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.
"People" in this case is Afghans who lived under the Taliban and now appear to welcome it back. Between 1996, when the Taliban took Kabul, and 2001, when the U.S. effected a quick and apparently decisive military victory in reaction to 9/11, the Taliban was in complete control. The nightmare datum in modern times is that people who have had such experiences as living under the Taliban -- where it is all but a capital offense to be born a girl -- should, having been liberated from it, move back in the direction of revived life in pain. It is as if in 1950 the German people had drifted back toward life under Nazism.
President Bush, on July Fourth, spoke of the global challenge we're engaged in "against the followers of a murderous ideology that despises freedom and crushes all dissent. ... Against such an enemy there is only one effective response: We will never back down, we will never give in, and we will never accept anything less than complete victory."
The sentiments merit universal applause. But what as a practical matter do you do, e.g., in Afghanistan, where the people, having voted robustly for a constitutional state and elected a president with fine credentials, go on to intimate a desire to return to barbarism? David Rohde of The New York Times opened his dispatch from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand: "On a July morning, Taliban gunmen shot dead the province's most powerful cleric as he walked to the main city mosque to lead morning prayers. Five months later, they executed a teacher at a nearby village school as students watched. The following month, they walked into another mosque and gunned down an Afghan engineer working for a foreign aid group, shooting him in the back as he pressed his forehead to the ground and supplicated to God."
God works in mysterious ways, among them His failure to act at all. Mr. Bush acknowledges the complexity of the terrorist problem, but his triumphalist rhetoric is at odds with realities that have us wondering what to do about poppies, let alone devising means of educating 30 million people in the depredations of life under such a regime as is nevertheless making its way back to power and popularity. Sometimes bedevilment shakes its unruly head and says: Give those people the poppies and require them to inject themselves every day with their delirious substance.
All right, all right, one gets carried away. But what can the leader of the free world do, beyond reiterating our homilies?