Archive for August, 2009

Poppies in the Great Game

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Seeds of Terror, Gretchen Peters, 2009

poppy poppyharvest
Poppy Harvest

This book can usefully be read as a companion volume to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars. Where Coll’s sterile account of U.S. CIA involvement in Afghanistan focuses on the role of the CIA in pushing funds and arms matched by equal funding from Saudi Arabian intelligence through Pakistan’s ISI to clandestinely support the Mujahideen extremists, this book tells in a confused and disorganized fashion the same tale with a central focus on the role of opium and heroin smuggling in the same time frame.

In this account, drugs were a major source of funding for the Mujahideen throughout the period of anti Soviet insurgency and gave the fighters sources of revenue and arms independent of CIA or ISI influence. The Soviets found themselves fighting extreme levels of troop drug addiction similar to the U.S. problem with drugs in Vietnam. After the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980’s, drugs became the major source of revenue and weapons for the fighting factions within Afghanistan.

Stages of Opium Production – Mujahideen

In Peter’s account, some American officials were aware of the extent and impact of drug trafficking but were completely ignored in the maniacal focus on embarrassing the Soviet Union with their own version of Vietnam. Beyond this single goal all other factors were conveniently ignored. It probably helped that very little of Afghanistan’s heroin found its way to the U.S. even though it certainly was central to the drug problem of Great Britain and other NATO countries. For a look at the impact of this drug traffic on Britain see the BBC miniseries Traffik. This ignoring the drug problem continued after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, throughout the tribal battle for control of Afghanistan after the Soviet period, through the rise of the Taliban, the overthrow of the Taliban, and up to today. In particular, the U.S. military has consistently ignored the drug problem, highlighted by Donald Rumsfeld’s pronouncement that “We (U.S. military) don’t do drugs.” Even today there is virtually no cooperation between drug enforcement efforts and military efforts in the country.

A few Drug Smuggling Routes

Peter’s conclusions are pretty stark and shocking and it is a shame the book isn’t better written . Poppies and drug trafficking account for 30% of Afghanistan’s GDP. If you add the value of other illegal smuggling activity (electronics, appliances, vehicles, weapons) illegal activity probably accounts for more than half of Afghanistan’s economy. The corruption of the Karzai government, local officials, and police start from this dominant fact. Afghanistan is awash in illegal money, weapons, and goods. Bribery and corruption must follow from this fact.

Drug Dealer Wali and brother Hamid Karzai

The American media have given the public the impression that the Taliban and al Qaeda are opposed to drugs and both have made pronouncements that good Muslims should never use them. This impression was enhanced when the Taliban ordered that Poppies not be planted in the year 2000. What the media never told us was that al Quada and the Taliban had stockpiled huge quantities of opium and heroin, the equivalent of about three years of world wide supply, because a glut in the market had driven prices to an all time low. By forbidding the growing of poppies, the Taliban created an instant shortage or perception of a shortage and prices skyrocketed. (Sounds a little like OPEC and oil).

Peters asks how a group of illiterate thugs (Taliban) could organize and run a global market in drug production and distribution. She thinks they can’t, which means that the Taliban has always been backed by drug kingpins who used to Taliban for security and enforcement in return for huge quantities of money and arms and other needed items like Toyota Land Cruisers and Hiluxes. Peter’s has no doubt that both the Taliban and al Qaeda have relied heavily on the drug trade to supply themselves even though the leadership may not have engaged directly in drug deals.

Today the media is continuing to do its number on us by referring to all insurgents in Afghanistan as Taliban. The insurgents themselves seems willing to go along with this designation even though few are connected in any way with the original Mullah Omar group which is still hiding somewhere in the tribal region of Pakistan. We are not facing an organized and integrated Taliban group where it is possible to sit down and negotiate with the leadership. The insurgency is very fragmented. The thought that dollars can be used to buy a change of loyalty of the insurgents is maybe possible but the U.S. would need to outbid the drug lords and it could prove very costly and may not result in any long term changes or improved stability.

When the U.S. pulled back from Afghanistan to focus on Iraq, they turned the fighting over to the NATO coalition. A U.S. coordinator complains that he spends more time in Europe than in Afghanistan. Britain has been given responsibility for anti drug efforts but these efforts are almost never coordinated with the military which makes raids and arrests next to impossible. The U.S. DEA has people in Afghanistan today but they get no more cooperation than the British. Arrests and seizures are few and ineffective and do not impact total drug exports. When military commanders accidentally stumble on a drug cache or convoy or find a major drug lord there is no guarantee the kingpin will be detained or the drugs destroyed. Such is the lack of coordination with the military

Neighboring Iran and Pakistan as well as the former Soviet Stans and Russia are experiencing huge increases in drug addiction and drug crime as a result of the environment in Afghanistan.

