From your duty Guardian reader so you don't have to! The extraordinary folly of Britain's new opium war The decision to send thousands of troops to Afghanistan is the half-baked product of Tony Blair's global machismo Simon Jenkins Wednesday January 4, 2006 The Guardian In the next few weeks, an army of 3,400 British troops expects to be deployed to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. This is nearly half the number deployed in Iraq. Everything I have heard and read about this expedition suggests that it makes no sense. British soldiers are being sent to a poor and dangerous place whose sole economic resource is opium. They will sit there as targets for probably the most intractable concentration of insurgents, Taliban, drug traffickers and suicide bombers in the world - until some minister has the guts to withdraw them. Even the context of this expedition is obscure. The Afghan war was supposedly won and the Taliban defeated in 2001. It is fashionable, even in circles opposed to the Iraq war, to claim Afghanistan as a triumph. The Americans and British bombed the hell out of whatever was left of Kabul by the Russians, and the Afghans themselves. A ramshackle army of warlords and mercenaries was helped back into power and the status quo ante the Taliban was restored. That would have been the best time to leave. As it was, neoimperialists in Washington and London couldn't resist attempting that Everest of nation-building, a new Afghanistan. Their engaging puppet, Hamid Karzai, rules an increasingly insecure landscape, wholly dependent on western aid and a booming narco economy. Outside Kabul, the country appears to be in the hands of a disparate federation of local rulers, tribal warlords and Taliban commanders, all afloat on a sea of opium - the basis of half Afghanistan's domestic output and virtually all its export and personal wealth. The Americans are wisely treating this country as history. They are reducing their troops to some 10,000 based at Bagram, dedicated to pursuing George Bush's Scarlet Pimpernel, Osama bin Laden. The rest is being handed over to role-hungry Nato. But Nato has no clue what to do. The French, Germans and Spaniards want no part in the madcap venture. The Canadians and Dutch are nervous, so much so that the Dutch may pull out. That leaves the British, mostly with the turbulent province of Helmand, which is sliding under the control of drug warlords in alliance with a resurgent Taliban. The defence secretary, John Reid, said last month that the expedition's mission is to promote security, which is "absolutely interlinked to countering narcotics". This is to be achieved "by helping growers with an alternative economic livelihood". This cannot make sense. There is no way 3,000 British troops can handle the Taliban now reinforced by drug profits. As for countering those profits, opium is to Helmand what oil is to Kuwait. Eradicating Afghanistan's poppy crop was assigned to Britain after the 2001 war. Before Clare Short arrived to oversee this task, poppies were grown in just six of the 32 provinces. By the time she finished, the UN recorded production in 28 provinces and a record export value of Â£2.3bn dollars. It was probably Britain's most successful agricultural policy of all time. Afghanistan now supplies 90% of Britain's heroin market. Output is being curbed this year only because traders are worried about lower prices. Even the Americans, who have spent decades trying to wipe out South America's coca crops, are distancing themselves from Reid's policy. Opium is crucial to the power of the warlords on whom they and Karzai's regime depend. This is a repeat of the 19th-century invasion of China by Britain to maintain the illicit but convenient opium trade. But if the Americans are re-enacting the opium wars, Britain is inverting them. Trying to combat Britain's addiction to heroin by burning poppies and smashing opium "factories" is like combating London's traffic congestion by bombing oil wells. If there is any answer to the opium trade, it lies in repealing Britain's 1971 Misuse of Drug Act and controlling demand. Two years ago, when opium output was low, there might have been some purchase in the so-called Senlis Council project, to legalise the Afghan crop for medical use, as has been done in Turkey and India. But profits are now so high that this is probably a fantasy, like such alternatives as hemp, wheat or coffee. Any form of eradication by destroying poppy crops merely devastates the income of the poor growers and, by restricting supply, increases profits to traffickers. It is a cruel policy, which Reid's troops will presumably enforce with their newly acquired Apache gunships. In Chicago in 1999, Tony Blair set out five preconditions for British military intervention in the new century. They included legal certainty, military prudence and a clear national interest at stake. None is met in Helmand. Someone should make Blair read General Sir Rupert Smith's recent study, The Utility of Force. His view is that an exaggerated faith in hi-tech armies against insurgency is now leading the west to create one ruined nation after another. Smith points out that operations like those in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq are not like the Falklands or Gulf wars, where the military aim was to eject an enemy army from occupied territories. They are rather "wars among the people", in which missiles, gunships, fortified bases and search-and-destroy missions are usually counterproductive. The enemy is not a state, vulnerable to "kinetic force projection". It is a miasma of conspiracies, hidden loyalties and lasting hostilities whose combatants know no boundaries. The influence of outside armies over the outcome of such conflict can only be informal and limited. The Helmand expedition arises from Blair's obsession with global machismo and his addiction to abstract nouns. If I were its designated leader, General David Richards, I would not disobey orders but I would ask to see Reid before leaving. I would grab him by his lapels, ram his head against the ministry wall and scream in his face: "Tell me what the hell you really mean by sending my soldiers to that godawful place?" If the reply is yet more waffle about upholding democracy and combating terror, I would storm out with such a door slam as could be heard the length of Britain.