As elections in Afghanistan draw close, it is often heard in the news media that Hamid Karzai, currently running for re-election as President, is corrupt. Of course Karzai is corrupt. No one can hold power in Afghanistan, especially supreme power, unless he is politically corrupt. The same might be said of Chicago and increasingly of Italy and Israel. Power, as Lord Acton said (and we are often reminded), tends to corrupt. The real question is, how corrupt? The question might also sneakily arise in inquiring minds, what does “corrupt” mean in these matters?
Taking bribes for favors, doling out rewards, financial and otherwise, to political cronies, and padding one’s expense account at public cost, might strike many Westerners as corruption. Elsewhere it may be viewed as the normal way of life. But presiding over a country whose major industry is supplying 85 to 90 percent of the world’s opium supply is another matter entirely. For a while, when the Taliban (armed and trained by Western allies in the bad old days of Soviet Russian occupation) first came to power, poppy-growing and the opium trade were severely curtailed. Now, especially in areas under Taliban control, opium production is greater than ever. The Taliban seems largely to be financing its operations through the poppy.
That’s hardly a novel idea. Growing and selling coca and its derivative under government protection is standard practice in Colombia and Bolivia, the marijuana trade is politically brisk in Mexico. The Provos and Paras in Northern Ireland could also have taught these Afghan lads a thing a two about how the drug trade can finance terrorism. Perhaps they did.
As an aperture of semi-historical perspective, the well-meaning if clumsy 1966 UN-sponsored thriller The Poppy is Also a Flower now seems prophetic and once again, timely. Besides sporting an all-star international cast, the film explored some of the long-standing heroin-lubricated connections between Kabul, Western Europe, and the US. I think it’s still out there somewhere.
With presidential and local elections in Afghanistan only a day away, the outcome is widely expected to be a comfortable victory for Hamid Karzai, at least a close enough victory as to have to face down a close rival such as Abdullah Abdullah. Whoever ultimately wins will face what seems to many to be insurmountable odds at unifying and governing one of the most fiercely fractious nations in the world. He will also have to contend with powerful new drug lords as well as the traditional warlords who in fact govern what is a loose federation of ethnically diverse tribes.
As the United States, Britain, and Spain increase the number of troops battling for peace and democracy in Afghanistan, the question of opium production will inevitably have to be faced. In the meantime, it might be well to recall that no “outsiders” have won a war in Afghanistan since the time of Alexander the Great.