Rare Drug Seizure at Sea

Afghanistan remains a medieval place where modern financial networks don’t exist. Much of the drug trade is barter and where cash transfers take place they are done through the tradition hawala networks which are based on a honor system where actual money is not moved or even recorded in a way that can be traced. Attempts to regulate these networks are currently ineffective.

What happened to those stinger missiles that Coll reported the U.S. supplied to shoot down Soviet helicopters and planes and that the CIA tried to buy back after the Soviet withdrawal? Some were sold by drug runners back to the CIA for enormous sums of money and other were and may still be used to protect drug smuggling convoys making their way to the Iran border.

Corruption extends equally to Pakistan and Iran as well as other middle eastern drug destinations or transit routes. Attacking the drug problem would have to be at the core of any efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and it is clear the problem can’t be attacked without a coordinated regional effort. It is not clear the Obama administration even understands the extent of the problem or has prevailed on the dominant U.S. military to force it to address the problem, cooperating with law enforcement and drug enforcement groups and with intelligence gathering groups. It’s not clear to Peters that the lessons of 9/11 have been learned, much less the lessons of Vietnam. (Remember that U.S. military planes were used to smuggle drugs to the U.S. during Vietnam see biopic – American Gangster starring Denzel Washington.)

Peters makes a good case that drugs are the central funding source behind Islamic extremist terrorists and that the networks cannot be controlled as long as Afghanistan’s drug supply continues. Unfortunately it still seems politically unpopular for politicians to discuss the problem and meanwhile the military continues its resistance to recognition of the centrality of the problem. The book blurb asks Obama to read this but by all indications he hasn’t.

Real Cannes

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

The Winner Stands Alone, Paulo Coelho, 2009

Portuguese writer (The Alchemist) wants to take us into the heart of contemporary European culture and where better to do that than at the annual Cannes Film Festival; in this work, mecca of celebrity, fashion, and wealth. In the novel, no one ever actually views a film; in fact we know absolutely nothing about the year’s film offerings or the plans for upcoming films. No this is purely about the red carpet walk, the very exclusive dinners and parties, the powerful, the want-to-be-s, the watchers.

Hotel Martinez Cannes

The main protagonist is Igor a self made Russian oligarch (cell phones) whose wife Ewa left him two years previously because, as she has told her analyst, Igor became unstable. Ewa is now married to Arab fashion designer Hamid whose father was a cloth merchant that defied the Sheik in refusing to sell the family lands for the rebuilding of the capital city thus gaining the respect of the Sheik who takes it upon himself to support the son Hamid. Support has included threatening to close the middle east market to French fashion is Hamid is not admitted to the French Federation of Fashion. Hamid is now a very important and wealthy fashion designer.

Hamid is in Cannes because he is interested in financing a new film and because a black model he wants to use will be at a Belgium fashion exhibit.

Igor is in Cannes to try to get his wife back. Reservations at the better hotels require at least a year advance booking so Igor has been planning his trip for some time. Upon arriving in Cannes by private Jet, Igor text messages his wife that he will destroy the world unless Ewa returns to him. Ewa ignores him. Igor was a soldier in Afghanistan and is trained in a variety of deadly killing skills. He brings a wide array of killing implements with him which is possible if you arrive on your own private jet.

Igor will select his initial victims randomly. His first victim was a young girl, a Portuguese street vendor, that he kills with his bare hands. She haunts him for the rest of the book.

His second victim is a powerful American independent film distributor who also travels in his own private jet and who has exclusive control of distribution for 500 American cinemas and 5000 international cinemas. He has a reputation for picking winning films and making money for everyone. What only Europol knows is that the distributor’s whole operation is a money laundering scheme for drug and other underworld organizations. He gets the best films because his underworld backers are prepared to outbid everyone. He is killed with a needle poisoned with a South American native substance. Europol thinks the mob knocked him off.

His third victim is an independent film maker who spent the last seven years developing her film using out of work has been actresses. We don’t know what the film is about or whether it is any good. She has borrowed her last resources to get to Cannes and has a last chance appointment with the now deceased independent film distributor. The depressed film maker is lured to the beach by Igor and killed with a stiletto.

