“Poppy Palaces” — sounds perversely lyrical, echoes of the Wizard of Oz, but in the land of Afghanistan, ancient and epic as it is, the witch is not dead and so far, the happy ending is nowhere in sight.
Poppy Palaces, or Poppy Houses — cynically crafted in modern “narcotecture” — inhabit the space (geographically, the hilltop neighborhood of Sherpur) now reserved for a filthy rich class of Kabul suburbanites who seem to have largely slipped past the sluggish lens of the western mainstream media. As consumers of neatly packaged images, we know all about the Afghan tribal warlord, the Afghan Taliban, the poor rural Afghan, the poor urban Afghan — we hardly hear of the rising middle class Afghan. Particularly those nouveau riche with their garish indulgences a few miles away from what can only be described as the trans-generational wreckage of the Afghan soul.
But it is their very existence — familiar to us or not — that threatens to drain every single penny we have put into Afghanistan or are willing to commit to make that country whole again. They are the new landed gentry — on property seized after the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban — occupying a gated community fashioned with the spoils of a drug trade that courses through the very heart of the central government, security forces, the parliament and emerging merchant class.
From Dexter Filkins, NYT, in January: “Nowhere is the scent of corruption so strong as in the Kabul neighborhood of Sherpur. Before 2001, it was a vacant patch of hillside that overlooked the stately neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan. Today it is the wealthiest enclave in the country, with gaudy, grandiose mansions that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Afghans refer to them as “poppy houses.” Sherpur itself is often jokingly referred to as “Char-pur,” which literally means “City of Loot.”
Yet what is perhaps most remarkable about Sherpur is that many of the homeowners are government officials, whose annual salaries would not otherwise enable them to live here for more than a few days.”
Discussions over the $4 billion drug trade in Afghanistan have largely revolved around its use as a cash cow for insurgents, particularly Taliban and Al Qaeda. Solving the problem has been fixed mostly on NATO-led military eradication efforts and helping poor Afghan farmers shift to (less lucrative) alternative crops like wheat and fruit. The latter is what “Special Envoy” Richard Holbrooke was all about when he demanded a total “rethink” of the drug problem in a briefing with reporters in Brussels late last month. In his words, the $800 million investment in eradication so far has been a waste. We need to “re-program that money, about 160 million of it is for alternative livelihoods, and we would like to increase that.”
Forget the Taliban for a moment. It is becoming clearer by the day that such eradication efforts — whether it be arresting drug lords and the razing of crops, or the softer touch, giving out seeds and teaching farmers new ways — are in sharp conflict with Afghanistan’s powerful elite, its government and burgeoning bourgeoisie. Do we really expect our increased commitment to resourcing “alternative livelihoods” to get much farther than Kabul? And if so, have any lasting effect in this merciless social and political reality?
Sure, Holbrooke and company are not blind to Kabul’s corruption. Everyone talks about it — just not specifically. It becomes a squirmy subject, particularly when President Karzai, our key ally and client there, is sitting on top of it all, alternately fanning the flames and preventing them from swallowing the state entirely.
So, promising millions of dollars to farmers who are not only extorted by the Taliban, but under pressure now to maintain the new Kabul lifestyle at the expense of their own, seems tragically, like the real waste.
A fleet of Lexus Land Cruisers – hulking 4x4s with tinted windows, video entertainment systems and usually no licence plate – is de rigueur, as are gangly mansions in Sherpur, a new Kabul neighbourhood known for “narcotecture” – a gaudy style with sweeping balustrades, wedding-cake plasterwork and blue mirrored windows. The label may be unfair – some Sherpur residents surely earn their money honestly – but in a country in which drugs account for one third of gross domestic product, and the competing exports are carpets, fruit and nuts, many Afghans have a different idea. “The owners are the ones who killed our people and drank our blood,” construction worker Hussain told me three years ago outside a mansion he was building. “But at least it is providing us with work.”
So writes Declan Walsh for The Guardian back in August. Just last month, Margaret Warner of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, traveled to Afghanistan and brought back this story. Here might be the cautionary tale for those depending on the central government to help us fight the War on Poppy:
At the heart of this corruption is Afghanistan’s leading export, drugs, the source of 93 percent of the world’s heroin. This law enforcement video was provided by General Aminullah Amarkhel, the former commander of Kabul International Airport. During his 22 months on the job, he arrested some 100 drug couriers. He says that’s why he’s the former commander.
