Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Opium, Militants and the Porous Afghan Borders

On Nov. 20, Sixty Minutes showed a segment on the opium trade in Afghanistan. It showed some large fields of poppies and tracked the affairs of a merchant who was smuggling large amounts of opium out of the country into Iran whence it would be transported to Europe. The higgle-haggle with the farmer was typical Afghan: "This product is wet; it's not what I was looking for. But since you are under such difficulty now, with such a large family, I'll give you …." The process - negotiation, loading, shipping, transferring to other shippers, etc. -- was pretty much in the open, although the smugglers did not act with complete impunity: their convoy of several vehicles crossing the border into Iran had, at one point, to turn back because of the danger - apparently the Iranian officials were not in the employ of the smugglers like the Afghanistan police, whose attempts to stop them were perfunctory. To me, the most significant part of the story was that all the
communication was in Pushtu. Sixty Minutes did not say where the poppy fields were or where the crossing point was into Iran but it clearly was within Pushtu speaking territory. Presumably Uzbeks and Tajiks and others are involved in the drug trade but here the producers and dealers were Pushtuns.
At this time the Pakistanis are noting the rising importance of Pushtuns for their affairs. Imtiaz Gul, in The Friday Times ["Jirgas as panacea?", November 17-23, 2006 - Vol. XVIII, No. 39] attacks the recent talk about solving problems through "jirgas" the Pushtun custom of collectively consulting notable figures to result problems. Gul describes a debate over whether jirgas can solve the many problems among Pakistan's Pushtuns. And of course the Taliban, both as a problem and as participants in the jirgas, figure prominently in this argument. Gul notes that the carnage on both sides of the border - Pushtu areas in either case - has been huge:
he says 3,000 in Afghanistan south and southeast quarters and the loss of life in the strike on a madrassah in Bajaur (at least 80 dead, some said to be children) and in retaliation the suicide bomber attack on a military instillation in Dargai (at least 42 dead and 20 wounded). These clashes have generated a new focus on Pushtuns and the need to convene jirgas to bring out a modicum of social order. Gul says that the idea of jirgas was broached at the White House (unpalatable?) dinner that brought Presidents Karzai and Musharraf together. Somehow the use of the Pushtun word "jirga" to indicate a council meeting is supposed to evoke images of consensual decision making; it's a view the Afghanistan government, especially under Da'ud, promoted as part of the Pushtu -mongering of that administration. Gul says their has even been talk of a cross-border jirga: again, I wonder if it can produce the results hoped for. The most encouraging thing about this talk is that it is taking place. By now the Pakistani military has to be eager for some kind of resolution. Well, at least some kind of reduction in the violence. Do they really want to stop producing those holy war fighters who would be ready to die for Islam in Kashmir? That would be a profound turn-around in policy. And if it ever takes place it surely will make a huge difference in the prospects for peace.

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