We meet the black model everyone thinks is African but who was born and raised in Antwerp. She was discovered by a Belgian photographer- fashion designer who is currently her lover. The Belgian government has decided to spend money at Cannes to showcase Belgian designers who are shut out of the French fashion world. Hamit has seen the model’s photos and thinks she may be right to present his newest fashion line.

King and Queen on Red Carpet at Cannes

A 25 year old American actress has borrowed heavily to come to Cannes in a last desperate effort to land a role in some new movie. She has answered many casting calls and finally gets a call to come to one. She shows up and is immediately selected because the casting director thinks she is awful which is perfect for the role. She is sent to a yacht to meet the famous director. Her agent tells her to accept whatever is offered and the contract sounds like indentured servitude. She signs and is sent to a hotel suite to be dressed for her red carpet appearance with her famous male co-star. The clothes are by Hamid and the film is to be financed by Hamid. After styling and makeup she is pushed into a Limousine for her red carpet appearance. A publicist is handing the journalist a flier with the new name given to this undiscovered young actress. She poses for the photographers with the famous actor, enters the theater, and is immediately hustled out the back door and to clothes suites to prepare her for the evening party. She never sees the theater.

18 Year Old Bridget Bardot Discovered

Around town, we see the beach filled with beautiful young bikini clad women waiting to be discovered 50 years after Bridget Bardot. We see the spectators, some poor, some very wealthy, just waiting for a glimpse of a famous or powerful person. Invitations to parties where the powerful may be present are the currency of the realm. Attendees are bored but their invitation and seating arrangement indicates their current status which they must defend at all cost.

The climactic scene of the novel is at one the most prestigious parties of the film festival. Igor can buy his way in; Hamid and his wife Ewa are celebrities about to enter the film world; the model and the actress are invited because of their new status. The famous actor doesn’t arrive for the party because Igor has slipped a sealed envelope with poison gas randomly under his door and he is dead. Igor shares a table with the two girls.

Well written, entertaining as always, and an awful vision of what was once a center of the revolutionary European film industry. Coelho’s research sources on fashion, film, and celebrity for this work remain anonymous.

Before Walden

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Woodsburner, John Pipkin, 2009

Thoreau and Cabin thoreau thoreau_cabin

In Spring 1844, before moving to Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau and his friend Edward Sherman Hoar accidentally set fire to the woods, a fire that burned out of control and threatened to burn the town of Concord. From this historic event, Pipkin constructs his first novel featuring a number of strange characters.

firefighter1 firewagen1

Emma is the sole surviving member of her family who died of starvation in the Irish potato famine. Her father has begged enough for Emma to buy passage to America before his death. Emaciated Emma loves the plenty of her new world and is soon voluptuously overweight.

Oddmund (Odd) is the last surviving member of his family who emigrated to America to escape regrettable family history. His father has brought a trunk full of family mementos and when the ship passes Cape Cod, he starts throwing the objects into the ocean. Finally he sets fire to the family tree, sets the ship on fire, it explodes and Odd is blown free by an explosion to become the sole survivor. He is sent to an orphanage where an unknown uncle finds him a few years later. The uncle is arrested, tried, and hung as a pedophile (that is why he was at the orphanage). Odd decides that his family genes cannot be trusted and he moves to the woods to live alone.

One day a wagon carrying Emma gets mired in mud and Odd comes to help get it out. Emma must get down to lighten the load and in the process falls on Odd, burying him in the mud. Odd is smitten for life. When Emma marries a drunken farmer, Odd goes to work for the farmer so he can keep an eye on Emma.

Eliot is a Boston bookseller who wants to be a playwright. He has married the daughter of a rich financier who has provided funds for a Boston bookstore and and has given the couple a three story house on Beacon Hill. Eliot cannot make enough selling books to support his household and their two servants and turns to selling pornography as well as books. He has decided to expand by opening a second bookstore in Concord and has come to town the day of the fire to survey the cobbler shop he has purchased and to meet a new provider of pornography.

