Pragmatism, Not Idealism

by Joshua Foust on 5/6/2008

The Marines are talking sense:

The Taliban, whose fighters are exchanging daily fire with the Marines in Garmser [Helmand], derives up to $100 million a year from the poppy harvest by taxing farmers and charging safe passage fees — money that will buy weapons for use against U.S., NATO and Afghan troops.

Yet the Marines are not destroying the plants. In fact, they are reassuring villagers the poppies won’t be touched. American commanders say the Marines would only alienate people and drive them to take up arms if they eliminated the impoverished Afghans’ only source of income.

Many Marines in the field are scratching their heads over the situation.

“It’s kind of weird. We’re coming over here to fight the Taliban. We see this. We know it’s bad. But at the same time we know it’s the only way locals can make money,” said 1st Lt. Adam Lynch, 27, of Barnstable, Mass.

The Marines’ battalion commander, Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, said in an interview Tuesday that the poppy crop “will come and go” and that his troops can’t focus on it when Taliban fighters around Garmser are “terrorizing the people.”

“I think by focusing on the Taliban, the poppies will go away,” said Henderson, a 41-year-old from Washington, D.C. He said once the militant fighters are forced out, the Afghan government can move in and offer alternatives.

That’s the clearest thinking on opium I’ve read this year. Opium is a second order problem; focusing on it to the exclusion of more fundamental problems, like security or infrastructure, leads to badly distorted policies and a perpetuation of bad security.

Meanwhile, the Australians are doing something USAID can’t, thanks to the farm lobby: planting wheat. Of course, they’re spending only $1.5 million on alternative crops… which pales in comparison to the $800 million spent on insurgency-fueling eradication.

Still, boffo to the Marines for waking up to the reality of the situation. Maybe there’s hope for Helmand after all.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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