but to play nicey-nicey.
The rest of the world is likely to turn away, focusing on the other catastrophic threats we collectively face, in particular the causes and consequences of global climate change and the still circulating Covid pandemic.
But look again at the history. Start with the British Empire and Russia’s Great Game. Then the Soviet occupation, the first Taliban era, the US and UK’s twenty year occupation and, especially, the truly terrible cost in terms of lives, destruction and money spent.
The US alone spent $2.26 trillion. What the fuck was it all for? As a letter writer to the Irish Times noted, it would have been better spent giving each Afghan household half a million dollars.
It’s true. What built European prosperity in the 1950s: the horrors of WW2 or the Marshall Plan?
The military-industrial complexes in the US, the UK, the EU and Russia would certainly disagree, but there has always been another way: feed people, let them feel safe, let them prosper and be happy, and you rich folks of the first world will have peace and creature comforts.
In the meantime, let’s not forget the where and why of the heroin in the needle. One impoverished population grows it. Another impoverished community pays the price in addiction and social decay.
Meanwhile, the cartel mobsters in gangs or, like the Taliban, in government, grow fat on it. It is time to end the “war on drugs” too...