Below is an article by Mexican financier Jorge Suárez-Vélez, who writes frequently for Letras Libres, Letras Libres, which I’ve mentioned before, is considered one of the best journals addressing cultural matters in Latin America. It not only has articles on literature, art, and so forth, but current and historical events which of course have a significant impact on culture. The director of the journal is Emrique Krause who wrote the wonderful Mexico: A Biography of Power among many other things. His op-ed pieces appear in the New York Times.
There is a Mexican version and a Spanish version of the print magazine. The Mexican one is the parent of the Spanish one. Its birth goes back to 1998 and it was designed to replace a journal directed by Octovio Paz. The online version includes blogs and podcasts.
The article will provide you with one Mexican’s perspective on the war in Afghanistan and may open some eyes. It is my translation.
Drug trafficking and terrorism
The recent execution of Osama Bin Laden obligates us to think about modern strategy for fighting unconventional wars: wars against terrorism and drug trafficking. These wars mean confronting a sophisticated enemy, well-armed, who is not subject to any rules or laws, is essentially immoral, and is capable of blending in with his environment. After ten years of military presence in Afghanistan, thousands of lives sacrificed and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, it is time to question whether the original objectives of the invasion were achieved and if the means used were adequate. At the same time, we can ask ourselves if the fight against drug trafficking has been making use of suitable resources for achieving its proposed objectives.
The original incursion into Afghanistan was intended to punish Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, its leader. Every strategy involved retaliation against the regime of the Taliban which had concealed and permitted the presence of the terrorist group in this country, even though the Taliban never tried to do anything hostile to western objectives, and its medieval repression sought exclusively to define the form of daily life of the local population.
Unlike the Iraq of Hussein, a country highly centralized, Afghanistan has always been a country which is a sum of tribes in isolated valleys, with a very poor population which has defended itself against incursions by powerful colonialists from Alexander the Great and the Mongols in antiquity to the English, Soviets, and Americans in recent decades.
It is important to note that one of the main sources of conflict between the local population and the Taliban comes from the Taliban´s efforts to prohibit the planting of poppies, one of the major sources of income for the population. For decades, the principal export of the tiny Afghan economy – which produces a gross national product of barely 1.6 billion dollars or 553 dollars a year per capita…has been poppies, the basis for the production of opium and derivatives like morphine and heroin. The traffic in drugs derived from Afghan production has been controlled principally by the powerful Russian and Eastern European mafias which transport the drugs to markets in Asia and Europe via Russia and Iran.
It is striking to see that the US desire to gain “the hearts and minds” of the population has led the crop of poppies to “blossom” in the zones dominated by US troops. The permissive practice, perhaps reminiscent of the opium wars of 1839 has had the hardly desirable effect of making too accessible heroin for American troops, and many of them have returned home with severe problems of addiction equal to those which Soviet troops suffered in the 1980s.
The US will have little to show as a result of a decade of invasion in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban has been politically marginalized, it is highly likely they will return to power the instant that military intervention ends. There are more and more voices in US diplomacy who have resigned themselves to simply negotiating with the Taliban and to assuming whatever wish they previously expressed to empower women and establish a solid base for education and democracy were only “opium dreams.”
And Al Qaeda? Its militants are in Pakistan. According to its own General Petraeus, the general in charge of US armed forces in Afghanistan and future chief of the CIA there are perhaps 100 combatants of that organization in Afghanistan. As George Will the columnist says (“Times Change”, Pittsburgh Tribune, May 3, 2011) if we assume that there are 140,000 American soldiers there, and that it costs around a million dollars a year to move and maintain just one soldier, the cost of American troops equals one billion five hundred million dollars for each Al Qaeda combatant in Afghanistan (I am sure that for a small fraction of this amount, they would be disposed to put down their arms, shave, put on a suit and even convert to a religion of our choosing.)
And Bin Laden? Bin Laden was just assassinated by elite forces of the US Army which made an incursion into Pakistan territory. Without doubt, it took six years of being the guest of the fragile and questionable guest of that country to reinforce the idea that the most valuable element of modern war is intelligence. The marines which attacked Osama´s hideout came from a unit which has a “few” hundred soldiers based in Dam Neck, Virginia who aare part of DEVGRU (Grupo naval para el desarrollo de enfrentamientos bélicos especiales = Navy group for the development of special war confrontations), a species of fraternity which is the elite of the elite and which calls itself “silent professionals.” Simply put, they executed successfully a mission which was based on four years of what was basically police work and police intelligence. One of the few defenses which is left to those who continue to believe in the necessity of mobilizing large battalions is that obtaining this information requires such a physical presence.
The US will bask for a little while having succeeded in putting a bullet in the head of the nefarious Bin Laden. The mission was a success and President Obama harvested the honey of a victory which was not free of significant risks. However, now comes the necessity of deciding of what to do with the troops in Afghanistan whose withdrawal is already programmed. It is a fact that that country will be left, in the majority of cases, the same as it was before the multi-million dollar invasion which has cost so many lives. The Taliban will surely return and Al Qaeda will continue as it was, since Bin Laden hardly had real logistical importance inside the organization. It is hard to maintain leadership without having some real or virtual presence. His importance was merely symbolic.
The rights of Afghan women will continue to be non-existent (only one in eight women knows how to read), and religious fundamentalism will become entrenched. The traffic in drugs will continue alive and kicking and the wallets of organized crime will continue swelling from the primary material the very poor Afghan farmers provide. And what will have had to happen for a different outcome? A real social bae would have had to have been established where people receive education, where infrastructure is invested in and where a network of social support exists, and there i access to health care and conditions contributing to lives with dignity. In ten years, something could have succeeded. Conservative estimates indicate that the war in Afghanistan has cost more than 400 billion dollars to the US, about twenty five times what that economy produces each year. Perhaps it could have done something very different with those resources, something which would permit the sowing of seeds so that that society would eventually develop and end up with an endogenous form with the extremes which afflict it[sic] . Considering the weight which the military industrial complex has in the US, it is perhaps naïve to even suggest it.
And what does this have to do with drug trafficking in countries like Mexico? Everything. It is even more naïve if I think that one day it will be the army which eradicates drug trafficking. The fight against this cancer begins with education, the development of a state of law, the fight against corruption, the development of infrastructure and conditions which together offer the possibility that young people may have access to worthwhile employment without having to sell their souls to the devil (that is to the narcos). Equally, Mexico has to count on the sophistication of US intelligience in order to deal strategic blows to organized crime, and to do this they have to increase cooperation with that country, launching effective public relations campaigns which make clear that Mexico is not the problem but the victim of US consumption.
The solution to such complex problems can’t be given in a short time, and can hardly be resolved with bullets. Intelligence, in the broadest sense of the word, has to start showing strength.