GEN. AMINULLAH AMARKHEL, former commander, Kabul International Airport (through translator): I was arresting all kinds of carriers, the small fish, the big fish of the whole mafia. They tried their best then to suspend me, to kill me, or to get rid of me. And the government did not support me. That’s why I lost my job. Unfortunately, the law is only for poor people, not for big fish or big government officials.
ASHRAF GHANI: Narcotics, it’s eating like a cancer through all aspects of our lives. It used to be roughly a network of 400,000 individuals; now it’s a hierarchy, like the Colombian one, with 35 individuals sitting on top of it.
Warner describes the rest of Kabul as a nest of desperation — men literally selling their bodies and souls as suicide bombers to feed their families, open sewers, a stunning lack of food and health care. As many activists report, but the mainstream usually glosses over, people are living on less than $1.00 a day, and it is quite normal to see children picking through trash in the street, while those in the swelling orphan houses dwell further in the shadows (and, to believe the best-selling novels of modern Afghanistan by author K’ahled Hosseini, suffer their own unthinkable horrors). It is impossible to do any business here — whether its getting a job, transporting goods, getting a family member out of jail — without being extorted or forced to pay a bribe. Violence is everywhere.
From Filkins: “Kept afloat by billions of dollars in American and other foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan is shot through with corruption and graft. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it.
A raft of investigations has concluded that people at the highest levels of the Karzai administration, including President Karzai’s own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, are cooperating in the country’s opium trade, now the world’s largest. In the streets and government offices, hardly a public transaction seems to unfold here that does not carry with it the requirement of a bribe, a gift, or, in case you are a beggar, “harchee” — whatever you have in your pocket.
The corruption, publicly acknowledged by President Karzai, is contributing to the collapse of public confidence in his government and to the resurgence of the Taliban, whose fighters have moved to the outskirts of Kabul, the capital.”
Last week, reports from the mainstream press elite — notably the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and TIME’s Joe Klein — started trickling in from a tag-a-long with Holbrooke and Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on their recent “listening tour” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As ever, the story that emerged was crafted with the bold and broad, easily digestible strokes of our seasoned Beltway scribes. Klein even throws in flourishes about Mullen’s aura of “common-sense-dispensing country doctor from downstate Illinois” and Holbrooke as “the David Petraeus of diplomats.”
We are to believe then, that in this “U.S Military in the Age of Obama” as Klein pens, the Americans are in listening mode (and with an emphasis of soldier and diplomat working side-by-side), and what we are hearing is that Afghanistan is generally supportive of our presence there, and filled with people — “a breathtaking parade of farmers, Afghan tribal leaders, women legislators, rule-of-law advocates, journalists, the local diplomatic corps, religious leaders” — who have sound prescriptions for Afghan success. Now we are listening, goes the theme.
No doubt these Afghan actors have plenty to say about reform, with earnest intentions, guts and fortitude. I’ve talked to some of them on and off for the last nine years. Unfortunately, they aren’t the players the former Bush Administration chose to work with from the beginning, and therefore do not have the authority and leverage the current leadership enjoys. Many of them will not be at the bargaining table when the real deals are struck.
So, while team Obama promotes the meme that its approach is refreshingly different than that of its cowboy predecessors, its own prescriptions are vague, particularly on corruption and how to help the reformers turn this monster on its head. On the upcoming election, where Karzai faces his first real challenge against a battery of opponents, American officials are withholding public support, but playing it cool. Knowing the first step in fighting this “cancer” is taking a knife to the tumor in Kabul, the Obama Administration has been diplomatically restrained and I dare guess hopeful that Karzai is ditched. Unfortunately, as the Poppy Palaces draw more power and authority from the unbridled drug trade, their inhabitants will not only have say in how the U.S tries to restrain it, but in who might ultimately replace the Karzai regime.
As always, it seems our hopes are an election away, to either being pinned under a house with our boots exposed or lifted homeward on a balloon. In the meantime, it is wise that the administration withhold our future financial committment until we truly know who will be handling our money and the fate of the Afghan people.