Warlords, Drugs and Votes; Drugs Have Become the Dominating Feature of Afghanistan's Economy, and Corruption Has Infected Every Aspect of Afghan Political Life
Byline: Fareed Zakaria (Write the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Political junkies are betting these days as to how certain events would affect the election, like a terror attack or a major crisis in Iraq. To these I would add one that is almost certain to take place: the October election in Afghanistan. How that vote takes place--with chaos and violence or order and celebration--will have a significant effect on President Bush's electoral fortunes. Here, as in Iraq, he must now wish he had listened to wiser voices sooner.
After the United States won its spectacular victory against the Taliban in December 2001, it assured the world that it was committed to intensive efforts to rebuild Afghanistan. But policy on the ground was largely controlled by the Defense Department, whose civilian leaders rejected nation-building. They saw the mission in Afghanistan as narrowly military--fighting the Taliban--and perhaps wanted to move troops out of Afghanistan to prepare for an invasion of Iraq. During 2002 the United States would not extend the reach of the international security force outside Kabul, was wary of asking NATO to get involved, provided little funding for reconstruction and, most crucially, refused to help in the demobilization of the Afghan militias.
These decisions had two effects: the first was to embolden Afghanistan's warlords and tighten their grip on power. In the aftermath of the war, their powers could have been defined so as to allow a central government to develop basic elements of national life, such as the rule of law, a national economy and a set of political institutions. Instead, the United States had a laissez-faire policy. The warlords were the only ones other than the United States with military power on the ground. They noticed the development of a political vacuum, expanded their powers and broadened their reach.
The second, related effect of America's tunnel vision was that the drug trade began booming. Afghanistan now supplies 75 percent of the world's opium. The warlords saw a ready source of revenue, outside the reach of Kabul, and encouraged the trade. Drugs are now the dominant feature of Afghanistan's economy, half as big as the legal economy. Worse, the trade is now moving from opium to heroin, which means that it's connected with international cartels, crime and big money. The amounts of cash involved dwarf government revenues, and corruption has infected every aspect of Afghan political life.
The Defense Department's aversion to any political role in Afghanistan was criticized--by President Karzai and his allies (quietly), the State Department, U. …