Caleb is a Harvard divinity school graduate and inheritor of his father’s modest Unitarian church in Boston. The church is proudest of its imported Glasgow stained glass window depicting eight biblical scenes. Caleb’s father was much influenced by the Transcendentalists. Caleb yearns for a return to the Puritanism of centuries earlier with its fire and brimstone. When Caleb’s fiery sermons fail to move his wealthy and comfortable congregation. he installs a wood burning stove in the church (New England churches are unheated at this time) in an attempt to give his flock a literal taste of the heat and fire that awaits them if they don’t repent. When this fails as well, Caleb takes a hatchet to the church destroying the alter and all the pews and smashing the stained glass window. Now Caleb is preaching in a barn near Concord to a motley group of alcoholics, opium addicts, and other societal outcasts. Caleb follows an addict to an opium den and becomes an addict himself. Two of Caleb’s new congregation are aging Bohemian women from Kutna Hora. They are presumably lesbians. When Caleb talks about building a new church, the Bohemians ask is he is planning a ossuary (like the famous bone church in Kutna Hora). Caleb likes the idea and thinks he might contribute the first bones to the church.

Kuta Hora Ossuary kutnahora

The fire brings all these characters together. Thoreau is unconcerned he will be blamed for the fire and contends himself considering fire as a natural part of the wilderness allowing renewal and rebirth (this 130 years before the Forest Service reached the same conclusion and stopped trying to put out every forest fire it saw). Odd, who is terrified of fire, becomes a superhuman fire fighter ultimately stopping the spread and saving Concord. His new found confidence leads him to rescue Emma from her drunk abusive husband and they run away together. Eliot runs to the fire to get inspiration for his latest play which ends with a house burning down. The real fire scares him so much he runs away and gives up playwrighting forever. Caleb puts on his white robes and runs into the fire ready to die. A tree falls on him and after the fire the Bohemians find him still alive pinned under the tree. They nurse him back to health (we don’t know about sanity).
Edward Hoar’s father pays for the damages caused by the fire.

Pipkin writes well and reflectively. On old world immigrants:

The first explorers came in the name of primitive desires: gold, jewels, spices, slaves, trade. Those who came later wanted less, wanted – above all else – to discover the one condition that promised unimpeded possibility: nothing. Men would have been satisfied to find the land barren, as long as it contained absolutely nothing to remind them of the past, nothing to limit the horizon…But, wonder of wonders, these men and women (native Americans) had been here for generations, daring to walk on the soil of the New World like somnambulant trespassers in a centuries-old dream.

On a personal note, fire fighting was an annual activity in our farm community as intentional and accidental (usually straw touches the hot exhaust of a truck) fires needed to be fought to save the wheat crops. Fires do seem to bring out the rationally in some and the craziness in others. We saw fistfights between our mechanic – bus driver and the grain elevator manager over who gets to drive the volunteer fire truck to the blaze; We saw farmers, in a panic to create a firebreak, drive their tractors directly into the blaze where the tractor catches fire and is lost; We saw heroism, wisdom, and foolishness in equal measure. Nothing like it to break up the tedium of work on the farm.

Waltzing Mathinna

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Wanting, Richard Flanagan, 2009

Author of several previous books on Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land), Flanagan has structured his latest around several known historical events.


    Sir John Franklin, famed arctic explorer whose entire last expedition in 1845 to find the mythical Northwest Passage disappeared, was for several years governor (virtual king in Flanagan’s account) of Van Diemen’s Land from 1836-1843. He was unpopular with the other civil servants and was recalled by London.

Mathinna bock_mathinna

    A government policy including a head reward and white diseases was intended to eliminate the Aboriginal population from the island but the liberal Franklins adopted a young aboriginal girl, Mathinna, to raise as their own daughter (they were childless). Somehow Mathinna, still an adolescent, was left behind when the Franklins returned to London.

Charles Dickens dickens-writing

    When a report was published accusing the last Franklin party of cannibalism based on Eskimo eye witness accounts, Charles Dickens wrote a defense of the explorers arguing that Eskimo accounts could not be relied on (Flanagan, with mock understatement, says the Dickens piece today would be considered racist.) More recent discoveries have found that lead based solder was used to seal the newly invented canned food used by the expedition. Most of the expedition was believed to have suffered from lead poisoning which leads to madness and may have contributed to the cannibalism which is now widely believed to have happened.

From these known details, Flanagan constructs a short, very black, novel focusing in turn on the ambitious, fame seeking, Franklins, the tragic Mathinna (raped by John Franklin no less and left in a horrible, violent orphanage, she is killed at age 17.) and the fates of the few remaining Aborigines in Tasmania, and Charles Dickens, who after penning his defense of the Franklin party, writes a play about the last Franklin expedition, to be performed for charity with Dickens himself starring. During the run of the play, Dickens leaves his wife and falls in love with a young actress. Somehow, through the blackness, Flanagan always manages to be readable.