France can’t seem to decide how quickly it will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan after a rogue Afghan soldier opened fire on unarmed French soldiers, killing four and wounding 15.
Over the past week, French officials have offered conflicting reports of their intentions, but it doesn’t really matter whether the French stay or they go. Despite the gung-ho statements we are hearing from the NATO training program, most Afghan soldiers are simply unfit for duty.
In every nation, the army is a reflection of its country. How could it be any other way? Recruits are drawn from a cross-section of society – though most come from poorly educated, less well-off families. Well, in Afghanistan, virtually everyone is poor; the average annual income is about $400, and NATO says 80 percent of army recruits are illiterate. Most don’t know even how to drive a car.
In most areas of Afghanistan, the government has no presence whatsoever – but the Taliban do. So it’s no wonder that so many army recruits are actually Taliban plants who open fire on their supposed allies – a problem that “may be unprecedented” in “modern military history,” said a classified U.S. military report quoted in the New York Times last month.
What’s more, the army’s desertion rate remains staggering. All of that is generally known. But add a corollary, less-known quandary to the mix, and you just want to throw up your hands. Most Afghan soldiers are regular drug users, even addicts. Why not, if soldiers are products of their national culture? Visit Kabul, as I have, and you’ll see scores of half-conscious heroin addicts.
Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, the raw ingredient of heroin. And a new United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report shows “a clear relationship between growing poppy and growing cannabis.” Almost two-thirds of the state’s opium-poppy farmers also grow marijuana.
As a result, a favored line in Afghan and Pakistani news reports of late is that, among Afghan soldiers, “opium and hashish are their favorite foods.”
Random drug tests in army and police units have found that drug use is rampant, pervasive. A Government Accountability Office report in 2010 found that up to 40 percent were users. The Special Investigator for Afghan Reconstruction said the number was “at least 50 percent,” and an Afghan journalist told me of one drug test that 70 percent failed.
Uncounted times, military officers, or journalists traveling with them, have reported watching soldiers light up joints before or during operations. The Daily Times, a Pakistani newspaper, quoted a U.S. Army trainer: “If we instituted drug testing in the Afghan army, we would lose three-quarters to 85 percent” of the troops.
One incident captured by a Wall Street Journal reporter embedded with a joint U.S.-Afghan force capsulized the broad problem. Mid-mission, as usual, several Afghan soldiers ran off, deserting. When their replacements arrived, they sat down and lit up joints.
That classified U.S. military report quoted one soldier as saying: “They’re stoned all the time, some even on patrol with us.”
Since the war began, Western forces have vacillated over whether to get into the business of drug enforcement, even though the Taliban fund themselves by levying a 10 percent tax on poppy farmers. In the first years after the 2001 invasion, the United States was fixated on military goals and paid little attention to the burgeoning opium crop.
By the mid 2000s, Western forces began eradicating the opium and trying to persuade farmers to grow alternative crops, such as wheat. But when foreign troops succeeded in one area, cultivation would thrive in another. It quickly turned into a Whac-a-Mole exercise.
Now, NATO doesn’t even try. As the offensive in southern Afghanistan began in 2010, U.S. officers repeatedly said they were not going to trample on the livelihoods of the people they were trying to bring to their side. Since then, news photos have shown soldiers tramping through poppy fields on their way to missions. U.N. officers, among others, despair.
“We cannot afford to ignore the record profits for non-farmers, such as traders and insurgents, which in turn fuel corruption, criminality and instability,” wrote Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the U.N. drug office’s representative in Afghanistan.
The opium and marijuana provide sustaining income for the enemy. They feed rampant corruption, and they turn most Afghan soldiers into drug addicts. How can anyone think there’s even the smallest chance of succeeding in Afghanistan while turning a blind eye to this problem?
© 2012 Joel Brinkley
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. To comment, go to sfgate.com/chronicle/submissions/#1.
This article appeared on page E – 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle