Julien Mercille: Afghanistan’s politics, security and drugs

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Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (October 2009) Tags: Afghanistan Politics Security Drugs Corruption Democracy Warlords Opium Production

Julien Mercille

Julien Mercille

Julien Mercille, who holds the Canadian nationality, is Lecturer at the School of Geography, Planning & Environmental Policy of the University College Dublin. Before receiving his PhD in geography from UCLA (Los Angeles, USA) in 2007, he obtained an MA in geography from the University of Kentucky (USA) and a BA in International Development Studies from McGill University (Montreal, Canada).

In this interview, dr Mercille gives his views on a broad range of topics such as corruption, democracy, warlords, NATO’s accomplishments and opium production in Afghanistan.

Politics in Afghanistan

What factors explain the persistency of corruption?

“Corruption is persistent because corrupt officials are not arrested, because the US and NATO have chosen to empower them and support them politically.”

There are several factors, domestic, local, global. But at the level of US-NATO policy, which is key, the answer is surprisingly simple: corruption is persistent because corrupt officials are not arrested, because the US and NATO have chosen to empower them and support them politically. Warlords and drug lords have received millions of dollars, weapons, etc. from the US and NATO, so it is only natural that those individuals will be “shielded” from justice, strong enough to buy their way out whenever there is some investigation against them. Of course, there are arrests and some attempts at reducing corruption, but this is mostly directed at the “small fish”, the main players rarely get jailed.

This all goes back to the American strategy, at the very beginning of the invasion, of supporting warlords from the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban and establish a new government.

“Progressives are not armed and violent, so they don’t have much value in NATO’s militaristic policies.”

One might ask: Why didn’t the Americans/NATO ally themselves with more progressive individuals? The answer is first that progressives are not armed and violent, so they don’t have much value in NATO’s militaristic policies. Second, progressives would have asked foreign occupation forces to leave the country quickly, so for that reason they were ignored them. Democratic individuals and groups like Malalai Joya and RAWA (the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) have never received any help from NATO countries or the US.

Which non-governmental, democratic movements would be an alternative to the Karzai government?

“There are not so many non-governmental, democratic movements in Afghanistan, the result of decades of destruction brought to the country by Russia, the US, Pakistan, Iran, and others.”

There are not so many such groups in Afghanistan, the result of decades of destruction brought to the country by Russia, the US, Pakistan, Iran, and others. Nevertheless, there are some democratic and progressive alternatives. Two well known examples are RAWA and the young female politician Malalai Joya, both outstanding. They are involved in running schools and clinics for example. RAWA has been conducting such work in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 1977, therefore they have opposed the Soviets in the 1980s, the warlords and Taliban in the 1990s, and since 2001 US-NATO forces.

How likely is it that these movements will become more powerful?

Much will depend on the extent to which progressives and activists are successful in opposing warlords, the Taliban, and foreign troops in Afghanistan. There is much work to be done in the country, but also in the US and Europe, where people have a capacity to influence their governments. For instance, here in Ireland, the Irish Anti-War Movement is trying to stop the US military from using Shannon airport in the west of Ireland to go to and return from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Security in Afghanistan

What have been the main accomplishments of NATO in Afghanistan?

“The US and ISAF hire illegal militias to provide security to protect projects, which empowers violent individuals and groups. Reconstruction could be better accomplished by civilian organizations.”

NATO is involved in some reconstruction projects (e.g., the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, PRTs, throughout Afghanistan). However, NATO/ISAF have been criticized by many analysts in terms of how the money is actually spent. For example, the US and ISAF hire illegal militias to provide security to protect projects, which empowers violent individuals and groups. In other words, reconstruction could be better accomplished by civilian organizations. We have to remember that NATO is a military organization, not one concerned with development.

NATO could also in theory have played a traditional “peacekeeping” role, acting as a buffer between various armed factions, but it hasn’t done that. NATO’s main impact in Afghanistan has been to cause a lot of destruction, most notably, their air strikes have killed numerous innocent civilians.

Do you think that NATO is capable of structurally improving security conditions?

“NATO has caused destruction and all indicates that it will continue to do so until it withdraws.”

In theory it could if it changed its policies: as mentioned above, it could act as a buffer between warring factions and protect civilians. However, in practice, NATO has caused destruction and all indicates that it will continue to do so until it withdraws. At the moment, there is rising opposition to NATO’s presence in Afghanistan around the world, including in NATO countries and the US. This is also true in Afghanistan, where a majority of Afghans now want NATO-US forces to leave, and are clearly opposed to sending any more troops, according to polls, for instance the BBC/ABC opinion poll of February 2009.

“By its very presence, NATO also contributes to increase violence because it gives a raison d’etre to the Taliban.”

NATO and US air strikes, which have intensified over the last few years, have really disillusioned Afghans about the presence of foreign troops and have pushed an increasing number of them into supporting the Taliban. Therefore, by its very presence, NATO also contributes to increase violence because it gives a raison d’etre to the Taliban.

How has the strength of the Taliban developed since 2001?

