A Primer to Australia’s War in Afghanistan

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced yesterday that Australia’s military mission in Afghanistan will not be scaled back despite measures announced by President Barack Obama for a scaledown of US military operations in the country. The US will bring home 33,000 troops by September next year, with a full withdrawal scheduled for 2014. Reactions to the announcement have been mixed: the timetable has been criticised as being either too fast or too slow. Prime Minister Gillard has indicated that Australia will adhere to the 2014 timetable and that, in the meantime, there’ll be no change to the Australian mission, which has 1550 Australian troops in Oruzgan province, the largest non-NATO deployment. Afghani operations have claimed the lives of 27 Australian troops., and currently costs the government $1.3 billion per year.

Located in south-central Afghanistan, Oruzgan province has an estimated population of 330,000. It’s the traditional tribal stronghold of the Pashtun and the Taliban’s heartland, and is considered strategically important as a gateway to the south. Pashto, the language of President Hamid Karzai, is the dominant language. While more recent figures are hard to find, in 2008 the province was a centre for opium production, albeit of of only moderate importance, with about 10,000 hectares under opium cultivation.

A Rajasthani villager makes opium using the traditional method; image via WikiCommons

A Rajasthani villager makes opium using the traditional method; image via WikiCommons

An Australian Department of Defence factsheet on the Australian operations in Afghanistan details our military, civilian and development operations as helping to train the Afghan army’s 4th Brigade to assume responsibility for the province’s security; training the area’s police force; helping improve the government’s ability to deliver essential services; developing revenue streams for locals; and countering insurgent operations. Another factsheet on achievements in Afghanistan since 2001 - and there has been significant progress in many areas - doesn’t mention opium cultivation, which has been trending upwards since that time, with a spike in 2007.

Afghanistan is the world’s fourth least-developed country. It’s also the world’s biggest source of opium, which in its processed form (heroin) passes into Europe through Central Asia (the ‘silk route’) and Turkey (the ‘Balkan route’). Heroin addiction claims 30,000 lives a year in Russia alone. Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Maria Costa has said, “Opium poppy cultivation, processing, and transport have become Afghanistan’s top employers, its main source of capital, and the principal base of its economy.” The US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute reports the Afghan economy is “now highly dependent on opium”: “Although less than 4 percent of arable land in Afghanistan was used for opium poppy cultivation in 2006, revenue from the harvest brought in over $3 billion—more than 35 percent of the country’s total gross national product (GNP).”

One in ten Afghanis are involved in the industry, although farmers receive only about one-fifth of profits. Rugged and inaccessible terrain makes policing difficult. In an effort to capitalise on the huge profit margins in the heroin trade, Afghanis are increasingly processing opium themselves in laboratories that have proliferated in the southern regions over the past decade and a half. Writing in The Washington Post in 2007, Antonio Maria Costa concluded, “Drug traffickers have a symbiotic relationship with insurgents and terrorist groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Instability makes opium cultivation possible; opium buys protection and pays for weapons and foot soldiers, and these in turn create an environment in which drug lords, insurgents and terrorists can operate with impunity.” This 2007 New Yorker piece, set in Oruzgan province, reports on how the Taliban, which had almost eliminated opium cultivation when in power, has now adopted a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join 'em” attitude to the trade.

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