Johann Hari: How drugs brought the Taliban back to life

Just five years after all the lush promises, how did Afghanistan end up like this?
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Jamilla Niazi is a 40-year-old woman with a freckly face and high cheekbones. When she arrives in a refugee camp in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, to speak to me via webcam, her features are hidden behind the blue burqua she is forced to wear in the scorching summer swelter. She peels back the gauze and smiles. She doesn't do this much any more - not since the death threats began to come every night, pledging to burn her in acid. Jamilla has, the authors rage, committed an offence against the immutable moral laws of Afghanistan: she is the headteacher of a school for girls.

"The Taliban have come back. They control this area now," the aid worker from the Senlis Council, who is with her, tells me. The night before we speak, they burned down a school in nearby Nabili, and they have announced they are coming for Jamilla next. Jamilla grew up in a country where 40 per cent of women had jobs - better than some western countries at that time - but when the Taliban took over in 1996, she was ordered to go home and live the rest of her life in Purdah. The sound of women laughing was declared an offence, punishable by whipping. Females accused of adultery, lesbianism or reading a book other than the Koran were shot in the Kabul sports stadium before a howling male mob.

But Jamilla could not accept being reduced to the status of a piece of soft furnishing: she set up a secret school for girls in her home, where she continued to teach them to read and write. Even so, "when I was shut at home and not allowed to go out, it was like being in jail," she says now. "For six years, I was sick in my head. Now my head is hurting again. I am frightened because we are going back to that time."

She did not think it would be like this. "I was so happy to see the foreigners [in 2001], we all cried with joy to see the Taliban leave," she explains. "All the women were happy and most of the men too. But now we are not happy." When the Taliban reformed and began to psychologically dominate her hometown of Lashkagar once more, Jamilla began to worry her school would be attacked. The Afghan President Hamid Karzai admitted this May that more than 200 girls' schools have been destroyed by the Taliban, almost certainly an underestimate. Teachers have been gunned down in front of their pupils, and there was even a landmine placed in a playground.

When the death threats began, she approached the nearby British military base for protection. Since the western rhetoric at the time of the invasion was all about how we were committed to women like Jamilla, she assumed her school would be offered immediate protection. The individual British soldiers were very sympathetic - but explained, "We're not in that business." Their orders do not include directly protecting female civilians and girls' schools from Talibanist slaughter. Sorry.

The day I spoke to her, Jamilla had finally decided to go into hiding. I ask her if I should change her name in this article to protect her from further threats. "No," she says. "Use my name." She does not want the Taliban to take even that away from her.

Just five years after all the lush promises, how did Afghanistan end up like this? The Senlis Council, an invaluable independent think-tank, has more than 50 researchers living among ordinary Afghans, and in their exhaustive report "The Return of the Taliban" they give us the answer. The determination of the Bush administration to fight a "war on drugs" in Afghanistan has guaranteed we will lose the war against the Taliban.

Over the past five years, with British and American military support, a sinister corporation called DynCorps has been going to the fields of the poorest farmers in Afghanistan and systematically destroying them. This is because they are growing opium poppies, used to make heroin that is freely bought on the streets of the West. Emmanuel Reinert, the executive director of the Senlis Council, explains, "The Taliban revival is directly, intimately related to the crop eradication programme. It could not have happened if the US was not aggressively destroying crops. It is the single biggest reason Afghans turned against the foreigners."

How would we react if we were already starving - one-quarter of all Afghan children die before their fifth birthday - and a foreign army declared its intention to wipe out 70 per cent of our economy? Reinert adds, "If you look at where the Americans have carried out the forced eradication programmes, it's where people cannot feed their families. That's where the Taliban is opportunistically gaining support." People whose crops are being trashed will support anyone who rallies to defend them - even this monstrous Islamist Khmer Rouge, who have seized on the heroin eradication programmes, along with the evidence of US torture camps, not least Guantanamo Bay, to show "the West is waging war on Islam".

If this aggressive counter-narcotics strategy is not drastically altered, Reinert says, "in the next six months the legitimacy of the Kabul government will totally collapse, all the cities of the south will fall to the Taliban, and they will mount an assault on Kabul".

In the long-term, there is only one solution: bring the massive global drugs trade into the legal economy, so countries such as Afghanistan and Colombia can finally reclaim their territory from hellish groups who build armies with the profits from the drugs trade. But that is clearly a goal that requires vast political change within the country driving global prohibition, the United States. So the Senlis Council has come up with a sensible short-term solution that might - just might - claw back Afghanistan from tipping into Talibanism once more.

Instead of destroying Afghanistan's opium crop, our governments should allow people to buy it. This doesn't require legalisation. There is a massive worldwide shortage of legal opiate-based painkillers: in cancer care in developed countries alone, there is a need for 55 metric tonnes more every year. Why not license Afghanistan's farmers to meet this massive legal demand? There is a precedent. When Turkey's southern opiate farmers stubbornly refused to trash their livelihoods in the early 1970s, the US eventually gave up and allowed them to participate in the legal trade. Isn't Afghanistan as important as Turkey?

Jamilla knows what will happen if our government does not radically revise its route through Afghanistan in this way. In a low, sad voice, she says, "My school will be destroyed forever." She pauses. "All women love their freedom. Who wants to be a prisoner and to be illiterate? Not Afghan women... You promised you would not let this happen to us again. You promised."