Sunday, 8 November 2009

Remembering the victims of peace

The Afghan war is one which produces many mixed feelings in people; the recent surge of deaths in Helmand province has cast doubts on the likelihood of success in Afghanistan. Amid claims of election fraud, security issues and the Obama administrations policy of scaling back troop deployments, the future looks pretty grim for Afghans.

I think we need to be reminded why we deploy troops to foreign shores – many individuals seem to think that fighting for democracy abroad is some sort of Western cultural imperialism. I think that it’s highly racist to simply assume that democracy and the freedoms it brings are simply the desires of solely Western nations. People cannot seem to understand that we live a morally complex world where good things can come from bad actions. Most people would probably accept that vast majority of injustices occurring on a mass scale are a result of totalitarian regimes worldwide and yet an increasingly vocal minority are speaking out against taking action.

So the argument progresses – what’s so special about Afghanistan? The primary reason has to be heroin, which is at the heart of this conflict. Afghanistan produces 87% of the worlds heroin at a tremendous social cost to the West, but at an even bigger social cost to Afghans. In some regions where heroin is used as currency, addiction rates have sky-rocketed destroying families, creating health problems and ending lives. The problems don't just end there; this massively profitable business generates billions directly funding crime syndicates and international terror networks. Heroin’s addictive quality is often used to ensure loyalty to heroin growers. Whereas the Western aid agencies may come with food and blankets, Taliban fighters know at least they can get their next fix by staying loyal to their grower. Addiction creates a massive barrier for Western forces in getting Afghans to accept change, but it’s only part of the problem.

Most Afghans don’t fight for addiction, some misguided notion of the Jihad, and certainly not to maintain sovereignty. The majority of Afghans simply fight to put food in their bellies and money in their pockets. When coalition forces went in and simply steamrolled any poppy growers (largely ignored by the poorly developed Taliban state) they essentially created a new problem – they made many Afghans unemployed and at the same time angered a very rich and powerful section of Afghanistan. This gave birth to what is called the “5 dollar Talib”. An unemployed tender of a heroin field is given 5 dollars and AK 47 with three magazines. His job is to tend to the heroin field and to fight anyone who comes near it. Considering Heroin is Afghanistan’s single biggest industry this has now armed a significant portion of the population. Terror cells had already been operating in Afghanistan for over a decade so arming the population was fast and easy. If you want to understand the significance of this into the ongoing conflict I would invite you to look at Helmand – responsible for 80% of the Afghanistan’s heroin growth and the bloodiest region for British and coalition forces.

Thankfully, this is now being acknowledged as part of the problem. Organisations like USAID are funding farming programmes in which poppy growers are subsidised to grow other crops such as maize with the subsidy used to “top up” profits in order to make it as profitable as growing poppies. In a recent discussion I had with a sergeant who served two tours in Afghanistan, he said where these programmes had been a success Taliban insurgency is virtually zero. Furthermore public health and social cohesion was improved due to greater access to food supplies and reduction in addiction rates. In a recent interview General McCrystal has now accepted that 95% of Taliban fighters fall into the “5 dollar Talib” category and has shifted the objectives from targeting insurgency to appeasing the local populations, showing them there are viable alternatives to promoting heroin growth. I think a solid understanding of why Afghans fight is the key to breaking this conflict and making it winnable.

Pulling out now would be our biggest mistake. Elections will require security to run smoothly and a government will be required to maintain the state apparatus to keep any sort of peace in the future. Certainly collapsing into a power vacuum will create an even worse environment than the current conflict in the inevitable power struggle that will follow. In the meantime, the Middle East would be showered in heroin and Afghanistan would become another failed state and a hotbed for terrorism that would certainly affect countries like India and Pakistan for generations to come.

Pacifists irritate me because they suggest that nothing is worth fighting for. I'm not a champion of warfare but I see Afghanistan as an opportunity to foster positive change on a domestic level for Afghans, and an international level for ourselves and Afghanistan's neighbours. If you think there is currently no social cost in inaction for us, I'd like you to use this Remembrance Day not only to remember our servicemen, but to remind you why they fight.

I would invite you to remember the 336 deaths in 2008 resulting from heroin abuse in Scotland alone – more than the 208 British servicemen killed in 8 years in Afghanistan- and just a tiny fraction of the deaths that can be attributed to Afghan heroin worldwide.

Lastly I’d like you to remember my brother, Jai Dolan, who tragically died in December 1997 as a result of heroin abuse. I hope that in remembering him we can remind ourselves that success in Afghanistan can prevent senseless deaths like his.

We declare war when the price of peace has become too high, and would ask you not only to remember the servicemen who die in the tragedy that is war, but ask you to reflect on the often unspoken victims of peace that these men fight for.