Robert Soave: Is Obama the ‘anti-war’ candidate?

BY ROBERT SOAVE

Published March 30, 2009

When hunting for what to write about, rarely do I turn to international news or foreign policy. It’s not that these topics don’t interest me — I just usually feel like my point of view has usually already been noted and discussed by someone with more authority on the subject. But after reading a recent article The Wall Street Journal (U.S. Defines Its Afghan Strategy, 03/27/09), I couldn’t keep silent.

The article outlined President Barack Obama’s plans to bring Afghanistan under control by increasing U.S. troop presence, appointing new military commanders and supplying more funds. According to the article, “the strategy will effectively focus U.S. efforts in Afghanistan on the narrow goal of defeating al Qaeda and its Taliban allies.” This new policy of Obama’s is more narrowly focused, as opposed to “the Bush administration's broader nation-building efforts.”

While I have limited enthusiasm for either the Bush plan or the Obama plan, my outrage wasn’t triggered until the very end of the article, where the plan for handling Afghanistan’s illegal opium trade was detailed. Farmers who grow opium — an illegal substance used to produce drugs like heroin and morphine — will be offered wheat seeds for free from either Afghan or U.S. officials to start growing wheat instead of opium. Then the kicker comes: “If the farmers refuse, U.S. or Afghan personnel will burn their fields, and then again offer them free replacement seeds.” Let’s repeat that for effect — U.S. personnel will burn their fields and then pressure the farmers again. And we wonder why the Afghan people have not yet warmed to our presence in their country.

What’s worse is that it doesn’t sound like anyone in the government is criticizing this plan. In yesterday's edition of The Wall Street Journal, an article cited that Obama’s plan has widespread support from Republicans and Democrats in Congress (U.S. Pushes Afghan Plan In The Hague This Week, 03/30/09). Sen. John McCain even told NBC’s Meet the Press that the he likes the proposal, saying, “The best way to get out of Afghanistan fast is (for) people to think we’re staying.”

And we’re going to win by burning down their fields?

There is no way to bring stability to Afghanistan while simultaneously promoting an unnecessary war on drugs in the country, especially if this involves burning their fields. Destroying the Afghan people’s main source of livelihood certainly won’t get us out of the country any faster. According to a Washington Post article from 2006, the opium trade represents a third of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product and is up to twelve times more profitable than other crops — explaining why farmers might be hesitant to accept the wheat seeds. The country’s economy is inexorably tied up in the opium trade, and this won’t change as long as opium production remains illegal.

The U.S. government will claim that such policies are necessary because terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban profit from the lucrative opium trade. But this industry is profitable for them precisely because it is illegal — farmers must rely on help from blacklisted groups (like the terrorists) to make a profit from their crops.

Thankfully, the International Council on Security and Development, an international think tank, has the right solution for the Afghan opium trade. It proposes allowing Afghan farmers to grow opium legally in order to produce medicines like morphine, which are in short supply in much of the developing world. Some countries, like India, are already permitted to farm opium for this purpose. There is no reason to deny Afghanistan this same right.

But regardless of what is done about the legal status of the opium trade, it’s certainly wrong to deliberately destroy the livelihoods of the people of Afghanistan, and I’m shocked that the Obama administration isn’t incurring criticism for such a policy. When Bush advocated similar policies, politicians in both parties derided him for his imperialist warmongering. Have these critics been blinded by Obama’s shining promises of hope and change?

Though I wasn’t as optimistic about an Obama presidency as other students, I was at least looking forward to a departure from the Bush policy on two wars — the War on Terrorism and the War on Drugs. In his most recent Afghanistan policy, Obama has made it clear that he intends to vigorously continue both.

And if the people of Afghanistan continue to resent the U.S. presence there, we’ll know why.

Robert Soave is the Daily's editorial page editor. He can be reached at rsoave@umich.edu.