In a move which could only have come from a true drug war zealot, Pino Arlecchi, the United Nations' new "Drug Czar" (and a former prosecutor) has cut a deal with the devil in Afghanistan. And in a move which could only have come from an American president who is married to polling data, and who has painted himself into a corner due to his inept handling of nearly every issue surrounding the drug problem, Bill Clinton has quietly decided to go along.
The Taleban, which emerged out of post-war lawlessness to assume de-facto control of approximately 90% of the territory in Afghanistan, represents the extreme end of the spectrum of the fundamentalist regimes in power around the world. On Sunday, November 23, the New York Times reported that international aid groups were wrestling with the question of abandoning their efforts in Afghanistan altogether due to the inhumanity of the ruling party. This inhumanity, while broad in its application, is highlighted by a ban on the provision of medical care to women. Those who choose to ignore the various proclamations of the Taleban can expect to face punishments ranging from beatings to amputations to death.
All of this would typically disgust, or at least elicit proclamations of disgust, from a President who claims to "feel the pain" of so many others, but not in this case. Afghanistan, you see, in addition to being under the rule of barbarians, is also a major producer of opium poppies, the plant from which heroin is made. The Taleban, it seems, claim to want to eradicate the cultivation of this plant in the areas under their control. They claim that the product of its seed offends their religious sensibilities. And so, when the Taleban was visited recently by Mr. Arlecchi, a deal was struck under which the United Nations would provide development aid over a ten year period, beginning with $25 million in 1998, in return for promises to carry forth this mission. Our President, champion of human rights and women's issues that he is, took all of a week to announce his support for the plan.
This should not come as a shock to anyone who has followed Mr. Clinton's recent abandonment of principle when it comes to drugs. Last month, Barry McCaffrey went down to Colombia and promised $150 million in military aid and equipment to the government there to help them in their fight against "narco-guerrillas" in the south -- despite the fact that the Colombian military has a well-documented habit of using "counter-narcotics" aid for the suppression of political insurgency. Or that even before receiving the equipment, officials there were quoted as saying that they would be free to use it in whatever means they chose within the southern (rebel-occupied) part of the country. Or that the Colombian military has one of the worst records on human rights in the world.
In both Colombia and Afghanistan, however, President Clinton has allowed the bogeyman of his own perceived weakness on the drug issue to chase him into the arms of tyrants. The Republicans, the reasoning goes, are set to launch an all- out attack on the Democrats for being "soft on drugs," If not in '98, then certainly during Al Gore's 2000 presidential bid. Giving aid to murderers and tyrants is obviously, in the President's calculation, a small price to pay to cover his political, non-inhaling flank.
The proposed aid to the Taleban would be earmarked for improvements in irrigation and manufacturing. Such aid will doubtless strengthen the Taleban's grip on power, even while the U.N. refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of its rule. Arlacchi justifies this by saying that the Taleban "want to (eliminate poppy cultivation) anyway" for religious purposes. Great. If they are going to do this anyway, why do we need to add to their legitimacy?
In assessing the decision to support this regime, one must also wonder whether the Taleban will in fact strive to eliminate poppy cultivation, or whether they might not simply try to eliminate the cultivation from which they are not getting a cut? Eradicating some, while illicitly profiting off of other cultivation is the rule, not the exception in the international game. The suggestion that their "religion" frowns on drugs shouldn't make one too optimistic, considering the fact that the Taleban are well- known supporters of terrorism. Or are drugs, but not murder, against their religion?
And all of this supposes that even if such cultivation were totally wiped out in Afghanistan, it would make a difference on the streets of America, or Russia, or Europe. What of Thailand? Or Myanmar? Or Colombia? Or any of the other current or potential suppliers of the raw material for a substance which Prohibition has so successfully alchemized? Will they disappear? Or maybe we ought to seed and support barbarous, fundamentalist regimes in every nation in which poppy can be grown... trusting that their religious principles win out over their greed?
If nothing else, the drug warrior moralists ought to think long and hard about one of their favorite questions: What message are we sending to our children? Perhaps it is this: "We, your parents, leaders and role models, will tolerate, even support, any level of inhumanity, and the subjugation of any number of people, in an effort to keep you from temptations which we have failed to teach you to manage or resist. There is no one so vile, no dictator so oppressive, that we will not stand with him and strengthen him, in our quest to prove our morality." When our kids grow up, let us hope that they pity rather than loathe us.
Adam J. Smith