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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

The timeless intractability of Afghanistan Add to ...

Whom are we kidding in Afghanistan? Ourselves, it would appear.

Before the Taliban briefly ran Afghanistan, opium poppy production ranged from 54,000 to 91,000 hectares. Today, a decade or so after the Taliban’s forcible removal from power, opium poppy production covers 131,000 hectares. In the province of Kandahar, where Canadian forces were stationed, cultivation doubled from 2006 to 2010.

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Profits from opium poppies fuel the insurgency and criminal networks. Despite all sorts of eradication efforts, production remains high. It grew by 7 per cent from 2010 to 2011.

Afghanistan, the principal source for Canadian aid, remains the world’s leading narco-state. The farm-gate value of opium, according to the United Nations, represents 9 per cent of the country’s economy. But the share would be far higher if the black market were included.

The other day, a senior U.S. military leader let slip the observation that, for foreign intervention to succeed (and he didn’t define success precisely), it would take one or two generations of effort.

Of course, no Western country has the stomach for anything like that. The U.S., by far the largest NATO-troop contributor, is withdrawing some of its soldiers in 2012, with the rest set to leave in 2014. The second-biggest contributor, Britain, isn’t going to keep large number of troops there. Canada has already switched its role from combat to training.

The U.S. and British economies are both in dreadful shape, as are their budgets. Their publics want the war ended; their treasuries require it – and the insurgents know it.

Predictions are always risky, and often wrong. But here’s one offered in the face of those cautionary words: After foreign troops leave, Afghanistan is likely to descend once again into some sort of civil strife between Pashtun insurgents in the south and other ethnic groups spread across the country. Pakistan, which has always played a double game in Afghanistan, will further intensify its efforts to support the insurgency, some of whose leaders are based in Pakistan itself.

Afghan society’s fundamental cleavages, therefore, haven’t disappeared. They’ll either play themselves out in conflict or in negotiations from which Westerners will be excluded.

One man who believed in the possibility of negotiations, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, was recently assassinated. He had been sufficiently trusted by the Taliban’s former enemies, and by a few members of the Taliban, to be an interlocutor. Now he’s dead, and so are the peace feelers.

A decade after U.S.-led military intervention began, the insurgency remains active and lethal. It recently launched attacks on the U.S. embassy, killed President Hamid Karzai’s brother in Kandahar and assassinated the chief of police there. Said the authoritative International Crisis Group: “The inflow of billions of dollars in international assistance has failed to strengthen significantly the state’s capacity to provide security or basic services.” Worse, the ICG reports an increase of “collusion” between insurgent elements and corrupt government officials in and around Kabul.

The Karzai government is widely considered corrupt to the core. Proceeds from the drug trade grease some of that corruption and assist the insurgency. The government and its Western allies are incapable of stopping the opium trade. Eradicated areas increase; so do areas under cultivation.

The spin-doctoring around the Afghan mission has been relentless from the beginning, in Canada and elsewhere. Leaked cables recently revealed – to nobody’s surprise – the fixation of the Harper government and the military with the war’s public relations. The spin no longer fools the observant.

Western nations are entering their final phase in Afghanistan, having distended their military and aid budgets. There’s little to show for their involvement, relative to their expenditure of blood and treasure.

And the country’s ethnic and religious schisms endure, as do suspicions of foreigners and their intentions. Afghanistan remains the playground for Pakistan, India and Iran. The timeless intractability of a country that only Afghans can understand has shown itself again immune from the ministrations of outsiders with all their money and might, good intentions and hubris.

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