Huge risks and meagre rewards from our new war in Afghanistan
THE bloodiest wars often start with the least political fanfare. The Crimean War was agreed in a Cabinet meeting where three members were asleep. And last week, just 13 Labour MPs listened to the Commons statement about Afghanistan.
The voice of John Reid, the Defence Secretary, echoed to the lack of listeners in the chamber as he announced the 1bn, three-year deployment of 4,000 additional troops. The contrast to the hubris before the Iraq war could hardly be starker.
Yet the Afghanistan mission could - for British troops - bring a higher death toll than the deployment to Iraq. The risks are higher, the stakes lower and the goals would be considered laughable if so many lives were not at stake.
There are, in effect, two armies in Afghanistan. There are 20,000 Americans under Operation Enduring Freedom, whose mission is to hunt and kill insurgents and - ideally - haul Osama bin Laden out of his cave.
While they have been doing battle, Nato forces have been pacifying various sectors of Afghanistan. They have so far done the easy parts, which the Taliban never controlled. It is now time to move on to stage three: Helmand. This is Afghanistan's richest province, irrigated by the Tarnak river. Its fields are red with opium poppies, an illegal crop which generates 55% of Afghanistan's economic wealth. This is what the British come to destroy.
Perhaps one of the most deceptive statements Tony Blair made in the war on terror was claiming that a reason to depose the Taliban was that they were the world's number one drugs dealers. "The Taliban regime are funded in large parts on the drugs trade - 90% of all heroin sold in Britain originates from Afghanistan. Stopping that trade is directly in our interests."
At the Labour Party conference, he repeated this claim. "The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets. That is another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy."
The Taliban, for all their boundless evil, had in fact dealt the greatest blow ever inflicted on world heroin trade by declaring poppy cultivation "un-Islamic" in the summer of 2000. They were brutal enough to be taken seriously by farmers.
The United Nations, which monitors drugs crops the world over, watched satellite imaging showing Afghan poppy production collapsing by 91%. It sent ground inspectors to verify - and, indeed, the Taliban had killed off opium.
It declared "the near total success of the ban in eliminating poppy cultivation in Taliban-controlled areas." While Blair was making his speeches, Afghan opium production was down to 8,000 hectares - all outwith Taliban control.
It is impossible the Prime Minister did not know this. His statements were an outright lie. After the invasion, the Afghan opium soared 18 times over and the street price of heroin in Britain plunged: the opposite of what Blair portrayed.
Today, there is little more honesty. The Afghan deployment is still projected as a form of opium war - which is doubtless how it seems to the naive Department for International Development and the idealistic Nato planners. To hear ministers talk, it is as if the mission is to introduce the rule of law to grateful natives who have never seen wheat. But Helmand has strong local authorities in the form of drugs barons whose efforts keep locals from starving.
To call Afghanistan a third world country exaggerates its wealth. A stunning 70% of its people are undernourished: in a typical developing country this is 25%. Infant mortality is almost twice the third world average.
Today, some two million Afghans rely on opium poppies for their livelihood, generating $2.7bn of illegal wealth. They will not give this up readily, nor will the farmers whose desire to feed their families is stronger than their desire to placate Nato.
It took Thailand 25 years and Pakistan 20 years to end opium production - and neither country had, at their peak, produced anything like Afghanistan today. They did so by growing richer, so legal options started to appear.
No amount of Western bribes, or guns, or idealism can overcome such economics. "It's not just a question of growing tomatoes instead of poppies," says the UN. "Tomatoes will never bring the same profit."
While the British Army may not defeat the opium trade, they will succeed in picking a fight with the tribes who control it - and perhaps starting a new insurgency in one of the most explosive areas of Afghanistan.
For all its anti-drug rhetoric, the British military seems to realise it is preparing for ground war. Its troop deployment is led by 16 Air Assault Brigade, the largest in the Army. This is not the armed division of Oxfam.
Commanders know the powers Britain seeks to depose in Helmand are capable of organising into an insurgency - and could easily call in reinforcements from Iran, which is only a day away.
The Iranians, let us not forget, have for the past year been trying to kill British soldiers along the border of Iraq. The Army regularly finds Iranian-made roadside explosives. Such people will hardly shy away from Brits in Afghanistan.
The hardest question lobbed at Reid in the Commons last week was whether there is any suggestion that al-Qaeda is redeploying from Iraq to Afghanistan - taking the fight to its home turf. He did not provide an answer.
To his credit, Reid emphasises the danger of this deployment. But few take him seriously - or think that, just as the first Afghan war was a Great Game with Russia, the Nato deployment may end a Cold War with Iran.
And all for what? There is no dictator to depose. There is no gathering military threat. There is no winning the drugs battle if farmers make 10 times as much from opium poppies as from legal crops.
But the paucity of the reward/risk ratio in Afghanistan is all too well understood in the Netherlands, whose parliament has woken up to the naivety of the Nato mission and may vote to overturn a decision by its government to send troops.
The British political class remains too obsessed with America's alleged misdemeanours to notice that, more than four years after the Taliban left Kabul, the real Afghanistan war may be only now beginning.
Fraser Nelson is associate editor of The Spectator
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West