“A recent report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) says that the Taliban now have a “permanent presence” in 80% of the country.”

In 2001, the Taliban were routed by US forces and their Northern Alliance allies on the ground. However, not long after, the Taliban started to reorganize themselves and have gradually grown in strength. A recent report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) says that they now have a “permanent presence” in 80% of the country, up from 72% in November 2008. The ICOS map that shows this can be found here (online). According to this study, the Taliban have “substantial” activity in another 17% of the country, therefore, they are spreading their influence in many areas, even in the north, where they previously had less of a presence. If we compare this situation to late 2007, ICOS had assessed then that the Taliban had a permanent presence in 54% of Afghanistan. Of course, we can debate their methodology, but it gives a rough idea of the growing strength of the Taliban.

“One reason why the Taliban’s strength is growing is that they have received more popular support recently, as Afghans are upset with US/NATO airstrikes that kill innocent civilians.”

One reason why the Taliban’s strength is growing is that they have received more popular support recently, as Afghans are upset with US/NATO airstrikes that kill innocent civilians. This is not to say that the Taliban have a large support in Afghanistan, they do not, but nevertheless, the support they have is growing, at least tacitly.

What role do warlords play in Afghanistan?

“Warlords have been showered with millions of dollars and military and political support and have become quite prominent in Afghanistan’s politics.”

Warlords have been empowered by the US since the very beginning, in 2001. They were showered with millions of dollars and military and political support. It is therefore no surprise that they have become quite prominent in Afghanistan’s politics up to this day.

For instance, Hamid Karzai’s two running mates in the recent elections, Qasim Fahim and Karim Khalili, are two infamous warlords, and Abdullah Abdullah, the main contender, is an influential man in the Northern Alliance.

Therefore, warlords play an important role in Afghanistan’s politics as they are dominant players. But of course, they are brutal and anti-democratic, so they clearly are one of the key obstacles to improving Afghans’ quality of life and restoring the country to a more normal condition after decades of war.

Drugs in Afghanistan

What makes Afghanistan a suitable place for opium production?

“Afghanistan has a physical geography, climate and ecology which make it suitable for poppy cultivation. Since 1979, the United States has empowered drug lords and given them protection.”

Afghanistan has a physical geography, climate and ecology which make it suitable for poppy cultivation. However, this is not a sufficient explanation as many other countries do have those suitable natural conditions but do not grow poppies.

One important factor that has transformed Afghanistan into the world’s leading producer of opium and heroin is that since 1979, the United States has empowered drug lords and given them protection, and therefore this has led to increased levels of cultivation. In the 1980s the US funded the mujahideen against the Soviet invaders, and some of them were drug lords (notably, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar). They were basically free to cultivate and traffic opium as the CIA thought fighting the Soviets was more important than conducting anti-narcotics campaigns, and it also gave additional revenues to those mujahideen, useful in their fight against the invaders.

The opium/heroin industry continued during the 1990s, under the warlords’ rule and the Taliban regime. The latter made it legal and this also contributed to increase production levels.

Then since 2001, the US intervened again and still protects drug lords and traffickers, some of which are in the Afghan Parliament. As a result, since 2001, the opium and heroin industries have grown even more and some have described Afghanistan as a “narco-state”.

How effective have efforts of national governments been so far to reduce opium production?

Not very effective, in fact, production has boomed since 2001. There have been some attempts at eradication under the Bush administration, but this was not very successful, and in any case, this strategy hurts farmers as it deprives them of their immediate income, while it leaves more or less untouched the traffickers, who are the ones who makes the most money from the trade. Obama has recently said that he would shift his strategy away from eradication, so it remains to be seen what will be the results of this new approach.

What is the relationship between drugs and insecurity?

If we leave the “foreign policy/international” level of analysis aside (i.e., US/CIA support for drug lords) and focus on the “micro” level of peasant and household decision-making process, insecurity is an important factor. The more insecure are farmers and households, the more likely they will grow poppies. By “insecurity” here refers as much to the financial level as to physical security. This is so because there is a great demand for opium, therefore buyers will come to farmers’ fields to buy it and the farmers don’t need to think about marketing and transporting their product to markets that could be hard to reach.

“Opium is a low-volume, high-value crop, and it can be preserved for a long time. This makes it an ideal crop in situations of insecurity: it can be moved easily and can be stored without going bad.”

Also, opium is a low-volume, high-value crop, and it can be preserved for a long time. This makes it an ideal crop in situations of insecurity: it can be moved easily and can be stored without going bad. Some analysts maintain that the reason why geographically, opium cultivation is concentrated in the south of the country is because this is where insecurity is greatest, a result of the fighting between the Taliban, ISAF and the Afghan forces.

This is why analysts recommend policies promoting “alternative livelihoods” rather than crop eradication to reduce opium cultivation and drug production. Alternative livelihoods means that it is important to provide peasants with alternatives if the goal is to move them away from growing poppies. So for example we can make it possible and profitable for them to grow other crops, or to find employment in another economic sector. Also, of course, violence needs to be reduced in the country. In short, providing security to farmers should reduce the drugs problem.

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