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By Greg Cahill

OVER THE PAST SEVERAL DAYS, President Bush has worked hard to demonize--and dehumanize--the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan in preparation for a possible war with that faraway land. But few Americans are aware that until the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on New York and Washington the Taliban were our allies in the war on drugs. The United States this year gave the Taliban $43 million to help fight the flow of heroin from that opium-producing region.

Strange bedfellows.

The ironic twist in that tryst is that Afghanistan is the subject of United Nations trade sanctions that were implemented against the regime at the behest of the United States itself.

This arrangement has gotten very little press attention. But in a May 22 op/ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, syndicated columnist Robert Scheer contemplated what he called Bush's "Faustian deal with the Taliban" and decided it is a deal with the devil.

"Enslave your girls and women, harbor anti-U.S. terrorists, destroy every vestige of civilization in your homeland, and the Bush administration will embrace you," Scheer opined. "All that matters is that you line up as an ally in the drug war, the only international cause that this nation still takes seriously."

The gift, announced by Secretary of State Colin Powell a few days before the op/ed piece ran, was just part of a larger aid package that Scheer noted makes the United States the main sponsor of the Taliban and rewards that "rogue regime" for declaring that opium growing is against the will of God.

"So, too, by the Taliban's estimation, are most human activities," Scheer wrote, "but it's the ban on drugs that catches this administration's attention."

A mixed message? You bet. But then the United States has never hesitated to back every tinhorn despot that comes down the pike if the price is right: former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noreiga, now a convicted drug trafficker rotting in a federal prison, once enjoyed American patronage.

"The war on drugs has become our own fanatics' obsession and easily trumps all other concerns," wrote Scheer. "How else could we come to reward the Taliban, who has subjected the female half of the Afghan population to a continual reign of terror in a country once considered enlightened in its treatment of women. . . . The Taliban fanatics, economically and diplomatically isolated, are at the breaking point, and so, in return for a pittance of legitimacy and cash from the Bush administration, they have been willing to appear to reverse themselves on the growing of opium. That a totalitarian country can effectively crack down on its farmers is not surprising. But it is grotesque for a U.S. official, James P. Callahan, director of the State Department's Asian anti-drug program, to describe the Taliban's special methods in the language of representative democracy: 'The Taliban used a system of consensus-building,' Callahan said after a visit with the Taliban, adding that the Taliban justified the ban on drugs 'in very religious terms.' "

Of course, as even Callahan admitted, those who didn't obey the Taliban's theocratic edict would be sent to prison or even face death.

"IN A COUNTRY where those who break minor rules are simply beaten on the spot by religious police and others are stoned to death, it's understandable that the government's 'religious' argument might be compelling. Even if it means, as Callahan concedes, that most of the farmers who grew the poppies will now confront starvation. That's because the Afghan economy has been ruined by the religious extremism of the Taliban, making the attraction of opium as a previously tolerated quick-cash crop overwhelming."

For that reason, the opium ban was doomed, Scheer summized, unless the Bush administration was willing to pour far larger amounts of money into underwriting the Afghan economy.

"The Taliban may suddenly be the dream regime of our own drug war zealots," Scheer concluded, "but in the end this alliance will prove a costly failure. Our long sad history of signing up dictators in the war on drugs demonstrates the futility of building a foreign policy on a domestic obsession."

A costly failure, indeed. If only Scheer hadn't been proven right.


Greg Cahill is the editor of the 'Northern California Bohemian.'

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From the September 20-26, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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