A Big ‘Hoorah!’ to the New York Times’ Dexter Filkins

In a devastatingly critical examination of the narco-state formerly known as Afghanistan, the New York Times’ Dexter Filkins today documents case after case of widespread corruption on a massive scale in the Afghan government, including officials ranging from low-level, local bureaucrats right up to the brother of President Hamid Karzai. Filkins shows the difficult situation President Obama will face in dislodging a surging Taliban, and the feudal war lords who’ve run the country for centuries, both of which are profiting from opium smuggling, and paying and receiving bribes.

It didn’t take years cultivating sources or meeting a “Deep Throat” in dangerous Kabul alleys for him to pen the piece. Filkins arrived in Kabul only about two months ago following several years covering Iraq, interrupted by a year in the US to write a book. In reading the article, it seems he did much of his reporting simply standing in front of government offices and court houses, talking to people coming out after they paid a bribe to judges and other officials, or refused to do so.

So, why did it take so long for any Western journalist to write this story? Moreover, why did the Bush administration allow the situation to get so out of hand?

Coulda, Shoulda
The outstanding Filkins article highlights a major problem in newsrooms today. His article could have – and should have – been written a year or more ago; it’s not as if corruption showed up in Kabul at Halloween as a trick-and-treat handout.

Why has the news media been sleeping, especially since thousands more American troops will be rerouted to Afghanistan from Iraq after the Obama inauguration?

Part of the lack of coverage might be explained by the relatively few number of American, British, and European reporters based permanently in Kabul. A perfect storm of tight budgets which means fewer reporters that leads to dwindling international coverage coupled with a lack of editorial interest and a preference for dramatic battlefield stories when reporters are loosed on the country leaves little room for what journalists call “enterprise stories” – those that take time to report and write.

To illustrate the issue, I’ve realized that the BBC has more reporters stationed permanently in Africa than most major US print and broadcast news outlets have in Europe and Asia combined. True, the broadcaster gets generous funding from the British government added to by a license fee levied on each TV set in the country along with ad revenue from some of its networks, but how it allocates its annual budget is very different than the way its American counterparts dole out cash to news operations.

No wonder Americans are so ill-informed about the world. Even if they want to know more, they have to really go out of their way to find key information.

Missed Opportunities
Meanwhile, after the American invasion in 2001, Afghanistan became poppy central, harvesting more plants than anywhere else on earth. While some Western media have covered this angle off-and-on, before Filkins’ story no major newspaper or network has documented in such detail the extent and pervasiveness of drugs-related corruption. Compared to what goes on daily throughout Afghanistan’s government, Rob Blagojevich is a clumsy amateur.

Under George Bush, the American and NATO strategy of dealing with poppy growing in Afghanistan has been to send troops across farmland destroying crops. This did two things: First, it alienated Afghan farmers whose land wouldn’t support any other agriculture. Second, it gave war lords, drug lords and the Taliban an opportunity to say to farmers, “Come join us. We’ll protect you and buy your harvest for cash.”

In yet one more mistake on a long list of foreign policy errors, the White House missed a chance to slow Afghanistan’s opium trade and deny insurgents a ready source of hard currency, which also propels corruption. Instead of burning fields, Bush could have followed the successful lead of earlier US efforts to control poppy growing and opium smuggling in Turkey. Using US money, the Turkish government buys up the annual harvest, handing it over to the Americans who, in turn, sell some to pharmaceutical companies – which uses an opium offshoot in many prescription drugs – and burn the rest.

The strategy has been hugely successful: Farmers are content, world opium supplies are cut, crime lords are cut out of the picture and pharmaceutical companies have a ready supply of a much-needed ingredient. Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld reportedly vetoed the proven approach, just one more tragedy in the long list of Bush administration tragedies.

The way newspapers, cable and broadcasters have covered Afghanistan reminds me of a line from Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant 1971 film, The Hospital. George C. Scott, playing an exhausted and frustrated physician, decides to quit medicine and run off to Arizona with Diana Rigg – well, she’s reason enough to quit any job and run off anywhere with her – because he realizes patients are being “neglected to death.”

Between journalism’s indifference and US government missteps, Afghanistan is being “neglected to death.” Let’s all give a very big “Hoorah!” to Dexter Filkins for showing the results.

Charley James
The Progressive Curmudgeon

Articles by Charley:


  1. Timeparticle says

    Mr. James, is it possible that Mr. Cheney and Mr Rumsfeld vetoed the idea because they knew the CIA needed the opium money making machine of Afghanistan to continue for their own benefit? The CIA does have a long history of using drug smuggling money to fund wars as in the famous Iran-contra scandal. Are they still in business in Afghanistan and are they controlling the poppy fields?

    APRIL 1978

    Soviet-backed coup in Afghanistan sets stage for explosive growth in Southwest Asian heroin trade. New Marxist regime undertakes vigorous anti-narcotics campaign aimed at suppressing poppy production, triggering a revolt by semi-autonomous tribal groups that traditionally raised opium for export. The CIA-supported rebel Mujahedeen begins expanding production to finance their insurgency. Between 1982 and 1989, during which time the CIA ships billions of dollars in weapons and other aid to guerrilla forces, annual opium production in Afghanistan increases to about 800 tons from 250 tons. By 1986, the State Department admits that Afghanistan is `probably the world’s largest producer of opium for export’ and `the poppy source for a majority of the Southwest Asian heroin found in the United States.’ U.S. officials, however, fail to take action to curb production. Their silence not only serves to maintain public support for the Mujahedeen, it also smooths relations with Pakistan, whose leaders, deeply implicated in the heroin trade, help channel CIA support to the Afghan rebels.

    Excerpts from … A Tangled Web: A History of CIA Complicity in Drug International Trafficking

    So, as early as 1978, the CIA had it’s hand in the Afghan drug machine.

    And, today, a more complex scenario has developed with the CIA and the poppy….

    The United States does not seem particularly intent upon lowering opium production within Afghanistan for two reasons. First, Washington realizes that the majority of drugs entering its borders come from Latin America and not from Afghanistan, and therefore contributing significant military and economic assets might be detrimental towards its drug fight in Latin America. According to the DEA, “only an estimated 5 percent of illicit opiates consumed in the United States comes [sic] from Afghanistan” (United States Cong., 10). Even with Afghanistan producing 92 percent of the world’s opium, there seems little incentive for the U.S. to contribute the assets needed when other regions of the world are more responsible for opiate addiction within the United States. Second, the U.S. policy makers seem to believe (or at least articulate) the fear that actively pursuing a policy against opium production may anger warlords and cause a civil war. According to Raymond Millen, any strategy that focuses on undermining warlord power confrontationally (such as eradicating poppy fields within their domain of influence) will lead to political and military instability in Afghanistan.

    Excerpts from …Poppy Proliferation, Abbas Milani.

    Money is tighter than ever, today. Where does the CIA really get there money from? Is the CIA and the military intending to remain in Afghanistan for the big poppy bucks?

    We, as progressives, can expect ethical standards from our government and should ask for it. We must be wary of a long occupation in any foreign country and always ask,” How are U.S. governmental organizations benefiting from this?


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