The keenest immediate question, in our war in Afghanistan, is: What to do about the poppy trade? It is up about 50 percent, on a recent reckoning. And this makes Afghanistan the producer of 92 percent of the world's opium poppies.
That problem can be made to appear trivial, alongside other things going on in Afghanistan. What is immediately in the news is the resurgence of Taliban power. Substantial Taliban elements are attempting to reinstitutionalize the articles of orthodoxy in their Muslim Wahhabi faith, which includes chopping off the fingers of women caught using nail polish. And Afghans, especially in the southern provinces, have been observed welcoming these moves toward a restoration of the Taliban.
The Taliban is pretty good at law enforcement. In the southern province of Helmand, when the Taliban first took over there 12 years ago, villagers gathered in the local soccer field and cheered the spectacle of prisoners whose hands were being chopped off for thieving. But this brings up the poppy question directly. Growing opium poppies is illegal, but serious law-enforcement structures were not established after the Taliban was deposed in 2001. Afghanistan is said to be the fifth poorest state in the world, and the opium poppy, in that particular soil with that particular weather, is the most lucrative crop farmers can grow. It seems the call of the dilettante to say: Wipe out the poppy crop.
In Bolivia we have said that about the coca crop, and the United States, along with Bolivia's neighbors, has attempted to encourage other crops that will ward off starvation. In Helmand, what is happening is the cultivation not only of poppies but of corruption. The farmers, as noted in a huge story in The New York Times on the apparent hopelessness of Afghanistan, simply bribe the officials who are supposed to discourage poppy production -- a way of getting them to look aside when they drive by your acreage.
The United States is understandably vexed at having in so many theaters of world misery to stand up alone to resist terrorism and plague and starvation. In Afghanistan this is not so. There has been substantial help in several quarters from Italy and Germany, Great Britain and Japan. But ours, of course, is the critical intervention. And nightmare time intensifies as we look on, virtually helpless, at what people are doing.
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