Johann Hari: Our Boys' mission: trash a nation's crops

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This week, the British Army is plunging into a staggering, starving region - a place where half the people are suffering from malnutrition - to hack to pieces the only profitable crop they have.

Sayed Rikan is a 43-year-old opium farmer from the east of Afghanistan, and he told me down a crackly line yesterday: "My village depends on growing opium for us to eat. We grow the [opium] poppies for survival, for life."

He explains his reasons: "We have a long drought in Afghanistan, for six years now, and the poppy does not need much water to grow. Please understand: one kilo of opium makes $150 (£84). Seven kilos of wheat makes $1. When you are hungry and your children are dying, this is no choice."

Some Sayeds will fight back against Our Boys to protect the thin row of poppies standing between them and starvation - in which case they will be shot.

Sayed is not alone. Some 60 per cent of Afghanistan's GDP stems from the heroin trade - and the US and Britain are committed to destroying it systematically. Sayed has already seen them try to do this once.

"Last year, a plane appeared at midnight in the sky and it let out a long, green spray over our fields," he says. "Animals started to die and the people outside began to cough and be sick. The next day, all the crops died. Not just the poppies. The wheat, the fruit trees, everything. Now nothing grows there."

The British and Americans officially deny this policy of "fumigation", so no compensation has been paid to Sayed and his neighbours, even though they starved for weeks as they trudged to new land (some were so disgusted they trudged off to join the jihadists of the Taliban). A similar US-led campaign of chemical poisoning has been linked to an epidemic of cancers in Colombia.

"Yes, we expect them to come to our new fields," Sayed says. The Afghan Human Rights Organisation says British troops oversee the destruction of opium fields "though chemicals and manually, where they hack the crops apart with sticks." While British troops touched down for this programme of economic vandalism in the Helmand province, Tony Blair was proudly unveiling a plan for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Nobody noted the irony. But so long as the international prohibition of drugs continues, any plan to unite and rebuild Afghanistan might as well be stuffed into a crack-pipe and smoked.

The criminalization of heroin has one effect, and one effect only: it hands the industry over to armed gangsters. That's bad enough on a British council estate, where they fill the area with guns and panicky sweat. But in Afghanistan, it means 60 per cent of the country's economy is controlled by armed gangs - increasingly accountable to the woman-hating, psychopathic Taliban - who have a vested interest in keeping the country in chaos. They will always have more cash and more guns than the elected government - so Hamid Karzai, the elected President, will remain forever the governor of Kabul, gazing out at a narco-state he does not control.

There are two possible futures for Afghanistan. In the first, Hamid Karzai responds to the clear democratic will of his people and legalises the supply of heroin. "Everyone I know wants the poppies to be legal," Sayed says, backed by several human rights organisations. Only when Karzai can tax the country's single biggest product and reclaim it from criminal gangs is there any chance of extending democratic rule beyond Kabul.

But the other, darker Afghanistan looks more likely - one where Karzai ignores his people and follows the deranged dictates of the ex-drug user George W Bush to create a "drug-free Afghanistan". This is a recipe for endless civil war, with a heroin-fatted Taliban launching more and more raids to burn girls' schools and trash any rebuilding. "I do not want to live in that Afghanistan," Sayed says softly.

Benefits of losing the plot

Why do societies in meltdown always make the best movies? Of the films competing to win this year's little naked gold guy, only Crash is brilliant - and it's a study of Los Angeles in the middle of a nervous breakdown, a racially stratified, morally stultified Babel shooting and looting itself to death. Hollywood only reaches its peak when Amer-ica is losing the plot - it's no coincidence that its golden ages were the dustbowl 1930s and Nixon-scarred 1970s. The Bush years can't have bottomed out yet - the movies aren't great enough.

The best films I've seen this year are from countries coming apart at the seams - Iran and France. Michael Haneke's Arctic-cold Hidden, starring Juliette Binoche, right, is a study of France's relationship with its Muslim immigrants: a generation ago, Paris sent soldiers to torch and torture Algeria, only to quit and suck in hundreds of thousands of their victims to be entombed in the concrete mazes ringing Paris. Here, they return to haunt a bourgeois white family. It's almost worth months of riots for a wave of French movies as stunning as this.

I can't stand it when politics is dumbed down to pointless chatter about personalities: is Brown charismatic enough? Has Cameron got the X Factor? But now everyone is condemning Simon Hughes, it's tempting to say - OK, you want to talk character? When a 17-year-old was butchered on an estate in Hughes's constituency by a notorious horde of gangsters, nobody came forward as a witness. Hughes went door to door in an appeal, even though the police warned him he was putting his life at risk. The gang took out a £10,000 contract on Hughes, and he has lived with Rushdie-style insecurity ever since. But because of him, the criminals were caught. Doesn't that tell us more about Hughes than the trivial white lie he told about his genital preferences to protect his elderly mother?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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