Thursday, 5 November 2009

It's the poppies, stupid!

Everywhere you go at this time of year the humble poppy can be seen on people's lapels as ordinary people show their silent solidarity with the couragous soldiers who put their lives on the line in the name of what politicians call our security interests.

The poppy appeal is particularly relevant at the moment because of the current deployment in Afghanistan and the latest news that 5 servicemen were killed in a shocking attack by a gunman who was being trained to keep the peace.

The case comes as a huge blow to British strategy and raises big questions about our presence in the country and our ability to 'win hearts and minds'.

The Chair of the Intelligence and Security committee, Labour MP Dr Kim Howells, has broken ranks with the government to argue in a strongly worded Guardian article that current policy if deeply flawed and is proving counter-productive.

He says that "Seven years of military involvement and civilian aid in Afghanistan have succeeded in subduing al-Qaida's activities in that country, but have not... succeeded in eliminating... the Taliban" and that the insufficient resources being expended could be better deployed on the streets of Britain.

Not only would this better address the consequences of the terror threat, but it would remove one of the main aggravating causes of any attacks.

Such a 'shift in focus' would require renegotiation of international treaties, but it would also switch attention from the symptons of the disease to its' underlying causes.

At its' heart is a difference of opinion over the primary motivational factor behind the violence in global societies.

The western powers blame a fundamental lack of engagement in democratic political processes and the undermining of elections in Afghanistan, criticising the controllers of the illegal drugs trade and accusing them of corruption. They concentrate on an extremist cultural trend unwilling to work within international norms and statutes.

Yet the international consensus on numerous policies are precisely what they see is killing their kinsfolk, denying their economic potential and undermining their cultural heritage!

Lest we forget, the production of opium poppies is the main economic engine in an area which has been ravaged by war for almost as long as anyone can remember: the opium trade provides a large portion of the wealth which feeds the people, and it feeds the ability of local tribes to provide for their people in a wider sense too.

Poppy cultivation continues because the economic alternatives simply don't exist. The afghani economy remains dominated by the agricultural sector, despite only 12% of land being suitable for arable purposes. The industrial and service sectors are massively undeveloped and it is estimated that as many as 40% of the adult male population are without regular employment, while 53% of the population live under the poverty line (according to the CIA world factbook).

These are exactly the conditions for popular revolt against the state forces in any country, let alone one which has been at the ends of the earth since classical antiquity. It simply doesn't matter who those forces are percieved to be.

Equality and democracy are being subverted while military power is used to impose the will of outsiders, so whatever our leaders say they are standing up for it is not that. There are no two ways about it, the ideals of the western powers are failing the majority of Afghanis.

The fact is that the western powers are prosecuting an elitist, authoritarian view of morality and legality. The threat of terrorism is mirrored by our own insecurities. The war against drugs reflects our own inability to grasp the reality that lying to young people about the real risks alienates them, builds a sense of distrust and disillusion with the law and legislators and creates widespread disengagement from society.

As we have seen only this week the government policy on drugs has been under fire from world-leading experts who disagree with the official position that increasingly punitive action is likely to reduce the harm levels caused by criminalised behaviour.

Heroin is clearly a much more serious proposition than Cannabis, and recreational usage should not be encouraged, but there is a global shortage of medicinal morphine products at the same time as fields of poppies are being destroyed in Afghanistan because the illegal trade peddled to addicts is being used to fund Taleban-backed resistance.

In other words the deaths and injuries suffered by ordinary soldiers in the line of duty are the manifest costs of a misplaced moral code and a distorted sense of legislative priority - we would not need to be in Afghanistan if our government didn't think punishment excused their failure to communicate effectively and honestly.

The conflict in Afghanistan is a consequence of our bad laws at home and the waste of lives and money being expended there are harming our ability to resolve the situation through increased education and resourcing for border controls in this country.

The two sides of the issue are intimately intertwined, and Gordon Brown has got it wrong on both counts.

As a student of history he must recognise how the loose confederation of tribal resistance forces were used by the west to defeat the might of the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s by combining into the mujahideen, so he should know that aggression against the Taliban will have the same inevitable result unless he commits wholesale genocide.

So when you see anyone wearing a poppy in rememberance of the massacres of the past, it should also work as a reminder that it doesn't give the wearer immunity from making the same mistakes as were perpetrated then.

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