General Barry McCaffrey (Retired) Speaks Candidly About the Turmoil Within Afghanistan and Its Soaring Drug Problem

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
By Robin Jay, Editorial Director

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BM As ballot counters continue to riffle through votes cast in the August 20 presidential election in Afghanistan, the momentum of chaos hasn’t slowed. Although US Marines and other NATO forces held close cover over Taliban sectors of the country to free up others to vote, Taliban forces still managed to cut off fingers of some voters. Today, 43 people in southern Afghanistan were killed when a car bomb exploded. Preliminary word is that incumbent president Hamid Karzai is the front runner in the election, but Foreign Minister Abdullah has speculated that the voting was rigged to favor Karzai. Further results may come this week, but the final election decision isn’t expected until September. Here to talk with us today about the turmoil in Afghanistan – much of which is driven by the out-of-hand drug trade – is General Barry McCaffrey (Retired). Click on the media player to listen to our intriguing interview or read through the transcript that follows…

BHC: General McCaffrey, we have the elections in Afghanistan last week, we have the Washington Post indicating there are those that say we should pull out, those that say we need more troops. What is your position in regard to the issue with that and as it relates to the drug problem there?

General Barry McCaffrey: Well, that’s probably the right way to frame the argument. I think we’re really in a very difficult position in Afghanistan, we the United States. Now there’s some good news. The good news is we’re there with allies, 42 allies, 32,000 native troops, we’ve got. Compared to the date prior to 9/11, Afghanistan’s gone from an ultimate nightmare, the breakdown of a society with constant generation of warfare that destroyed not just their infrastructure was entirely gone, but to some extent it destroyed tribal allegiances, it ruined families, it accelerated drugs in Afghanistan. They traditionally had hashish in the country, but not heroin. So it was a mess and now it’s better, but now what we’re looking at is the American people have lost faith in these two very badly executed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they essentially want us out. Afghanistan is a $4 billion dollar a month operation. It has generated several thousand U.S. killed and wounded and the prospect it seems to me in the coming two years or so we should anticipate some really intense fighting.

And with the exception of the Brits and the Canadians, very few of the 32,000 NATO troops there will actually fight, and so here we’re looking at this country which is driven by ethnic hatred, between the great Poshtun tribe, maybe 60 percent of the population and the others; Pashiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, etc. It’s driven by external manipulation for the last 500 years, whether it’s the Iranians, the Persians, or the Pakistanis, the Brits, the Russians.

And then on top of that, we’ve got a heroin opium problem of monumental portions. I mean it’s just beyond belief. 93 percent of the world’s heroin is produced in Afghanistan, it’s swamped. The Central Asian Republics, Russia, Western Europe, Glasgow, Scotland, I mean it’s just an unbelievable nightmare and very little of it comes to the United States.

I’m not sure I know, but my guess would be numbers like this: we in the U.S. with 900,000 heroin addicts probably use 12 to 13 metric tons, a couple of metric tons probably comes from Afghanistan, the rest of it primarily comes from Mexico and Columbia. So in a direct sense, this is more of a menace to Afghanistan’s neighbors and its own people and to the Russians in particular than it is to us. By the way, the Afghans, the typical thing happens when you’re a major drug producing nation, particularly one as chaotic as Afghanistan, you know it corrupts the society, it empowers a criminal class, it pushes out agriculture that grows wheat and food to sustain the population, it addicts the population.

My guess is that just under a million Afghans, out of 32 million, that are addicted in one way or another, widows, children, you name it and it’s devastating impact on Afghans’ future. We don’t really know, my guess is its 50 percent of the GNP and a minimum is 40 percent of GNP. Now you can see it when you drive around in Kabul, there are giant palaces with multi story centrally heated air-conditioned houses with underground parking. You know, who do you think is doing this? I tell people, ‘you know, you think it’s tourism for God’s sake?’ This is drugs and the drugs also funnel, they always fight about the numbers.

(Donald) Rumsfeld didn’t want to hear, refused to allow people to say that the Taliban and Al Qaeda, never mind warlords and the criminal class, were funded by drug money, but they are. We can fight about how much. I say its way more than $100 million a year. So we start seeing Taliban fighters with our EI camping and shiny new sniper rifles and brand new 107 mm rockets, and well it’s a flipping nightmare, and Rumsfeld said, “We’re not going to confront opium, that’s not our problem, let the Brit’s do it.” So the Brits had lead for the thing and recently, until the Obama administration came in, there were normally less than 15 DEA agents in Afghanistan; there were three DEA agents in Pakistan, and you know, between the two of them. that accounts for more then 90 percent of the world’s heroin. We have more narcotic officers in New Berg, New York than that. Now, finally, I think what we ended up with was the Obama team came in and said, “We’re going to make a difference.” And so they’ve got a new commander, a new ambassador, a new regional envoy. Stan McChrystal the new commander is the best person to emerge from the last 10 years of war. Special operation soldier, the ambassador Carl Eichenberry was already in Afghanistan, I think for three years, as an earlier commander.

