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Monday, July 10, 2006 

OK class, does anyone have any idea what we're doing in Afghanistan?

Does anyone have an answer? When the former Defence Secretary "Dr" John "Oh fuck, not health" Reid announced back in January that nearly 6,000 troops were going to be deployed to Afghanistan, the tasks that the army were meant to be facing up to were "peace-keeping, nation-building and counter-narcotics." Yet at the same time dear Dr Reid said "we do not go there with the primary purpose of waging war," and that he'd prefer it if there was not a "single bullet fired".

6 months later, and after six deaths in a single month, the lesser-spotted (and known) defence secretary Des Browne has belatedly announced that 900 extra troops are going to be sent, despite Downing Street denying that more troops had been requested by the military throughout the whole of last week. This still only brings the total numbers up to 4,500 troops, still short of the first reported figure of 6,000. Also, their mission now is apparently to "help security and reconstruction efforts". and that "UK troops were not seeking to take part in a war on drug production." In other words, they seem to be there for the sole purpose of target practice for the Taliban and various other malcontents who want to fight the Brits. After all, we're told that the British deployment has "energised" the Taliban.

So has the "counter-narcotics" part of the mission been dropped? It seems unlikely. Not only does 90% of the heroin that enters Britain come from Afghanistan, but the UN now estimates that it produces 89% of the entire global crop, even though the area under cultivation decreased in 2005. Despite what Blair said at PMQ's last Wednesday, the Taliban were incredibly successful in almost eradicating the opium yield. It has to be said that this was done mostly through threats, but according to Simon Jenkins Mullah Amir Mohammed Haqqani, a member of the Taliban pleaded at the time in 2001 for Western aid for farmers that had their revenue drop by three quarters as a result of growing vegetation and corn rather than poppies. The UN also confirmed that the crop for that year was virtually nil. What has now changed is that the remnants of the Taliban, various mujahideen and otherwise have realised the potential of the opium crop. It provides them with an excellent source of money, and what's more pleasing than seeing corrupt Westerners not only slowly kill themselves, but also pay for attacks on their own troops?

What's alarming the "coalition" in Afghanistan is how little they can do to stop farmers from growing their favourite crop. Softly softly tactics, first mooted by Clare Short while she was in charge of that ever optimistic cabinet post named "international development", failed spectacularly, and the crop has grown ever since. They appear to have completely rejected pleas from opium farmers across Afghanistan, organised by the Senlis council, for the West to buy up the crop to use in medicines such as morphine and codeine. In exchange they promised to fight drug trafficking, although how they would in practice do this would need fleshing out. Rather than go for what seems incredibly attractive on paper, the US crazily seems to be weighing up whether to go for airborne eradication, as Shaphan notes. This would be done with a variant of Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant that has been blamed for causing birth defects in children in Vietnam.

The United States policy on Afghanistan has changed remarkably since the 2001 invasion. With even the dedicated programme to find bin Laden being abandoned, and with Hamid Karzai propped up in Kabul, despite the odd problem, they're content to let Nato do the dirty work. After all, heroin is nowhere near as big a problem in the States as it is in Europe. They prefer their crack, PCP and "legal" opiates, such as Oxycontin. It's therefore left to the Brits, Canadians and other nations silly enough to provide troops to help re-build and keep the peace. The whole concept of keeping peace in Afghanistan is laughable. With the porous Pakistani border letting anyone who wants to cross back and forth, the smuggling of weapons couldn't be easier. As has been noted, the remnants of the Taliban and others have quickly learned new tactics from the disaster in Iraq. Roadside bombs, suicide bombings and ambushes are the order of the day. All this takes place in the shadow of history: Afghanistan has been restive for almost 200 years, only having a period of relative stability during the reign of King Zahir. Otherwise, it's been at war either with itself or with colonial occupiers for most of that time.

It's clear that the troops are not welcome. Even those who don't side with the Taliban forces are faced with enduring battles and deaths in the crossfire. Apache helicopters are increasingly called in, and as one of the operators tells the Guardian, they don't really have any idea who they're killing. Those who argue against British involvement are told that they would rather have the Taliban and the al-Qaida training camps back, as if they aren't already, or that the camps have merely moved across the border. It might be defeatism, but what is the point of sending in more troops simply to be shot at? At the moment they're trapped in their sweltering barracks, able to do almost nothing to change the situation. As Simon Jenkins, who has returned to the topic again and again and gets more forceful and outraged each time notes, to complete the supposed "mission" UK troops are meant to be carrying out would need not 10,000 men, but possibly 100,000, the sort of number which is still failing abysmally in Iraq. Menzies Campbell today hilarious says that if the mission were to fail it would "deeply damaging to the credibility of Nato", the same Nato which has been made completely redundant and non-credible since the death of the Soviet Union. Still, maybe that will be one good thing to come out of this seeming mea culpa. The downfall of Nato and the rise of European Union backed peacekeepers seems to be the only possible positive that can be taken from the amount of blood which will be shed in the long run. And that's very, very little comfort.

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