They put 21,000 more troops in there by the end of December we’ll have 68,000 U.S. forces on the ground and they said, “Well, we’re going to try a new strategy, it won’t be warfare, it will be security for the population, it will be jump-starting the economy, it will be reviving agriculture and also we’ll go after the major os smugglers, the people that empower the drug industry.” So there’s now 85+ DEA agents headed to Afghanistan with a sizable Afghan police force that they’ll train and we’re also seeing a major focus out of the Obama team on building an Afghan Army and an Afghan National Police Force. Now the only problem with all of this, just to sort of summarize is, my gut instinct is this is two years of intense combat and 10 years to 25 years of economic, political and social development and the American people slightly more than half of them say they want out, so the challenge now facing us is, can the president of the United States and his senior team make an argument to the American people that our security is at risk if we don’t create a state where there was nothing but chaos and violence? I would back that argument up, but the one thing I think we’ve learned out of Vietnam and then Iraq, you cannot carry out a foreign policy unless you’ve explained it in a compelling way to the American people and they accept it. So that’s tough sweating, you know we have a giant recession here at home. We have 15 million Americans pretty well percentage of the population maybe 7 percent of us have a chronic substance abuse problem here, we’ve got 9.6 unemployment and rising, we’ve got some challenges ourselves so it’s going to be a tough sell but I think that’s where we are.

BHC: General McCaffrey, thank you for that overview. Is there anything else that you want to talk about regarding the elections and the continued cry for us to pull out?

Gen. BM: If we started out, which we wont do. We’re committed there. I don’t think we could get out for three to five years in any reasonable political scenario. If we came out next month, it would be like dealing with a chronic drunk. If you stop going to AA and you had a drink, the chances you wouldn’t gradually get back into alcoholic nightmare, you’d be there within a week and the same thing would happen in Afghanistan. If we actually could magically disappear, the central government in Kabul would be gone within 90 days, in my view, and the Poshtuns would fight it out with the other ethnic groups for dominance. That’s what I believe would happen, but we’re not going to come out. So I think the election, by the way, is good news in a sense is another demonstration, the second one, who by the way these are beautiful people. They’ve lived like animals for 30 years now, but they’re tremendous business men and soldiers and they’re as handsome a lot you’ve every seen, and they’re survivors, you’ve got to respect them to their ability to even stay alive in that environment. So I think it’s entirely plausible in the coming two to 10 years to create a viable Afghan state. Now it’s not going to look like Indiana, but roads are appearing and universities are starting and women who were the equivalent of donkeys are now considerable better off. The Taliban ran them inside, ran them off the streets and executed them and stoned them and the women are better off and there is an Afghan Army of sorts. I’d say they’re up around 100,000 now that actually fight.

So this election was a good thing. The Taliban blinked, they didn’t go all out to stop people from voting. It looks as if there was a low voter turn out, which was a risk to Karzai I might add, because the most dangerous part of the country is in the south with the Poshtuns. They were going to vote for him overwhelmingly.

I still think he wins and maybe he wins in the first round, gets more than 50 percent of the vote, but he might have to go for a runoff, which might be good for Afghanistan, to be honest. You know there was a couple of funny stories about this. I’ve been watching the press all day long, New York Times,, BBC, there’s 250,000 election monitors around the country and a lot of them are reporting Twitter, Facebook you name it, and there’s sort of funny stories that would have you say, oh well maybe it’s not serious. Like the man that reported that because it was too dangerous he had been authorized to vote for all 35 of the women in his family, and another about a 12 year old boy who was leading a donkey that was loaded with ballots and some BBC reportedly asked him, ‘what are you doing?’ and he said, ‘these are for the election,’ they said, ‘what’s the election about?.’ and he said, ‘it’s for the king.’ So you know this is not Manhattan, but on the other hand, it’s a good thing.

But I don’t see this as a turning point, a bench mark. I’m glad the election happened without massive catastrophic violence; the violence will probably go up to be honest starting after the election because the U.S. stayed away from the polling places. Later they’ll be back out trying to protect the population. I don’t know, I think that’s where we are; difficult situation, questionable outcome. The Obama team came in with energy, new strategy, new people. My guess is they’ve got a couple of years to demonstrate that they know what they’re dong and I hope they pull it off.

BHC: General McCaffrey thank you so much for your time and your overview and look forward to talking to you soon.

Gen. BM: Okay, I love reading your stories, so keep me in your loop.

BHC: Okay, certainly will do. Thank you.